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Sub-Genre Media Newsletter:
Weekly musings on indie film, media, branded content and related items from Brian Newman.

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Welcome to the (Mediocrity) Machine

June 23, 2021 - late today, because damn if things ain't gettin' busy these days.

Wash rinse repeat. The big news this week was that Spielberg has decided to join Netflix, to help Scorsese in the making of Swan Songs for the dying art form of cinema. Is this where great directors go to die? I say this in jest, of course, but it’s definitely where they go to get lost in the spinning wheel of the mediocrity machine. But don’t worry Netflix, you aren’t alone in building the mediocrity machine, as HBO Max and others are right behind you.
Don’t take my word for it; just ask Kenya Barris. He just left Netflix to start a new Studio with BET at least partly because, as he told the Hollywood Reporter: ““I just don’t know that my voice is Netflix’s voice,” he says now. “The stuff I want to do is a little bit more edgy, a little more highbrow, a little more heady, and I think Netflix wants down the middle.” He pauses, and then rephrases: “Netflix became CBS.”
Ouch. But too true. Netflix is becoming a source for TV for anyone. Which doesn’t often lead to the best stuff. Sure, you can fire up Netflix – as I do at least once a week – and find some great shows, and even some good movies in the queue. But as recent Ampere research, as reported this week by the WSJ shows, there’s also a lot of crap. Just take a look at these two charts. This one shows the number of movies released vs. critic and audience scores:

And this one shows what percentage of their films still have any buzz five months later:

Ouch again. 
But it’s not just Netflix that is becoming CBS. So is HBO, as the newly merged HBO Max/Warners and Discovery (DiscoBros) start to position themselves to be acquired by yet someone else (Apple? Amazon? Facebook?) they’re merging the high and the low, which doesn’t look like it will add up to the best of all worlds, either. As Alex Sherman of CNBC put it in Slate: “if you take HBO and you offer a bunch of programming that’s very much not HBO—and Discovery is on the other end of HBO: 90 Day Fiancé, HGTV, Cooking Channel reality shows. This is as far away from HBO as you get. Suddenly, over time, you now have a product that will degrade the HBO brand, and people will lose the connection of prestige and HBO, because it’s just kind of this mishmash thing.”
But let’s take this further – all of it is becoming a mishmash thing – we’re not far from a world where you don’t know who made/has what show or movie, because every service looks just about like the other. What is a Netflix movie or show? What’s a Hulu one? Or a DiscoBros one? Or a Peacock one? And as each of these services increases its allegiance to the algorithm, guess what? They’ll each keep learning that those “better” films – the arthouse, indie, and specialized films that I like to make and watch – don’t get watched as much as the reality shows. Magnolia Studios will perform better than Magnolia Pictures. All. The. Time.
So what do you do if you’re Netflix, Hulu, et al. is sign a few big brands, like Scorsese and Spielberg, so that people get some sense that the quality is there, even if they just feel good about that while watching Unsellable Houses. We – audiences – might get lucky for at least a few more years, as Scorsese and Spielberg can make some good stuff, and let’s not forget that we’re also seeing a lot more diverse films/shows from diverse creators (which is a great thing). But as the Ankler pointed out (as I was also writing this) Spielberg can also “set the airwaves on fire (…) with Roswell, New Mexico, Resident Alien, Brave New World, Laurel Canyon, All About Washingtons, Reverie, American Gothic, The Whispers, Red Band Society, Extant, Lucky 7, Terra Nova, Smash, and the second go-round of Amazing Stories, to name a few.”
Alas, this is what happens to all great technological inventions – the promise of bold futures becomes same old, same old pretty darn quickly.
I remember back in the olden days of around 2001 when my friends started getting Netflix subscriptions, and you’d inevitably end up in a conversation with one of the early adopters – “is it worth it? Do they have all the movies? What about obscure stuff? And do the DVDs come on time?” Netflix became a powerhouse of subscribers on the backs of an extensive DVD library, where you could find anything and everything you wanted, and get it pretty fast. If you wanted to watch it, they had it. Even auteur and niche cinemas. And you could find it. 
Now, even if they have it, you can’t find it. I’ve had trouble finding films I was involved with and knew they had, as well as brand new original releases that you’d think Netflix would want to promote to me. But they’re buried by the algorithm into some sea of things they think I want, because their algorithm can’t differentiate me from someone who likes only romantic comedy television. 
This would be fine because, hell, let’s admit it – my queue/list has many centuries of hours of “content” that I can’t get around to watching because I just heard about some other must-watch show through the grape-vine – but, it’s getting increasingly hard to find the films that I do want to see right now. They are stuck in some limbo, where either Netflix (and bros) don’t think anyone wants them, so they aren’t getting acquired or commissioned, or they’re being held onto for some archaic window by an arthouse distributor and theater circuit that is trying hard to go back to windowing models that should have been left behind during covid. 
Meanwhile, and as a quick aside to my brand film friends, every brand I know is trying their damnedest to join the fray in this mediocrity machine as well. Why? Ostensibly because that’s where all of the attention and eyeballs are located, but all of the above holds true for your content as well – even if well made. Will it keep people’s attention longer than five months, either? I guess this is better than :30 seconds and maybe the week after the Super Bowl, but not much. 
Point being, all of us need a better machine. 

