The lights go out and an electric whir emanates from the projector overhead as a digital image shines on the screen. The ominous music of John Huston’s 1941 film noir classic The Maltese Falcon booms from the speakers. The classroom full of students settle in for one hundred minutes of film history presented right before their very eyes. From my perch in the last row of seats, I maintain an unobstructed view of the screen as the black and white digitization of the classic film draws me into its magnificent splendor. Just then, I am blinded by a cell phone screen in front of me. A student is texting someone named ‘Hilz’. Her screen blackens and once again the film has my attention. Suddenly, another screen brightens up the room. Apparently, someone’s selfie received a comment. Before that screen can dim, another lights up. Two seats in front of me, someone is watching clips from a football game. Three seats over, there is an iPad on a desk as someone plays a game of poker. Four seats down and two across, a student watches some sort of cartoon on her iPhone. Sam Spade has yet to make an appearance and half the class is preoccupied and distracted by a small screen that they can carry in their pocket or backpack. This is one observation out of many that I have made as a cinema studies student. What causes these students to lose interest so fast? Has the moving image become so passé that it can barely hold their attention?
When approaching these questions one must understand the variables involved. In laying out this theory, I will attempt to offer my own observations, statistics, and insight from past theorists in order to understand the apathetic nature of the Millennial generation when it comes to film. To understand these attitudes, one must gain an overview of current circumstances in order to contemplate the origins of where Millennial Apathy first began.
The term ‘Millennial’ is typically adhered to anyone who is currently between the ages of eighteen and thirty-four as stated in Time magazine.[i] However, there is some debate when attempting to define Millennials’ age range. As Tanya Basu continues to explain in Time,
There are variations within each generation. For instance, some older Millennials (27-34) identify more with Gen Xers: they remember a life before the Internet, find themselves socially different from younger Millennials, and don’t identify with many pop culture icons and events that define the life experiences of the college set.[ii]
This, I believe, is a key differentiation between Generation X (35-50) and Millennials; the use of technology. While Generation Xers did grow up during the burgeoning Internet years, it did not have as much of an impact on them as it did on Millennials during their formative childhood years. This is a very important aspect that makes Millennials unique to previous generations. The pervasion of technology has engrossed their lives to such an extent that their subsistence within the digital age is changing faster than ever before. Attitudes toward the moving image continue to change as screens perpetually invade our society. When applying these technological advances to the cinematic arts, an unnerving fact begins to appear.
The silver screen of the past has become a relic. The times of sitting in a darkened movie hall waiting for the thrill of a new motion picture are slowly dwindling. The Millennial generation is the first generation to have virtually every film and television program at their fingertips, after mere clicks and possibly a small monetary payment. This unprecedented access has been greeted with indifference and casual acceptance, instead of a profound embrace that a technological advancement such as having unlimited access to a large percent of cinema and media demands. Millennials often subsist unaware as to the power they possess. As I have observed in numerous classrooms filled with Millennials, this technology at their fingertips has been taken for granted. Just as the ability to record live television and watch movies at home became a mainstay and a way of life for Generation X, so has Millennial’s ability to view whatever they wish, whenever they wish, on a multitude of different screens.
However, it is not only the technology available that is creating an apathy which is so prevalent in Millennials, it also the consistent increase in movement and editing which has become ubiquitous in the cinema of today. A study by Dr. James Cutting, a psychologist at Cornell University, reveals some interesting facts about how films have changed in the last eighty years, “the average shot length of English language films has declined from about 12 seconds in 1930 to about 2.5 seconds today.”[iii] That type of editing, or hyper-editing, is apparent in current popular films such as Joss Whedon’s 2015 movie Avengers: Age of Ultron and James Gunn’s 2014 film Guardians of the Galaxy. Both of these films have been extremely popular and remain in the top three grossing films of their respective year.[iv] While specific demographics of these films are difficult to determine (in terms of age ranges), it is apparent that Millennials favor these types of comic book-based action films due to the immense amount of discourse regarding these films shared between Millennials on social media websites and film review boards. When asked why he prefers a science fiction film like Guardians of the Galaxy over an older film from the same genre like Richard Fleisher’s 1973 film Soylent Green, one Millennial responded “Old movies are really boring. I feel like they take forever, and have no action in them at all.” Which is a response that is congruent with the research performed by Dr. Cutting,
It probably comes as no surprise, but modern movies have more action than older films. Our response to motion is physiological. When people watch action sequences their heart rate increases, and so does their galvanic skin response, an indicator of physiological arousal. Tying the motion to shot changes is an especially effective way to engage the attention of viewers.
