audience (cultural theory) A gathering of people to attend a performance that is music based, drama based, or the screening of audio visual production, is an audience, the shared feature being that a prepared performance is presented. This is extended to those who gather, but in separate places to watch a recorded or live performance via some form of interface, television, tablet, computer. The term audience can indicate the gathering of people for a single specific performance and can also refer to the total of people who have seen a performance that has had repeated performances or screenings. For the purposes of marketing, and for social study audiences are understood to be formed of groups, different types of audiences, which might be delineated by age, ethnicity, socio-economic status, gender, sexuality or by other factors, such a location or time of day.
Storytellers are faced with the challenge of telling a story this has two primary concerns in relation to the audience: one is clarity of narration, the filmmakers’ ability to conceive a story and construct a film narrative so that it is understood by an audience as the filmmaker intends, and the second is, what are the value judgements that are going to be made by the audience, in terms of taste, morality and entertainment in relation to a film, with entertainment, the audience’s enjoyment or dislike of a film being an emotional form of approval or disapproval.
In narratology and film theory a range of terms are used to theorise how narratives are understood and received: actual reader, implied reader, intended reader, reader, readerly, writerly, spectator, viewer, active reader, passive reader, but in the discussion here audience is foregrounded and is preferred due to the originating usage for the term: An audience is where a person with high social status and authority grants an audience and the visitor will have a lower social status, as petitioner or supplicant. Here the judgement is made by those receiving the petition, is it worthy or not. So, to extend this to a performance the audience make the judgement, a film narrative can be clearly told, but how it is read, accepted or rejected depends on the audience, and in this case there is no single viewer but a diverse group making a range of judgements. The filmmaker can present a story, anticipating, expecting a response, but they do not control its reception.
Making use of reception theory, a reader, an audience, will respond in different ways to a narrative. There is the dominant reading/preferred reading where the social beliefs of a dominant group interpret and respond in line with their morality and beliefs. This reading is taken to indicate where a narrative has been read as intended by the filmmakers, which is why preferred reading is one version of the term that is used. The concept that underlies dominance is that due to economic power, and the established status of a specific social group, they inherently represent their identity and values across a range of social and cultural institutions, media, radio, film, television, news, publishing, and so there is an ideological correspondence between representation and ideology, rather than a correlation between representation and actuality: the cultural institutions show the society and its members as they would prefer themselves and others to be shown and understood.
Two other types of reading, reception, are considered in reception theory, a negotiated reading and an oppositional reading. These enables those who are not part of the dominant group to contest the validity and authenticity of cultural representations, either partially accepting a film narrative, so a negotiated reading, or rejecting a film narrative as artificial and false, an oppositional reading. Within the framework of dominant/preferred, negotiated, oppositional, an audience can be understood to encompass these different positions.
This positioning of the audience, where each member can make an individual reading is problematized because the control of representation, the control of production is limited to a dominant group, so that this group’s ideology is presented as reality, as true and natural: giving power to those who have the means and authority to control and authorise cultural production. Audiences can read a film and react in different ways, but their influence on representation, to change or progress representation is limited. The audience are being directed to accept a particular view of the world by the narrative. It is through this that the dominant group indicates its rightful authority and reality.
Filmmakers, storytellers cannot escape the constraints placed on cultural production, the economic and social systems that support or deny access, and then after production, with a film to screen and exhibit, they face social judgement of the narratives they produce by the audience. Narrative film because it requires significant financial means for production to take place, and then needs to be supported by a distribution network that is outside of the filmmaker’s direct control, with a further filtering by reviewers and critics is understood to result in film production as a culturally normative institution: the economics of film production and distribution doesn’t allow access to oppositional or radical films, except to an extremely limited degree: micro-financing, limited distribution, limited audience.
When in the early era of cinema exhibition the output of narrative film was restricted by the means of production within a circumscribed film industry, when cinema was the only forum for film audiences, then there were relatively few films made in comparison to the contemporary environment of multiple TV channels, subscription screening, DVD, cinema screening and the internet. The recent economic and social change, a surge in content production in the second decade of the millenium, has created some diversity, there are more films, but audiences have also become disparate, with viewers being selective and therefore choosing films that concur with their own cultural and political preferences. Changes in production practices have not enable a radical change or oppositional forms to challenge dominant beliefs, and narrative are channelled to different audience groups.