Stuff I'm Reading

From ‘Hotel Rwanda’ to ‘The Slaughter House: The real-life hero of the 2004 film was hijacked and made a political prisoner: Almost everyone I know has seen Hotel Rwanda, and has an affinity for its hero, Paul Rusesabagina. The real story there is more complicated than the movie, but regardless, he probably didn't deserve being duped into a flight to a fake conference in Burundi just to be captured by President Kagame, and be thrown into a prison known for torture. Keir Pearson, the screenwriter of Hotel Rwanda and Tom Zoellner, the co-author of Mr. Paul Rusesabagina’s memoir, “An Ordinary Man," have written a strong Op-Ed for the WSJ denouncing his imprisonment and calling on Biden and other world leaders to take stronger action to demand his freedom. The problem here is that the West screwed up Rwanda so bad that everyone wants to support Kagame. And I get it - trust me - I've actually met Kagame twice and spent a fair amount of time in Rwanda and in his office (a long story), but I agree with their assessment: "Considering the millions in foreign aid the U.S. pours into Rwanda, American taxpayers are again underwriting a foreign power’s ability to harass, intimidate and abduct its critics. That this has happened to a renowned humanitarian like Mr. Rusesabagina is an outrage that can’t be allowed to stand without a vociferous response." Biden and other world leaders need to take a stand here.

DVD's Aren't Dead...even if they are: Talk to any distributor, and they'll tell you that they still have a healthy DVD business in spite of the rise of streaming. Especially places like Criterion or KinoLorber who service cinephiles. Why? Because the image quality is better. Business Insider did a survey and found that most of these buyers want the better quality. But I can also tell you - there's a lot of great stuff that's on DVD but not on streaming due to rights issues. That said, CNBC reported that “DVD sales have fallen more than 67% between 2011 and 2018… and now make up less than 10% of the total movie market.” So, no matter how you look at it, they're not gonna be a big business for long - just like there will always be vinyl purists (me), there will be BluRay ones, but it's a small business segment.

Report: Netflix to Generate 31% of All 2021 U.S. SVOD Revenue: While newer streaming services have certainly upped the competition, Netflix still leads the pack generating 30.8% the market’s revenue this year, Brightcove’s quarterly report finds. Disney+ comes in second (25.9%). While Netflix is still winning, note that this 30.8% represents a significant decrease of control over the market. Just two years ago, the streaming giant generated 44.4% of U.S. SVOD Revenue. MediaPlay has the news.

