#ThesisThursday: “Child’s Play or Adult Escapism?: An Ethnographic Study on Animation Film Audiences”


Child’s Play or Adult Escapism?:

An Ethnographic Study on Animation Film Audiences

It is a public misunderstanding that people refer to animations as children films. I am curious as to why this belief exists and if it is common amongst most film audiences. As Walt Disney said, “I do not make films primarily for children. I make them for the child in all of us, whether we be six or sixty” (Hazel and Fippen, 211). For my research, I utilized social and cultural methods for my theoretical approach. This includes a combination of participant observation with an audience survey at different theatrical screening times for Zootopia (2016) and a generalized online survey for animation film audiences. Through these methods, I aim to answer the following questions:

“What is the average age of older audience members that see animation films?”

“When do older audience members go to animation film screenings?”

“Why do older audience members go to see animation films?”

There are not many scholarly resources that address the adult audience demographic in relation to animation films, but Stan Beeler and Julian Cornell do touch upon the topic in their academic essays.

In his essay, “No Place Like Home: Circumscribing Fantasy in Children’s Film”, Cornell explores the deeper elements of nostalgia and identity within animation films. He states that, “The audience, child and parent, is presumed to get something out of the film in excess of pleasure or entertainment, and that is a lesson, a moral, a sense of identity, a life enhancing pedagogical experience” (10). He believes that animated films allow for children to experience a fantasy world that plays out the concerns, anxieties, and dilemmas faced during childhood. The narrative within these films provide children audiences with reaffirmation of innocence and discovery of identity. For adults, however, Cornell considers the innocence of childhood within animation films as a specific form of cultural memory, nostalgia. This nostalgia provides an adult with an opportunity to give into their desire to exit outside of the history and culture of reality (Cornell 12-15). In summary, Julian Cornell argues that animated films offer children an identity, subjectivity, and ideological framework, whereas adults are given an opportunity of escapism through animation. In his essay, “Songs for the Older Set: Music and Multiple Demographics in Shrek, Madagascar, and Happy Feet”, Stan Beeler discusses the relationship between animated films and adults through the analysis of film marketing towards a family audience. Before televisions became accessible in family homes, animations were an integral component of the double feature. Double features were common amongst film exhibitions in order to be inclusive for all family members attending theatrical screenings. By the twenty-first century, Variety, a film trade publication, began to note the economic benefits of producing films that target a family audience. In today’s animated films, Beeler notes that films now include music and visual allusion familiar to the adult demographic to enhance their viewing experience. These elements may also explain why animated films also attract an exceptional number of audience members ranging from the ages of 15 to 25, the unmarried demographic (Beeler 28-36). Julian Cornell and Stan Beeler’s research provides an explanation for why Disney’s Zootopia was a box- office success.

Due to its success, I selected Zootopia as the platform of my study in which to conduct participant observation of the exhibition as well as to survey audience members exiting the theatrical screening. As of May 1st, Zootopia grossed a total of $323,518,489 domestically and $931,481,489 worldwide. It has even earned the title of Walt Disney Animation Studio’s largest three-day opening ever (Box Office Mojo). The success of Zootopia may be accredited to its strong appeal to adult audiences. In order to obtain a holistic understanding of animation film audiences, I attended several different screening times of Zootopia at the Carmike theater in Wilmington, North Carolina. As shown in Figure 1, these screenings include a weekday matinee, weekday evening, weekend matinee, and weekend evening. I was surprised to find that the weekend matinee was the most crowded screening of Zootopia, holding a total of 86 audience members. However, this was probably due to Carmike’s discounted super-matinee ticket price of $5. I found my participant observation to be the most resourceful method for this aspect of my study.

