Why Don’t People Watch Old Movies Anymore?

Roger Ebert retweeted this article yesterday, and it addresses questions of my own that I have had for a while. Why is it that classic movies seem to be losing prominence with the general public? The author cites changes in movie distribution trends that limit the exposure of older films. He says that up through the 1970s, distribution tactics kept older films recirculating, either on basic television networks, or through theatrical re-releases. These days, movies follow a pattern of mass theatrical release, followed by DVD and pay-network releases a few months later. Eventually, those same movies get picked up on cable channels months after that. Therefore, the pool of movies to watch at any given time is usually limited new and semi-new releases that are played over and over on these different release formats. Gone are the days where you might be flipping through channels on the weekend and run into a Hitchcock or Hawks film. Because of this, newer generations don’t have a chance to discover some of these films, at least not through the same ways our parents did.

Even though there are greater avenues of access to classic film today then back then (Netflix, streaming video, etc.), one must make a conscious decision to seek them out. Being bombarded with other movie choices, and tons of other options on TV, classic movies probably don’t end up high on most people’s priority lists. I love TCM, but in all honesty it’s a cable channel that I have to choose out of the other 300+ options I have when I turn on the TV.

The main thing that got me thinking was actually the beginning of the article, where the author recounts an encounter with his student. The student asks, why are you showing us things from these movies we’ve never heard of? Then the author gives a list of what they were watching in the class. The titles aren’t obscure art-house films, but movies like His Girl Friday, Casablanca and Double Indemnity. I mean, you’ve never heard of Casablanca?

I remember reading another article about the Jimmy Stewart Museum last year, how they were struggling as attendance numbers were decreasing over the years. That article spoke of other museums and historic places dedicated to golden age stars who were facing the same challenges. Many said it was due to the interest level in these stars dropping off as those who grew up in that era aged, and the younger generation’s lack of interest. Debbie Reynolds was never able to start the museum for all of her studio treasures, and the collection is now being auctioned off. This is all saddening to me, as I feel movies are such a big part of our history, and it’s slowly fading away.

I guess in some ways it doesn’t surprise me. I was one of those people who didn’t really give a hoot about classic film. I did know some actors, directors and films by name recognition, and my parents brought us up on 1950s MGM musicals, so I wasn’t completely clueless. It wasn’t until I started to become interested in film myself that I started to realize that to have a solid grounding in what cinema is today, you have to look at the past. We do it with every other art form, why not film?

Somewhere along the line, watching classic film became my love, not just something I was doing for my own film knowledge benefit. I clog up my DVR (much to my family’s annoyance) with movies, I don’t think I’ve ever rented anything current from Netflix, and I’ve pretty much exhausted my local library’s DVD collection. I can’t imagine a world with out the talents of Stewart, Grant, Bogart, Stanwyck, Davis and Hepburn, the genius of Hitchcock, the versatility of Hawks and the wit of Preston Sturges. I hope they never fade away, nor do I think they will. Sure, some of these old films are somewhat dated, but others are timeless-that’s why they are called classics. They’re here for us to learn from, but also to enjoy.

I’d love to hear how some of you got into watching classic movies. My true hook was through Jimmy, Frank Capra and  It’s A Wonderful Life , but that’s a story for another day…

Happy movie watching!

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17 Responses to Why Don’t People Watch Old Movies Anymore?

  1. Audrey says:

    This was a great post. I think a lot of people just don’t know about how fun old films are!

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts. 🙂

  2. Great writing and I totally agree. I know many people that if it’s black & white they won’t watch it and also if it was made before they were born it’s the same thing. It’s sad how many movies they are missing out on by thinking that way. I grew up watching some classic movies like you did, mostly Hitchcock, and sadly at time I didn’t appreciate it as much as I did when I got older, but they were still movies I loved to watch. The first classic movie I remember watching was when I was around 7, it was on Halloween night I watch “Arsenic and Old Lace” and just fell in love with it. And like you I remember watching “It’s a Wonderful Life” whenever I had Christmas at my fathers. Now I don’t know how old you are but me being in my early 20’s really makes me sad that my generation might be the killer of classic movies, and the end of TCM. But luckily there are some of us, like you who will be the fighters of keeping these classics alive and showing future generations how wonderful and historic all of these movie are.

