A Study in Audiences

Let’s set the scene; it’s the second of January, 2016, and the crowd is bustling. A line forms (yes, a line, in a cinema) as we eagerly wait for the doors to open. We’re not waiting for the latest Marvel film; this is not the current ‘hit’ movie or the end of a popular franchise. No, for us, this is much more.

The long-awaited next installation of BBC’s Sherlock series, The Abominable Bride, a stand-alone episode aired one-day-only in select cinemas. A welcome reprieve in the midst of a three-year hiatus. We’re keen to see what come’s next for our beloved detective, and his blogger.

No hush falls over the crowd as the doors open, no discrete coughs or the typical silence that pervades your everyday cinema experience. There is no fugitive opening of lolly bags or quick settling of children. Instead there is a blanket of sound. A light wash of noise as friends debate what is to come. Soon, however, a brief moment of silence does fall. A moment of indecision when the feature begins to play. An unexpected but welcome introduction back into the universe we’ve so come to enjoy.

As swiftly as it has fallen, the silence is broken. Almost as one the crows laughs, and the tension is lost. For almost two hours we sit there, enthralled with the newest addition to our favourite series . Drawn in by the welcoming atmosphere, it was like nothing else I’d experienced in a cinema. There was no ‘shushing’, no annoyed glares or short words, instead there were exclamations of shock, horror and understanding. More moments of laughter and a few of sadness.

Together, for a short period, this niche audience made a traditionally rigid and individualised experience feel like a close gathering of friends.

Unlike your traditional cinema audience, comprised of a range of unique individuals with differing ages, genders and interests, bought together to enjoy a single film, the audience that day was something different. We were part of the Sherlock fandom.

It is understood that a modern audience is no longer passive, no longer just sitting and reacting to an experience, but instead we participate (Cunningham and Turnbull, 2014). We tweet, we comment, we create. I’m sure in that cinema there were fan artists, fanfiction writers, fans for years and new fans alike, all united under the common banner of a shared interest.

In recent lectures, we’ve covered the topic of the audience, and how our understanding of what it means to be a member of an audience has changed throughout the years. An audience is group of people who share an experience, be it in person, online, or a combination of the two. Modern audiences are shifting towards a more technologically focused form of viewing; for example, watching the newest show or movie on Netflix, Stan or another streaming site, and sharing their views online, thus connecting to others and creating a ‘global’ audience of viewers.

The experience mentioned above does not include this newer form of viewing, however it does emphasise the growing idea of an active audience. An audience that is critical and discriminating in what they view. Every person in that cinema had watched the previous 3 seasons of Sherlock, be it alone or in the company of family or friends, every person made the conscious decision to purchase a movie ticket and watch the film as a collective, rather than alone.

The Sherlock fandom is broad and varied, Koch and Lauridsen (2017) note that the series “walked the line between traditionally passive and more recent active audiences.” Meaning that the level of interaction one has with the global audience is determined by them alone. The fandom has been known to be very active, primarily due to the production agents keeping the series alive “during the long hiatuses between the short, three-episode series.” (Koch & Lauridsen, 2017).

I feel that this fandom culture was very evident during my viewing of The Abominible Bride. Whereas traditional theatre audiences follow the unwritten rules of silence, so as to not interfere with another’s viewing of the material, the Sherlock audience had no such compunctions. Movie-goers did let out that little laugh and the odd snide comment, and they were welcome to do so. No one was told-off, in fact this behaviour was encouraged, and has been since the inception of the series.

Sherlock has the potential to be enjoyed as your regular television show, but the series implores audiences to participate actively, through a range of schemes orchestrated by the procurers such as Sherlock and John’s blogs (Koch & Lauridsen, 2017). The tent-pole model exemplifies this connection between the audience and producers and demonstrates how the show embraced the current media environment to flourish, despite it’s unusual running schedule.

The Tent-Pole Model applied to Sherlock, (Koch & Lauridsen, 2017)

What does this all mean? Well, to me this example clearly demonstrates the changes undergoing modern audiences. The transition from a passive to an active audience and the importance of audience participation, to gain a comprehensive overall experience of a series. Everyone in that cinema felt welcomed and accepted, allowing for a changed experience, and something, in my mind that may be a sign for what is to come.

The world of ‘Sherlock Holmes’ and the world that we live in now is big enough to take more than one interpretation.

Benedict Cumberbatch
Sources:
Cunningham, S. and Turnbull, S., 2014. The Media & Communications In Australia. 4th ed. Crows Nest, NSW: Allen & Unwin, pp.59-72.
Koch, A. and Lauridsen, P., 2017. Speed Detection, intertextuality and audiences in Sherlock. Mise au point, [online] (9). Available at: <https://journals.openedition.org/map/2403> [Accessed 15 March 2020].

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