It is, of course, impossible to learn the reaction of each viewer to a given film. Instead, the goal of reception theory is to identify a range of possible reactions and interpretations at a particular historical moment. In order to do so, the reception theorist must acknowledge the wide variety of social identities and subject positions that each spectator brings to the cinema. All people possess multiple subject identities, both consciously and unconsciously constructed and maintained, including age, race, gender, nationality, ethnicity, sexual orientation, religious beliefs, and class. How the spectator defines herself or himself as a person and as a member of a larger society affects how she or he will view a film. If a film has a strong feminist message, for example, it will likely be viewed differently by a person who considers herself a feminist than by a person who does not. Similarly, a film about racial struggle will probably be read in different ways by audience members depending on whether or not they are themselves members of a racial minority. Thus a spectator will watch films from several subject positions at the same time, and in each cinema experience different positions will be appealed to at different times.
Another factor in how a film is received by an audience member is that person's preconceived notions about the film. A viewer's expectations for a film, and the experience of the film, can be affected by what is known about the film's genre; its actors, writers, director, or other production personnel; the circumstances of its production (for example, if there were reports of problems on the set); and its marketing or merchandising. The conditions of a film's exhibition also factor in to its eventual reception. A film shown in an IMAX theater with state-of-the-art sound will be received very differently from a film viewed in a drive-in theater or on a DVD at home. Furthermore, the circumstances in which a person views a film (with a group of friends, on a blind date, alone) can affect how she or he experiences the film. Social and historical factors must also be considered in reception studies. Finally, audiences watching M*A*S*H (1972) at the height of the Vietnam War, or those viewing Fahrenheit 9/11 (2004) during the buildup to that year's US presidential election, would understand these films based on the current social and political climates; audiences who watch these films at other historical moments would most likely have different reactions to them. Reception theory attempts to account for all of these factors in determining how audiences experience motion pictures.
The most important, and at the same time most difficult, task in reception studies is gathering the information necessary to analyze how audiences experience films. Ideally, the researcher interviews audience members to find out their reactions, but even this method is flawed, as individuals may not be aware of their various subject positions or may be unable to fully articulate how or why they interpret a film in a particular way. Despite these problems, this type of ethnographic research is the best way of determining a film's reception. However, when researching older films it is often impossible to interview individuals who saw them during their initial release. Therefore, researchers must frequently turn to other sources to help fill in the blanks.
Media accounts can be a useful tool in learning both how a film was presented and how it was received. Reviews give an idea of how contemporaneous audiences might have interpreted a film, although it is important to remember that the opinions of a professional film critic may not be representative of a large portion of the audience. Other sources of media accounts, such as letters to the editor, gossip columns, and newspaper and magazine articles can similarly help researchers understand a film's reception. Also important are sources from the film industry, including advertising, press releases, and other forms of publicity; these materials can bring to light some of the preconceived notions about the film that viewers brought with them into the theaters. Finally, fan discourse forms a crucial element when attempting to reconstruct how historical audiences experienced films. Materials such as fan letters, Web sites and Internet message boards, fan fiction, and fan clubs are examples of direct interaction between spectators and films, providing researchers with concrete examples of how some fans interpreted a film's meanings. Fan materials also are evidence of the fact that reception does not end when the film does, and the creation of meaning continues after the viewer has left the theater. The use of materials from the press, the film industry, and fan culture as a means of analyzing a film's reception is not ideal, and does not give a complete picture of how audiences interacted with a particular text; however, these sources do provide an impression of how a film was received, and can therefore be valuable tools in reception studies.
A reception analysis of a film will use all of these methods to arrive at an understanding of how the audiences interpreted and understood the text. For an analysis of the reception of The Sound of Music (1965), for example, a researcher will start by considering the various factors that might have influenced how the film was viewed. How might individuals experience the film based on their subject positions? Would a woman interpret the character of Maria as progressive because of her strong will and outspokenness, or regressive because of her positioning as a caretaker and nurturer to others? How would the film's meaning change for different age groups, considering the inclusion of characters ranging in age from young children to senior citizens? What effect would the film's depiction of Catholicism have on viewers of various religions, or viewers who are not religious? How would the absence of racial minorities in the film affect the interpretations of spectators of diverse races? Along with questions of interpretation based on subject identity, a reception studies analysis of The Sound of Music would try to determine what sort of preconceived notions about the film viewers brought with them and how those notions affected their understanding of it. The fact that it is a musical would create a certain set of expectations in the minds of viewers, and people who were familiar with other works by Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein, or who had seen the stage play on which the movie is based, would have a further set of expectations for the film. Production issues could have played a part in reception; viewers who knew that leading actor Christopher Plummer's singing voice was dubbed by another actor might have interpreted the film, and especially his songs, differently than viewers who did not have that knowledge. Audiences who saw the film projected in 70 mm during its initial run, and those who have seen the film in later years on television, video, DVD, or in screenings of Sound of Music sing-alongs, all have had different experiences of the film that would have an effect on its reception. Social and historical factors in 1965, the year of the film's release, would also have shaped the ways in which audiences interpreted the film's messages.
Despite all of the many factors involved in a film's reception, reception theory does not claim that a film's meaning is entirely open. On the contrary, there are limits to the potential meanings and interpretations that can be attached to a film. Social, cultural, and historical factors, elements of production and exhibition, and generic conventions and expectations restrict the ways a film can be interpreted. Spectators are constructed by their environment, and this affects and ultimately limits the ways in which they are able to view and understand cinematic texts.