Audience Taste Divergence over Time: An Analysis of U.S. Movies' Box Office in Hong Kong, 1989-2004

Article excerpt

Foreign media products often go through processes of local reception when they travel to another culture. This article provides a quantitative and longitudinal analysis of local reception by focusing on the notion of cross-culture predictability, or the degree to which the performance of a set of media products in a foreign market can be predicted by their performance in the domestic market. Analysis of box office performance of U.S. movies in Hong Kong from 1989 to 2004 finds that the tastes of Hong Kong and U.S. audiences have diverged over the years, a trend particularly robust among certain types of movies.

Introduction

Since the 1980s, audience reception analysis has helped establish an understanding of how local audiences "modify, hybridize, indigenize or transform"1 the meanings of foreign media products through active and selective consumption and appropriation. It is widely accepted that, although many media contents and formats are globally shared, audience understandings and perceptions are not.

However, most audience reception studies are essentially "one-shot case studies" demonstrating the local reception of a specific media product (e.g., a television program) at a certain time. What is generally lacking is evidence regarding the development of local or hybridized meanings, uses, and tastes over time. Few would doubt that the meanings constructed and judgments conferred when people encounter foreign media would have a certain degree of local specificity. But after repeated exposure or use, will the localized meanings, uses, and tastes in different places continue to develop in diverging ways? Or, is localization a temporary phenomenon to be undermined by continual consumption of the same "global media"?

Answering such questions is important to our understanding of local reception and its implications for the theoretical tradition of media or cultural imperialism. This study thus attempts to provide a longitudinal analysis of local reception by focusing on one of its manifestations: cross-culture predictability, or the degree to which the performance of a set of media products in a foreign market can be predicted by their domestic market performance. Lower levels of cross-culture predictability indicate higher degrees of specificities in audience tastes. Hence changes in cross-culture predictability over time can indicate the divergence or convergence of audience tastes.

Empirically, this study examines cross-culture predictability in the performance of U.S. movies in Hong Kong. The next two sections discuss the notion of local reception and explicate the concept of cross-culture predictability. Research questions are offered and movie box office data are analyzed.

Issues in the Studies of Local Reception

Reception analysis emerged from British cultural studies in the late 1970s as an attempt to empirically understand how audience members decode, negotiate, and/or resist the ideological meanings supposedly encoded in media texts.2 The earliest studies by David Morley demonstrated that texts are polysemic (though structured), while audience members are creators of meanings rather than cultural dopes susceptible to ideological influences in a straightforward manner.

These ideas soon entered into the study of audience consumption of foreign media. At a time when cultural imperialism was still arguably the dominant paradigm in international communication research, Liebes and Katz framed their classic analysis on cross-cultural reception of Dallas explicitly as an argument against the idea that foreign audiences would credulously adopt the values supposedly embedded in American media products.3 Since then, many other studies have shown how local audiences would interpret and appropriate global media in their own ways.4 More broadly speaking, many kinds of commodities and practices also go through processes of localization.5 The dynamic processes of local reception often result in hybrid cultural products, practices, and identities. …