Millennials and the Movies (And Get Off Neal Gabler's Lawn)

Still from Citizen Kane

Film’s death knell rings again, this time from the pen of Neal Gabler at the LA Times:1

Young people, so-called millennials, don’t seem to think of movies as art the way so many boomers did. They think of them as fashion, and like fashion, movies have to be new and cool to warrant attention.

And we’re off. Where’s the proof, Neal?

There are, unfortunately, no studies of which I am aware that examine the relationship of millennials to old movies.


At best we have dated surveys about the antipathy of young people to black-and-white films. But MTV did conduct a study recently of how young people relate to contemporary films, which found that movies are deeply embedded in the social networking process.

And later:

There is a sense that if you can’t tweet about it or post a comment about it on your Facebook wall, it has no value.


If Twitter and Facebook were around forty years ago, would baby boomers’ collective conversations have been any more insightful? I bet not. Lucky for Gabler, though, the only evidence of that laudable generation’s film experience comes from its greatest minds, in print.

Indeed, the most ardent movie enthusiasts of the past generation were reverential of old movies. Andrew Sarris, who died last month and who was among the nation’s most influential film critics in the ’70s and ’80s, made his reputation not just by importing the auteur theory from France that celebrated the authorial role of the director but by disinterring many of those old directors from film history.

Comparing all young peoples’ tweets to one of criticism’s greatest minds seems foolhardy, to say the least. But let’s hear what Gabler’s friends have to say.

Another friend who teaches at a prestigious university told me that while a good number of his self-selected class of undergraduates studying film history did respond to many of the old films he showed, for example Hitchcock movies, they expressed only cold admiration for many other classic films, including “Citizen Kane,” which they found antiquated.

As well they should. It is over seventy years old, after all.

And yet another friend, this one a high school teacher in California heading a film class, said his students were bored by “The Godfather.” He won’t be teaching the course again because there wasn’t sufficient interest.

I’ve taught film to students from elementary school age straight on up to college, and I can tell you firsthand that young people need to be fed something more interesting than an AFI-compiled boomer-stroking greatest hits list. Film education needs to grow and change, not rely on the same stale syllabi that worked once upon a time. When you meet them where they are, you will be surprised by how exhilarated young people are by movies, even old ones.

Contrary to Gabler, the classics are not sacrosanct. Film history and appreciation is much more interesting than the accepted good taste of a bygone few. Preservation and the auteur theory didn’t always exist and are, quite possibly, unique to the baby boomer generation.

I’m not suggesting that any of these elements of cinema culture be dismantled. Quite the opposite. In order for institutions like film education and preservation to survive, they must prove malleable enough to weather generational shifts. Otherwise Gabler’s greatest fears will come true, and future generations won’t know a wide shot from a hole in the ground.

Just because young people approach cinema differently than their parents and grandparents does not mean they’ve dissociated themselves from the art. If all you have to go on are social media posts and anecdotal yarns from colleagues who can’t keep a classroom interested, then yes, a very bleak picture of film’s state of affairs develops. But I like to think that there are more exciting things happening with young film goers and makers, even among those who can’t connect with Citizen Kane.