Younger Audience & Creators Tell Old Fogies To Wake The F Up!

Guest post by Audrey Ewell Ted Hope invited me to do a guest column about attracting a younger audience to indie film, after I commented on a column by Robert McLellan at Globalshift.org.  That column was a recap of the debate between Hope and Jeff Lipsky during a Cagematch at IFP Week.  You can read it here: http://www.globalshift.org/2010/09/19/indie-film-can-art-house-theaters-attract-a-young-audience/.)

The column’s final statement, attributed to Hope was this: “It all comes back to having a relevant and compelling story and telling it well.”  That is an oft-repeated statement, and I noted in the comments that what mattered more to this crowd was plot, subject and genre.   So who am I, and why should my opinion matter?

I’m the director and producer (along with my partner, Aaron Aites) of the documentary film, Until The Light Takes Us.  I am 34 years old, white, female, I love Antonioni, Fellini, Marker, and science fiction.  I have Gizmodo, The Huffington Post and The Economist on my Twitter stream.  I own three video games consoles and I’m currently on level 7 of Halo: Reach.  I listen to indie rock, stoner/doom, experimental, dubstep; and I am often on my boyfriend’s and friends’ guest lists when their bands play shows.  I am the audience you’re (they’re, we’re) trying to reach, + four years. But I’m immature enough to let those four years slide.

My current movie, Until The Light Takes Us, is a doc about black metal, a music scene from Norway that involved as much crime (murder, church arson… etc) as music.  We premiered at AFI 08, passed on a few so-so initial offers (including a too-vague offer from IFC, as it seemed possible that we might only be relegated to their crowded on-demand space).  We knew we had a very passionate young audience that went beyond fans of the genre.  One that could fuel (with both attendance and promotional help) a theatrical release, even when most distributors didn’t agree.  And we actually made a profit on our 22 week, 35 market, ’09 -’10 theatrical run, grossing nearly 140K on a 25K P & A with Variance Films.

Until The Light went on to win international awards, was a NY Times and LA Weekly Critic’s pick, got picked up for all-rights deals in German territory, Australia, Japan, we self-released in the UK, aired on the Sundance channel here, and is slated for an Oct 19th DVD/Blu-ray release via Factory 25.  Yet no one in the American indie film world seems to know who we are.   And here’s the kicker: according to our data, our average viewer is 27 years old.  Less than 10% of our audience is over the age of 38.  70% of our audience is male.  We not only got a young audience, but it would seem that our type of film is so under the radar to the established indie film world, that no one noticed.

Despite making the sort of risk-taking, surprising, edgy film that would appeal to a young core audience and enough of a broader audience to really work (we used social networking and events based promotion and targeted cross-promotions), and despite the industry claiming to want films that do these things and that appeal to younger viewers, they did not take notice.  Our type of film, our type of release, must be so far from the establishment’s radar that it didn’t even register.  Ted didn’t seem to know who I was before I commented on that Globalshift column.

And it’s not just us.  I don’t have figures on which other recent indie films got a younger audience, but a couple come to mind, including Paranormal Activity and Anvil, music and horror films.   I’m also going to guess at which films didn’t draw a particularly young crowd: mumblecore and films about people learning things through some process of self-discovery.   If you want to know about the kinds of films the industry supported and didn’t support: invert the above two film types.

So this makes me wonder if the established indie film world is serious about wanting to attract a younger audience.   If you ignore films and filmmakers who appeal to a younger audience, are you not in fact maintaining the status quo?  If you ignore films like ours, will they go away?   Will the people making them become discouraged, and will the fight to make the next movie be too hard, too brutal, too futile, knowing that there is no support on the other end?  Do we even have a chance of getting financing, when we’re not noticed, let alone supported?

This is the first of many issues, but it’s a big one, because it’s the easiest to fix.  John Stanwyk, who said he had never read Truly Free Film, commented in Ted’s column (here http://trulyfreefilm.hopeforfilm.com/2010/09/how-can-indie-film-appeal-to-alternative-youth-culture.html/comment-page-1#comment-5444) that there IS indie film made for alternative youth but that it’s ignored by the established film world, so the makers move over to genre, where they’re supported.  He cited Matt Pizzollo and his films Threat (arthouse) and Godkiller (genre) as examples.  That’s a really great point.  My next film (if I can get it made)?  A sci-fi/horror.  I happen to love sci-fi and horror, so it’s not exactly a sacrifice.  But as someone who can (and has) made films for a younger audience, my options are limited – not by the audience, but by the established film world.  The taste of the gatekeepers is a problem in this regard.  And I need to look Matt up and give him my support.