Figure 1

During these Zootopia screenings, I observed that the adult audience appeared more engaged with the narrative than the children audience. This behavior was most evident during the weekend matinee on Friday at 4:40pm because the theater roared with adult laughter, including my own, throughout the entirety of the film. The Godfather wedding reference, the sloth DMV, and the animal nudist society, received the most reactions during each of the different screening times. These were all mature references and I frequently heard children ask, “What is so funny?” One of the most peculiar instances I experienced was at the weekday evening screening on Thursday at 7:10pm. Two different families with children around the age of 5 left about 120 minutes into the screening. Their children grew restless with the film, occasionally saying, “This movie is boring”. I believe this may have been a result to Zootopia’s mature humor paired with its narrative of racial and gender discrimination, which may have been too sophisticated for younger children to comprehend or find entertaining. However, my explanation for this observation may be invalid because this was the only occurrence within the four screenings I attended. From my participant observation, it appears families are the largest demographic that attended the theatrical release of Zootopia (refer to Figure 1). Groups of friends, between the ages of 15 to 25, were also frequent during the screenings. Although families remained the majority of the audience, Zootopia still appealed to several adults.

After each screening of Zootopia, I waited outside of the theater and asked audience members if they had a few minutes to spare to take my survey. This task was more difficult than expected, which is why I only obtained a total of 15 surveys for my study (Refer to Figure 3).

Several audience members were either in a hurry to leave or did not wish to be surveyed. The majority of the participants for my “Zootopia Screening: Audience Survey” were female between the ages of 20 and 25 (Refer to Figure 3A and 3B). Screen Shot 2017-05-01 at 5.27.40 PMThis demographic was most willing to help me with my academic research and were interested in the study. From my results, it appears that the average age of older audience members that see animations in theaters are 20 to 25 years old. However, I do not think these results present a valid argument because it did not gather data from a holistic audience sample. To obtain sufficient data, I believe an organized private screening is necessary to conduct a thorough study. This would provide an environment in which each audience member would give consent beforehand and answer the survey, yielding more accurate results with a larger demographic. It would also allow the researcher to select the variety of audience members in order to guarantee diversity. The data from my survey suggests that older audience members, ages 20 to 25, attend animated film screening with friends during weekday matinees (Refer to Figure 3C and 3F). Although the majority of surveyors believed Zootopia targeted an audience of children between the ages of 8 to 12, 64.3% said the primary audience at their screening were young adults between the ages of 18 to 29 (Refer to Figure 3D and 3E).

My survey data  concludes that audience members go to see animated films because of their interest in storyline, comedy, and animation style (Refer to Figure 3H). Due to the little number of participants in my “Zootopia Screening: Audience Survey”, I also created a generalized online survey in order to make my case study stronger.

Screen Shot 2017-05-01 at 5.13.12 PMTo gather more data, I forwarded my “Animation Film Audience Survey” via email and Facebook posts, in which I encouraged participants to forward the survey to friends or family. As a result, I received a total of 27 responses. Unlike my previous survey, this questionnaire did not cater towards a particular animation screening (Refer to Figure 2). The data suggests that the average age of older audience members that see animated films are between the ages of 20 and 25 (Refer to Figure 2A). Screen Shot 2017-05-01 at 5.14.35 PMLike the previous survey, I do not believe the study I conducted demonstrates a holistic demographic of the subject due to the limited number of submissions. However, from the survey’s results, 59% of participants were between the ages of 20 and 25. The ages of 26 to 35 followed this majority at 22%, which displays that it is common for young adults of this age range to be interested in attending animated film screenings. Also, my study may have been partial to a female audience with 70% of the participants identifying as this gender (Refer to Figure 2B). Screen Shot 2017-05-01 at 5.15.50 PMThe data collected shows that the majority of participants attend animation film screenings with friends at 78%. But, attending animated films with a significant other or family follows as another popular option (Refer to Figure 2C). In regards to the question, “When do older audience members go to animated film screenings?”, there is no clear answer provided by the survey’s results because no single screening time holds a majority over the other selections (Refer to Figure 2D). Despite the close results, the weekday matinee and weekend matinee tied with 40.7% as the time of choice for participants. The top choices for “Why do older audiences go to see animations?” were storyline and animation style according my collected data (See Figure 2F).