US AVOD user base declines by 10% since end of 2020: Contradicting industry wisdom, OMDIA finds that “US AVOD (18+) penetration had declined to 83% from a high of 93% in November 2020. It added that as the number of users of AVOD declines, the average number of US video services (SVOD and AVOD) taken per VOD user has also fallen for the first time, from 7.23 in November 2020 to 7.06 in April 2021. Senior research director Maria Rua Aguete explains that “After the 2020 explosion of VOD growth, we’re seeing a cooling of the market, partially driven by viewing habits normalising, and industry consolidation, but also from a wealth of new SVOD and studio services.” The report also finds that VOD users have an easier time dipping in and out of AVOD services than SVOD services, and that we’re starting to really see this effect for the first time. RapidTV News has the report.

SEARCHING FOR MR. RUGOFF to open nationally on August 13 as a benefit for the re-opening of independent art houses: Directed by my friend Ira Deutchman, feature-length documentary SEARCHING FOR MR. RUGOFF is the story of a man who brought art films into the mainstream in the mid to late 20th century against great odds. You’ve definitely seen Rugoff’s impact on the cinema world if you haven’t heard of him –– he distributed “Monty Python and the Holy Grail '' among countless others. In a nice twist, all proceeds from the release will be donated to the not-for-profit art house theaters presenting the film across the country. Deutchman explains, that in a world where theater is crippled by pandemics and threatened by streaming, “Independent art houses need our support to survive. Hopefully this release will jumpstart those efforts by reminding people that seeing a movie in a theater is a completely different experience than seeing it on their couches.” Find the complete list of theaters playing the film here.
Branded Content
I'm Hosting this Roundtable Discussion: “The Trees Remember” Films Series from REI Co-op Studios: I'll be hosting this upcoming discussion on Wed. June 30th at 1pm PT, and I recommend it (with clear bias): Recently, REI launched a short-film trilogy written and directed by accomplished filmmaker Angela Tucker. Spanning across 60 years, “The Trees Remember” is a series of compelling, reflective, and sometimes humorous short fiction films that feature Black women of different ages growing and thriving in the outdoors and exploring connection through movement, stewardship, and grace. The series is co-produced by REI’s Co-op Studios, the newly announced content arm that challenges the historically narrow definition of the outdoors in storytelling and representation.

As brands producing films move to address historic under-representation, and increase their attention to diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI), how can they best collaborate with filmmakers to tell stories that come from the community? What are some best practices for finding these filmmakers and stories? How can brands discover under-represented talent, and ensure they aren’t just working with the usual suspects? And what’s the best way to bring these films to market? Join us for a discussion with director Angela Tucker, REI’s Paolo Mottola and Hanna Boyd, moderated by film consultant Brian Newman (that would be me). Please watch the short films in advance at

A Jägermeister-Sponsored Documentary Toasts the Last Remaining Lesbian Bars in the US: It’s become clear that people want brands to pull their weight and make the world a better place: According to this CNBC report, “NBCUniversal’s research studies have found 81% of people are more likely to buy or use brands who help others when it’s needed most,” and Havas’ latest Meaningful brands survey finds something similar (refer to my newsletter on 6/10/21 for more details). “The Lesbian Bar Project”, a Jägermeister-sponsored documentary, demonstrates that brands are finally catching on and are using storytelling as an entry into social impact work.   
Seeking to share the rich history of lesbian bars in the U.S, directors Erica Rose and Eline Street partenerd with Jägermeister to release a 20-minute documentary on the subject as part of Jägermeister’s #SaveTheNight campaign. The campaign works to support LGBTQ+ people (and LGBTQ+ nightlife) during and after the pandemic. You can watch the film here, and AdWeek has the story.

How Procter & Gamble Plans to ‘Widen the Screen’ for Black Creators and Media Companies: The consumer packaged goods giant, Procter and Gamble (P&G) has engaged in an effort they’re calling “Widen the Screen” to “promote media projects from a Black perspective…[and] build an “entire ecosystem” of black creators – including writers, producers, directors, and media companies.” Among other things, they’ll be giving BIPOC media providers access to P&G and its brands and will be making their roster of media companies public. 
P&G’s efforts to “Widen the Screen” are paired with commitments to invest in multicultural marketing. In turn, P&G expects to do better in terms of “reach, representation, relevance and resonance.” Adweek’s David Kaplan explains that the initiative is an “approach to brand building within the concept of ‘constructive disruption’... premised on the practical use of data and tech as opposed to exploring ‘innovation only’” (read “practical” as “solving inequality in media”). 