*Note: after writing this but before sending it in, I was contacted by two well-known genre-specific publications that would like to do a piece on The Egg, our in-development sci-fi/horror.  I have not heard from Indiewire, Filmmaker, or anyone from the establishment.  It’s already been written up on Brutal As Hell.  Michael’s point about genre being more supported is proving to be valid in this case.

Here’s what the establishment (and some of you reading this are now the establishment… weird, right?) doesn’t like to hear: the films you like aren’t going to do it.  Your taste may be hurting Amerindie cinema, which I have no doubt you love.   Here’s what you might not understand: so do we (we being the filmmakers making movies you don’t like, for a younger audience).  A quick peek into my top ten shows Contempt, 8 ½, Naked, and Blow-Up brushing shoulders with Carpenter’s The Thing, Blade Runner, and Battle Royale.   Now here are the two films that I saw in the last two weeks: Enter The Void and Resident Evil Afterlife (3D, Imax).   ETV fed my soul and broke cinematic ground.  RE was fun (and its audience is young).  I don’t believe these have to be mutually exclusive.

We will not kill film: we will merely bring it into the current postmodern, hyperreal era, a now that is shrinking from the future and afraid to look at its recent past.  We are squeezed into a breathless space of unreality and diminished possibility, and we are trying desperately to find films that reflect our experience.  We’re not finding them in the American indie film world, that’s for sure.   My current film for instance, is about a violent music scene, but its themes revolve around simulation and simulacra of identity in a overwhelmingly mediated, postcapitalist, globalized world.  I’m not seeing that sort of thing in the films championed by the “indie” establishment.  Maybe there are actually two independent film worlds.

It was put forth in the Cagematch at IFP Week  http://www.globalshift.org/2010/09/19/indie-film-can-art-house-theaters-attract-a-young-audience/ that the only films kids are going to see are big budget sci-fi and horror/thrillers.  And then the conversation went back to, so how do we get this audience to come see movies that are obviously only going to appeal to middle aged or older white women and us?  (I went ahead and paraphrased that.)  Clearly, films that might be considered genre need to be part of the solution.  And the word “genre” simply has to stop being a four-letter word.

I’m not saying that every gore splatter-fest out there should be appreciated or supported.  I hate B movies, I really do. I’m not even a little bit amused by movies that wink at the audience in order to cover up their own ineptitude.  My point is that there is and there can be “genre” films that are also smart and relevant … and fun/intense.  It’s what I love, it’s what I make.  It’s Blade Runner.  It’s Alien.  It’s Alphaville.   These types of indies are being made in other countries, by the way, then re-made here for huge sums.  Maybe we should consider doing this at home.

So ok, point number 1 - stop ignoring those of us who are already reaching the younger audience with relevant and edgy films, even if the films we’re making aren’t to your personal taste - as it’s such a personal point, it took up a whole lot of room.  If Ted is willing to let me stretch this over two columns, I’ll have other points next time.  I really want to address several other issues raised, including working with an audience ignorant of film history.  And I’d like to thank Ted for reaching out.

Audrey Ewell is a filmmaker living in Brooklyn, NY with her partner Aaron Aites and their three rescue animals.  More info on her current film can be found at http://www.blackmetalmovie.com.

How Can Indie Film Appeal To Alternative Youth Culture?

Sunday September 19th, as part of Independent Film Week, the IFP invited me to a "Cage Match" with Jeff Lipsky on Indie Film's relationship with youth culture.  The discussion was spurred on by a post of mine "Can Truly Free Film Appeal To Youth Culture ", and the robust discussion everyone had in our comments section to that post, and then still further by discussions on Filmmaker Mag Blog and Anthony Kaufman's column.  It was a good discussion before IFP even proposed the CageMatch, but I appreciated the opportunity to give it more thought. You might have missed it but it's been summed up pretty well by Robert McLellan on GlobalShift.org (thanks to Shari Candler for tipping me to that), Ingrid Koop on the FilmmakerMag Blog, and Eugene Hernandez at Indiewire (although I don't agree, or believe I said, that Indie Film is aimed at white women over the age of 45 -- although they are the dominant audience -- but that we have to prevent Indie Film from being the province of the privileged, old, and white (i.e. me!)). Jeff and I could have blabbed for hours. I have plenty more to say on the issue.

As both a community and an industry, it is critical we look at both the creative, infrastructure, and societal factors for answers of why we have so failed to develop the alternative and youth sectors.  Every other cultural form has a robust young adult sector that is defined both by it's innovation and opposition -- yet in film that is the exception and not the rule.