    Thanks for such a great article.

    • I’m also in my early 20s, and I hope TCM is around for a long time. What I do see happening is classic film almost becoming it’s own “niche,” or “type” of film rather than being looked at as part of the larger film history canon. There’s so much variety out there for people to explore, so hopefully these films don’t get lumped into the generic “old black and white film” category. There are only 15 or so films out in a theater at a given time, but there are decades worth of movies out there to discover!

      Thanks for reading! I guess one thing I really love about the time we live in is that through the internet people can connect and dialogue over common passions 🙂

    • Thomas Kessinger says:

      I don’t care the least bit if a movie is in black and white. I have seen a bit of a colorized version of the 1933 King Kong and it just didn’t look right. I know they tried, but it is far better off being in its original black and white format, it’s way more convincing, if you know what I mean. 🙂

  3. Bill Mesce says:

    Flattered to see my article sparked your own musings on the subject. And nicely articulated musings they are!

  4. I have a friend who said the following to me:

    “Old movies are so boring! They aren’t in color and the storylines drag.”

    She is an actress.

    • Yeah, that’s my sister. I’ll pop something in for us to watch and she’s says, “Is this in black and white?”

      You would think those who act would want to study some of the greats. Like Brando in On The Waterfront, that’s in black and white 😛

  5. J says:

    I’m in my early 30’s and have been a lifelong fan of classic films. I actually “grew up” on the classic Hollywood films, very little else was ever allowed in our home. While I may have found that limiting at times, and have since caught up on more modern film choices, I have never lost my love for films produced during the so called golden era of film making or for the spectacular talent that starred in them. It is sad and frustrating to me that so few people, at least in my experience, give this body of work a second thought.

    Only a handful of films seem to still be well known, “It’s a Wonderful Life”, etc. My husband is typical of the common attitude, black and white equals boring. Although, in his defense, he will watch these films with me and has become a huge fan of the Thin Man series and occasionally another movie will win him over. Mr. Blanding Builds His Dreamhouse is another repeat player.

    I’m excited to realize that there are others out there – either around my age or even younger! – who also enjoy these films! I hope my son will grow up loving them too!

    • I grew up on MGM musicals, but honestly didn’t appreciate that era of filmmaking until I was older and went back on my own time and started watching these films. There’s so much variety out there, noir, musicals, drama, comedy, I love going back and exploring it all.
      Thanks so much for stopping by and reading!

  6. Dan says:

    I love the old movies. You do have to watch to top rated ones, they are not all great. This is may favorite place to watch them. It is a safe site that embeds movies from Youtube. They only put up the top rated movies that are available for free, but always easy to find.

  7. i says:

    We have watched this old movies. We know them my heart. Hollywoodis making nothing but CRAP…….If it doesn’t have swear words or sex, they don’t make it. Don’t they realize that the best movies were made without all the garbage. We can’t even let our kids watch it. The most sexist part of the old movie was in AFFAIR TO REMEMBER….WHEN THEY KISSED AND ONLY THING THAT WAS SHOWED WERE THEIR SHOES ON THE STEPS OF THE SHIP…..They are doing such a disservice to us and our children and grandchildren…….
    What happened to Dr. Quinn Medicine Woman, Murder she wrote. Bonaza. They are on the reruns and that is the only thing I watch. But, when you have seen them 200 times. We would like some new series…….Hollywood should be ashamed of the garbage they put out. Get back to basics. get back to good movies…..

  8. mk says:

    I love old movies.

  9. Thomas Kessinger says:

    I’m crazy for old movies such as King Kong (the 1933 version) and The Long, Long Trailer and so on. I think that it is totally impossible to dislike old movies. Classics never die! 🙂

  10. phil b says:

    Todays kids wouldn`t know a good movie even if nit came up to them and bit them on their ass. Ij cant imagine classics like “Stagecoach”, “Red River”, “Fort Apache”, “Sunset Blvd”, “Psycho” or other great classics in color.

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