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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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Lessons from the Noah Cowan Tributes

Feb 2, 2022

This past week had a lot of news, what with Sundance ending, the Academy digging its own grave with non-responses to non-issues, and a blockbuster of a doc expose in NYMAG (see below), and that’s before you look at the real news outside of film, like the Tyre Nichols news, Ukraine, etc.  But for me, it’s been particularly hard to write this week’s newsletter while processing the news of the passing of Noah Cowan, who was one of my heroes, a good acquaintance, and a mentor of sorts, especially of late.
I’m guessing that an equal number of my readers here know Noah better than I did, or don’t know of him at all. For the former – I feel your pain, and we were all lucky to have lived in his same world. For the latter, I suggest reading the tributes from so many others – Lizzie Francke from BFI in Screen (hers is at the end of the tributes, all of which are worth reading), Scott Macaulay at Filmmaker Magazine, or just go to the website he and his friends set up to host all (?most?) of his varied, brilliant writings on film. You’ll quickly find that Noah had a big impact on the field, on so many people, and on the culture at large, if indirectly, by what he did and inspired.
I’ve debated whether to even mention his passing in the newsletter here, because while I’ve known Noah for 20+ years and we spoke weekly during the height of covid times, I also wasn’t part of the core group of his friends who were more involved with his saying goodbye. But… he was an inspiration in my life, and I was happier to run into him or grab a quick call than with any famous film person I’ve met (in fact, who could be more famous, I might ask, and dare I ask who might be smarter? None). But I can’t give any tribute better than suggesting you read those links above, especially his own writings – just pick any one at random – and then let it inspire you to be well-read, fun-loving, film-obsessed, culturally-informed, and then, and only then (ok, being preternaturally smart too doesn’t hurt), be unafraid to voice every opinion to others. That’s just 1/10th of what Noah taught me. 
If Noah’s passing hadn’t stopped me in my tracks this week, the news would have been focused on a few other developments I noticed this week, most of which were quite positive, but those will have to wait for next week. There’s plenty to discuss in the news updates below.

Stuff I'm Reading


The NYMAG/Vulture Piece on Docs - The market, the ethics, the issues, the dramas, oh my! - This piece from Reeves Wiedeman in NYMAG has been the talk of the doc town and for good reason. Let's just start by saying that it took a consumer focused, albeit smart, magazine to finally write the definitive piece on what's happening in doc land - none of the trades have done it this well. I can take issue with some items, but if you want a primer on what's happening in doc land, the way commerce and streaming have corrupted the process, and how some in the industry are fighting against the wind to make some changes in a hypercapitalist system that doesn't care much what they think... you could do worse than to start with this article. This is a long read - in print, it's about 6 pages! And no one really comes out looking too good at the end of it, IMHO. But that said, some of the vitriol I'm hearing from the community also shows a jealousy of those who have timed the market right (like it or not, that's how you survive this game), which shows money just corrupts any sector it touches, to the bone.(BN)

Corporate Docs May Dominate, but Sundance Showed that Indies Can Still Shine: The close second to best article about the doc landscape this week is Anthony Kaufman's DocumentaryIDA piece on the Sundance doc marketplace. It's a great look at what was selling and what people are doing, and how some pretty good, artful docs were still making noise in a world where buyers say they want "docusoaps" as one told me recently (!) (BN)

The Academy Partners With Letterboxd to Create Content for the 95th Oscars – AMPAS announced a partnership with Letterboxd which will result in the making of exclusive Oscars digital content, starting with the creation of the Academy’s HQ account — this’ll feature complete lists of 95th Oscar nominees in all categories and editorial content highlighting Oscars history — and  a podcast called “The Letterboxd Show”, which will present Oscar-themed Showdowns. Jazz Tangcay, Julia MacCary, and Charna Flam for Variety share the news. Find the full press release here. (GSH) 

