Millennials are Killing Silent Films! (Actually, they aren’t but don’t begrudge me that sweet, sweet clickbait)

Last week, the New York Post ran an article with a headline that claimed, “Millennials don’t really care about classic movies.” Another one for the ever-growing “Millennials are killing _____” collection. However, as I read the article, a few things about the data struck me as sloppy and/or shallow, so I decided that a longer response was in order.

The data seems to be generated by a DVD retailer, a red light if there ever was one. It claims that it used a pool of 1,000 Millennials and 1,000 people 50 years old or older to generate its data.

Where is Gen X?

The article covers Millennials (the age range varies but it’s generally people born around 1980, give or take several years) and people 50 years old and over (born 1967 or before). So, um, where are the people born between 1968 and 1979, a large share of Gen X? Do they not watch movies? Or were they left out to make the gap between Millennials and Boomers look larger? Any way you look at it, it’s sloppy.

The “Study”

The article starts with this stunning pronouncement:

A new study finds that less than a quarter of millennials have watched a film from start to finish that was made back in the 1940s or 50s and only a third have seen one from the 1960s.

Is an online poll a study? Oh well, I guess we shouldn’t get caught up in semantics. The article does not tell us how many people over 50 have seen a complete film from the 1940s or 1950s.

Next, we get this very confusing paragraph:

Thirty percent of young people also admit to never having watched a black and white film all the way through – as opposed to 85 percent of those over 50 – with 20 percent branding the films “boring.”

I think they mean that 70% of the Millennials have seen a black and white film, while 85% of the over 50 group have. But what it looks like is that 85% over-fifties have never seen a black and white movie. Tsk, tsk, tsk. Sloppy, sloppy.

Why it’s deceptive

Silent movie color is the best movie color.

Let’s talk about black and white films. Color movies have been available since the earliest days of the silent era but black and white was the usual choice for the so-called Golden Age of talkies. If a film was in color, it was for a reason as color productions were significantly more expensive.

That difference faded away but major black and white productions were still released into the 1960s. (Nowadays, the dynamic has flipped and the majority of films are in color with black and white being considered a creative decision.)

The point? People born in 1967 and before would have been alive when black and white pictures were mainstream. So stop acting like it’s so remarkable that they have seen these films. THEY WERE THERE THE FIRST TIME.

My Poll

Two can play at this unscientific poll game. I asked Millennials to participate in a Twitter poll and tell me the approximate age of the oldest movie they have seen from beginning to end:

You may note that 75% of the respondents in this HIGHLY academic study said that they have seen a silent movie from beginning to end. Put that in your smug Boomer pipe and smoke it.

Headline Suggestion:

MILLENNIALS RESCUING SILENT FILM, OVERWHELMINGLY WATCH PRE-SOUND FILM

The Lists

In order to illustrate that the Big Bad Millennials aren’t watching old movies, the article published two lists of the movies most of the kids and over-fifties had seen:

Um, the over-fifties only have one black and white film on their list and It’s a Wonderful Life is a bit of an outlier as it enjoys status as a holiday tradition among its fans. I know plenty of people who watch it who wouldn’t otherwise touch TCM with a plastic fishing rod.

Headline Suggestion:

PEOPLE LIKE MOVIES THAT WERE FIRST RELEASED WHEN THEY WERE IN THEIR TEENS AND TWENTIES, PLUS, LIKE, TWO OR THREE OTHERS.

Time marches on…

We are now as far away from the 1950s as people of the 1950s were from the earliest days of projected cinema. Yet we would find it ridiculous to read complaints about how those whippersnapper beatniks aren’t watching enough Melies or why girls in poodle skirts aren’t listening to more Tin Pan Alley music.

This type of film was less popular in the 1950s, believe it or not.

As we move further and further away from the original context of pop culture, appreciation for that pop culture becomes less about nostalgia and more about antique appreciation. We don’t have to have lived through the Victorian era to admire the workmanship of fine porcelain tea sets from the era. We don’t have to have survived the First World War to appreciate the brilliant serials of Feuillade. See the connection?

Very few of the original stars of the 1930s and 1940s survive today and soon that era will join silent films as orphaned pop culture. The people who champion it will not be veterans of the industry or fans who saw the films when they were new. It will be up to the next generation to carry on.

Millennials are the Future. Sorry.

Do some young people turn their noses up at “old” movies? Certainly. But I’ll tell you this: the nastiest, most dismissive remarks about silent film that I have personally heard all came from people in their 50s-80s. Most people in their teens, twenties and thirties have been willing to sit down and at least watch a Chaplin, Melies or Hal Roach picture.

Actual footage of some silent movie fans.

We need fans of all ages, younger ones for their fresh perspective and older ones for their enormous knowledge. Frankly, I have heard younger silent film fans dismissed as “hipsters” and seen them chased away from online discussions. That sort of thing makes me incredibly angry because where would these older fans be if a parent, grandparent, family friend or fellow movie buff hadn’t helped them? Obviously, the vast majority of older silent fans are lovely and welcoming but we must acknowledge that there are some who don’t want kids in their tree fort.

