What Movies Millennials Watch

I had forgotten about the New York Post’s article about how Millennials don’t watch movies from before 2000 (“exponentially more likely to have binged on films of the last 15 years than on classics from bygone eras”), largely because clickbait only lasts so long before it disappears. (Honestly, I’m more haunted by the fact that the most viewed movie among the 2,000 people polled in the basis of this article is Forrest Gump than by anything else it notes.) But Film Quarterly hasn’t forgotten about it, apparently. Caroline Golum’s article argues that Millennials are perfectly glad to watch older movies, have significantly more exploratory taste than the New York Post gives them credit for, and, of course, calls clickbait by its right name: “lazy and loathsome NY Post hack job.” Disappointingly, the Film Quarterly article devolves rapidly from rebuttal and quickly turns into an advertisement for the many different avenues for movie-going in New York City. The opening line of the fourth paragraph: “Maybe Millennials don’t really care about classic movies in America’s Heartland – although a quick survey of social media indicates just the opposite – but, really, in New York?” I’m not really sure where to begin with that sentence—I’m torn between the tired, provincial view of those unwashed masses outside New York City, or the fact that it has twenty-seven words and twenty-two of them actively contradict each other—but on the whole the article answers a question which the New York Post didn’t even pose. Thus I remain disappointed by the general conversation about younger people and the movies they watch, because it seems to me to be a genuinely interesting topic.

The only research I have on the subject is my own, and admittedly it’s as wonky as any research done primarily through a Google Form would be. When I did my top 100 American movies earlier in the year, I simultaneously ran a poll asking people what their opinions were. 450 American movies, ranging from 1915’s The Birth of a Nation to 2017’s Get Out, were given as choices. And after getting a crowdsourced top 100 (the results of which are discussed in this podcast), I compared the movies which made it into the top 100 with the movies which didn’t get a single vote from my electorate. The average year of release in the top 100 was 1996. The average year of release for the movies which didn’t get any votes was 1953; take away two movies from 2000, the indie darling George Washington and the experimental Timecode, and it drops to 1951. Did I mention that a little more than 60% of voters were 30 or younger? I think part of the reason that people talk about younger people watching newer movies is because it’s mostly true. I also think that’s been true since movies reached their second generation. As someone says in the Golum article: “‘Were there lines down the block for screenings of F.W. Murnau’s Sunrise…in the 1960s? Probably not!” And it cannot be said enough: there are many movie lovers my age and younger who are crazy for what we innocently refer to as “old movies.”

Something I thought about recently, and it sort of fits in here. 1974 is one of the great movie years ever, an absolute feast with American films like The Godfather Part II, Chinatown, A Woman Under the Influence, The Conversation, The Parallax View, Hearts and Minds, Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia, Female Trouble, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and Thieves Like Us. International film that year was strong too, led by Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s perfect Ali: Fear Eats the Soul, Amarcord, Celine and Julie Go Boating, Edvard Munch, and Lacombe, Lucien. That year, Mel Brooks’ two best, Blazing Saddles and Young Frankenstein, were among the top ten grossing movies. You know what else was there? Three disaster movies, The Trial of Billy Jack, and Benji. It’s not like the geezers appreciated what they had when they had it!

The implication of “young people don’t watch old movies” is that “young people should watch old movies,” and I’m willing to bet that there’s more than a little “Physician, heal thyself” that Millennials might throw at Boomers or Gen Xers rattling their canes on the blinds. (Fast forward ten years and you can hear Millennials railing at Gen Z folks who have never heard of The Usual Suspects or Se7en or something. So it goes.)

If the Boomers and their cranky ilk have a point, it’s that young folks have had more ways to see an old classic like Casablanca or Citizen Kane than would have seemed possible just a few years ago. For as much as people gripe about Netflix and its strategy to become an actual TV channel rather than a repository of anything you might ever want to watch (and for more on the shifting roles of Netflix and Hulu, read Todd VanDerWerff on the subject), Netflix and other streaming services have made it significantly cheaper and easier to watch any kind of movie which interests you. (I don’t have Filmstruck yet—if no one else gets it for me for Christmas/my birthday, I may end up getting a present for myself—but it’s exactly the kind of streaming model that I stay up at night thinking about.) Sites like Open Culture have legal links to some marvelous films on YouTube and other sites, perhaps foremost among them the Mosfilm account which carries all the Tarkovsky movies. Blu-ray, DVD, and VHS are essential elements of any Millennial’s movie-watching history. The concept of home video is a relatively new one; libraries, as I’ve happily discovered, are frequently awash in interesting movies; chain and independent video stores alike have thrived and died since I was born. Even if your local multiplex is showing a superhero movies on 75% of its screens at any given time—I vividly remember trying to see Lincoln when it opened nationwide and having to wait two weeks because of where I lived—there are still plenty of movie theaters all around the country which are interested in arthouse movies or screening old classics. And these are just the legal ways of getting movies! Heaven knows I’m too much of a ninny to go to the gazillion sites with torrents and illegal streams and all that mess I don’t know about. Even the Post gets that there are many ways to watch movies anymore:

As for how the different ages enjoy their films, it appears that streaming services are still largely a favorite of the young, with 72 percent of millennials naming it as a common way they watch movies, as opposed to just 30 percent of people over 50.

Younger people are also more likely to enjoy films in the theater, on DVD or Blu-ray, or illegally downloaded online. They were only topped by over-50s when it comes to watching films on cable or TV.

