“It just took off like lightning,” Jennifer Dorian says.
The “it” in question is a Twitter meme that became all but ubiquitous when it spread across the platform in April, asking people to list the four films that defined them, and then to include the hashtag #Filmstruck4 and tag four friends.
Seemingly everybody with an opinion on movies #Filmstruck4’ed. Barry Jenkins. Jessica Chastain. Rian Johnson. Vox’s own Genevieve Koski. It had everything you would want from a Twitter meme: It was easy to participate in, revealed something about your personality, and mostly avoided the major social and political arguments of the day. It made the often garbage-strewn hellscape that is Twitter in 2018 seem bearable for a brief moment.
It was, of course, also a corporate branding opportunity, cooked up by the Filmstruck social media team in a bid to raise awareness for the service, a sort of streaming version of Turner Classic Movies that currently boasts the streaming rights to the very hoity-toity Criterion Collection and the massive Warner Instant Archive — but which also has a minuscule marketing budget compared to the Netflixes of the world. To Dorian and her team, it succeeded beyond their wildest dreams, drawing attention both to Filmstruck and to the wider TCM world as a whole.
Sure, there was criticism here and there of Film Twitter falling so thoroughly for what was, ultimately, a marketing ploy. That criticism was fair, especially in an era when movie fans are encouraged to become fans not just of movies but of specific movie-related #brands.
And yet #Filmstruck4 also provided a window into a way classic movies, increasingly overlooked by the big three streaming services (Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon), have proved resilient in the face of so much #content. Social media might be tearing us apart when it comes to questions of politics, social progress, and superhero movies, but boy, is it the right platform for people who just want to talk about classic movies.
And TCM knows it, as does Criterion, its only real competition in the “popularization of classic film for mainstream audiences” space. Whether a fan community can be at once an organic social media-driven phenomenon and a major part of a corporate entity’s future business plan will determine the future of not just classic film fandom but also services like Filmstruck itself.
Want to talk about classic movies? Increasingly, it’s best to head to Twitter or Tumblr.
In 2016, around the time of Filmstruck’s launch, I wrote about classic movies’ ongoing struggle to find space to exist in a streaming world. And one of the most consistent arguments against that piece was that, sure, Netflix might not be where you go to find a classic movie to watch, but it wasn’t as if the internet were hindering classic movie fandom. If you were on Twitter or Tumblr, especially, there was a party just waiting for you to get there.
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“So often, when [social media] involves politics or things that touch on social issues, it becomes this rather ugly, hostile place, particularly for women,” says TCM host Ben Mankiewicz. “Here [on Classic Film Twitter], it is a social media. It is a social gathering, and like most social gatherings, people are pleased and delighted to be there and eager to meet interesting people who share their passion.”
Perhaps this feels incredibly obvious. Of course if there’s a specific topic you want to discuss in 2018, you can go on a social media platform to do so, in the way you might have gravitated toward a blog or message board 10 years ago. But where those platforms were characterized by a certain kind of dry, scholarly consideration, social media rewards those with a keen sense of visual flair, of aesthetic pizzazz.
Thus, classic film social media discussion is somewhat like the larger world of “Film Twitter,” in that it’s primarily interested in discussing and arguing about movies, but it has an element of evangelism to it as well. These are movies you should care about, the discussion argues, and here’s how you can get started watching and learning about them. Where Film Twitter can descend into petty infighting at the drop of a hat, the classic film social media community is ready to throw a million recommendations at you until you might find something you like. And then you’re hooked.
“I make a lot of GIFs,” says Nora Fiore, who writes and tweets under the handle Nitrate Diva. “A movie that nobody might have ever heard of, if they see just a little clip of somebody striking a pose or making a face, something that captures their imagination, they’re going to be more likely to find that film, and they’re going to be more receptive to films of that era in general. A lot of times, it’s just about putting that aesthetic out there and seeing how people latch onto it.”
This is where TCM enters the picture. Dorian is quick to point out that the company didn’t start the popular hashtag #TCMParty — as far as I can tell, it began in September 2011 tied to a live tweet-along of the movie Guys and Dolls by a handful of classic film bloggers — but the hashtag has come to occupy a kind of centrality to classic film discussion on Twitter and even other platforms. (Here’s a Tumblr for it, for instance.) It’s a quick way to find others who love classic movies, as well as a good place for TCM to engage with its base.
“We treat it with velvet gloves because we want to respect its authenticity,” Dorian says. “We don’t have a lot of off-channel marketing, so social media is really important to us.”
I certainly don’t want to make this relationship sound malicious, even if it involves people forming bonds with a corporation. The #TCMParty core audience is small enough — Dorian says TCM research has counted 30,000 unique participants in the hashtag — that the network can really get to know those viewers. And since TCM isn’t measured by Nielsen ratings (since it doesn’t show ads, it opts out of the numbers), paying attention to classic film discussions on social media is sometimes the best way to figure out who’s watching the channel.
“I’m a big Disney fan, and I will be the first to tell you Disney’s a company. I love them, but there’s no person behind a screen that I feel like I can connect with at Disney. It feels like corporate pandering, which is what it is,” says film critic Kristen Lopez, a passionate classic film fan and TCM devotee. And she says TCM is different, at least with its biggest fans. “TCM is really good at giving you that homeyness, that concept of, ‘We’re a small group within this big conglomerate.’ … They really feel like they foster this community within their own corporation.”
How discussing troubling aspects of classic movies online can enhance that complicated conversation, not shut it down
That feeling of “homeyness” has also given Classic Film Twitter a leg up when it comes to discussing the serial predations of horrible men in Hollywood, a topic that has come to much more prominence in the past year. It’s prompted an unending conversation about separating art from artists.
“Some of the defense of [troubling movies from the past] is, while incorrect, certainly human and understandable,” Mankiewicz says. “The threat is, all of a sudden I wake up one morning and [you] tell me that something I loved is now unlovable.” So how do we have that conversation without self-destructing?
Tune in to the discussion around these topics on Classic Film Twitter and you’ll find a pretty common refrain: This has always been happening in Hollywood. And once you understand and accept that, you can draw a more complete picture of moguls and artists who might have created great films but still did horrible things, a more complete picture that can help you contextualize modern art made in similar circumstances.
“#MeToo didn’t start and end with Harvey Weinstein. It goes back to looking at people like [Alfred] Hitchcock to Louis B. Mayer to Darryl Zanuck,” Lopez says. “Hollywood has been founded on men, whether it’s them running the studios or directing the movies. … People assume what’s going on now is so horrible, but I always talk to people, like, ‘You need to look at what was going on in the past, because classic film crimes are even more salacious. We just don’t know about it.’”
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What sets the conversation on Classic Film Twitter apart is that it extends beyond simply questioning how to deal with figures from the past who might have done terrible things. It also touches on how older movies might have contri