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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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The Waiting for Godot Film Biz

March 9, 2022

This weekend we have the start of SXSW and the Oscars. Everyone is excited because things are just about to happen. Big things. Movies premiere and get bought, sold, and reviewed. And others have been snagging our attention for a year, and now they get awards that lead to… something. And everyone I speak with tells me that good things are starting to happen in the business, or are just around the corner, on the horizon.
Which reminds me of a quote from the Wall Street Journal this week about the economy:
 “It’s the ‘Godot’ recession,” said Ray Farris, chief economist at Credit Suisse… Every six months, economists have predicted a recession six months later, he said. “By the middle of the year, people will still be expecting a recession in six months’ time.”

Sounds a lot like film. Every six months, we hear that good things are just around the corner, in about six months. And every six months, I point out that we heard that before, and will hear it again in six months. I worry that this might multiply, and we’ll be saying it every six years. Oh wait, it’s not every six months… I was just saying this two weeks ago (!) and pointed out that I’d been saying it since at least 2006…oops! Seems like we’re stuck in a tragicomic play or something.
But on the brighter side of things, I do think there are signs of life not just around the corner, but happening right now, and specifically in the most “written-off” aspect of the business – exhibition. I just got back from vacation this weekend, and in just three days, I’ve gotten multiple reports from exhibitors, or those who work with them, that something strange and awesome is going on at the cinemas – people are showing up. Not just any people, either, but younger people and diverse ones at that, and it's been going on for months now.
Just take this week’s report from Ray Pride in NewCityFilm about the state of repertory cinema in Chicago. In his article, he interviews many exhibitors, such as Rebecca Lyon of the Music Box Theater, who reports that audiences for repertory programming have been exploding, and it’s definitely a younger audience. Why? Lyon tells Pride:  
“I don’t pretend to know, but I think people are ready to see films in person again, and the places they are choosing to do so are not multiplexes, but places that feel special and unique to them. Like when I first started going back to restaurants, I didn’t rush out to Subway, I went to my favorite little neighborhood spot. As for the age of the audience, again, it’s hard to say for sure but we’re seeing a ton of younger people coming out.”
The pandemic, again, has shaped the social experience. “Unfortunately I don’t think you can talk about this and not bring up the pandemic. My parents are in their late seventies and they definitely aren’t interested in going to shows with 500 people yet. But young people are turning out in droves for stuff that is readily available to watch on Criterion, so there clearly is a desire for that big-screen, communal experience.” Lyon hopes it lasts. “My hope is that this isn’t a fleeting thing and that we’re building an audience who will return again and again.”

That sentiment is what I heard from others this week – that the audience showing up now isn’t the same audience showing up pre-pandemic. And everyone is hoping this lasts. I’ve heard this not just about repertory cinema, but other arthouse films, but many are pointing out that the classics are driving more traffic than the new stuff – with some saying it’s that people want the known good things. I think that’s part of it, but I am also pretty convinced there’s something tied to this with the discovery and rediscovery of these films via #FilmTikTok, where a new type of reviewer is turning a new generation of audiences on to great cinema. 
Whatever it is, it’s a palpable change of vibe in the scene, and one we’d better cultivate like crazy.  And it’s one of the few positive things I’ve heard about the business as of late – films might not be selling, but people are starting to show up to watch the good ones. So maybe, just maybe, we can curate some more good, newer ones for them to watch as well. And while we’re at it, we can cultivate these audiences to participate in a dialogue with these films – over at TikTok and other social media, while also helping to build an even bigger audience. But we have to actively cultivate this audience and not just sit around and hope they will keep showing up. Or we'll find ourselves months from now, siting around trying to find them, waiting for Godot.

Meanwhile, other good signs keep popping up. I am hearing from producers moving projects forward, finding creative solutions for films that haven't sold, and doing the indie shuffle to stay alive. And from companies who are merging, partnering and exploring new business models. I think a lot of stuff is in the works, behind the scenes. In that "Spirit," did you hear about Daniel Kwan's speech at the Spirit Awards? It's been all over my feed, but ICYMI, he said (as reported by Eugene Hernandez on FB) (edits mine):

“This is an opportunity...When things are shaking, and it gets turbulent and the cracks form in the foundations that’s the best time to plant the seeds,” he said, “It is our job not just to adapt to the future, but also to actively dream up what kind of future we want to rewrite and what kind of future we want to be working and living in. I just urge us all to think really big...What we do here is going to flow upstream to the rest of the industry. We have a very special power. It seems like a weakness because what we do is so small and scrappy but that makes us flexible; that makes us able to move in ways the rest of the industry cannot. I urge you all to plant some seeds, now, today.”

