Survey: How old are silent movie fans? Is the silent movie fandom shrinking?

In my adventures online, I stumbled across a statement that got me thinking. Someone confidently asserted that the global silent movie fanbase was shrinking, would continue to shrink and that young people are simply not joining up.

This doesn’t match my experience as I have dealt with quite a range of ages. However, I wanted to investigate with an unscientific survey.

The first question is easy: what’s your general age?

The second question may be a bit confusing. What I want to know is not based on when you saw your first silent but when you knew that silent movies were special and you had to see more. (This may indeed coincide with seeing your first silent but it may have taken a few tries to win you over.)

The last question is based entirely on your opinion and experience and there is no right or wrong answer.

(If the poll does not show up below, here is a direct link.)

Thanks for helping to satisfy my curiosity!

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40 Replies to “Survey: How old are silent movie fans? Is the silent movie fandom shrinking?”

  1. My observation that the audience for silent film is growing is based on the audiences that show up for screenings in Toronto, including the Silent Revue Sunday afternoon shows and the Toronto Silent Film Festival.

    My daughter, in her 20s is a fan, along with my niece who is 7.

      1. My experience as a silent film accompanist (with the band Wurlitza) is that when we perform a film in a new venue the audience is often small, but by the second or third visit we can expect to sell out. However the majority of our audiences are of retired age.

        I guess on reflection that; our audiences in village halls are older, in cinemas and art centres it’s more varied, but still primarily older and at festivals we draw a younger crowd, but there’s a compromise as there’s often a lot of external noise.

        We do sometimes have children in the audience and they always love the experience; it’s just getting them there in the first place. Some of our most ardent fans are young. However when we’ve played at local schools we’ve ended up with an audience of grandparents & empty seats because ‘we couldn’t find a babysitter’…

        Our seven band children have grown up with silent film and our two teenagers often accompany us to see other film performances and always really enjoy them (despite the usual protestations about going in the first place). We took our son’s teenage friend on his first trip to London and saw Carl Davis performing Ben Hur, which he cited as the highlight of his visit there; it was his first experience of anything like it and he now regularly comes to watch us perform.

        Many people are frightened of commiting themselves to two hours of entertainment that they might find boring, even when (or maybe especially when) the price of a ticket is less than going to see a bog standard film in a soulless multiplex.
        However despite the majority of our audiences being older, they are definitely growing and I can see no reason why this shouldn’t continue.

        What we need as artists is access to good quality, entertaining films (thank you BFI and Eureka who are supportive of this. No thanks to the big corp administrators who sit on a catalogue of superb silents & put barriers in the way of them getting performed). Quality is what we need to continue drawing new audiences and break down the assumption that all silent film is flipant hammed up comedy. We’re lucky in the UK to have many superb silent film accompanists. Long may it continue.

      2. Yes, it’s getting people to take that first step that’s the big issue. There are so many misconceptions about silent film (they’re boring/weird/melodramatic) and it’s only after seeing for themselves that people realize how entertaining they are.

  2. PANDORA’S BOX played in our city a few years ago. The day after I saw it, I told a co-worker about it; she was in her mid-twenties and was aghast. “Why would you want to watch a movie with no sound?” she exclaimed. As Louis Armstrong said about jazz music, if you have to explain it, you’lll never get it.

    1. It doesn’t help that “silent movie” is such a poor description. I know many languages call it something like “mute cinema” which is much more accurate. You get a movie and great music; what’s not to love?

  3. I have no data to support this, but I believe the silent film fanbase is growing for at least three reasons:

    (a) Thanks to digital media and restorations, more silent film is more readily available than at any other time. I am now, in my early 60s finally seeing films that I could only read about as a teenager, but can now put my hands on, or see an exhibition of;

    (b) Young people are more agnostic about the age of a creative work. Their playlists include music that is 50 and 60 years old, and may straddle a number of genres. They are not as rigid and orthodox as my own generation was, again owing a great deal to the digital revolution; and

    (c) More and more film instructors are examining silent film in greater detail and more rigor, not just the quick run-through of the development of cutting grammar by DW Griffith (which we know now is a much more complicated story), but an acknowledgment and examination of the classics of the era and their continuing influence. I think young people are delighted to find that the cynicism and morbidity natural to their age is reflected in works like METROPOLIS, CALIGARI and PANDORA’S BOX and those are often “gateway” works for the young.

    Also…

    For my generation, silent movies were what “Grandma and Grandpa grew up on” and therefore as irrelevant and easy to ignore as those kindly but decrepit presences were. Today, few of us know anyone thriving who has a clear recollection of the silent era, and so the films have dropped their familial baggage and are independent of much extra-cinematic baggage.