In response to the survey question, “Do you believe animations are strictly for children audience?”, all of the participants answered “No”. A 31-year- old female contributor argues, “I don’t understand why that is such a stigma. Animated films are for all audiences! Stories can touch your heart no matter what medium they are filmed in” (Combs, “Animated Film Audience Survey”). A 20-year-old male participant has a similar opinion and states:

Although animations are often kid-friendly, in my opinion, animation is a style, not a genre. Animations have the capacity to carry a storyline just as deep and impactful as a live-action, and can often use visual effects or other elements to draw metaphors and bring stories alive in a multitude of ways, some of which are in accessible to live-action films (Combs, “Animated Film Audience Survey”)

My results conclude that this survey group does not share the public belief that animated films are primarily for children, but the validity of this conclusion should come into question. In order to make this case study stronger, a more diverse demographic of surveyors is required. I believe those willing to participate in my research were people who were already interested in the topic, which made them partial to response in favor to animated films. On the other hand, this study does hold some interesting potential as it is a scarcely researched film exhibition topic.

Walt Disney wished for his animations to not only appeal to children, but also to the inner child of adults. Scholars, such as Stan Beeler and Julian Cornell, suggest that animated films act as a window to innocence and escapism for adult audiences as well as providing wholesome entertainment through the incorporation of adult humor and music. Their arguments hold truth in relation to my participant observation of Zootopia (2016) screenings. From my observations, the animated film demonstrated a strong appeal to the adult audience of the theatrical release because of its engaging humor and complex narrative. The data from both of my research surveys conclude in the following results. First, the average age of older audience members that attend animated film screenings ranges from 20 to 35. Second, adult audience members prefer to attend animation screenings during weekday or weekend matinees. Lastly, older audiences go to see animated films because of the storyline, humor, and animation style. The conclusion of my case study did not provide a holistic view of all demographics of adult animated film audience members, but it did provide some answers. To improve this study, it is required to include more demographics such as preteens and the elderly as well as considering ethnicity and personal wealth. I believe animation films have grown to appeal to adult audiences more so today than in previous generations. Animations have become an integral part of one’s childhood in modern society, which creates a guarantee for this audience to return as adults. The future may prove to include animation films as an appealing cinematic genre for all ages, a future in which Walt Disney dreamed to transpire.

Do you think animation films are strictly for child audiences?

Works Cited

Beeler, Stan. “Songs for the Older Set: Music and Multiple Demographics in Shrek, Madagascar, and Happy Feet.” Children’s Film in the Digital Age: Essays on Audience, Adaptation and Consumer Culture. Ed. Karin E. Beeler and Stanley W. Beeler. N.p.: n.p., n.d. 28-36. Print.

Combs, Grace. “Animation Film Audience Survey.” Survey. 27 April 2016. <https://docs.google.com/forms/d/1mA T1xSAA-XMrVXSrkMX9a4eArjj4uuVVnrZMyt7CFQ/edit?usp=drive_web#responses>.

Combs, Grace. “Zootopia Screening: Audience Survey.” Survey. 27 April 2016. <https://docs.google.com/forms/d/1xbrSZuWsFR_x1vSMLQAS7b0iLaN9bKAJPxtZ6ZDt0o/edit?us=drive_web#responses&gt;.

Cornell, Julian. “No Place Like Home: Circumscribing Fantasy in Children’s Film.” Children’s Film in the Digital Age: Essays on Audience, Adaptation and Consumer Culture. Ed.Karin E. Beeler and Stanley W. Beeler. N.p.: n.p., n.d. 9-27. Print.

Hazel, Dann, and Josh Fippen. A Walt Disney World Resort Outing: The Only Vacation Planning Guide Exclusively for Gay and Lesbian Travelers. San Jose: Writers Club, 2002. 211-12. Print.

“Zootopia (2016) – Box Office Mojo.” Zootopia (2016) – Box Office Mojo. IMDb, n.d. Web. 01 May 2016. <http://www.boxofficemojo.com/movies/?id=disney2016.htm&gt;.

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