And that's the spirit of everyone I've been talking to lately- sowing the seeds for what's next. Or as Maria Agui Carter replied on that post:  "It reminds me of another saying, “Quisieron enterrarnos, pero se les olvido que somos semillas.“ (They tried to bury us, they didn’t know we were seeds.)" 

Amen to that too. Sow those seeds in the cracks of the foundations - which are everywhere right now - because things can only go up from here. Right?!

Stuff I'm Reading

Janet and John Pierson Tribute: The "fairy godparents" of indie cinema - Janet and John Pierson - were recently honored by the Austin Film Society, and the Austin Chronicle has a nice interview with them, which also covers the arc of their impressive careers. I'm biased here, as I am huge fans of both of them and everything they've done, but I can't recommend this article enough - and if you don't know them, read it, and then go read John's book, and figure out a way to work with them in the next stage of their careers - because whatever they do next, it will be cool. (BN)

The Insanity Going on at Duke's Center for Doc Studies and Full Frame: There's a lot of weird going on down in Durham, NC. I am not privy to much insider info, but these two recent articles from The Assembly - a local NC indie mag/journalism-effort, do their best to dig into what looks like a slow train-wreck at what had been a great place for the documentary form. (BN)

Film Studios Piracy Fishing Expedition Gone Wrong: Around 2 years ago, several film studios filed a lawsuit against ISP RCN, accusing the leading cable and fiber internet provider of ignoring piracy by their customers. For some reason, they “decided that [just 9] comments on Reddit forums going back over a decade ago were just the evidence they needed,” explains Timothy Geigner for TechDirt. Reddit said they wouldn’t reveal 8 out of the 9 comments, leading to the studios filing a motion to compel Reddit to comply. Based on Reddit’s response, the studios were “completely full of shit, or were massively incompetent in their requests (Geigner).” You can check out key excerpts of their response in-article. Geigner’s takeaway: “Almost none of this makes any sense as part of its lawsuit against RCN, it would absolutely violate core First Amendment principles, and is obviously [a] fishing expedition.” (GSH)

Movie Theaters Ruined By Bad ProjectionLane Brown, writer for Vulture, watches “Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania” at an AMC near Times Square. Unfortunately, “some neglectful employee has forgotten to remove the 3-D filter from the projector,” cutting the movie’s brightness by one-third. Apparently, projection mistakes which cause creasing, dimming, bleeding, and distortion are all too common. Bad projection (not to mention AMC’s ridiculous new seat tiering policy) is a symptom of broke movie theaters, but it also predates the pandemic – a lot of these mistakes happened when theaters switched their film projectors for digital ones. In her article, Brown delves into the dozens of problems with movie projection today, but I think her central question is: What does the future of movie-going look like when modern televisions reliably deliver better images than run-down movie houses? (GSH)

WhiteMirror, New AI Film: Emmy-award winner Ed Saatchi is co-producing an AI film called “White Mirror,” “a feature length anthology consisting of ten short films… which will each focus on a piece of a meta story about human-machine collaboration.” Producers will be given exclusive access to the most up-to-date tools offered by OpenAI, Google Cloud, and Midjourney. Check out the trailer here. A couple points to think about: (1) Despite a growing fear that AI will replace us, it’s important to note that “White Mirror” still has a writer-director; (2) Hollywood has started to notice AI as well (Robert Zemeckis is working with StableDiffusion for his new film “Here.”) Charlie Fink for Forbes has the story. (GSH)

Sub-Genre at SXSW
The Sub-Genre team will be very active at SXSW - both Jordana Meade and I will be attending and hope to see you there. A few things to note:

Bringing Cinema into the Metaverse – Now and Next Panel: I'll be moderating a panel about film and the metaverse on Friday, March 10th at 4p CT at the Convention Center. From the program: The metaverse is much more than the natural evolution of the internet: it represents the dematerialization of the world, where individuals can engage real-time with unlimited environments. Audiences will expect more participation and to be immersed in story worlds. Filmmakers will also have new tools that enable them to interact with audiences in new ways - we already see this with virtual production, the recent explosion of AI, and the influence of gaming. But soon all of these technologies will converge. How do we embrace these changes, while still celebrating the cinema we know and love? 

This panel will explore new initiatives being developed to promote and bring cinema to audiences on new platforms, as well as the implications for storytelling in the metaverse. I'll be joined by panel sponsor Daniela Elstner, executive director of Unifrance and Diana Williams, ceo of Kinetic Energy Entertainment. 
Panel details here

Storytelling For Climate Change Panel & Party for the Planet: On Sunday, March 12th from 1:30-3:30p CT, our client The Climate Pledge is co-hosting (with EarthX Film) a panel and party. We'll be giving a sneak-peek at the new Future of Flight film directed by Ondi TImoner, and showing a new film from Max Lowe, featuring Kishi Bashi. Kishi Bashi will also be premiering a new song at the party, and DJ Cassandra will be performing. After the films, we'll have a panel with Ondi, Max, Kishi, and scientist Alysa McCall from Polar Bears International, about the intersection of climate storytelling and activism. It's gonna be a great event, and it's an official SXSW event, open to all badge-holders. More info here.

