The End Of Independence? Millennials and the Arthouse

As another summer began among blockbuster flops, a growing number of voices raised the alarm blaming Millennials’ fading interest in movies for disappointing box-office returns. Derek Thompson in his article “Hollywood has a huge millennial problem” maintains the movie industry has over-learned the lesson that sequels perform well and trying to made a sequel of every single movie it has lost its grip on young people. However, recent studies in the States confirm Millennials remain Tinseltown’s biggest customers. Arthouse theatres and small independent films are the ones they have deserted instead. As Thompson puts it, the problem for Hollywood isn’t that Millennials are ignoring sequels, it is that they ignore everything that isn’t a sequel, adaptation, or reboot. These sort of stories exist but young consumers are looking for them outside the theatres.

Millennials witnessed the birth of the digital era being first adopters, and now generators, of the changes in audiovisual consumption it brought, against the backdrop of a huge expansion in production fuelled by the growing number of exhibition formats. Ancillary markets, DVD and TV, have multiplied with Internet facilitating the duplication and distribution, legal or not, of endless number of copies without any quality loss; mobile devices enabling the viewer to watch on demand anything they want wherever they want to at the touch of a finger; the gaming industry with its interactive appeal and “all you can eat” platforms competing with each other for a share of the viewer’s leisure time. Meanwhile, their boundaries are melting through cross-fertilizing internet experiments whose aesthetic go back-and-forth across media formats and different art forms. Jay Bolter and Richard Grusin described this multimedia interaction as a “genealogy of affiliation” in which media engage in reciprocal and ongoing “strategies of incorporation” remediating one another through their histories. Newer forms borrowing the familiarity and credibility from the older, while older borrow from newer to maintain currency and legitimacy, refashioning themselves to face the new challenges presented.

In “Beyond The Multiplex” Barbara Klinger illustrates this point using the example of “Xena, Warrior Princess” webisode series in which the owners, Briliant Digital Entertainment, experiement with 3D and interactive path components. The Graphics are drawn from computer games, its 3D imagery associated with 1950s cinema and more recent experiments with image dimensionality and, because its path functionality, is also narratively indebted to computer games. Its structure as series points to TV. In addition, the original cable series is inspired in forms as diverse as Wonder Woman (comic and TV characters) and classic mythology.

Klinger focuses on shorts and parody film as the web’s distinctive ways of remediating existing material, changing the relationship between film fan and medium. Digital cameras have democratized filmmaking. Everybody can make their own films and share them online. The fan who makes a short and uploads it online deals with production and exhibition , whereas today’s audiences demand participation in the narrative of cinema, even if it is just by play start or rearranging its order. According to Nicholas Rombes, the ability to select multiple options from DVD and computer interfaces is a form of nostalgia, replicating the ways of reading a book, disguised as “futuristic technology.”

Rombes also defines the style of digital film as “disposable aesthetics” that govern web browsing and invite the audience to participate as a voyeur, watching experiences which mirror their own in terms of the banality of everyday life, rejecting the gap between reality and representation. All films today are disposable as they end up fragments in internet clips.

Klinger’s study on new technologies and home cinema revealed three new kinds of cinephile, “the home theatre enthusiast, the collector and the repeat viewer. They engage in productions of various kinds respectively assembling an ideal system, organizing a personal archive and selecting a canon of repeatable favourites.” But much has changed in a decade since her book was published. Screens have become smaller and portable, enabling their owners to use them everywhere; alongside the internet, mobile devices have multiplied the chances for repeated viewing of popular films, yet the nearly limitless offer of the “digital database”, whose vast and continuously growing repository of film has also meant a resurgence of older works, comes as a distraction preventing Millennials from forming that canon. DVD collection, though, has almost become obsolete among them. Physical product is the first casualty of the digital era. The enhanced quality in new formats such as Blu-ray has not been able to contain the home audiences’ mass migration online. The convenience of downloads and streaming seems to have won the exhibition battle. Rombes also affirms “Today as the interface competes with film as a source of pleasure, the basic materiality of film becomes unknown and invisible.” This is what he describes as “filmless film.”

A number of recent marketing studies have shed some light on Millennials’ cinema going habits. The first of which, “Now showing: Millennials Movie-Going Experience” conducted by Annalect, provided interesting conclusions disproving the myth they are less interested in cinema than older generations being 50% more likely than other age groups to say movies are a passion of them; likely to be influenced by social media as FOMO is the most frequently reported reason for watching a movie in a theatre. Exclusive theatrical formats like IMAX or luxury amenities like recliner seating are important drivers and 46% like to go to the movies on their opening weekend. This report demonstrates Millennials use their interest for cinema to gain prestige among their peers. Digital Cinema Media conducted a similar study in the UK with almost identical conclusions.

