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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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(My) SoapBox for the Future Speech

June 1, 2022

I spent this last weekend at MountainFilm in Telluride. I was mainly there as an advisor to the grantees of the Redford Center, where I am an advisor. I was also asked to speak on the Soapbox for the Future panel, put together by DocSociety. I joined 3 other speakers - Bill McKibben (Third Act &, Opal H. Bennett (American Documentary, Inc.), and dream hampton (Surviving R. Kelly, Freshwater), and moderated by Megha Agrawal Sood - and we each had to give a 3 minute, quick vision for the future of film.

What follows is a written version of my talk, as many people asked me to post it – and what’s crazy is my written version is much longer than my little soapbox speech (it is also written after the fact, as I didn't write up my talk or use notes), but c’est la vie.  The framing (imagine you are a filmmaker in the future), was given to us, and we filled in the rest, and it's also very US centric, as that was the audience, but it also applies to many other countries. Here you go:
Imagine a world just a few years from now. You’re a (documentary) filmmaker, and you’ve just made a film about something really important, that everyone needs to know. Maybe it’s a new human rights doc, or one about serious climate change issues, or maybe the seedier sides of AI and tech, where people are sex-trafficking underage robots perhaps (an actual phenomenon which came up during the panel on AI), or maybe it’s some other subject none of us can guess right now, because the filmmaker has been keeping it under wraps as they expose new truths. 
While it’s always a struggle to finance films, let’s imagine you’ve been lucky, and you’ve raised some mix of grants, donations, and other financing, and are now ready to bring the film to the world. But you find that there are now just four big studios remaining – Amazon, Apple, Disney, and (because they are my client, and I’ve helped them make this transition) REI Co-Op Studios. Everyone else has been merged, closed or bundled. And none of them want to buy and distribute your film. Because your film is not pure entertainment, or a docu-soap, celebrity-driven, reality-TV-esque, or some (soft) political scandal. Your film is hard-hitting, and the remaining distributors are afraid to buy it because it might piss off China, or India, or President Tucker Carlson. 
So, your film plays the festival circuit. It gets a great response, and great reviews. But you are preaching to the converted, alongside a bunch of other filmmakers doing the same. The actual impact is small, because you aren’t getting distributed the way you should – and neither are they. But no one in the audience is complaining, because they think they’re getting a full diet of media, with multiple options on these streamers – there’s a lot to choose from.
Oh wait. This sounds a lot like today, doesn’t it? Because this is the situation we’re already kinda in now, with only a few differences, and we’re definitely headed down this path. Because – with few exceptions - none of the streamers are buying the films I’ve been seeing this weekend at MountainFilm, or other festivals I’ve attended recently. They want entertainment, and nothing too serious. 
But something else has become apparent while I’ve been here at MountainFilm – we can’t afford to amuse ourselves to death (per Neil Postman); we don’t have the time.  David Hanson, of Hanson Robotics who created Sophia, the AI powered robot that wowed us this weekend, told us he believes we have eighty years left as a human civilization unless we figure out how to make a better, more empathetic (to us humans) AI system. And that might be optimistic, as Bill McKibben told us the day before that he thinks we have 6.5 years to make a difference on climate change You don’t have to agree with these two specific prognoses, but you’d have to be an idiot not to see the myriad challenges facing humanity and not think that things are just a little bit urgent. 
The stakes are high. We need action. We need artists telling the stories not just of “reality” TV, but of reality, and of possibility (-ies). But we can tell these stories all damned day; if they aren’t heard and seen, they are meaningless. Art can only lead the way if it’s not bound (solely) by the means of commerce and entertainment. 
And the only way to force these stories to be heard is going to be through collective action around policy. It’s unlikely that we can go so far as to break up the monopolies that are entertaining us to death, but we can force them to fund and carry our stories. And this is not some crazy pipe dream. As others said in Telluride – we can do better, America. Canada just passed C-11, which is forcing any streamer that operates in Canada to fund a certain amount of Canadian independent content. The EU and the UK both have similar rules in place, and in some cases require a 30% quota of localized content. Australia is now considering the same.
As an audience member in Telluride reminded me during my Soapbox speech – most of these rules have been made to preserve local culture and voices versus the dominance of American content – and we might have a hard time fighting for American independent voices, when America, well, dominates. While I agree, the fact remains – important stories are not being told, and we must try. And here’s where I get more controversial – because I think we can only win this battle if we join forces with the many voices on the Right who also feel left behind by the dominant media. There are many chances for strange bedfellows here – because in reality, none of us are being served. 
This has also been done before. We wouldn’t have things like PBS and ITVS if a small group of people hadn’t gotten together and forced change. They said – these are our airwaves, and we need a diversity of voices and stories, and real news, and quality content. It worked before, and we have a better case now – this is our internet, our future, and we need – demand – to shape the future we deserve. To learn about the possible futures most of us can’t even imagine, and that aren’t just being shaped by the dominant commercial narrative. 
But we can only do it if we join together and make it happen. Our film organizations and film festivals are letting us down – no offense, as I know they are just trying to keep the doors open – but they are too focused on exhibition, audiences and sponsors, and not on the advocacy we need. We don’t have things like AIVF anymore. In their absence, we have one another. We have to force the field to get together and help us take action for our future. Let’s force that to happen.

