The pilot study
In order to better understand the differences between “general” movie fandom and “cult” movie fandom, three online surveys were created and distributed to various audiences. The surveys carried the same basic questions, but were tailored to three specific audiences: those identifying themselves closely with the movie The Big Lebowski, those identifying themselves with the classic cult film, The Rocky Horror Picture Show, and general people interested in movies.
The use of an online survey to collect data warrants some note here. Though the Internet has made many aspects of research easier to access, using it for data collection remains somewhat controversial. Granello and Wheaton (2004), in a review of major journals in the field of counseling, note that since 1998 “no articles have been published in any of these journals that explicitly state that data were collected from an e-mail or Web-based survey method” (p. 387). However, there is a growing body of research that examines this issue (see, for example, Truell, 2003; and, Kaplowitz, Hadlock, and Levine, 2004). Evans and Mathur (2005), in a review of literature and strengths and weaknesses, offer suggestions for “best uses” for online surveys. Included in these “best use” suggestions are wide geographic coverage, a desire for a large sample, split samples, strong methodological control is sought, interviewer interaction with respondents is not necessary and/or desirable, timeliness, and others (p. 208-209). Many of these suggestions seem to be able to apply to this pilot study at this stage. Although a random sample is ideal for most statistical analysis, the nature of this study, with a focus on online participation, opened a different direction. While the communities were “targeted” in a sense, there was nothing else to do but put bulletins on Internet spaces and invite people to participate.
The online communities surrounding Rocky Horror and The Big Lebowski were chosen for different reasons. Rocky Horror seems to offer the “classic” cult fandom base. Since its release in 1975, this campy, science fiction adaptation of a London stage play has taken a life of its own. Through audience participation and the rise of home-grown “casts,” who act out the movie as it is played on screen, this film continues to play consistently around the world. According to rockyhorror.com, “the official fan site,” there are 70 “regular showings” (once a month or more) around the world. There are 60 regular showings in the United States, 29 of which are weekly showings. The fans of this movie have been studied since Austin (1981) conducted a quantitative study of fans waiting in line.
Lebowskifest and the community surrounding The Big Lebowski were chosen for a different reason. The film, released in 1998 featuring its combination homage to classic film noir and Busby Berkeley-style musical numbers, did not do well in the theater. However, through video rentals and word of mouth, the film has grown to include a small, but devoted fan base. A pair of fans in Kentucky decided to plan the first Lebowskifest weekend event in 2002. This fan group is newer than Rocky Horror, but in that short time its gatherings have grown from hundreds to thousands. While Rocky Horror focuses on audience participation, the community surrounding The Big Lebowski doesn’t. There has also been a “religion” dedicated to the movie, called “Dudeism,” in which fans become “ordained Dudeist priests” (http://www.dudeism.com). So while the community is newer and functions somewhat differently than Rocky Horror, it is a distinctly defined community that seems to carry “cult” status. With the three groups (general fans, Rocky Horror fans, Big Lebowski fans) in mind, a survey was created, then tweaked to meet the specific audience needs.
From these issues, several hypotheses were put forth:
H1: The more one identifies themselves as a fan, the more they will feel like they are a part of a community.
H2: The more one feels like they are a part of a community, the more likely they will closely identify with a movie.
H3: The more one purchases materials related to a movie and uses lines from the movie, the more one will feel like they are a part of a community.
Hypotheses one and two are seemingly self-explanatory, though with a bit of a twist. The more one identifies themselves as a fan, the more one would seemingly set themselves apart from others, however, this hypothesis supposes that this act of rating themselves high also aligns them with a larger community. Hypothesis two seems to be self-evident: the more a person feels a part of a community of fans, the more likely they will identify with the text. What may be interesting in this hypothesis is whether there is a difference among general and cult fans.
Hypothesis three is similar to hypothesis one in that purchasing materials and quoting movie lines are individual activities, things that a person does for himself or herself to align themselves with the text. But does this act also align them closer to a community?
The survey started with general, open-ended questions, allowing participants to identify their level of fandom. Questions in this section included: “On a scale of 1 to 100, how much of a movie (or Rocky Horror, or Big Lebowski) fan do you consider yourself? (‘1’ means not a fan at all, while a ‘100’ means (the movie) is very important/the primary hobby or interest).” Other questions in this section included how many times per month did the participant visit movie-related websites and forums, and how many times the participant had seen the movie. General movie participants were asked to consider one of their favorite movies, while the cult movie fans were asked to consider their specific movie.
From there, the survey asked a series of questions in order to realize the depth of their fandom. One series of questions related to identification. These types of questions included “I have used lines from one of my favorite movies in everyday conversation,” “I have thought about the characters in The Big Lebowski in situations other than those that occurred in the movie,” “I have learned lessons about life through watching The Rocky Horror Picture Show,” and “I have imagined myself as a character in my favorite movie.” These questions were designed to help find out how closely the participant identified with the movie.
A second grouping of questions in the survey dealt with perceptions of community. Questions in this group included “Discussing one of my favorite movies with my friends/family makes me feel like part of a community,” “People who are fans of The Rocky Horror Picture Show share the same values,” “Watching The Big Lebowski with a group of people is the best way to view the film,” and “I have made new friends because of a shared interest in The Big Lebowski.” The questions were created in order to help identify how participants viewed the fan community, if any, they existed in.
Another question, asked only on the general movie version of the survey, asked participants to finish this question: “ ‘Cult’ movie fans are:” and then they were given six choices – five pre-selected choices (“weird,” “just like other fans,” “take that movie too seriously,” “need help,” “normal”) and “Other,” in which participants could fill in their own answers.
Since the surveys were online, the participants were solicited from a variety of online sources. For the survey related to The Big Lebowski, notices were put into the forum sections of Lebowskifest.com and dudeism.com, two websites devoted to the movie. Also, notices were sent via the online community myspace.com, through identified Big Lebowski user groups. For the survey related to The Rocky Horror Picture Show, a notice was sent to Interchangeable Parts, a cast for a weekly Rocky Horror show in St. Petersburg, Fla., and forwarded to other fan spaces. A notice was also sent through myspace.com as well. For the general survey, a notice was sent to college students through the campus networking website facebook.com, as well as notices on myspace and through various e-mail networks.
A total of 205 surveys were completed during the open phase of the study. A slight majority of respondents were women (103), while nearly a third of the respondents identified themselves as college graduates or postgraduates. The general survey received the most respondents (117), while 61 people responded to The Big Lebowski survey, and 27 to the Rocky Horror survey. The lower numbers of respondents to the fan-specific surveys cut down on the generalizability of the survey, but as this is a pilot study, it should give some insight on how to expand the research further. A discussion of this will take place in the section devoted to further study.