To me the issue comes down to the fact that unless Indie Film appeals to the under 30's, Indie Film will continue to marginalize itself into the realm of elitist culture like Chamber Orchestras and Ballet. Indie Film as a form is already problematic in the way it self-censors and regurgitates last year's success stories; it needs to be reinvented from within.  We need to encourage and reward rebellion -- plus it's fun, and makes great cinema.

There is often the tendency to essentially blame the audience, but I am believer that American audiences are like the March Hare and "like what they get" (in a future post, I will attempt to demonstrate why blaming the audience is lazy finger pointing).  The issue is not the consumption and appreciation patterns, but the lack of leadership to push for something unique from our creative communities.

What is it that Alternative Youth Culture wants from Indie Film Culture but can't find on the menu?  Granted, as someone pushing 50 I may not be qualified to answer (and I hope some people more of the age of which I speak raise their voices), but I think the answers are numerous (I have sixteen off the top of my head -- and I am sure you can add more).  They feel to me to be relatively timeless, as true to me back at age 20 as they are now to the folks that intern with me.  They deal with both content, context,

  1. immediacy; relevancy to the world we are living in right here right now
  2. controvercy; extremism; intensity; -- content that is not watered down or safe;
  3. honesty; truthful emotions -- not engineered ones;
  4. Respect for the audience that doesn't talk down to them;
  5. Transparency in the process, an attitude and an aesthetic that allows all to see how they too can get it done;
  6. Diversity of voices in accessible content, a commitment to be different from the rest, but a willingness to be part of a specific community -- and not a general audience;
  7. A social component; a live event before or after the screening -- something that offers that random interaction with that person you don't know quite yet but you know loves the same thing that you do (i.e. community building events);
  8. constant reminders of what they appreciate, what they want to belong to -- akin to hearing your favorite song on the radio, again and again, or being in the space that you know your parents would never want you to be or being surrounded by people that hate and love much what you feel similar about;
  9. access for discovery; it's not just a new algorithm we need; software alone can not solve the problem -- how do we find and then immediately experience or possess MORE of what we want when we finally find it; we want to know what our friends know; you hang out in a bar with good music, not just because you like the music and the people, but so you can discover more of what you like.
  10. access to the creators.  Musicians feel like they came from the community to which they perform to; their audience gets to know them in a way that can't be said for filmmakers.  Filmmakers need to embrace "film gigging" as a necessary component of some aesthetic choices.
  11. reactionary attitude and focus towards the world at large, not just the industry/culture they partake in.  If Mumblecore is the dominant strand of current alternative youth culture in film what is it reacting against beyond the Hollywood style of filmmaking? There is a whole world out there that is ready to take a whole lot of abuse.  Give the people something different; show us what we could become (for better and for worse).
  12. accessibility to the creative process; it is often said that anyone can make music AND record a song these days, yet there remain perceived economic barriers to creating film work.
  13. relatable voices and relevant voices; to want to participate, you need to feel you belong.  Who are the filmmakers who are part of the under 30 generation?  How can Indie Film be more than something for old, white, and privileged?  This comes from both the top and bottom, lifting and pushing.
  14. How can the community demonstrate they belong?  Our industry does not produce objects that demonstrate one's love for cinema and its culture?  Where are the fetish objects that can be more than a t-shirt?
  15. Communities need help to coalesce. Help those who want to help you. Young people give themselves to scenes and causes that matter to them; it is a badge of honor to help expand the things you care about it, but how does someone help Alternative Youth Culture Indie Film if they want to bring it to their neighborhood?  We currently aren't making it easy. #JustSaying.
  16. Certain aesthetic approaches encourage participation; others curtail it.  There is a preciousness that dominates in Indie Film, that presumably is predominately derived  from how difficult it is to be prolific.  Right now, most films unfold like they are a proof and not an exploration -- and to compound matters, they are a proof of something we already have realized long ago.  Each film feels like it may be the artists' last.  Each one relishes that it is " A Film By...".  If artists want participation from the community they believe they are part of, they need to get over the arrogant posturing, and admit -- through their work -- that we are all learning as we go along.

I look forward to your suggestions as to how to expand this list.  In the days ahead I hope to find the time to: a) consider the problems with the current infrastructure in supporting an Indie Film Youth Culture; b) why it is a fault of leadership and NOT the audience that we don't have an Indie Film Youth Culture; and c) what has worked, why things that didn't work before could work today, and what has never been in terms of Indie Film Youth Culture.  But then again, I have a movie or two to make and get out there.