It is recognised that in the era of film studios, before broadcast television, the studios controlled production, then in the era of television, the broadcasters controlled production, and in the internet era control is passing or has passed to streaming services and internet service providers who not only distribute content but commission content, so that there is a continuing control on the output and circulation of narrative film. In these circumstances a conformity of narrative film remains. It can be argued that other forms of media production, podcasts, internet, non-regulated media does or can challenge the dominant forms of production in film and other forms, so that blogging, vlogging and represent a cultural diversity, a challenge to institutionalised media, and this is true to some extent, but internet providers are being legislated to act as publishers and therefore to control content. Also, the providers of content on the internet are most successful when they have a preferred audience, so that political debate and social exchange has become fragmented: the democracy of the internet is not a democracy of social engagement, and shared political debate, but one of personal choice: so a fragmentation of cultural.
An approach to narrative film making that has been lost in contemporary circumstances when it might have been anticipated to expand in contemporary circumstances when access to production finance and distribution is possible are sub-cultural forms, oppositional, radical. This approach to film making is recognised as part of film making through the 1960’s, with trash, cult, art house and independent film making taking place, but this impetus to make alternative narratives has now been lost. The explanation being that there is a conformity in film aesthetics with low, no budget filmmakers wanting to produce films that are similar in form and narrative to the films that are intended for mass audiences. This self imposed conformity by marginal filmmakers to commercial production standards seems unnecessary as most films will have a very limited audience, and so following a particular production model, trying to make quality drama on a low budget, can be seen as a failure in relation to developing film narrative as social and political film making in the digital era.
To explain this odd situation, the means of production and distribution are now available for alternative narrative films, but even so alternative production has dwindled rather risen, can be explained because there is a distinctly held division between narrative and non-narrative film in terms of their theorising and practice, so that only non-narrative art films are thought to be positioned to be alternative and radical, even though such a claim is problematic as these art practice films serve a specialist art film audience. The type of film making that might formally have been understood to be radical has isolated itself through the forms of film making it undertakes, refusing to engage in narrative form, which is understood as a claim to ethical superiority over and above narrative film. Rather than challenging social norms or engaging in sub-cultural politics there are mass films and specialist non-narrative films, with the latter presented as part of art context rather than that of a range, a spectrum of film practices.
Reception theory indicates a dominant reading and narratives constructed to align with and supporting this dominance. The question that this raises is who is the dominant audience? Is this concept of dominance valid? Audiences can now diversify to match their taste, films are made so that they appeal to global audiences, films are given national identities, they carry national identities in their marketing, but then their narratives and forms are understood to be transnational. The dominant transnational form is the festival film, with a circuit of film festivals across the globe to present and exchange these films: a specialist high culture audience rather than a diverse audience because the distribution and consumption of festival films is very limited.
Within the contemporary cinema and television environment audiences might be grouped into three areas. First, there is the cinema audience for global release narratives which work to avoid cultural specificity: these are the films that have developed and continued to be produced as part of movie franchises, which have a source in earlier films or a source in other medium, such as series of novels or comic books. These films produce high revenue with large audience numbers but the connection between the audiences for these and any specific social experience or personal history represented in the film narrative is limited.
Secondly, there are now very few, if any Art House cinemas which have a loyal audience willing to watch exceptional, radical or progressive films, and instead the quality film, quality drama, festival style production, films based on literary books, plays, or historical biography drama dominates, and the audiences for these are not radical, but selective and elitist as their preference for films is based on their education, cultural knowledge and the consumption of similar elite status cultural forms: art, theatre, literature.
A third audience, disparate, unclear and minimal audience would be growing or present for emerging narrative forms in games, internet and virtual narratives, rather than films, with games functioning in much the same way as mass cinema with global franchises but there being independent production and distribution in game. Internet forms eschew narrative, depending more on a notion of personalities, celebrities, stars who develop and present a brand or social identity. In this respect narrative is discarded for opinion and personal presentation. This is phenomena is the transfiguration of light entertainment TV formats, the talk show, the review programme, the consumer programme, now presented by self selected individuals rather than broadcast institutions. There is a sense here that a person should be effectively as single operator with minimal budget, so that constructed narratives, fiction films are not made for the internet. It is on the web that there is radical diversity, which makes it a highly contested and controversial media space, but narrative, stories are not the main concern, but presentation and opinion.