Since the early 1980s, and through the 1990s and 2000s, films have become faster, more action-packed affairs that have sutured themselves in the way society views movies. The Hollywood summer blockbuster has become the standard for relentless attention-grabbing action. Couple this with the increase in video game industry, which maintains that 31.9% of all video games sold are action games[v], a correlation seems to exist between the amount of action and motion in which Millennials partake within films and video games. Not only this, but Millennials have grown up with and have become accustomed to certain visual stimulation. Once this stimulation from the excess of motion seen in movies and video games is added to the amount of screens vying for Millennials attention, then one can begin to see how quickly this generation can become bored and inattentive when viewing films from the past (some Millennials interviewed say films from just half a decade ago are considered too boring). There is some interesting research to be done in this area, such as comparing films from several years ago with their newer, updated sequels or remakes in order to discern the differences in areas of editing, shot duration, and speed of action. Likewise, how will future films tailor their action and speed to meet the demand of an increasingly apathetic Millennial audience?
There is a basic connection with the Millennial Apathy Theory and Tom Gunning’s argument of the Aesthetic of Astonishment. Gunning uses the arguments of Walter Benjamin and Siegfried Kracauer in order to discern an existence of “a stimulus shield. Which inhabitants of the overstimulated environments of the modern world develop in order to ward off its constant assaults. But one could also point out that this stimulus shield dulls the edge of experience. And more intense aesthetic energies are required to penetrate it.”[vi] This dulling of the senses is extremely apparent with regards to Millennials. Their entire existence has been dictated by increasing stimulation from numerous screens, hyper-edited films, and quicker more exciting video games. Perhaps the stimulus shield which Gunning describes is so hardened and calloused around this Millennial generation that it requires an enormous aesthetic onslaught in order to penetrate the shield and grasp their attention.
Throughout their lives Millennials have grown accustomed to screens, action, and motion. They live in an era of immense cinematic power, yet remain ambivalent to its potential. No longer do films keep their attention. They require stimulation at greater speeds. If a film cannot connect with them within mere moments, they seek provocation from other sources. As the craving for speed increases, the thicker Millennials stimulus shield will grow. However, one thing is for sure, Millennials remain cynical and apathetic to any image, technology, or stimulation that is incapable of holding their attention. They live in a world of screens, a world created by filmmakers and video game designers. Images and representations are a large part of their lives, and it will be interesting to see how Millennials treat cinema in the following years. If their apathetic nature continues and is enhanced by future generations, perhaps the humble motion picture has outlived its welcome.
[i] Tonya Basu, “Millennials: Don’t Call Us Millennials,” Time Magazine (2015), http://time.com/4021479/millennial-generation-pew.
[iii] Greg Miller, “Data From a Century of Cinema Reveals How Movies Have Evolved,” Wired, (2014), http://www.wired.com/2014/09/cinema-is-evolving/
[iv] “Domestic Grosses,” Box Office Mojo, Accessed December 2, 2015. http://www.boxofficemojo.com/movies/?page=similar&id=marvel2014a.htm
[v] “Essential Facts About the Computer and Video Game Industry,” The Entertainment Software Association, http://www.theesa.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/10/ESA_EF_2014.pdf.
[vi] Tom Gunning, “An Aesthetic of Astonishment: Early Film and the (In)credulous Spectator”, in Film Theory & Criticism, ed. Leo Braudy and Marshall Cohen (New York: Oxford, 2009), 749.