How Avatar: The Way of Water can make $2 billion and still feel irrelevant: The Avatar sequel, The Way of Water surpassed $2 billion in box office sales. But isn’t it odd that the fourth highest-grossing film ever made has  basically zero cultural relevance, especially when compared to other Disney franchises like Star Wars or Marvel? Whereas other major franchises have relied on storylines getting extended years beyond the film (spin off TV series, video games, toys, merch…etc) Disney hasn’t put that kind of work into Avatar. Rather, the Avatar story ends with the films themselves (at least for now). Alex Abad-Santos for Vox writes that maybe James Cameron and Disney weren’t aiming to be at the front and center of culture in 2023 and beyond. Maybe they just wanted to bring people back to theaters like never before. Ryan Broderick, internet/culture journalist points out that “We kind of underestimate how much people value and want to look at spectacle… James Cameron never stopped making that kind of movie.” “And people haven’t stopped watching,” Abad-Santos concludes. (GSH)

As I've mentioned on the socials, Kim's Video was one of my favorite films at Sundance. Little did I know that the team also launched a Kickstarter during Sundance, which is focused on the preservation and access of the collection, and making it available to the public. As they have posted online, they thought the buzz from Sundance would help draw attention to the campaign, but that hasn't been the case, and they need your support. Head on over to the campaign page, and think about supporting the project. Personally, I haven't even received a request to fund a Kickstarter in at least three years, where I used to get three requests a day. But this is one of the good ones, and if you get to see the film soon (here's to hoping it gets picked up for distribution soon, if it hasn't been already), you'll wish you had supported the campaign, so do it now. (BN)


A Heck of a Lot of AI News This Week: It's been a busy week in AI land, and let's just guess that that will be the case for the foreseeable future/forever. I (BN) got a kick out of this JAMA article on how the medical profession is handling AI as a co-author on papers, like ones submitted to JAMA itself or NATURE. NATURE won't take them as co-authors because "“attribution of authorship carries with it accountability for the work, and AI tools cannot take such responsibility.” Yet, or so we think. This is after an AI passed both the MCAT (medical licensing exam) and the BAR, btw.

I was also pretty taken by this genius interview on the Indigenous perspective on Generative AI and how we're just repeating colonialism once again in cyberspace. I'm (BN) pretty pro-AI and the future of art, but Michael Running Wolf makes some pretty strong arguments in the interview about what's wrong here, what could be done right and next steps/solutions.

Then this article caught Gabriel's attention: Google’s new AI turns text into music: You’ve probably already heard of ChatGPT and text-to-image generators like DALL-E. Now, thanks to Google researchers, it’s text-to-music’s turn. Their model, MusicLM (not yet up for public consumption) can transform text prompts and whistling into music and can even simulate human vocals. Head to the article for listening examples! Mitchell Clark for Verge mentions that Google will likely not be releasing MusicLM or similar models anytime soon for fear of plagiarism, misrepresentation, or cultural appropriation.   My takeaway: As a performing musician, I think it’s great that new tools are accelerating the rate at which music is created and produced. Non-AI technologies have already changed the music landscape greatly in the last decade. And because of these tools (Logic, ProTools…etc), workflows are faster and even lay-people with a decent ear can produce or compose a piece of music in a matter of minutes-hours.  But it’s also thanks to these tools that the music industry has become saturated with way too much bad music (Sorry! I said it). I do worry that the entertainment industry will suffer some losses as people with specializations (say, in film scoring or in music producing) might find themselves out of a job once AI tools become fixtures. (GSH) And I think we've missed more than half of the big AI news this week, but that was a lot (BN).

Governments around the world are changing their policies to support esports: Esports are making waves beyond the gaming arena. Now they’re impacting government policy. Here’re a few examples: (1) Professional Russian gamer Nikiti Gurevich was recently granted the first-ever esports athlete visa, allowing him to compete for a Dutch team that’s offering to house Russian and Ukrainian players displaced by the conflict; (2) The EU passed a resolution to support and fund gaming and esports; (3) North Carolina announced a $5million grant fund for esports near the end of 2021; (4) Macron announced that Paris will host a major esports event this year. Head to Alexander Lee’s piece for Digiday for the details! (GSH)

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