Stuff I'm Reading


"Going to the cinema should not become a luxury” — Sarah Legrain, Vice-Chairwoman of the Committee on Cultural Affairs and Education, MP for the LFI-Nupes group (the New Ecological and Social People’s Union) and member of the French National Assembly announced she’d table a bill to set a cap on cinema ticket prices in France. Going to the cinema in 2023 is cost-prohibitive, with multiplex tickets commonly selling for €14- €18.50. "For a family with two children, a trip to the multiplex costs 50 euros just for the tickets, 75 euros with the 4DX option. If they allow themselves a packet of popcorn, they have to add between 4 and 8 euros (Legrain)." The MP intends to set a 10.72% tax on popcorn and other confectionery for cinemas with over 3 screens which would be paid to the Centre National du Cinéma to feed the support fund for creatives. David Mouriquand for has the news. (GSH) Good luck passing something like this in the US! (BN)

Branded Content
Delta Airlines Documentary Out Now: Next time you ride with Delta Airlines you can watch their feature-length documentary, “The Steepest Climb,” directed by Academy Award-nominated Joshua Seftel. Centered around the COVID-19 Pandemic, the doc “offers an inside look at how the airline has overcome some of the most difficult crises in its near 100-year history. Here’s the film’s landing page where you’ll find the trailer, description, and other details. (GSH)

Can Generative A.I. Save The Metaverse?: The metaverse was the talk of the town. Then came Generative AI. Major companies shut down their Metaverse teams and even Zuckerberg declared in March that Meta’s "single largest investment is advancing AI and building it into every one of our products." People started losing interest in a product they didn’t even understand to begin with and then experts started saying “RIP Metaverse.” But Shigraf Aijaz for Venturebeat writes an article that explains why “the rapid development of generative AI could further fuel the growth of the metaverse in various ways.” These include: (1) “Creating new objects, environments and experiences without the need for human designers and programmers”; (2) “Helping users create custom avatars”; (3) “Eradicating cybersecurity issues by creating dynamic software that automatically scans files for viruses, malware and other issues”; (4) “Performing research on critical cybersecurity issues.” The path forward for the metaverse isn’t clear cut, but the takeaway is that “combining generative AI and the metaverse could dynamically shape a much more technologically developed future.” (GSH) 

Are A.I Existential Threats Like “Sentience” Red Herrings?: Hundreds of scientists, academics, public figures, and tech CEOs including OpenAI CEO Sam Altman have added their names to a statement urging global attention on existential AI risk. At the heart of it, signatories believe “mitigating the risk of extinction from AI should be a global priority alongside other societal-scale risks such as pandemics and nuclear war.” But Natasha Lomas for TechCrunch makes the case that the doomsday headlines and hypotheticals are distracting us from problems that are here right now. Lomas cites Jenna Burrell, director of research at Data & Society who states, “we need to move away from focusing on red herrings like AI’s potential “sentience” to covering how AI is further concentrating wealth and power.” Lomas adds, “there are clear commercial motivations for AI giants to want to route regulatory attention into the far-flung theoretical future… as a tactic to draw lawmakers’ minds away from more fundamental competition and antitrust considerations in the here and now.” She writes a pretty compelling piece so give it a read for the details. (GSH)

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