The Post article is incredibly silly and lacks even basic logic but, in a topsy-turvy way, it does show the need to welcome younger viewers and support their curiosity. They’ll be keeping silent and classic films alive for the next generation.

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26 Replies to “Millennials are Killing Silent Films! (Actually, they aren’t but don’t begrudge me that sweet, sweet clickbait)”

  1. Right after I read the Post Article I was shocked to discover that Millennials were going to be the end of paper napkins, as they liked paper towels instead. Oh, the horrors. What a terrible generation to do such a thing. You picked up what I did in the article – the number of folks in the 1860s who had seen movies from the 1910s was probably much lower than the number of millennials who had watched 50 year old films. Hmm, I bet millennials have never listed to Big Band Music either – and ridden in a Studebaker. I would even say most have never watched a live Ballet – of course, neither have most of their parents, grandparents, on up. At least Millennials have another 50 years to watch classic movies, and watch a ballet. Time could bring their percentage up.
    and of course 50 years from now, someone will write another article complaining that the young folks don’t like classic movies of the 2010s…

    1. Yes, this article is a very odd lot of nothing and I personally agree that I have done my level best to kill paper napkins, golfing, cruises and diamonds. I think the use of the internet for the younger generation has uniquely equipped them for silent film viewing: the kids love GIFs, after all!

  2. Ah, so many issues, so little time…first, let’s take a look at the list of the films that the over 50 crowd likes: ok, I will give the ‘classic’ label to Cuckoo’s Nest and The Godfather, but Forrest Gump? Back to the Future? Good films, yes, but not exactly classic. Second, people born before 1967 may be more used to black and white because they were born in an era when black and white television was still prevalent, even if just in reruns (my family didn’t get their first color set until 1970 when I was seven). And, third, as you pointed out, many of the people that balk at watching silent/classic films are the ones of my generation. Most twenty somethings I know are more than willing to give them a shot.

    I think the New York Post is worried that eventually there’s gonna be an article titled ‘Millenials are killing the New York Post’, which may not be a bad idea.

    1. Yes, what I found really remarkable is how the different generations followed the exact same patterns in their choices: movies released during their teens and twenties, plus a couple others. For the Millennials, it’s The Godfather and Silence of the Lambs. For the 50+ it’s It’s a Wonderful Life and NOTHING from the 1950s.

  3. I said I didn’t agree with this article and neither did the other millennials I know and someone said it’s not a matter of agreement, just that the numbers are falling. But ever since I became active online (the TCM message boards is where I met other teens who loves classics!), I’ve been able to share my enthusiasm with people who are the same age. So many people in this age bracket attend the TCM film festival every year. Millennials are killing a lot of things but not classic movies.

    1. Yeah, it’s pretty dire. The problem with this junk science “study” is that it only covers what is being watched, not enjoyment or enthusiasm. An older person will almost certainly have seen more older movies but we don’t know if they liked them or not. I agree that the classic/silent fandom has many more enthusiastic young people than some of these writers seem to realize.

      1. I really like your point about ‘antique appreciation.’ I’m far from being a ‘petrol-head’ as the local expression has it, but a well restored car or motorcycle really impresses me. I admire the people who make that effort to preserve vernacular history. It’s an easy leap to those who preserve film, not only physically but by writing about it and classifying it. Older films are as close to allowing us to share the lives of our antecedents as we can get.

  4. Over 50 here!!! I haven’t seen most of the movies I should have, and am suspicious right off the bat – no Star Wars, no Jaws???
    It was great seeing all the younger people at TCM festival, and they seemed quite savvy and engaged. You Gen-Xers, however,,,,,,,,

  5. . . . and those non-horseless buggies and silent movies would have made a comeback, too, if not for those meddling kids! “Scooby-dooby-doo” (that is, the ORIGINAL Scooby-Doo, circa 1970). One thing I’m eagerly waiting for is silent movie remixes and mash-ups (the way electronic and dance music is getting remixed now). I know, I know, some diehard classicists will throw stones at me for even saying that. But I think one thing electronic music has taught us is that there does not have to be just one version of an artwork, but there can be infinite re-interpretations, each adding something to the whole. If I had the time and the technical skills, I personally would get busy doing silent movie remixes adding up-to-date music and (where appropriate) cutting and remixing scenes to make them speak to people now. And of course, I would label everything as a remix, and let people know where to find the original. (Okay, now I’m waiting to be pelted with rocks and garbage – another old TV reference for those of you old enough to pick it up. 🙂

  6. On behalf of a twenty something who waited in line for over three hours to see the 2010 release of Metropolis on her fifteenth birthday, I thank you from the bottom if my heart for this article.

  7. Great response Fritzi. Hasn’t it always been the youngsters that have kept older movies alive? Far from ‘killing’ silent/classic movies, it’s the younger generation that are MOST interested in my experience.

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