Storytellers, filmmakers, in terms of the narrative they want to create, can respond to the question of audience in different ways. First, every filmmaker will find access to production, large budget funding, a difficult and long term process, but in these circumstances they will often not move to other forms and mediums of narrative, or other forms of production to tell stories. What is lost in this is the importance of the narrative, the story. The impetus is to write genre films or choose film topics that are thought to appeal to funding and then to audiences. Films are of course made to be watched, so that filmmaking for a limited audience is rejected, even though this audience may grow and develop if films are made for it: starting small and growing big is the model to develop audiences for music, drama, literature and art, but it’s felt by filmmakers that the effort to produce a film is such that it is not comparable to the effort required for other media such as music, so that the appeal of making a film for very few people is rejected. Changing the narrative form, to makes films quickly has not been adopted as many filmmakers want to use their first films to showcase their skills to develop a professional career, and the choice of narrative and production method moves them towards sleek and artful productions, and recognisable generic forms. There is only a limited impetus towards social and political film making and this is based on the model of the quality drama or the mainstream film.
In relation to gaining an audience for a narrative film today, the struggle to achieve this, it is having a significant impact on the forms of film and the narratives being made by filmmakers. Previously, when access to film technology was very limited and very high cost it was argued that when plentiful and inexpensive technology became available it would broaden and diversify narrative film, its forms and particularly it stories, this might have happened, but it has not: the sense of marketplace amongst filmmakers and the need to meet these production standards and pass these financial and cultural gateways dominate and the consequence of this is that neophyte filmmakers are more concerned with funding and festival credibility rather than story and to their own detriment they limit the stories they wish to tell and the forms they use.
The term audience is not the critical narratological terminology for studying reception in narrative theory and narrative film. One clear reason for this is that narratology was established through the study of written texts that had readers, so a singular reader or viewer is still the favoured term. Another reason for setting aside issues of audience is that both narratology and film focus on texts, with the subject of audience set aside as a topic of empirical study: there is some small interest in the audience, but the focus is on texts, how films construct meaning and how films represent dominates rather than reception. Film theory studies representation through genre, authorship, stardom, and by what a film narrative represents, history, society, people. In this sense, film theory works with an implied reader: the person who the narrative is for: the perceived dominant reader.
Both narratology and film theory have gone through stages where the text was the controller of meaning with an assumed passive reader who is positioned by the text to accept the representations and the ideology of the narrative, and then these areas of theory, film theory and narratology, posited readers who are active and writerly, so that texts are open. The present view of narratology is that without readers texts have little or no meaning: the narrative is constructed by the reader: we learn to read texts as part of a cultural process. In these circumstances considering the three different readings, dominant/preferred, negotiated and oppositional is a functional and useful model to consider.
For storytellers and filmmakers they can consider how their stories will be understood by different readers, the different members of the audience. When the concept of actual audience is considered issues of production finance, marketing, distribution, critical reception and audience reception come into play: the presence and the demands of the audience and their social and cultural expectations for narrative are important considerations, but only when a filmmaker needs to be concerned with these: the story being told and how it can be sold can be separated and does need to dominant the story. There is presently plentiful access to technology, so that film making and storytelling skills can be developed, and unique stories can be told: there is no need for a filmmaker to position themselves as constrained when they gain no personal or creative benefit from this. Societies do change and develop, they are not homogenous and uniform, so for a filmmaker to take a position where they are self-oppressed by financing is self-destructive and self-limiting. The audience will judge a film, but many films that were thought to be intrinsically unpopular are embraced, admired and cherished.
As narrative film production continues it seems that there will be more productions, more films, but made to suit the marketing aims of the subscription streaming services who want subscribers, and this linking of film output to production finance rather than any social or political concerns from the filmmaker is a problem, there is little or no interest in marginal, minority audiences and diversity will not develop within this economic and culturally self-limiting framework.
Copyright: Eugene Doyen 2019