Another American research produced by software company Movio offered further insight breaking down the Millennials’ preferences in genre. Although their favourite type of films shifts over time, horror prevails, followed by urban, young adult comedies and tentpoles. Indie, dramas and arthouse are the categories that have lost their favour, which indicates an important change. Indie and arthouse films traditionally resonated among the youth, but nowadays have become secondary to more mainstream fare.

This generational shift in taste, favouring escapism to political or personal visions, was caused by several factors. Technologically, as computers and mobile devices have become Millennials’ window to the world, they have grown accustomed to constant software upgrades. The digital hardware/software duality has enabled any device’s functionality to be updated through the ongoing release of different versions of software. The cross-pollination between mediums has prompted all digital products to share this philosophy which has also permeated to films. Every sequel now is consumed like a new version of game would be. Despite their appetite for technological innovation, Millennials have grown to constantly expect variations and improvements on the same theme.

A second cause is the cost of getting their attention. As a wider range of industries compete for a piece of their multi-billion market, it has become more expensive to create an audience for a film. Studios are spending an enormous amount of money on advertising blockbusters and even when Millennials are known for their ability to filter unwanted commercial messages, the combined use of social and traditional media in the massive marketing campaigns needed to make a film popular works against smaller films.

The third, and perhaps most important, cause lays within Today’s independent production and distribution areas. Andrew Sarris’ essay “Notes on the auteur theory in 1962,” developed the ideas of Cahiers Du Cinéma’ about “politique des auteurs,” hailing the director’s vision as the defining quality of cinema as an art form. Every decade, from the French Nouvelle Vague in the 1960s, has seen new waves of filmmakers carrying the auteur torch and, until now, connecting with the aesthetic, social and political concerns of the young. The New Hollywood Cinema of the 1960s and 1970s gave way to the Sundance-fuelled independent cinema from the 1980s onwards. But as this kind of filmmaking became more widespread, it has ended up producing the type of prestige film the studios have ceased to make, well received by ageing audiences but failing to connect with younger ones. Adam Leipzig in his article, “Biggest Sunday winners? Millennials”, about Sundance film festival described an experienced US industry executive’s idea of the average audience for arthouse movies as “female, over fifty, liberal, in the top twelve markets and, frequently, Jewish.”

Another important aspect in the relationship between Millennials and cinema is their preference for access to goods over ownership, fuelling a new “sharing economy” in the process. An Inside Center’s report, “Millennials: sharing a new economy of experience”, claims that three out of four millennials would rather spend their money on experience over consumer goods, amply confirmed by the rise of event cinema, in which the movie almost become an accessory for the enhanced, augmented or participatory aspects of the experience.

During the Cannes Film Festival’s Marché du film a conference aimed at finding ways to attract the Y generation to the arthouse took place. Named “Capturing the Millennials: how cinema can win a new generation for film”, it affirmed that the kind of works shown at Cannes years ago would have connected with a younger audience, but not anymore. Speakers presented the results of a survey which apart from the issues already mentioned in this article also added those of price – considered expensive as they are used to access films for free; demand for engagement and sense of community -cinemas should be considered more like social space, integrated in the wider culture and bringing together gathering opportunities; music; etc. (something already being implemented in the UK) – and what they called “Gentrification of culture,” arguing that Today a relatively small number of people has more opportunities and better access to arthouse films than ever before, but at the core of cinema going lays a diversity and class issue and younger people of poorer and ethnic backgrounds often perceive the arthouse theatre as intimidating. Building a relationship between cinemas and local schools and community institutions is key to alter that perception. Initiatives like Glasgow Film Theatre’s Youth Film Festival have proven to be very successful. “Offering young people the opportunity to develop their own programme at their venue is a unique and meaningful way to build younger audiences,” said Programme Director Allison Gardner.

Beyond the depiction provided by research, as a generation Millennials seem to be defined by paradoxes. Their perceived individualism and need of personalized experiences contrast with a mediated social interaction that has turned everyone into his own brand, on a constant quest for an audience to validate their actions in the shape of likes or retweets, which leads to new forms of anxiety such as FOMO often dictating their choices.

In a globalized world they show less curiosity than older audiences for international movies and despite having also more opportunities than ever before to explore the present and the past of film at will, marketing campaigns tend to homogenize their taste.
And for the first time since the 1960s there is not a new group of filmmakers ready to challenge the industry’s status quo this generation can identify with, whether they will find the voices that represent them in film or not is yet to be seen. The future of independent cinema could depend on it.