Finding significance in sneaky hobbitses

In 2015, the year's highest grossing films were Star Wars: The Force Awakens, Jurassic World and The Avengers: Age of Ultron. Each of these movies were a lot like the other two — they were all in the fantasy or sci-fi genre, they were disgustingly profitable and they had been produced as part of previously established film franchises. It can be easy to interpret this trend as the end of moviemaking and the emergence of a film industry that produces only easily digestible blockbusters and feature-length toy commercials.

However, Dr. Ernest Mathijs, associate head of UBC’s Department of Theatre and Film, has a surprising counterpoint — it's not that big a deal. 

For the past year, Dr. Mathijs has been conducting the world’s largest audience research survey based on Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit trilogy. The World Hobbit Project was done in collaboration between 146 scholars from around the world who distributed the survey to over 35,000 respondents in 45 countries and 30 languages.

The study’s primary goal was to find out what fantasy movies mean to people today. In sifting through the results, Dr. Mathijs has found that people strongly believe that these movies help to enrich the imagination.

“That surprised us because Hollywood, when it adopts the fantasy world, is often accused of narrowing the imagination. Well, our audiences disagree with that. We saw that audiences make connections between terrorism, what happens in the world, the things that are in the news and what you see in fantasy,” he said.

Mathijs believes that humans are “meaning-seeking creatures,” who will find significance in whatever material they’re given. Although watching The Hobbit or Harry Potter may not feel like a particularly stimulating activity, he says that people may in fact work harder when watching a fantasy movie to develop a sophisticated interpretation.

“It’s the opposite of what we usually say, that fantasy dumbs down. No. In this case, fantasy gives you the opportunity to show off just how smart you are.”

Nevertheless, it can feel unfortunate that the film industry has become dominated by a handful of glossy franchises. Mathijs says that, in recent years, the selection of widely available films has shrunk to a few “must-see” movies that come out in the summer, the early fall and at Christmastime. By monopolizing the industry, these blockbusters have squeezed out just about everything else.

“Fantasy blockbusters in particular have proven that they can return an investment. They make profits, so that’s what Hollywood will do. It seems like you can’t make them for less than 200, 300 million dollars and that means that that money isn’t going to other films,” he said.

Still, Dr. Mathijs isn’t one for lamentation.

“There’s a worry there. But you know what? If audiences through that limited supply can still feel that their imagination is enriched, maybe it’s not too big a problem.”