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How are kids discovering old movies now?

TMW worries today's kids aren't being exposed to cinema's vast history.



Words by Eric Hillis (@hilliseric)


Over the past few weeks I've been putting together a special feature that has required me to correspond with a bunch of filmmakers on the topic of their favourite movies. From the correspondence with filmmakers from the British Isles I was struck at how neatly their taste in cinema dovetailed with my own, and it quickly became clear we had all grown up watching the same movies. It's hard to believe in this era of 200 channels and nothing to watch, but back in 1980s Ireland we only had six TV channels, and the Brits had even less, but there was always something to watch, especially if you were a movie lover.
My earliest movie memories consist of me lying belly down on the living room floor every afternoon after school watching the classic black and white movies that played on ITV before children's programming began. This is where I first discovered the Universal monsters and Basil Rathbone's Sherlock Holmes, and it may have made me accepting of monochrome cinema in a way many no longer are, simply because for a few formative years I believed all movies were filmed in black and white!
Then a neighbour acquired a mythical machine I had only heard rumours of - a VCR! This opened up a whole new exciting prospect, the world of the video store! Suddenly my burgeoning film education was no longer confined to the afternoon programming of British TV networks. The video store was a magical place where kids were introduced to all manner of illicit delights; if you're a male of my generation it was probably the first place you ever saw a pair of breasts, as back then it was common for video cases to feature some stills of nudity on the reverse sleeve, hell, sometimes even on the front cover. But at that age I was more interested in the lurid artwork of the horror movie covers. No floating heads back then, you got beautifully crafted paintings on most covers, and some even had gimmicky hologram covers.
The VCR also introduced me to the world of piracy, though I was blissfully unaware at the time. Along with every other kid on our street, I watched a dodgy copy of E.T. a couple of months before it opened in Irish cinemas. As it turned out, my neighbour's father had gotten his hands on the VCR itself through illegal means and ended up serving a stretch in the slammer for his misdemeanour.
As I entered my teens, I finally began to grow frustrated with video stores. I was grateful they had offered me all the cinematic delights of the '80s, but video stores were useless if you wanted to watch anything released before the VHS era. Thankfully, the late '80s and early '90s constituted a golden era of movies on British TV. My weekend nights involved me filling blank video tapes with the classic and cult movies TV was introducing me to. On Friday nights, Channel 4 would run themed seasons, the best of which was an almost comprehensive run of Hitchcock's catalogue, two a night. Saturday nights over on BBC2 you got a horror double bill, usually mixing a gothic British chiller (generally a Hammer or Amicus production) with a '70s American exploitation flick. But the real highlight of the weekend was Moviedrome on BBC2 late Sunday nights.
Hosted by filmmaker Alex Cox (Repo Man, Sid & Nancy) , Moviedrome presented cult movies (usually one, but sometimes a double bill) that couldn't be found elsewhere. The first ever movie presented by Cox was The Wicker Man, and over the years he introduced me to movies I had read about in Danny Peary's great 'Cult Movies' series of books but had previously been denied the chance of experiencing on screen. Thanks to Cox, I discovered many movies I consider favourites today, including such former obscurities as The Baby, Carnival of Souls, All the Marbles, Q - The Winged Serpent, Detour, Race With the Devil and Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia to name but a few.
Over the course of three nights every weekend I would discover new directors like Dick Richards, Jack Starrett and Larry Cohen. School lunch breaks were spent discussing my new cinematic discoveries with a select handful of fellow movie geeks (back when that phrase actually meant something).
Now British weekend TV is dominated by reality and chat shows, and movies from the 20th century are almost entirely absent from the programming schedule. Video stores are a thing of the past, and DVD stores are struggling to survive. Most movie fans rely on Netflix, but the streaming service is of little use if you want to watch a movie more than 20 years old. Practically everything is available of course through illegal means at the touch of a button, and if we're honest, this is how most young people are watching movies today. But how are they finding movies? With no video stores to blindly rent movies based on their lurid covers, and no Alex Cox curator figures on TV, who is introducing today's kids and teens to the classic and cult movies of the past? They're all available online, legally or not, but the problem with the internet is that you need to know what you're looking for in the first place. The home page of Amazon isn't going to promote an existential '70s road movie or a '60s gothic Italian horror flick; you have to be aware of this already and go searching. Browsing culture no longer exists.
Listening to podcasts hosted by millenials gives you a clear indication of the state of film watching among today's young people, as mention of movies made before the '80s is all too rare, and usually only consists of discussion of high profile movies like The Godfather, Jaws or Star Wars. A lot of movie geeks under 30 have never heard of Robert Altman or John Cassavettes, never mind Herk Harvey or Phil Karlson, simply because they're not being exposed to movies beyond what's available on Netflix and the big hitters passed down from their parents' cinema-going days.
So the troubling question for those of us who want the lesser known movies we love to carry across to further generations is, "How are kids discovering old movies now?" In too many cases, I fear the answer is, "They're not!"

Watch a selection of Alex Cox's Moviedrome intros...