BREAKING UPWARDS. PHOTO BY: ALEX BERGMAN.
Question: "When was the last time you went to an arthouse?"
Answer: "Years ago. I watch everything online. I don't have time to go to the cinema."
While this reply from Alex Johnson, a 30-year-old interactive strategist, filmmaker and co-founder of WBP Labs, doesn't speak for an entire generation of new movie consumers, it certainly begs the question: What is the future of the indie movie-going audience?
As Ted Hope recently noted on his blog trulyfreefilm.com, "It is really surprising how few true indie films speak to a youth audience. In this country we've had Kevin Smith and Napoleon Dynamite, but nothing that was youth and also truly on the art spectrum like Run Lola Run or the French New Wave."
Distributors have the evidence to support such concerns. IFC Films' marketing head Ryan Werner says American indie films with a younger bent, whether the work of Joe Swanberg, Andrew Bujalski or Barry Jenkins, are the hardest to connect to their audience, and not just in theaters, but on VOD and DVD, as well. "There isn't a tougher breed of film right now," he says.
Many industry insiders had hoped Lynn Shelton's Humpday, distributed by Magnolia, would break out, but the film underperformed. "The main thrust was about married people getting older," says Magnolia Pictures' Eamonn Bowles, so younger audiences stayed away.
What is the consequence of this disconnect between millennials - those aged 18 to 29 - and today's American indie cinema? As New York Times critic Manohla Dargis wrote in a piece that picked up on Hope's blog, "Any future alternative film culture will depend on the cultivation of younger patrons," she wrote. Not only that, but this is a demographic, she added, "who are used to receiving much if not all of their entertainment at home and on handheld devices."
Indeed, WBP Labs' Johnson says, "I'll stream movies on Netflix, rent from my Xbox, use torrents, whatever is easiest. If I can watch something on my cell phone, I will." Because in the new age of watching-whatever-you-want-whenever-you-want, according to Johnson, "it's really about being able to watch it immediately and talk to other people about it and be a part of that conversation."
For Johnson, the kind of buzz that once drove young people to see cult movies doesn't happen around alternative theatrical releases so much as popular torrents, pointing to the success of freely pirated movies such as Jamin Winans's sci-fi indie Ink (downloaded by more than 400,000 people on BitTorrent in a few days after it was leaked).
Johnson also suggests that "event-izing" a film can work for both big movies - like Twilight-watching parties - and small movies, if a group of like-minded young folks can embrace seeing a film as a social happening.
Tim League, the founder of the Alamo Drafthouse and Fantastic Fest in Austin, Tex., agrees. He says one of the best ways to reach out to younger audiences is "to make the moviegoing experience more than just paying 10 bucks to see a movie" by adding events such as preshow video entertainment, food tie-ins or bringing in celebrity guests. New York City's IFC Center also frequently hosts director Q&As in a hipster atmosphere, while the Gen Art Film Festival has always lured younger audiences with its "7 Premieres, 7 Parties" format.
Similarly, the Film Society of Lincoln Center recently rebranded its Young Friends of Film program as "The New Wave," aimed at cultivating arthouse audiences through a social gathering-like atmosphere, with postscreening conversations and parties, says New Wave board member Michael Shulman, a 28-year-old actor (Party of Five) and indie producer (Sherman's Way). "My friends want to see great independent films, but they don't know they exist," says Schulman. "But people come see these events if there's a basis of understanding that the experience will be a fun and enlightening one."
In other words, it comes down to trust. "It requires us to be part of that experience," says League. "Our niche audiences know us, and we hang out with them and listen to what they like and don't like."
Similarly, 26-year-old filmmaker-promoter Todd Sklar, whose Range Life Entertainment takes "awesome movies" on tour across the U.S., explains that their cross-country grassroots campaign can do what most distributors can't: "Being at the screenings, doing events, panels and workshops and getting the audience excited to talk about the films afterwards." Sklar notes that comedies do particularly well with the university crowd, such as films like his own feature Box Elder and Dan Eckman's Mystery Team, which grossed upwards of $70,000 and sold plenty of DVDs after visiting around 30 college towns.
Interestingly, Sklar says it's also strategic to undersell the movies "so audiences will go into them with lower expectations, and then it's part of that discovery process tied to independent film."
Like Sklar, Scott Beiben, of the Evil Twin Booking Agency, also touts the efficacy of the on-the-road model. "Filmmakers need to start touring like bands," says Beiber, who is currently promoting a multimedia event called Scientists Are the New Rockstars. "Then, they're going to hang out with the people who are watching their films, go out to dinner with them, and hop fences and swim in pools with them. The only way to penetrate that culture is to be a part of it," he adds. "You can't just make a product and expect it to sell anymore."
All this may sound old hat to readers of Filmmaker, Scott Kirsner's Fans, Friends & Followers and the writings of Lance Weiler. But to reach younger audiences - who are plugged into local groups via the Web more than any other demographic - the most obvious strategy is cultivating community and dialogue.
Daryl Wein, the 26-year-old director of Breaking Upwards, a low-budget romantic comedy that premiered at South by Southwest in 2009, also believes Generation Next is best seduced by Internet-based viral marketing. On the eve of his film's DIY release, he points to a comic music video his team put on FunnyorDie.com, featuring the film's recognizable co-star Olivia Thirlby (Juno), which has been viewed more than 13,000 times. "The under-30 crowd has a shorter attention span than older audiences, so you have to find ways to excite them in a short amount of time," says Wein.
It's also widely accepted that young audiences base their movie-going decisions less on reviews and more on two-minute video chunks. Sklar says newspaper blurbs, pull quotes and festival pedigree means little to younger audiences. "They don't care if it played at Sundance," he says. "They just want to know if they can watch the trailer and do they like it?"
Should Andrew Bujalski, then, have made a short music video to promote his next film? And what would the viral comedy clip for Bradley Rust Gray's The Exploding Girl look like? These are questions the next generation of art filmmakers might need to consider.
Or not. Magnolia's Eamonn Bowles says he's never relied on young audiences. "Independent films are more complex, more intellectual, so it's really always been the domain of people that are older," he says. "I can't speak for the '60s when Antonioni was blowing people's minds, but since I've been doing it, the younger audience has always been the most overrated."
Perhaps, then, no matter how much millennials are occupied with interactive, short-attention-span experiences like videogames and the Internet, all that will change when they enter their 30s and even they will seek more complicated and contemplative entertainments. Will those entertainments be independent films? Stay tuned...