There's a big difference between enjoying a movie and appreciating it, say behavioral researchers who study how what we see on the big screen affects our moods and psyches. Their specialty is in the spotlight this week, as movie lovers gear up for Sunday's Academy Awards.
Enjoyment is all about when good things happen, says Ron Tamborini, a professor of communication at Michigan State University in East Lansing.
People both like and enjoy movies where "the good guy wins," he says.
"Even if bad things happen, all we're thinking about is that in the end, it turns out the way you wanted it to. You have this intuitive, positive response. We call that enjoyment," says Tamborini.
But for some movies, such as this year's Oscar-nominated Lincoln, it's more about appreciation, he says. The movie, which focuses on the political fight over ending slavery, is about great conflicts, and "often great moral conflicts that make us think. ... If equality and loyalty were in conflict in Lincoln, in the end, fairness had to win out because it was more important," he says.
Other films are meaningful because they are not just sad or just happy but rather focus on the human condition, says Mary Beth Oliver, co-director of the Media Effects Research Laboratory at Penn State University in University Park, Pa. Such movies as the Oscar-nominated Life of Pi evoke appreciation because it helps us "understand the human spirit." The movie tells the story of the son of an Indian zoo-keeper who survives a shipwreck by sharing a lifeboat with an enormous Bengal tiger.
"When we watch films that you have to sort through these very big existential questions, when we do make the emotional investment in those kinds of films, we feel enriched. We value it," she says.
She has studied viewers reactions to movies with disturbing themes such as genocide and the Holocaust, in Hotel Rwanda and Schindler's List, which she says people value but wouldn't say they enjoy.
"It would be odd to say that we enjoyed many of these kinds of films, but at the same time, we value them a lot," she says.
Her research with 483 people, published last year in the journal Human Communication Research, focused on what the study calls "the 'sadfilm paradox' that has long puzzled scholars looking for reasons why people may 'enjoy' entertainment that is sad."
Research findings also suggest that some movies elicit feelings that can motivate us.
"Movies are a powerful way of presenting human experience," says psychologist Danny Wedding of Alliant International University in San Francisco.
He and psychologist Ryan Niemiec of Cincinnati look at personal motivation from movies in their upcoming book, Positive Psychology at the Movies 2, due out in May.
Niemiec says the Oscar-nominated film Argo, about a government agent who fakes a sci-fi movie to get six Americans out of Iran during the 1979 hostage crisis, illustrates how positive traits inspire others.
"I was struck by the bravery and perseverance" of the agent planning the rescue, played by Ben Affleck. He "had to use strength and leadership and wisdom and perspective to help the individuals see the bigger picture," and convince them to take the risk of playing along, Niemiec says.
Among perennial questions for researchers is why we choose to watch sad movies.
A new study, published online in the journal Communication Research, is one of the first to try to take a scientific approach to investigate the phenomenon, says lead researcher Silvia Knobloch-Westerwick, a communications professor at Ohio State University in Columbus.
She had 361 people watch a 2007 movie, Atonement, about lovers who are separated and die as war casualties. Before and after watching, and three times during the movie, they were asked via computer how they felt.
Sadness, the study finds, "instigates life reflection."
"That causes you to think more about your own close relationships and appreciate them more," which leads to greater happiness, Knobloch-Westerwick says.
Skip Dine Young, author of the 2012 book Psychology at the Movies, says psychological film research in the past has focused too much on the negative, such as violent movies potentially sparking violent behavior.
"I don't think psychologists tend to think of movies as art," says Young, a psychology professor at Hanover College in Hanover, Ind.
"I think they think of them as cultural threats - potentially doing things to people that have negative consequences. I'm not denying that happens, but that's only part of the story. They also inspire."