10-Minute Talks: Can watching films be good for us?

by Professor Ian Christie FBA

3 Jun 2020

Audience watching movie in a cinema.

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Film historian Professor Ian Christie FBA identifies some of the benefits, including unexpected ones, that we may gain from our viewing – which may well be greater than usual at this time.


Hello, my name is Ian Christie and I'm a Fellow at the British Academy, which is the UK's voice for the humanities and social sciences.

When I tell people that I'm a film historian, they usually seem surprised. Mostly, I think, because it doesn't sound like a real job or profession. "You mean you just spend your time watching and maybe doing research about films?" Sometimes I help them out by saying that it certainly wasn't a career option when I was young. Of course, people watched films in the 1950s and 60s – many more of them went to the cinema than do today – and I was one of those who went to the cinema. First on Saturday mornings when I was very young and then as often as I could when I was older. Of course, I started watching films on television, although my parents didn't have one until I'd become a college student. But this talk isn't about how I became a film historian. What I want to do in 10 minutes is tell you something of what I've discovered about how seeing films really does influence many of us, perhaps in surprising ways. So apart from writing about films and the people who make them, teaching about cinema and its history, I've been lucky enough to contribute to some real research on this subject. And I say real research in case you think it's just based on my own enthusiasms for, let's say, the films of Powell and Pressburger or Sergei Eisenstein or Aardman Animation.

Nearly 10 years ago, the British Film Institute and the then UK Film Council commissioned a research project on how film contributes to the culture of the UK. In fact, I was responsible for coming up with the title of our report: Opening Our Eyes. I'm not going to go into great detail about the findings of that study, which you can actually read online, but I am going to focus on some things we discovered by actually asking a huge cross-section of the UK population some questions. The questionnaire work was handled by a large polling organisation that does research on all kinds of subjects: political, commercial, our attitudes to all kinds of issues. One thing I learned from the polling experts was how important it is not to leave the people you are asking to guess what answer you want to hear. For instance, if I tell you that I'm carrying out a survey of attitudes to film, you'll probably start trying to remember what the last film you saw was, or maybe your all-time favourite, or the last one you thought was rubbish. But if we start by asking about how you spend your free time and work around the issue, whether you watch films as part of this, you might give less biased answers. We managed to collect the views of over 2,000 people for this study of all ages between 15 and 75, living in different parts of the UK and coming from very different ethnic and social backgrounds. So when I tell you some of what we discovered, I think it counts as real knowledge. At least what was real and true back in 2012, for it's a constantly shifting subject, as I'm sure you'll all agree. People certainly watch films in different ways today from even 10 years ago, let alone 20 or 50 years ago, when I was getting seriously interested in movies.

Cinema attendance has dropped dramatically. Many of you may not have been to a cinema for years. But this doesn't mean that you don't watch films – perhaps mostly on television, or on computer screens, or even on your phone. I'm not going to be judgmental about that, unlike my friend Martin Scorsese, who begged people not to watch his last film, The Irishman on a phone. In fact, what we did for opening our eyes was to work out, I think for the very first time, how many film viewings took place in the UK per year. Can you guess?

We calculated there were at least five billion viewing occasions, and the vast majority of these (86%) took place at home. We discovered that only 6% of viewings took place in a cinema.

Now, historically speaking, 2011 (when we did the survey) was near the beginning of the tablet era and before online streaming took off. So both viewing on handheld tablets and viewing on a large-screen home televisions weren’t as important as they are today. But we did incidentally capture the fact that about 2% of viewings happened while travelling on a plane, which might be a rather nostalgic memory for everyone at this time. So you can see that we weren't biased in favour of cinema viewing. This was just about what, where and how people watched film and to some extent, what they felt about the films they'd seen. In fact, much of what we discovered seems in many ways rather obvious – like most people enjoy watching big expensive blockbusters, which is why so many have been made.