    1. Yes, definitely. When I first got into silent films circa 2000, I mentioned this fact to women in their 70s-80s at the time. It was amusing to see their faces turn teenage as they said, “My MOTHER watched those!” 😉

  4. I can only comment based on my experience on tumblr, where my 1920’s-themed blog has over 7,000 followers and where I follow about 50. I can’t tell you how often I look at a new blog there and the owner has written something along the lines of “I am 16, live in Germany/US/England and love silent films and old Hollywood.” There are thousands of silent film blogs on tumblr, most of them owned by teenagers and young twenties. There are also many, many silent film sites on the web, as you know, and all seem to be doing fine! The silent film sites on Ebay, like Hemetsphere, are many. I think this is a time where more and more people can see silent films right in their homes and they do so. When I was young – I’m 61 – I saw my first one in a film arts class in high school and again in college. You had to travel to special theatres for special showings that were rare. Now there are more and better DVD suppliers of silent films, not to mention web archives and the free ones on Youtube. I think this is a golden age for rediscovering silent films and that young people are all over it!

  5. I’ve enjoyed silent films since 1980, in college. And, have studied them ever since… becoming friends with Kevin Brownlow, the stalwart of silent films, not to mention, friends with Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., Anita Page, Esther Ralston, Leni Riefenstahl, and Diana Serra Cary aka Baby Peggy, and Baby Marie Osborne.

    I believe silents has continued to both grow in appreciation, and with brilliant films like THE ARTIST, and younger fans are greatly joining the cause and celebration.

    I look forward to this dedication to silents continuing…

  6. I can’t say much on others, but I do know in my experience I really have got into silent movies in the last few years around age 29. After watching “The Cameraman” I’ve got hooked. TCM really has helped me view new silents I wouldn’t think of getting for home release.

  7. I’m 28 and love these films. It took me a few years before I could hand on heart call myself a fan, but I kept watching and didn’t give up. I fell in love with the visuals, and effects of these films before I enjoyed the acting and got used to there being no voices.

    I suspect there still are many fans from many different age groups spread far across the world. I sadly don’t know any people of my own age(and especially younger)who like Silent films. Those that refuse to check these films out are missing out on some gems. For me watching a Silent film is like watching art, they are so different to sound films. The special effects in these films are amazing and still look incredible when viewed today(loads better than the terrible CGI of today.)

    I guess that it’s like with anything, to encourage fans among the generations you have to raise awareness and encourage interest. Perhaps cinema chains and current directors passionate about the classics(Scorsese etc)could do something to help increase awareness and access to these films? Maddy

    1. Yes, I definitely think there is a need for someone to lead the charge with their enthusiasm. Look at the number of fans in their 40s and 50s, I dare say that Kevin Brownlow’s Hollywood series has more than a little to do with it. (It debuted in the early 80s.) Seeing silent movies lovingly talked about and given beautiful orchestral music won over many a fan.

  8. Completely agree with the misleading misnomer, “silent films.” To quote Irving Thalberg from Kyle Crichton’s book Total Recoil,” There never WAS a silent film. We’d finish a picture, show it in one of our projection rooms, and come out shattered. It would be awful. We’d had high hopes for the picture, worked our heads off, and the result was always the same. Then we’d show it in a theatre with a girl down in the pit pounding away at a piano and there would be all the difference in the world. Without that music there wouldn’t have been a movie industry at all.”

    The first time I saw a “silent” movie in a theatre was with a guy “pounding away” on an old auditorium upright. The film was Keaton’s Seven Chances, and the audience was comprised of a full house of college students who had come to see a free screening of W.C Fields’ It’s A Gift and My Little Chickadee- Keaton was thrown in as the opener. You could have heard a pin drop during the opening color sequence. The young crowd later sprang to their feet applauding when Keaton dodged the boulders coming downhill at him and applauded like mad once again when he got the right girl at the end. It was like magic: come for some Fields talkies and discover the marvelous world of the “silent” clowns.

  9. I discovered silent movies at about the age of ten. (I am now in my mid-50’s). When I was a kid, we had a super-8 mm movie camera for filming home movies, and a projector to screen them. Why not get extra use out of the projector by checking out movies from the library? The big downtown library had a room full of Blackhawk releases on super-8. We grew up watching Laurel and Hardy, Charlie Chaplin, and an assortment of exciting melodramas like “Orphans of the Storm” and “Zorro”. We were so affected that we took to making our own silent home movies. When I was in my teens, I discovered the big screen showings of silent movies at the George Eastman House downtown, with live piano accompaniment. When I was in my late 20’s, the first videocassette machines came along, and Video Yesteryear tapes replaced Blackhawk film reels as our purveyor of silent movies. Nowadays, we have TCM’s silent Sunday night feature almost every week, and the library’s DVD collection. I never thought of silent movies as an “art”, just as really fun movies. I don’t know a whole lot of people who are into them, although my nieces have all grown up into fans thanks to much time spent exposed to their mom’s and aunt’s peculiar enthusiasm.

    1. I have heard others talk about silent movie screenings at their libraries when they were kids. Yet another excellent service performed by these fine institutions! I wish they still had them.

  10. I think the silent film community is totally growing, and so is the all-things-vintage-in-general community. I’m in my early 20s and I personally find films, fashion, etc from the 1920s through the 1950s to be among the greatest ever.