Frybread Face & Me Film Premiere: On Saturday, March 11th, we have the premiere of Frybread Face & Me, the new (amazing) film from Billy Luther and Producer Chad Burris. Our client, REI Co-Op Studios is an executive producer and supporter of the film. I've known this film team for at least a decade, and they are spectacular filmmakers, and I can't wait for audiences to see this very special film. Here's the description from the catalog: 

It’s 1990. Benny is a Native American boy growing up in San Diego who plays with dolls and listens to Fleetwood Mac. Everything Benny thinks he knows about himself and his family is turned upside down when his parents force him to spend the summer at his Grandma Lorraine’s sheep ranch on the reservation in Arizona. There he meets his cousin Dawn— AKA Frybread Face, a pudgy 11-year-old vagabond, tough-as-nails tomboy. Benny has never met anyone like her, and he is equally intimidated and impressed by her knowledge of Navajo language and tradition. Benny is introduced to Navajo life on the Rez, and his unruly uncle Marvin. Together, Benny and Fry create a memorable summer.

Telling the Story of Tech as a Force for Good: On March 15th, at 10am CT, our client Publicis Sapient is hosting a panel on the stage at the ACC Expo Next Stage on the intersection of storytelling and tech for good. In this session, a panel of diverse experts will speak about how technology can help solve some of society’s biggest challenges. They’ll discuss how commercial and public sector entities can re-focus on human outcomes by diagnosing and solving the problems that have the biggest impact on their stakeholders.

We’ll hear from people working on providing rental assistance to those in need, arming public defenders with the information needed to prevent unnecessary incarceration, and accurately directing emergency resources to rural communities. Entrepreneurs, established businesses, technologists and governments will learn how to imagine new solutions and implement simple and effective technologies, all with a focus on enabling the end user. More info here.

With all of that going on... we're busy, but not too busy to meet up for a Shiner Bock or a swim at Barton Springs. Drop me a line if you'll be there, too. (BN)

Public Lands Under Attack (Still/Again) in Utah: While this one doesn't directly have much to do with film, I've worked on many public lands related films, and I'm also a big believer in the idea of public space - not just lands, but public libraries, parks, commons, etc. - and think everyone should be paying attention to this issue. John Leshy, a professor and author of “Our Common Ground" wrote this piece for the NYT about Utah's fight against the Antiquities Act and how the Supreme Idiots/Court might just listen to these bozos and how bad that would be for all of us. A definite must-read, and one which contributes mightily to my ongoing argument that Sundance should leave Utah - why do we keep spending money in a state so against our values? You can't make the argument that Sundance being there has changed anything, and it's a state that goes against the values of almost everyone who attends/participates... and guess what - their deal is up soon, so now could be the time for that re-evaluation (crosses fingers in vain). (BN)

Gigi Sohn Gives Up on the FCC: Gigi Sohn has withdrawn from consideration of her nomination to the FCC. David McCabe of the NYT reports. This is a travesty for the field. I've met Gigi and consider her to be the smartest person I've ever met when it comes to thinking about the future of media, the Net, and related policies (and maybe everything else... she's the real deal). I had high hopes for her joining Lina Khan on the FCC and making some big - but reasonable - changes. This is someone who was actually respected by many on the Right, not just the Left, but not the ones who mattered... like Mr. Manchin, once again. Let's hope Biden can fill that vacancy with someone at least half as smart and reasonable as Sohn. (BN) 

Influencers: The Faces Of A New Value System: Beginning in the Great Recession, “where landing a solid career path [felt] out of reach for so many, of course the industry that promises self-employment and creative freedom sounds like the best possible option,” writes Rebecca Jennings for Vox. Jennings sits down for an interview with Emily Hurd, author of “The Influencer Industry: The Quest for Authenticity on Social Media”, and documents a condensed version for our reading. For now, here’s Hurd’s thesis: “While individual participants looked for a route to autonomy, stability, and professional fulfillment that seemed impossible elsewhere, they ended up creating a value system that advanced the erosion of boundaries between individuals’ inner lives and commercialism, asking us to view ourselves as products perpetually ready for market, our relationships as monetizable, and our daily activities as potential shopping experiences…. Influencers are neither ‘a flash in the pan’ nor ‘a bubble about to burst,’ but indicators of a paradigm shift in the way we think about each other and ourselves.” (GSH)

GSH = Articles written by Sub-Genre's Gabriel Schillinger-Hyman, not Brian Newman (BN)
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