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.