Millennials are also considerably more finicky when it comes to picture quality, as they were found to be twice as likely as over-50s to say that they tend to only watch things in HD.

In other words: if you’re complaining about how hard it is to access movies anymore, you’re wrong.

Netflix is like Amazon, though, or Wal-Mart; if you can’t find it there (and by “there,” I mean the streaming service that has come to stand in for the entire company), people assume they can’t find it anywhere or, worse, that it doesn’t exist. It’s not necessarily that consumers are right, but it’s definitely the first place people go, the one-stop shop for movies that you’re already paying for. It’s also true that Netflix is not chock full of old movies or foreign classics, which feels like a disservice to movie lovers regardless of age. And it’s also true that many people my age are, for the most part, significantly more likely to make our products come to us rather than going out for them. Going to Netflix and the library and an independent video store (as I do! aside from pulling from  my own collection, going to the movie theater, etc.) must seem like going to three different supermarkets for groceries. And if you read that article from the New York Post and note the movies that the author grouses about Millennials not seeing—Gone with the Wind, The Sound of MusicTo Kill a Mockingbird, Casablanca, Once Upon a Time in the West, Rear Window, Psycho, and, uh, The Shawshank Redemption—only To Kill a Mockingbird is currently on Netflix. Buying Gone with the Wind or pirating Once Upon a Time in the West or schlepping to the library for Rear Window is excessive compared to the streamable cornucopia you can access prone.

Like most other arguments you find on the Internet, this one about “Millennials don’t watch the right movies!” has its roots in our cultural worship of the canon. The reason the Post calls on Shawshank is because of its (still totally bizarre to me) position at the top of IMDb’s rankings. I’m not sure I want to get into a deep dive on canonicity, which is fraught with a million other complications more interesting and pressing than what movies people watch, but I do want to say that defending a canon, as the New York Post does, is a sign of fear. Being told that the movies you know and like and have called good (and can remember seeing when they were new!) are being replaced or left behind is a threat. Being told that the good movies are different now and that you have to keep up with them if you want your opinion to count is foreboding at best. It’s reminiscent of what the Democratic party (sorry, sorry) and like-minded wonks are dealing with at the moment. As Emmett Rensin puts it: “Like all obsessives, the wonk only has one real preference: that nothing ever change. Then they’d have to learn the rules all over again.” If younger people stop watching Casablanca, then it’s a sign that the old heads would have to learn the rules all over again. They’d have to reckon with a new set of values, of styles, of genres. And if we’ve learned anything from the past year, it’s that people equate “add this into what you think about” with “replace everything you believe with this radically altered belief system.” I would be deeply sad if people stopped watching Casablanca, but just as there’s more to America than New York, there’s more to film than the giant accomplishments of the ’40s.

It seems inevitable that we will eventually, as a culture, stop watching Casablanca. In the past several months I’ve started thinking about what it means for cinema to be over 100 years old, for the strides of D.W. Griffith to hit the century mark and to know that in my lifetime the strides of Scorsese and Coppola will do the same. The Phantom Carriage or The Gold Rush or Nosferatu will celebrate sesquicentennials while I’m a crotchety old fart. Popular forms of entertainment rise and fall. How interesting it is to know that in the four hundred years since Don Quixote, the novel has gone from amusement to vanity to experimental to highbrow; how interesting it is to know that movies have done the same in a quarter of the time. Cinema is a green banana. The interesting thing about movie canonicity to me is how quickly it has changed and adapted already. If the New York Post and Film Quarterly show us something, it has much less to do with what Millennials are watching now and much more to do with our concern as to what will last and what will deserve to be seen well after its vintage has passed. For the first time in movie history, we are being confronted with which movies are going to remain in our canon. It’s commonly thought that nine out of every ten movies made before 1929 is lost for good. The Boomers, who never had home movies like Millennials do and who didn’t have to reckon with so many remarkable films, didn’t have a situation like the one Millennial cinephiles are staring down. In the next few decades, despite the best intentions of TCM and the Criterion Collection and Martin Scorsese, probably, the list of movies we’re still actually watching will be very different from the ones we’re fighting over now. There’s uncharted ground out ahead of us; no matter how long you’ve been going to the pictures, that’s at least equal parts anxious and invigorating, exciting and unfamiliar.

2 thoughts on “What Movies Millennials Watch

  1. Tim,

    I’ve read this a few times through now, and each time take something different away. A consistent takeaway is Forrest Gump sucks, and I love/hate telling people my age I don’t like it. Just today, I told someone at school I hadn’t seen Titanic in years, and they were flabbergasted (I’m sure the convo around that is apparent). I also wanted to share that one of my law professors polled the class on if they’d seen Cool Hand Luke (I promise academic things do happen at my school) and only a handful of 80-90 people raised their hands. I really enjoy Cool Hand Luke, in addition to Paul Newman being awesome, George Kennedy is great too.

    I have to wonder how much of it is generational or normative of family. Matt Zoller Seitz has done great Twitter threads sharing rural or ‘uneducated’ people who love movies/the opera/ jazz, etc. I’m a dolt and can’t find them, but they’re out there. Were you raised to appreciate films encouraged to search out new or different directors or genres? My dad encouraged me to watch everything under the sun, leading me to enjoy the classics to cult films. My tastes do tend towards the 70’s though, which coincidentally is his coming of age.

    Do you have some recommendations? I have easy access to Boston libraries and happen to have a fully functioning independent video rental store in my neighborhood, in addition to streaming services.


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