A groundbreaking audience survey aims to tackle the topic of fantasy in the 21st century
On the eve of the Canadian premiere of The Battle of the Five Armies – the final film in the Hobbit trilogy – Ernest Mathijs, Associate Head of UBC’s Dept. of Theatre and Film, discusses his groundbreaking audience survey.
Mathijs and two other principal researchers from Aberystwyth University in Wales (Martin Barker and Matt Hills) are leading the World Hobbit Project, which features the involvement of multiple countries, languages and scholars.
What does this project involve, and what is its inspiration?
The inspiration is a profound question – what does fantasy mean in today’s world?
We were prompted by an observation that fantasy now, especially film fantasy, is considered more serious than ever. Until the beginning of the 21st century, fantasy was something trivial, something you should grow out of at a certain age.
But since the Lord of the Rings films, it’s acquired a kind of seriousness – not just in terms of filmmaking aesthetics, but also in terms of its interpretations. More than ever, we’re now allowed to link allegories and metaphors that are used in fantasy to real-life politics, ideology, social problems, etc.
We wanted to check if that sensibility is something that lives with audiences around the world. We debated the survey with teams across the world, and translated it into 35 languages.
That includes Maori. There was criticism that Peter Jackson, director of Lord of the Rings, used Maori actors to portray the evil Orcs, and there’s a comment you could make about racial stereotyping. So why don’t we ask the Aboriginals of New Zealand how they feel – in their own language?
We also have a version in Welsh. The Welsh dispute author J.R.R. Tolkien’s English heritage, so why don’t we ask the Welsh – in Welsh – how they feel about the meaning of fantasy?
This effort is being called the most ambitious research project ever undertaken into film audiences.
I think that’s correct. We’re aiming to get 50,000 responses in 35 languages.
In 2003 we did a similar survey for Lord of the Rings. Much to our astonishment, that attracted nearly 25,000 responses in 17 languages.
Now, we’re confident we will get to 50,000. The survey involves 146 scholars in 45 countries. We’ve been preparing this for two years.
The survey launched on December 1 at worldhobbitproject.org. Who can participate?
Anyone. We have social media – there’s a Facebook page, there’s a Twitter account, there’s a Pinterest page. We asked all of the collaborating teams in different countries to promote this however they saw fit.
The survey will stay online until at least the summer of 2015. And the first results will be available roughly a year from now.
One of the things that we discovered with the Lord of the Rings research was that its reach and popularity are not a new phenomenon. This goes back to 1937 when The Hobbit was first published. So this has a decades-long fandom already, and this is a cross-generational enterprise. This allows parents who would have read The Hobbit to their young children to invite them to come watch it when they’re a bit older.
The Battle of the Five Armies is released Canada-wide on December 17.