Film Theory: Reception Theories

Reception theories suggest that intrinsic analysis (be it visual or textual) of films is not sufficient for the dimensions of meaning-production, or for its potential impact on audiences.

As films are released theatrically, or viewed by spectators, they assume an independent life of their own, they are subject to systems of signification that are outside textual boundaries.

Censorship, for example, is crucial to reception theory.  The filmmaking process involves communication and negotiation with various censorship boards, such as the PCA (Production Code Administration) in the U.S.

Often producers and directors are willing and prepared to compromise their texts in order to facilitate theatrical release in their own country (or in other countries) or yo getting a more favorable rating (PG instead of R, or R instead of the punitive NC-17).

Many British films were altered for their American exhibition, a direct results of the Production Code demands.

In other words, when films cross national boundaries, they become sort of new texts, subject the interpretations that privileged American tastes, sensibilities and experiences.

The reception theory emphasizes the contribution of contextual factors (social, historical, political, and personal) to the generation of meanings and effects.

Before viewers get to watch a film, there are all kinds of industrial interventions, in the form of trailers (released much a head of time), promotional campaigns, public relations, interviews with the talent in front and behind the cameras.

Reception theories focus on the audience, be it defined as mass of consumers, or a group of spectators.

Reception theorists claim that the films themselves may not be aesthetically sophisticated in their own right, but their  active use by cultured spectators can assume aesthetic function.

Hence, aesthetically bad or average movies may call for and result in more active viewership that artistically good movies.

Conception of the Audience

“The American  moviegoing public has the mind of 12-year child; it must love life as it isn’t. That’s the only handicap of the American screen; you have everything else.”

Adolph Zukor:

“The average  moviegoer’s intelligence is that of a 14-year-old child.”

David Hume:

“Beauty in things exists in the mind which contemplates them.”

Parker Tyler:

“The eyes  of the masses are always perfect, though they never know just what it is they see.”

Walt Whitman:

To have great poets, we must have great audiences, too.”

Ethan Coen:

Coen, producer of Fargo, the 1996 Oscar winning film, directed by his brother Joel, said in a N.Y. Times interview:

“We’ll do things that are less pat than critics or audiences are used to. A lot of people just accept it and appreciate the story in the spirit in which it’s offered. But then there are those who want to either spit it out or chew it and turn it into something that they can accommodate more easily, which is weird. we’re more reluctant to offer cues as to how the audience is supposed to react in different situations, which confuses certain people.”