Purdue News

April 21, 2005

Prof: Don't bank on violence in summer blockbusters to fill theaters

WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. – Violence in movies may not be the feature attraction that Hollywood thinks it is, says a Purdue University researcher who recently completed a study on violence in movies.

Glenn Sparks
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"Violence is generally perceived as a necessary component in making a motion picture interesting and entertaining," says Glenn G. Sparks, professor of communication. "But in this study we could not find that violence, such as hitting, punching, shooting and killing, was really contributing to the overall appeal of the film.

"The important finding is that these results draw attention to the assumption that violence is necessary to enhance the appeal of a movie. This is something to think about on the eve of the summer movie season, which is already buzzing about the increase of violence in the final installment of the 'Star Wars' series."

Most research on violence in the media, especially movies, is concentrated on how or whether violence increases viewers' aggressive behavior, says Sparks, who is internationally known for his work on the emotional effects of media, including how frightening films affect children. Sparks began to think about the appeal of violence in movies while working on a book chapter about the enjoyment of horror and violence.

Sparks' earlier research shows that even though people say they like scary films, it probably is not the experience of fear itself that people enjoy. His earlier analyses show that if something really scares a person, then he or she is probably enjoying another aspect of the experience that overrides the feeling of fear.

For example, the enjoyment that some people report from watching scary movies can come from the feeling of relief after the scare is over, or as a result of the body's physical changes, similar to an adrenaline rush, such as the heart beating faster.

Sparks says most people do not enjoy fear itself because the experience of fear means that people also feel a direct threat to their sense of well-being. Watching violence can generate these same negative emotions, Sparks says.

This is especially true with older children, ages 9 to 12, who many parents believe are old enough to be exposed to fear or violence in movies, he says.

"The belief is generally mistaken," Sparks says. "Parents worry about their younger children watching violence in movies or the news, but, really, older children, who have a better understanding of reality, can be even more disturbed by these images."

To determine if people enjoy violence in movies, Sparks, along with Michigan State University assistant professor John Sherry and former Purdue graduate student Graig Lubsen, questioned 134 adults after half of the group watched the full-length version of "The Fugitive," a 1993 movie starring Harrison Ford and Tommy Lee Jones. The other half of the group watched an edited version of the film with most of the violence – about 11 minutes worth – deleted. This group reported that it enjoyed the movie just as much as the group that watched the unedited version. The study's results will be published in the April 2005 issue of the journal Communication Reports.

Surprisingly, Sparks says males and females also reported similar levels of enjoyment to both versions of the film

"It is possible that if a film has little going for it except violence, then males might enjoy it more, but for films with a strong story, Hollywood may make a mistake in assuming that violence is needed to attract the males."

Sparks says the study's findings could be the result of "The Fugitive's" high-quality story line, plot and acting. For example, these results may not be the same for another movie that lacks these ingredients and relies on violence to entertain.

The research team had a difficult time finding a movie to edit without changing the story line because in most films, editing the violence out would have destroyed the coherence of the film, Sparks says.

"Because of this barrier, we are not sure how well we can replicate the study with other movies," he says. "Nevertheless, the study seems to suggest that violence is not necessary for an enjoyable entertaining experience."

Sparks is currently analyzing data on a study that investigates the relationship between the amount of violence and box office gross. His early findings show that violent content may be unrelated to the amount of money a film takes in at the box office.

At the same time, Hollywood leaders may be tempted to rely on violence because it exports well across cultures and language barriers, Sparks says.

"Films have to make a certain amount of money," Sparks says. "And violence is easily understood because it crosses languages and cultures. The constraints, such as tight budgets and film schedules, placed on the moviemaking industry may encourage some directors to add unnecessary violence."

Writer: Amy Patterson-Neubert, (765) 494-9723, apatterson@purdue.edu

Source: Glenn Sparks, (765) 494-3316, gsparks@purdue.edu

Purdue News Service: (765) 494-2096; purduenews@purdue.edu


Glenn Sparks, a professor of communication, says violence like hitting, punching, shooting and killing, may not really contribute to the overall appeal of a film. To determine if people enjoy violence in movies, Sparks and his research team questioned 134 adults after half of the group watched the full-length version of "The Fugitive," a 1993 movie. The other half of the participants watched an edited version of the film with most of the violence about 11 minutes worth deleted. This group reported enjoying the movie as much as the group that watched the unedited version. (Purdue News Service photo/David Umberger)

A publication-quality photo is available at https://ftp.purdue.edu/pub/uns/+2005/sparks-movieviolence.jpg



The Appeal of Media Violence in a Full-length Motion Picture: An Experimental Investigation

Glenn G. Sparks, John Sherry & Graig Lubsen

This paper reports the results of an experiment that examined the appeal of violence in a full-length motion picture. College students (N=134) were randomly assigned to view one of two different version of "The Fugitive." One version was the original theatrical release and the other version was identical except for the fact that nearly all of the scenes of violence were deleted. Deleting the violence did not affect enjoyment or perceptions of the quality of the movie. The popular assumption that violence is an enjoyable film commodity is suspect based on these results.


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