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September 23 at 8:44am

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.

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  • Tom Quinn

    Hi Ted,

    I very much enjoyed the cage match last week and thought you both had some excellent points. I had a few thoughts at the time, which I've been mulling over all week. After college I ran the TV program at a high school for seven years and then began teaching college film courses, including weekend courses for high school kids who wanted a jump. While I think the key arthouse demographic is older than the high school age, I think it's an ideal time to make a lifelong impression. Some of what I learned:

    1. We're too old to program to young people, we need to program with them. At certain moments of the cage match it took me back to when I would sit in on administration meetings in the school district. They would talk about presentations they were organizing and would talk about what the kids would like or think is cool – it nearly always failed. Whereas when they would empower the kids to create presentations, to put on shows for the school, etc – the energy and excitement was through the roof. As soon as anyone says the word “curate” we're dead.

    2. Young people like independent film and discover it on their own. Most of this was through IFC. They would often come in and talk about what they had caught on IFC the night before and I found many of them especially loved Gus Van Sant, which goes back to your point that we're not making enough films that speak to their issues (where Van Sant does) and also the idea of artistic focus, or more crassly, branding. If you like X band it's because they make albums that speak to x, y, z which you relate to, where few directors consistently hit the kind of issues young people connect with. That said, there is a value in formal introduction to films they may otherwise miss and a small percentage will connect – any college professor teaching intro classes will likely tell you that introducing young people to film history is tough until they get the bug.

    3. I also find it very hard to know what independent films are currently out and I consider myself someone who loves independent film, and reads indie-film-centric blogs. But there is so much noise that a film comes out for a week or two and it's gone – we know this is a problem. I think it's another reason young people discover indie film on demand and on TV – they know where to find it, it cuts through the noise, and they trust the brand.

    4. I have to disagree with Jeff's discouraging young people to make films. Of course they may be amateur, they should be, but even if they do not progress it is the best way to learn the language. Also, young people do not want to be talked at, they are searching for a voice. It's the reason a live band will almost always beat a film event. Also, when I returned to the high school after being away at college learning filmmaking, I was immediately struck by the films the kids were making. They were only to entertain themselves, without a care for any adult or rules or form, and yet they captured something about that age I've never seen in a 'professional' film. Those amateur films by their own age group will nearly always entertain more than what we can make. This also goes back to the slamming of Mumblecore, which irks me as a petty generational argument. I like some of those films more than others, but the ultimate value of that movement is empowerment to learn filmmaking through filmmaking, and a focus on the long haul. I was always impressed that Joe Swanberg was more focused on his 10th film than his first, which is the antithesis of previous generations of indie filmmakers It had always been – max out all of your credit cards on your first film and hope for the best, whereas these filmmakers are taking time to find their voice and interests. It's the closest I've seen to how classic filmmakers (or any other tradespeople) learned their craft. By making films.

  • http://hopeforfilm.com/ Ted Hope

    Well said, Tom. I hear you. We need to work together. It's not leadership that people need so much as it is the proper forum. I used to do community organizing, and always liked the “power comes to those that work” dictum. We need to provide youth with the means to seize power — and they will, and we will be better for it.

  • Tom Quinn

    Thanks, Ted. And please keep up the excellent blog. I do not comment often, but always find it an inspirational read so “thank you!”

  • http://twitter.com/MegaMarkHarris Mark Harris

    That was a great post, Tom. I was at the panel as well.

    When Ted asked where the radical youth were these days, I got to wondering if they even really exist in the same way. It reminded me of something Christopher Hitchens said. He said in the 60s, the most idealistic people he knew were counterculture. Now, the most idealistic people he knows join the army. Maybe we're looking in the wrong place for the people who want to change the world.

    I think that is a big problem that manifested in the discussion. Both panelists seemed to expect the future to look like the past. And I think it's critical to understand that we (old folks) may not like or even recognize the shape independent film and film viewing takes for new generations. But we need to be ready to support that shape.

    One more anecdote: A music producer was asked about whether he had to like the band's music to produce it(I think on Fresh Air). He said: “No. I'm a 50 year old man. If they're making music for me, they're doing something wrong.” He said he had to respect the work, but not like it.

    I thought Ted was more open to this idea than Jeff, though even Ted seemed to be framing the discussion in terms of the past. And as I said, I think that is where we're going wrong in this discussion. I mean, when we talk about Cassevetes, we might as well be talking about Howard Hawks, it's such ancient history.

    Jeff seemed like he just wanted the young audience to get off his lawn.

