'Not knowing' the plot or the ending means they can experience as much of the full emotions and tension as possible and their pleasure is increased, says Professor Martin Barker of the University of Wales, who led the research over 15 months and in 20 countries.
He found that movies such as 'Lord of the Rings III', on which the project was focussed, are not just an escape, but for many of us a place to work out a bit what might be wrong with the world. And they are more important and enjoyable to those who work in jobs where they feel they have little control over their lives.
The study, conducted in 13 different languages, had almost 25,000 responses - hugely greater than any previous piece of audience research. It allowed in-depth analysis by age, sex, and occupation, as well as revealing how the final blockbuster film in the Tolkien trilogy mattered to different people in various countries.
Professor Barker said: "Our research is very unusual in trying to open up what is normally taken-for-granted: how does fantasy, and in this case film fantasy, matter to people? How does a story which is very English in origins appeal to people in countries as different as Italy, Slovenia, China and Columbia?
"What is it that they see in the film, how do they interpret its story, and how do they make judgements on the transformation from books to films?"
His team found that 'Lord of the Rings III' had not just cross-cultural appeal, but broke the boundaries in revealing ways.
Professor Barker said: "It appeals to both men and women. Even though many women have thought of this as a 'male genre' - something in the film makes it work very powerfully with female audiences.
"And we found that the highest levels of enjoyment and importance came from those who saw watching it as going on a spiritual journey. It was not just 'entertainment', but a source of inspiration. It offered a sense of moral lessons that they want to apply to their own lives, if they can."
Those people, a large proportion of them older women, were also most likely to have read and re-read the books, he added.
People in creative jobs enjoyed the film more than expected, though the study points out that they looked for different things - going beyond 'superficial' meanings, to try to discover something deeper.
The study found that many young girls saw the film with their best friends, and liked the way it showed friendship, especially through the character of Sam. By contrast, there were men - dubbed in the study 'lonely epic males' - for whom viewing the film was a very private experience.
An unexpectedly large number of unskilled manual workers had read the books.
Professor Barker added: "The coming together of moral and emotional audience reactions to films is in line with some other research, suggesting a surprising changing role for today's cinema.
"However, our findings that audiences make such conscious efforts to re-read the books and watch the film again as if they had not done so before, was completely unexpected. We are now exploring its significance."
FOR FURTHER INFORMATION, CONTACT:
Professor Martin Barker on 01970 622369; 01970 625694 (Saturday and out of hours) or Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Or Lance Cole, Lesley Lilley or Becky Gammon at ESRC, on 01793 413032/413119/413122
NOTES FOR EDITORS
1. The research project 'The launch and reception of The Lord of the Rings III: the role of film fantasy' was funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC). Martin Barker is Professor of Film and Television Studies at the University of Wales, ABERYSTWYTH SY23 3AJ.
2. Methodology: The research included gathering of publicity and marketing materials, merchandise, and press, magazine, radio, television and internet reports. In the UK, more than 2,500 items were collected and data-based. A questionnaire explored areas such as enjoyment, importance, kind of story, expectations, favourite characters and moments, details of age, sex, occupation, and how often Tolkien's books had been read. This went on-line December, 2003, in 13 languages. Paper versions were used outside cinemas. By May, 2004, the questionnaire generated 24,747 responses.
3. The ESRC is the UK's largest funding agency for research and
postgraduate training relating to social and economic issues. It
provides independent, high-quality, relevant research to business, the public sector and Government. The ESRC invests more than £93million every year in social science and at any time is supporting some 2,000 researchers in academic institutions and research policy institutes. It also funds postgraduate training within the social sciences to nurture the researchers of tomorrow. More at http://www.
5. The ESRC confirms the quality of its funded research by evaluating research projects through a process of peer review. Sometimes the ESRC publishes research before this process is finished so that new findings can immediately inform business, Government, media and other organisations. This research is waiting for final comments from academic peers.