  11. I grew up on “Silents Please” (the Killiam collection) on a local independent tv station that didn’t have much else to air besides Mighty Mouse and Popeye cartoons. Consequently, I didn’t know till I was quite a bit older that silent movies were no longer being made. To me, they WERE the movies and I’ve never thought otherwise.

    1. Ha! That’s how I am with 30s/40s movies. The local channel played cliffhanger serials and my parents had a huge Hal Roach collection. Black and white just seemed normal to me.

  12. i’ve been watching silent films on-and-off since about 1998 when i was twelve. back then my mom worked near a video rental shop that had an insane selection of old movies; sometimes i’d buy one, too. back then i was bullied a lot (a *lot*) and while i was still a tween in the late 90s who loved boy bands et al, i wanted a piece of pop culture that “belonged” to just me and not the nasty kids at school. i remember bawling my eyes out when buddy rodgers died. it would be years before i revisited my old movie “friends” in earnest but i will say that i had an english professor in college who screened “greed” for us when he assigned “mcteague” on the syllabus, and he was really taken aback when i told him it wasn’t my first time seeing it.

    i’m more of a passive fan these days than i’d like to be but i will advocate for these precious films in whatever capacity i can for the rest of my life. a bit of my passion does stem from my study of the period when they were made (big wwi “fan” if that’s the appropriate word lol).

  13. I first discovered silent film back in the mid to late seventies through a somewhat unusual source – the local PBS affiliate. They ran the Time-Life versions of the Harold Lloyd films on Saturday evenings, and the edited/narrated versions on Saturday mornings (bonus points if you can remember the “Hooray for Harold Lloyd’ theme song). The station also occasionally ran a silent picture, and this is where I saw The Sheik, The Jazz Singer, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, and other silent classics. I remember in a class on mass media in high school the teacher running a copy of Caligari, and I was the only person in the room that had seen it before! This was pretty much my only source for silent movies when growing up (I wore out several copies of Blackhawk catalogs dreaming and longing, but could never afford to buy the films), and I took advantage of it when I could.

    I think the silent film community is growing, at least based on the screenings of silent films I’ve been attending lately. I recently saw a screening of Safety Last, and many of the people in attendance were in their twenties. The girl that sat next to me was obviously in her early twenties, and she told me she often flew to other cities to attend screenings (sure wish I could afford that).

  14. There’s a Buster Keaton festival this weekend (Fri-Sat) at the Niles theater, and my 8-year old son wants to go all three days 🙂 so there’s a new fan in the next generation for ya!

  15. Well, I grew up with my dad who grew up with silent movies so I used to watch them with him. He used to tell me about movies and I would ask a ton of questions. When a movie came on that was silent, we would watch it and I loved it. I thought of how beautiful the costumes were and it felt like another realm of fantasy and I Loved it.

  16. I wouldn’t call myself a fan of the genre as such, it’s more to do with my obsession with William Powell and his friends, so I’ll watch anything either he or Ronald Colman or Richard Barthelmess are in.

    However I think appreciation of the art is increasing due to accessibility – it’s easy to watch old movies on YouTube and it’s a bit different to the mainstream multiplex experience of today.

    And there’s also the Yorkshire Silent Film Festival which makes silent film an event and screenings as well. I’m off to the annual Laurel & Hardy Night at the Rex Cinema in Elland tomorrow night, where they usually show at least one silent. It’s always packed and you get all ages, right down to little kids. Yknow, Stan’s cousin used to come down from Ulverston at one time to do the raffle!

    1. Yes, a fair number of silent movie fans (casual or hardcore) have taken the plunge in order to see the career beginnings of Gary Cooper, William Powell, Greta Garbo and others.

  17. What’s left of an optimist in me says it’s growing, and judging by the amount of glorious 4K restorations going on, and new silent films being made now (The Artist), it would seem that way. However, the cynic in me says the audience is staying the same size, though that is a good number of people around the world. I also feel “out of place and time” in this modern world and this is one of the reasons silents appeal to me overall.

    I first got into silent films about 10 years ago when I saw Nosferatu for the first time ever at around my mid to late 20s. I am going to be 37 later this year. I’ve seen and own the restored Metropolis on blu-ray (and it’s one of my most treasured possessions and I was also fortunate enough to see it at the local art museum when the theater screening tour was going on) and the most impressive transfer to me is still the restoration of The Passion of Joan of Arc. I only work retail so my income is limited. I do wish silents were cheaper to own on physical discs, but I understand why they are the asking price. Maybe one day I will get a better job and I can start buying some.

  18. There aren’t many people around who remember them the first time, but when I was growing up (UK in the 70s and 80s) silent comedy shorts were often shown on TV between other programmers and I think a lot of people my age remember them fondly.

    I hope the audience won’t decline – the interest a lot of younger people have in the past and things that are more ‘authentic’ will hopefully have an effect on silent movie viewing too.

    For myself I sort of grew up with them as my dad was a cinema manager, born in the 20s and into all kinds of film, so for me they’re not really a separate genre as such. I think YouTube helps too as it’s so easy to view all kinds of silents on there. I hope people are still watching them in another hundred years!

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