Why Young People Go Nuts for the TCM Classic Film Festival

Expect to see a surprising number of 20-somethings nerding out over old movies in Hollywood this weekend.EXPAND
Expect to see a surprising number of 20-somethings nerding out over old movies in Hollywood this weekend.
Courtesy TCM Classic Film Festival

According to the multitude of 20-somethings, 30-somethings and 40-somethings preparing to attend this weekend's sixth annual TCM Classic Film Festival, it's time for the general public to update its perception of classic movie fans. 

“People just think this is something 85-year-olds are watching,” says 27-year-old ardent TCM fan Jessica Pickens, who expects to see plenty of other people around her age queueing up at the TCL Chinese Theatre and other Hollywood venues for the fest this weekend. “My parents came with me last year and kept apologizing because they thought they were cramping my style,” she says. 

The fest, which features four days of classic film screenings and special events, draws locals and out-of-towners alike. Some are L.A. film students; others are die-hard film buffs from countries that may not even carry Turner Classic Movies. According to festival programmer Genevieve McGillicuddy, TCM has a fan base that comprises all ages. “Our primary goal when we started in 2010 was to bring together our very loyal and passionate fan community in person,” McGillicuddy says. “We really felt like, let’s build a mecca, let’s build a place where our fans could come together and continue to foster that community.”

Blogger and Twitter personality Nora Fiore, 25 (Nitrate Diva, for those on the #TCMParty social media threads), felt frustrated by how few film folks she ran into in real life. “I haven’t encountered many people my age who love classic film,” she says. “Even in my college film classes, most of the students don’t get my obsession with black-and-white Hollywood classics.”

“It’s mind-blowing for people not in this community to find young people who love these movies, but young people do love these movies,” says Lara Fowler, 30.

“I’ve had people tell me, ‘Oh, you don’t know who Marlon Brando is,’” Pickens says with a sigh. “It’s really insulting. You don’t think I’m an educated person?” McGillicuddy has heard stories like these before: “I often hear, especially from the more youthful part of our audience, that one of the reasons they look forward to this event is because there might not be many people in their peer group who love these movies.”

The enthusiasm young fans found online about all things Bette Davis and Jean Arthur was infectious. “I think the TCM community is excited to see younger people interested in classic film,” says Pickens. After time and plenty of TCM film festivals together, the tight-knit group becomes even closer. Of meeting online friends IRL, Pickens says, “It didn’t even feel weird because we all talked so much on Twitter. We know who’s recently gotten married or lost a loved one; it’s just like meeting your old friend you haven’t met in a long time.” Fiore admits she was nervous about meeting her online acquaintances face-to-face: “I was worried about how people who knew me on social media would react to me in person. Within five minutes of meeting my fellow bloggers and tweeps, there was no awkwardness.” 

Truly a film for all agesEXPAND
Truly a film for all ages
Courtesy TCM Classic Film Festival

Danny Reid, a 32-year-old American expat living in Japan, says friends encouraged him to make the long trek back to California for the festival. “When you talk to other classic-movie bloggers, they tell you you have to come to the TCM Festival."

Blogging and social media have been key components in building TCM's younger community. “It’s all about social media. There’s a big community on Tumblr and a big community on Twitter,” says Fowler. “All of my Facebook friends I talk to on a regular basis are classic movie fans in their 20s and 30s.” And there’s a benefit to making connections before the festival, says Kristen Lopez, 27. “It’s sometimes hard to put a face to a Twitter handle or Facebook name, but you feel like you have a network of friends already there when you get to the physical space.” Almost all of the people I interviewed cited the hashtag #TCMParty as one of the main ways they've connected with other classic-movie fans.

As robust as the community is online, during the festival, the fandom hits a fever pitch. “Millennials are the most active in terms of talking about it and getting the word out about it,” Reid says he's noticed. “I think the younger TCMers are a lot more passionate and vocal in a way the older ones aren’t.” He's also noticed that many fans come to the festival in groups. McGillicuddy says that sometimes this trend skews multigenerational, meaning younger people attend with parents or grandparents. But the group you travel with may not be the one you end up hanging out with. “Last year, I met people I never met before and now I spend more time talking with them than anyone else I went with last year,” Reid said.

And the reason classic-movie fans are so eager to talk about the TCM fest? The fan stories are stuff movie-nerd dreams are made of. “I got to see Jane Powell during a Q&A for my favorite movie, Seven Brides for Seven Brothers," says 28-year-old Oriana Nudo. And Lopez recalls frustratedly waiting for the only handicap bathroom at the Chinese Theatre to open up — when Mel Brooks emerged, she laughed it off. “I shared a bathroom with Mel Brooks!” Fiore fondly remembers listening to a scandalous story about Jack Nicholson (in his birthday suit) from Shirley MacLaine. Pickens recommends catching 101-year-old Norman Lloyd at any TCM event because “he’s such a jewel.”

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The inclusion of movies made after the Golden Age of Hollywood or those already in heavy rotation is a point of contention for some. “I don’t love it,” says Nudo. “Living in L.A., I have a lot of opportunities to see a lot of movies. It’s a Wonderful Life is playing this year, and although I usually love it, I’ve seen it on the big screen maybe 15 times.” Nudo said she thinks the festival has increased the number of newer films over the years; Fowler agrees. “There were a lot more modern movies from the ’50s and ’70s, even the ’80s and ’90s,” she observes. “I think they thought they needed to do that for their audience. No, these people my age want to see movies from the ’30s and ’40s.”

But the Hollywood legends, footprint ceremony — this year's with Francis Ford Coppola — and like-minded conversations come at a price, one that's perhaps too steep for a lot of millennials fresh out of college. Weekend passes range from $299 to $1,649 (although individual screenings are just $20 a pop).

“In 2012, I was just right out of college and wasn’t able to save enough money to go,” says Pickens. “When [fans] finally have a job or they’re able to get the time off, they go, but I know plenty of people on Twitter who have wanted to go for years, but things haven’t worked out." 

But when they can make it, almost no fan seems disappointed. “It’s a very accommodating atmosphere, and for me traveling with a wheelchair, I always feel safe. It’s very welcoming,” says Lopez.

“It’s very supportive," Reid concurs. "When I moved to Tokyo about two years ago, I was very lonely. But being able to connect with people through blogs and Twitter pushed me to go [to the festival] last year. It helped a lot. It’s why I’m coming back!”

McGillicuddy emphasizes the importance of keeping the fest open to all ages. “[The younger people] bring a different perspective than, say, an audience who might have seen these movies when they first came out in theaters,” she said. “The first year of the festival, we sent out a survey and asked what was your experience, what did you enjoy. To our surprise, many people came back to us with ‘We really enjoyed standing in line.’ That was because of the time they spent between films with people they'd never met but have this in common with; they really enjoyed talking with people who love film as much as they do.”

Fiore believes the movies of yesteryear resonate more with millennials than many people realize. “I think my generation responds to the subversive sides of old Hollywood, especially pre-Code films and film noir. TCM’s programming debunks a number of myths about classic movies,” she says, citing the network’s recent series on women filmmakers and movies banned by the League of Decency. “Studio-era films were often thrilling, shocking and, in some ways, ahead of where Hollywood is now.”

The TCM Classic Film Festival, various locations, Hollywood; Thu.-Sun., April 28-May 1; filmfestival.tcm.com.

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