  • Brian Newman

    Great post and something I wish more people were talking about in the industry. I have just a few thoughts to add.
    First, and most importantly is not my thought but one from Audrey Ewell. She made it on the Global Shift article, linked above, that Ted mentions, in the comments section. I am summarizing, but she essentially says: You old farts are idiots. You need to stop talking about getting kids to watch a certain kind of, or older indie film and realize that it's not just a good story that matters, but “the KIND of story.” she uses all caps as well. I think she should be given a guest post space here to elaborate upon her thoughts. I don't know her, but she seems younger than anyone who has weighed in yet – at least in spirit.
    Second, and continuing from her post as well – the idea to “teach” kids about important films is not going to work. I've posted about this on my blog, but in the classical music world (you know, that dying world) they've learned that all the appreciation courses, all the other incentives just haven't worked. What that does is make the art form even more of a relic – something that has to be taught and learned because…well, because it isn't exciting enough to take the initiative to do so on your own. The single biggest indicator of whether someone likes classical music is whether they have played an instrument. We should be embracing all the “amateurs” on Youtube and realizing they have a visceral connection to film, want to be filmmakers, but we have to meet them on their terms.
    For classical, this has meant an explosion in alternative venues – like Poisson Rouge, and even just regular ol rock clubs. This has been coupled, by smarter performers, by building an authentic true connection with their fans – getting rid of the h-auteur attitude and being an approachable being.
    Anyway, I think Ted's points here are on the right path – mainly because they are positive approaches. To my mind the single biggest factor affecting this issue right now is fun – or the lack of it. 90% of the indie films I see are oh so serious. The few that have been actually fun to watch (and usually well made too) have made that cross-over. Perhaps we just need to lighten up a bit.

  • http://twitter.com/Angieann22 Angelia

    Entered my film in this competition. Ure indie film in AMC theaters from @IAMROGUE. Worth checking out http://bit.ly/9msubK

  • http://twitter.com/Cynthialil Cynthialil

    Thanks for the link to us at Globalshift.org. We've always been interested in documentaries and indie films but we've really ramped up our coverage in the last two months and hope to continue. It's our feeling that films are one of the best ways to connect with an audience when it comes to encouraging change or revealing an issue. There are so many talented filmmakers and storytellers out there – it's just a shame it's so hard to get their works in front of a larger audience. It's better certainly, with DVDs and cable but there's still a huge audience that's missing out.

    On the upside, technology has made it so much easier for young people to make the film that tells what's in their heart. We've seen examples of low to no budget films that breakout and get widespread coverage. If it's a 3 minute YouTube video or a two hour documentary, we encourage everyone to film it and share it.

  • ericbuist

    Every time I read a post on here I get inspired to make a film.

    Thank you

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_RZFTWTU6H5VE4YAJLHMK2M36WY John Stanwyk

    First time I've come across this blog, but it's very thought provoking. The thing is there is Indie Film for Alternative Youth but it gets ignored by the established indie film world and falls more into “alternative film.” Take Halo8 for example. Adam Wingard is a brilliant visual artist but Pop Skull got its support from the young genre bloggers. Or Matt Pizzollo who also moved from art film (Threat) to genre (Godkiller) because the genre bloggers were more supportive of his transgressive punk films. Now Ben Templesmith is working with them, he's a genius with a massive alternative youth following but most cinephiles probably don't know who he is so he works in genre and his comics are adapted into films by genre divisions of major studios. I can't find Halo8 movies at my art video shop I have to go to Hot Topic to buy them. And Halo8 is just one example. The mumblecore scene got grabbed by the indie film world because those films youthful energy and casual sex/nudity appeal to older cineastes, those films may be made by young people but not so much for young people. The indies being made for young people don't appeal to the cineastes so they go genre to survive. It seems that in the past ten years a lot of otherwise indie or avant garde filmmakers have gone genre because that's where they get support.

  • http://hopeforfilm.com/ Ted Hope

    Thanks for the tips John. You'd think that more of the indie film blogworld would be hungry to find, cover, and promote all of these artists. And I think you are right in the move to genre — the best indie films of the last year certainly attest to that IMHO.

  • http://hopeforfilm.com/ Ted Hope

    Cynthialili, I have always felt that one of film's unique strength's is it's ability to help bring people together and motivate them. That's been ignored too long. We love how film helps us to address issues that are otherwise difficult to discuss with others. The possibilities are just now being addressed.

  • http://hopeforfilm.com/ Ted Hope

    That would be great. Hopefully someone knows Audrey Ewell and will encourage her to contact me. I found the whole idea of a “cage match” by two old faults debating youth culture kind of comical. And yeah, people tend to forget that “amateur” is someone who does it out of love (not profit). And when money starts to leave the equation, there's more room for fun to come in. That said, we all need to earn a living and if art is our hobby vs. profession, we will all suffer in the process (but that's another issue).

