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How to encourage Millennials to watch classic movies

According to the Internet, millennials are killing everything. Apparently, we’re killing classic movies, too. A recent New York Post article reported on a controversial study that found that young people are more likely to watch movies from the last 15 years than those of earlier eras. Contrary to popular belief, there are millennials who enjoy classic movies, and I’m one of them. I’ve also encountered them on Twitter and Tumblr and at the TCM Classic Film Festival in Hollywood; even TCM’s newest host Tiffany Vasquez is a millennial. Still, we classic movie-loving millennials are the minority.

I don’t blame my generation for their apparent lack of interest, however. Not everyone is introduced to classic films during their childhood or has taken a film course, and with the exception of sites like FilmStruck, Kanopy, and Warner Archive Instant, there are few streaming options for classic movie watching. Yes, there’s TCM, but millennials are killing cable, too. Nevertheless, classic movie fans can and should help remedy this apparent lack of interest in classic cinema by encouraging young people to watch them.

Here are some tips based on my personal experience as a millennial and classic movie ambassador on how to motivate millennials (or any young person) to watch classic films.

1). Don’t shame or dismiss.

Don’t do this. His Girl Friday (1940)

As Emily Kubincanek wrote in her Film School Rejects piece this week, “Shaming young people for not doing something is the sure fire way to make them not do it.” So, incredulously exclaiming, “You haven’t seen The Godfather?!” is probably not the most ideal way to go about it.

Even worse is the tendency for older generations to believe young people are beyond hope when it comes to enjoying classic movies. If you’re one of these criticizers, condemners or complainers, it’s imperative that you change your mindset. TCM’s Noir Alley host Eddie Muller put it best when he tweeted: “It’s not about age, it’s about curiosity and sophistication.” These movies won’t live on if young people aren’t exposed to them, so do your part as a classic movie lover and pay them forward.

The next time someone says they’ve never seen [movie you think everyone has seen], the proper response is to calmly say, “Really? It’s wonderful. You should check it out. I have it on DVD/It’s on TCM next week/It’s on this streaming site. I’ll lend it to you/let’s watch it together.”

2). Don’t use qualifiers when describing a movie.

Limelight (1952)

“Hey, you should watch this old movie.”

“It’s great…for a movie that was made in the 1930s.”

You wouldn’t describe Van Gogh’s “Starry Night” as “this old painting” or “pretty good…for 1889.” Great art is great art no matter when it was created, so why is there a cut off date for movies that are supposed to be worth your time? By using qualifiers, you’re giving the person the opportunity to judge a movie before they’ve seen it. All you need to say is, “You should watch this movie!” and tell them why.

Case in point: a friend of mine once showed a Charlie Chaplin film to their then eight-year-old nephew without telling him it was a silent movie. It wasn’t until about halfway through when he realized there wasn’t any talking in it, but he still loved it.

There’s no such thing as an old movie; only a movie you haven’t seen.

3). Recommend a classic film that’s similar to another movie they enjoy.

The Searchers (1956) and Star Wars: Episode IV- A New Hope (1977)

Nothing is original; every movie ever made is influenced by movies that came before it. If you’re recommending a classic movie based on current movies a person enjoys, you may have to do a bit of research. Suggest a classic that shares similar plot elements and themes with the newer movie: She’s All That–> My Fair Lady; A Bug’s Life —>Seven Samurai/The Magnificent Seven; Star Wars —> The Searchers, Casablanca. You can also find a filmmaker the person likes and recommend the classic films that influence their work. If they’re a Quentin Tarantino fan, for example, tell them that he screens His Girl Friday for his actors to demonstrate the pacing he wants for his dialogue.

4). Suggest a classic film that has progressive elements.

I’m No Angel (1933)

Young people typically don’t have a penchant for nostalgia for an era we didn’t grow up in, especially if we have preconceived notions about how different the world was “back in the day.” It doesn’t mean we’ll hate a movie if it contains one or two sexist remarks, but some films are more dated in their sensibilities than others. We’re more likely to gravitate toward something that pushes the envelope, and that’s a great place to start with millennials who are new to classic movies. Billy Wilder films are a great gateway because they have that timeless quality and have strong, relatable characters. Millennials may also enjoy pre-Code films because they depict sex and violence more freely and often give female characters more substance.

Some classic movies indeed contain problematic elements like racist stereotypes, whitewashing, sexism, etc., but so do some movies today. Movies are artifacts of their time and provide insight into the way the world was and how it was viewed when these films were made. Watching classic movies with context in mind provides an opportunity for analysis and discussion, as well as to acknowledge how much–or how little–has changed.

5). Bring them to a screening in a theater.

Sunset Boulevard (1950)

Classic movies weren’t made to be watched on an iPad; they were meant to be seen on the big screen. From the larger-than-life visuals to the communal aspect of the audience’s reactions, experiencing a classic film on the big screen can foster a greater appreciation for a film, whether it’s your first viewing or fiftieth. Plus, it’s just plain fun.

