Is online film limiting the diversity of what we watch?

Dr Ian Huffer has researched new trends in what New Zealanders are watching in the age of online film access

In the age of online film distribution, with its unlimited choice of international movies, you might think viewing habits would be more diverse and adventurous. Not so, says a Massey University media researcher, who has found New Zealanders are sticking to a steady diet of Hollywood fare.

In a nationwide survey of film consumption habits, Dr Ian Huffer, a lecturer in the School of English and Media Studies, found that that online methods of distribution “are correlated with the consumption of a more limited range of films from around the world.”

His research suggests younger New Zealanders are watching mostly American content online while baby-boomers still flock to foreign film festivals and boutique cinemas for the latest Judi Dench, French farce or Met Opera offering in the off-line environment.

His survey of 816 participants sought to find out how groups, defined by age, ethnicity and income, are using the different methods of film distribution that are available, and what kinds of films they are watching via these methods.

Within New Zealand, audiences have access to streaming services specialising in New Zealand film, international art cinema, and non-US content for ethnically diverse, migrant audiences, he says.

“But, US content dominates the catalogues of the majority of the legal VOD [view on demand] sites operating in the country and is privileged through the navigational tools provided by a number of these sites.”

Video interview with Dr Ian Huffer about his latest research on changing trends in what kinds of films we watch

Film festivals best for diverse movie menu

His findings are good news for film festival organisers, with such events providing the most likely option for people to discover a range of foreign, independent (often non-English language) and New Zealand-made films.

“One of the main findings is that cinemas, and particularly film societies and the festivals, still play a vital role in introducing audiences to a diversity of films from around the world. In contrast, online methods of distribution are correlated with the consumption of a more limited range of films from around the world.

Dr Huffer says while it has been argued that the circulation of film online is a “democratising process” –evident in the breadth and depth of international film now available online – his study findings “challenge some of the utopian rhetoric surrounding the ability of online distribution to diversify audiences’ tastes.”

His study also encompassed socio-cultural influences on film choices, with international movies traditionally tending to appeal more to middle-aged, middle-class audiences.

He says other studies have also shown that, while such tastes may continue among older audiences, younger generations are “less invested” in the element of cultural snobbery sometimes associated with watching foreign films.

But, he adds, “this means that such audiences are potentially missing out on a host of entertaining and enriching stories from around the globe. The challenge is to connect younger audiences to a range of international cinema in as inclusive a way as possible.”

Dr Huffer’s research paper; Social inclusivity, cultural diversity and online film consumption, was recently published in the journal, Cultural Trends.

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