This was a year in which young artists drove the cultural conversation in television and film, leading the industry to new ideas, new identities, and new images, but it wasn’t only the artistic ingenuity of the under-35 crowd in film and TV on full display throughout 2016. As the film industry has been shaken up by the changes brought on by streaming and international funding, the financial ingenuity displayed by the new creative class on their way to making the shows and movies we loved this year was just as diverse and just as impressive as their artistic bona fides.
Donald Glover and Issa Rae
Perhaps the two most visible entrants into the new pantheon of creative leaders were Donald Glover and Issa Rae, familiar faces for curious audiences who might have already seen their smaller projects. But despite the devotion of their existing fan bases, both showrunners used temporary hiatuses from the spotlight so they might return with work worthy of their creative energies. Actor, rapper, and writer Glover began developing his series, Atlanta, after years of writing for 30 Rock and performing on NBC’s Community in 2013; meanwhile, writer and actress Rae received an option that same year from HBO as a response to the success of her web series, “Awkward Black Girl.” The result of their patience and trust in the creative process is that Glover and Rae have been able to write, direct, and star in shows that represent their visions of the gray areas in the black experience. Their reward — and the reward for the networks that invested in their success — is that audiences have responded. Atlanta posted the highest premiere ratings in years for its cable network carrier FX, and Insecure has already been renewed for a second season at HBO.
Matt and Ross Duffer
If Rae and Glover are two examples of the kind of creative confidence that can come from a lengthy collaboration with producers and studios, this year’s other television breakout had nearly the opposite development story. Stranger Things, this summer’s sci-fi hit, came from Matt and Ross Duffer, two brothers with just a few credits to their names who insisted that their idea was not only good enough to make it to series, but that they needed to be the ones directing the project despite their inexperience. In contrast to the slow cooking done for Atlanta and Insecure, the Duffer Brothers were pushed to series quickly, as the pilot script for Stranger Things was sold to the production company 21 Laps, then sold to Netflix, and then filmed from the start to finish in 2015. Where Insecure and Atlanta were aiming to create a new world of television that didn’t subscribe to stereotype, Stranger Things was looking to old worlds for inspiration, bringing the nostalgia of ’80s and ’90s sci-fi and horror movies to a streaming-era audience. What the three shows have in common, however, is a will to stay true to the ideas that move their creators, and the connection between artist, show, and audience for each series is intimate. Atlanta, Insecure, and Stranger Things aspired to be more than event television — each one aimed to be someone’s favorite show. As creative investments, these series were more personal than prudent.
Anna Rose Holmer, Trey Edward Shults, and Elizabeth Wood
If the competitive market for television has made it increasingly possible for young people with a vision for a series to make that vision tangible, the hurdle for film is the lack of resources available for artists who aren’t already established ... which is maybe all the more reason to be impressed by the filmmakers with outstanding narrative film debuts in 2016. Anna Rose Holmer, Trey Edward Shults, and Elizabeth Wood each had to hustle for their films to exist. Holmer applied for grant funding internationally to maintain her own artistic control, Wood solicited small contributions from multiple financiers, and Shults worked on a micro-budget, using his family as actors for a film that he shot in his own home. The results of their faith and their labor are three films that are artistically challenging and idiosyncratically personal. Holmer’s The Fits explores its story of gender performance on a girl’s step team by blending a surreal narrative with realist style, White Girl stays sober through its protagonist’s bad trip thanks to its omnipotently sharp direction, and Shults’s Krisha is a flight into one woman’s unstable subjectivity accomplished with little more than performance and some outstandingly kinetic camerawork. All three films premiered at film festivals, were acquired for distribution only after they had the word of critics on their sides, and employed actors who were mostly unknown, and not one met the world with either interference or support from major studios. They are independent features in the true sense of the word, and their existence, not to mention their excellence, is a testament to the resilience of the artists who made them.
Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert
Even beyond the realm of micro-budget filmmaking, young creatives challenged the expectations of the film industry this year. Music-video graduates Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert brought the viral-friendly style they’d perfected in videos like “Turn Down for What” to feature-length storytelling with Swiss Army Man, securing funding through their participation in the Sundance Directors Lab and by virtue of the sheer weirdness of their proposed film — maybe cinema’s first buddy comedy in which one half of the tender duo is a projectile-vomiting corpse who roleplays his way to bromance in makeshift forest buses and treehouses. And for audiences who prefer their existential quandaries flatulence-free, both my personal pick for the year’s best film and the film that will probably win the Oscar for Best Picture were made by filmmakers in their early thirties — Mia Hansen-Løve’s Things to Come and Damien Chazelle’s La La Land, respectively. (Not for nothing, one of the only films that could deservedly topple either from their Best of the Year positions is Moonlight, directed by second-time feature filmmaker Barry Jenkins, who is only 37.)
Probably the highest-profile movie directed by a filmmaker under 35 this year, La La Land has proven surprisingly divisive in its reception. But at least in its themes, it seems only fitting that 2016 should close out with Chazelle’s movie, which packs the creative anxiety of being an emerging artist in Hollywood into the most iconically Hollywood of all film genres — the musical. As lovers, Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone swirl around each other in Fred-and-Ginger poses, but as artists they can’t quite seem to keep their minds on romance. Is it worth it to pursue art as a profession if what you’re able to make is dependent on the market that will buy it? How can anyone afford to make art that isn’t purely product? And even if you do get to make the work you love, will you find an audience to care?
As tech companies like Netflix and Amazon continue to disrupt traditional models for how media is paid for and distributed, there is an increasing reliance on data to understand what makes a successful project in film or television. But for the people who make the media that studios want to distribute, an idea has to exist before there can be an itinerary, and the connection that financiers want to build with audiences first has to be born between the artist and their work. As Donald Glover put it in an interview on “All Things Considered,” people responded to art in 2016 when they were given a feeling, not an algorithm — and who better to understand the limitations of computer-driven storytelling than those in the web-native generation who never lived without it?