Not every city or town has a revival theater and not everyone can make it to the TCM Classic Film Festival, but TCM and Fathom Events have remedied that with their monthly Big Screen Classics series in cinemas nationwide. Find a screening near you, and bring a young person.

These tips are not one-size-fits-all and not every young person is going to take an interest in classic movies, but that’s okay. Sometimes it takes the right place, the right time, or the right movie to ignite something. Still, I hope this will help those sharing these movies with young people to provide the right encouragement.

Here’s a list of 30 of my favorite “gateway films” I’ve had success in sharing:

  1. 12 Angry Men (1957)
  2. Adam’s Rib (1949)
  3. All About Eve (1950)
  4. The Apartment (1960)
  5. Bicycle Thieves (1948)
  6. Born Yesterday (1950)
  7. Brief Encounter (1945)
  8. Casablanca (1942)
  9. City Lights (1931)
  10. The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951)
  11. The Graduate (1967)
  12. Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (1967)
  13. High Noon (1952)
  14. His Girl Friday (1940)
  15. It Happened One Night (1934)
  16. Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939)
  17. North By Northwest (1959)
  18. On the Waterfront (1954)
  19. The Philadelphia Story (1940)
  20. Rear Window (1954)
  21. Rebel Without a Cause (1955)
  22. Roman Holiday (1953)
  23. Singin’ in the Rain (1952)
  24. The Searchers (1956)
  25. Some Like it Hot (1959)
  26. The Third Man (1949)
  27. The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948)
  28. To Be or Not To Be (1942)
  29. To Kill A Mockingbird (1962)
  30. West Side Story (1961)
Let’s make Gloria Swanson proud.

Are you a Millennial who loves classic movies? What are your go-to “gateway films” to spark a young person’s interest? What are your experiences introducing classic movies to young people?  Sound off in the comments! 

18 thoughts on “How to encourage Millennials to watch classic movies”

  1. I agree with all the movies you’ve listed as gateway films, Roman Holiday being my number 1 favorite. I didn’t have a mentor when it came to classic movies, I was just really obnoxious and wanted to make my way through AFI’s 100 greatest, haha. I have a niece who’s 16 and she wants to watch classic movies with me because she knows I love them. When you form relationships with younger people, they tend to gravitate towards your interests too. So that’s my advice for getting millennials into classics.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. That’s a great point. I’ve gotten several of my friends to watch classic movies that way too. Thanks for reading 🙂

      What’s the first classic movie you watched? Was it on TCM?

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I think that classic movies may be a bit like classical music (one difference being that there are a lot fewer classic movies being made – and it’ll take another 30+ years to see which stand out). I know only the stereotypical millennial. One thing about classic movies is that they have shots that run so long – maybe a minute or more [!] – which people raised on MTV (with 3 or 5 seconds per scene) find borr-r-ring, There are few car chases. They deal with subjects that have little relevance today: real relationships, honor, courage, consequences (most all of your 30 deal with those). And – the horror – people actually smoke cigarettes on screen! And women, too! and men light their cigarettes! And they’re almost all in black & white, and 2D! (I figure, if you can’t tell you story in B&W and 2D, I’m not interested.)
    One of the fascinating things about old movies is the way serials were made: we got a new story every year – sometimes sooner. We didn’t have to wait 4+ years.

    We have a theater down here that shows ‘classic movies’ on Wednesday night. They’ve shown “Lawrence of Arabia”, “Casablanca”, “Rear Window”, &c. For some unaccountable reason, they ran “Pee Wee’s Big Adventure” recently. (I had no idea it got onto somebody’s “classic film” list.)


  3. Millennials? The secret is to start them yooooung. My nieces and nephews could recognize Ty Power and Rogers and Astaire before they entered kindergarten. And the impression lasts if you get them before their teens. I was recently thanked in a wedding speech for introducing the bride to her love of old films and classic musicals. I danced with my two year old nephew while belting out “Shall we dance” from The King and I. There are sooo many opportunities to develop their interests. Lol there is a dark side tho… My teen niece was disappointed after a dance remarking “well, there sure weren’t any Tyrone Powers there!”.


    1. That’s so great! Yes, it does help to start them young. I was lucky to have family members who introduced me to classic movies at such a young age. They’ve always been part of my life, so watching them is second nature for me. Not everyone has that.

      The focus on this post is on millennials, but some of it can be applied to children, especially tips #2 and #5. I might write another post with a focus on young children. Thanks for reading.


  4. All good tips. When I was growing up in the 90’s I saw many black and white and other old films, I loved them and sought more out as I grew up. I think that showing these films to people when they are younger is the key, that way they are used to them and don’t find them odd because they are not in colour, or because they are silent.

    I love classic cinema and always feel sad for someone my age or younger who refuses to check classic era films out. If I was trying to encourage a new viewer, I would ask them what their favourite genres are and recommend some classic films from those genres.


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