Tribeca X, Tribeca’s branded content festival recently announced its winners, Kudos to all of them, listed below:  
  • Best Feature: Dear Santa, Director: Dana Nachman; Brand: The United States Postal Service
  • Best Episodic: Black Owned, Director: Rodney Lucas; Brand: Square
  • Best Short: Chinese New Year-Nian, Director: Lulu Wang; Brand: Apple
  • Tribeca X Immersive Award: Current, Creator: Annie Saunders; Brand: Brookfield Properties
Although it wasn’t a winner, a documentary called The Pope of Dope sponsored by cannabis brands Foxy an Eaze was a finalist. This marks a first for weed! Read the full story in AdWeek here.

What’s next for publisher content studios? Brian Morrissey of TheRebooting writes about the quickly-shifting history of publisher content studios. At first, “content studios were premised on the ability to create content efficiently, but also that they could bundle creative with distribution.” Soon after, they started to create, resemble, or buy agencies. But that proved to be inefficient, and frankly wasn't what any brand wanted from them, which was just distribution and customer insight. Now that brands are starting to act like publishers. Content studios “hope to apply [their] expertise in creating quality content to help companies with their marketing efforts”, which will in turn allow their sponsors (brands) to create content that resonates with the studio’s audience. Morrissey predicts that content studios “will become even more closely tied to the brands at the heart of publishers…. That means proving marketing services is a baseline but the real differentiator will be the insights publishers can provide.” We shall see - my hunch is that the publisher content studios will disappear, or be liaisons for original IP (like the NYT), and publishers will go back to being pipes - conduits to an audience, and the brand will make the content directly with good creatives instead.

How to Get Ideas in 4 Easy Steps: Kirby Ferguson, the brilliant filmmaker behind Everything is a Remix, which he's remaking now,  and This is Not a Conspiracy Theory (a take-down of actual conspiracy theories like Qanon) has published a strikingly simple guide for anyone who needs to get the creative juices flowing and "get ideas," something I could have used a week ago when I had none for the main article in this newsletter. I would summarize them here, but there's just 4 of them, and they're spot on, so go check them out for yourself. 

São Paulo Museum of Modern Art Opens Its Virtual Doors in Minecraft: Like many other museums, São Paulo’s Museum of Modern Art (MAM) had to get creative during COVID-19. For MAM, this meant partnering with Minecraft to simulate the exterior and interior of the museum, including its installations. The partnership delivered a cutting-edge experience to millions of people who don’t have access to the contents of the MAM in the real world. Open the article from AdWeek to watch a promo video on Minecraft’s simulation of MAM. 

New York Theater Remains Overwhelmingly White, Marginalized Communities “Vastly Underfunded”, Study Finds: A new study called The Visibility Report assesses NYC theater racial equity during the 2018-19 theater season. Findings include (but are not limited to) the following:  
  • “predominantly white institutions received nearly $150 million in total funding, while the theaters of color received roughly $12.5 million. Of $21 million that came from government funding alone, white institutions received four times more federal funding that BIPOC companies, and twice as much in state funding.”
  • “100% of artistic directors at the largest non-profits were white.” 
  • “the net gain for hiring of Black, Indigenous and People of Color (BIPOC) actors was only 0.5% higher than the previous year and most of the gains came in chorus roles.”
  • “BIPOC writers “plummeted 9 points on Broadway this season to just 11%”
  • “93.8% of all directors on Broadway were white, similar to the year before, as were 92.6% of Broadway designers”
  • “for every $1 spent by nonprofits on white actors... $0.53 was spent on Black actors, $0.10 on Asian American actors, $0.05 on Latinx actors, $0.02 on Middle East and North Africa actors and $0 on Indigenous actors.
Read the article by Greg Evans at Deadline.
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