  • http://hopeforfilm.com/ Ted Hope

    It is a good point you make Mark. When I started out I could not have got any traction if it wasn't for Lindsay Law at American Playhouse. I always suspected that he didn't actually “like” the movies me, Christine Vachon, James Schamus, Hal Hartley, Tom Kalin, and others were making — but he respected them. It is so true that the personal taste of the gatekeepers is often the biggest barrier to wider acceptance. It is a shame that movies are so brutal to make as it would help me lighten up a bit if they weren't.

  • http://pangofilms.wordpress.com/ Michael Walker

    I think you're forgetting a key element in this: you have to be cool. Stranger Than Paradise was a cool movie. Repo Man was a cool movie. You felt cool watching them and you couldn't be cool if you hadn't seen them. Remember that great line from Almost Famous about hanging out with rock stars, “They make you feel cool.”

    Unfortunately for us, people over 35 aren't cool. People who make lists like this aren't cool. It's tough to be cool now because as soon as something cool comes out it gets branded and packaged as “cool”. I recommend the CBGB comic, book one, for a great look at what makes something great and cool.

    Mumblecore films are cute, and I like their anti-aesthetic spirit, but they aren't that cool.

  • Audrey Ewell

    I agree. For some though, the move to genre is by choice. I love John Carpenter's The Thing and Scott's Blade Runner almost as much as I love Godard's Contempt or Antonioni's Blow-up. Seriously. Anyway, Ted invited me to write a guest column, so more on that soon.

  • http://twitter.com/Angieann22 Angelia

    Not long to get your finished film in Big Break contest from @IAMROGUE and AMC theaters… http://bit.ly/9msubK

  • http://www.e-steroid.com/ Steroids

    The 1969 low-budget ($400000) independent film Easy Rider is the seminal youth culture film, focusing on the social and political split in American society. I bet more film produced to target to the youth would be one of the effective way.

  • John LeBrocq

    Ted,
    Bit late to the debate but want to share a couple of thoughts… which is actually a production plan, but I think it's relevant and might even be of interest.

    A few years ago, while teaching filmmaking on a short course and seeing digital camera technology start to make sense (by producing screen quality images), I drew up a plan that aimed to make film the 'new punk' (that's punk with a rebel British accent). I called the plan 'Audacious Filmmaking'.

    I pitched it very few people, mostly looking for support from more established industry figures, then through a third party to a potential sponsor. This was a few years ago, it's been gathering dust since.

    The ethos behind the idea is the key, this is no holds barred filmmaking, truly fresh, radical voices given just enough means, guidance and opportunity to gatecrash feature filmmaking in much the same way Punk music crashed the music industry in the mid 70s.

    The dream was framed as a Filmmaker's Finishing School that also functions as an umbrella production house to mentor/hothouse and then showcase a fresh batch of 10 independent feature films from new filmmakers every year.

    The aim was to produce 10 films a year with an average budget of £150,000 (one hundred and fifty thousand pounds sterling). To give all 10 films a nationwide showcase release by simultaneously renting 10 independent cinemas (1 in each of 10 cities – I'm based in the UK) for 2 weeks.

    The films would be 'batch' produced spreading administrative, legal and accounting costs across all 10 films, then marketed as a Brand or Label, again spreading the costs of marketing.

    Added to this was the news and editorial interest, free publicity the 'Audacious' idea would pursue – marketing and awareness being critical to success as well as justifying sponsorship.

    Initial finance (in the region of £3,000,000 over 18 months to mentor, produce and launch 10 films) would come from Brand Sponsorship and would need a business which appealed to the youth, alternative or cutting edge market… a well known global brand was top of the list to approach until they spent into F1.

    Granted, no filmmaker can sustain a career making films on the proposed budget, this isn't the aim. The aim is getting the first film made. The aim is sustaining this opportunity for others, sustaining the school, launching careers and developing a greater awareness/interest in independent film and providing a highly visible focal point for similar productions made outside the School.

    Which then raises the issue of film ownership, the bottom line being all things are negotiable but the School will always own a share of each film (and a share of the film rights – the ethos wouldn't be to deny sales for mainstream remakes, just that the School's input is rewarded).

    This is always going to problematic, especially now since Amazon launched their studio… but this isn't Amazon, not in spirit, content or intent.

    I'd be more than happy to expand on the idea…

    Best wishes, enjoying your blog

    John LeB

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