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.
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.
“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.
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.
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.
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:
- 12 Angry Men (1957)
- Adam’s Rib (1949)
- All About Eve (1950)
- The Apartment (1960)
- Bicycle Thieves (1948)
- Born Yesterday (1950)
- Brief Encounter (1945)
- Casablanca (1942)
- City Lights (1931)
- The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951)
- The Graduate (1967)
- Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (1967)
- High Noon (1952)
- His Girl Friday (1940)
- It Happened One Night (1934)
- Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939)
- North By Northwest (1959)
- On the Waterfront (1954)
- The Philadelphia Story (1940)
- Rear Window (1954)
- Rebel Without a Cause (1955)
- Roman Holiday (1953)
- Singin’ in the Rain (1952)
- The Searchers (1956)
- Some Like it Hot (1959)
- The Third Man (1949)
- The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948)
- To Be or Not To Be (1942)
- To Kill A Mockingbird (1962)
- West Side Story (1961)
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!