If you ask what kinds of films, what genres of film people prefer, a majority will say comedy, followed by action and adventure, and then drama, and suspense or thriller. Not really such interesting statistical answers, because they don't account for the fact that large numbers of people, when they were asked what specific films had an effect on them personally, they came up with films that don't really fit those categories. Films like The King's Speech, Schindler's List, Slumdog Millionaire. These were all mentioned many times. What we managed to do in the study was to ask a small number of questions, that gave us individuals' reactions to particular chosen films. We asked for a film that affected you personally, a film that you've watched at least three times and a film that you thought told us something about UK society. And as I say many of the answers were surprising.

There'd been a lot of media attention paid to The King's Speech shortly before the survey, so that was very fresh in people's minds. Some of the reasons given were interesting, such as the insight that the film gave into what a speech impediment such as King George VI's had meant as a disability. Schindler's List, it turned out, had been seen by many people at school and left a lasting sense of the horror of life in Nazi Germany. And the choice, the top choice of film that told us something about the condition of the UK of this time was Trainspotting. But in many ways the most surprising choice was Avatar. You may remember that was a spectacular, intergalactic adventure and the first film widely seen in digital 3D. In fact, it persuaded a majority of cinemas to go digital. Many of our respondents were deeply impressed by the sense of immersion in a totally alien, unreal world and some took its messages to heart. A woman who saw it with her fiancé remembered how, "it made us cry, reminding us of the horrid things humanity is doing". Others found it inspiring, showing her the native people of Pandora, the blue Na'vi, were fighting back against would-be colonisers. Others said it made them think about the need to protect the natural environment and even about what kind of architecture could be created in such a setting.

What I find interesting about these comments was that they went against the judgments of many film critics, who were frankly rather dismissive of Avatar and its messages, as well as its use of 3D to create an immersive experience. The film was, of course, hugely successful commercially, but I think what I study showed me was that critics and historians of popular entertainment shouldn't assume that they know what these works mean to their incredibly diverse audiences. In fact I'd go further and suggest that works aimed at the largest possible audience – what we might call mainstream or blockbuster – may in fact be open to the widest range of individual responses and interpretations. The way I sometimes put this to students when I'm teaching about understanding audiences, is that each member of a mass audience is really watching their own version of a film.

What every individual brings to a film viewing is specific to them and shaped by their cultural and social background.

Strangely, I suspect that what are sometimes called "arthouse films", aimed at smaller, more discerning audiences, may not in fact offer such a wide spectrum of individual interpretation, even if they may be greater artistic achievements. What was clear from the Opening Our Eyes study was that films really can change how we think about things outside our day-to-day experience. They can give us role models which may influence how we behave in real life. They can be inspirational and they can contribute to how we understand our place in the world. Most importantly, we shouldn't just assume that it’s only serious films which have these effects. I made a radio programme some years ago in which we interviewed many people about their memory of seeing Disney's Bambi, often when they were a child, and what a lasting impact this had on many of them. The great art historian Erwin Panofsky wrote an essay about cinema back in the 1930s in which he pointed out that if all the poets, painters and serious artists alive stopped working, not so many people would notice. But what if cinema stopped? The whole world would notice. That was nearly a century ago, but even in the era of domestic viewing that we live in, and specifically in the conditions we're living through at present, I think we can see his point.

This talk originally took place on 3 June 2020, part of the series The British Academy 10-Minute Talks, where the world’s leading professors explain the latest thinking in the humanities and social sciences in just 10 minutes. 10-Minute Talks are screened each Wednesday, 13:00-13:10, on YouTube and available on Apple Podcasts. Subscribe to the British Academy 10-Minute Talks here.

Further reading

Scorsese on Scorsese, Edited by Ian Christie and David Thompson, Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

"Lessons from Gravity: the state of 3D cinema", blog for BFI by Ian Christie.

"They Shall Not Grow Old review: Peter Jackson brings controversial colour to WWI footage", blog for BFI by Ian Christie.

"From Battleship Potemkin to Baker Street: sightseeing with Sergei Eisenstein", Ian Christie for The Guardian.

Ian Christie on Arts & Ideas.

Lead image: Audience watching movie in a cinema. © Klaus Vedfelt via Getty Images.

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