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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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Blocked Sightlines

February 9, 2022

My first real job was as an usher and concession stand worker at an AMC Theater in Seminole, Florida. This was back before it became overly corporate and professionalized. We could still play punk rock on the stereo in the lobby (!), show our piercings, and decorate our vests with buttons from our favorite bands. Corporate put the kibosh on those crazy antics within a few years, but it was a fun place to work, and nearly all of us held onto the job as much for the perks of free movies – and midnight sneak previews of coming shows – as for anything else. 
But those were different times – you could still smoke in the lobby (!!), and the general public still seemed to love going to the movies, and it was beyond democratic. Most people didn’t plan in advance, and just showed up and picked a movie based on the poster or true word of mouth (RT didn’t exist, nor did social media… I’m old), and then you sat at whatever seat you could find, and watched a movie you just might love.
That is not the AMC – or the cinema world – of today. The big news this week was that AMC is moving to dynamic pricing, called Sightline, where if you want to sit in the middle seats with a good sightline, you pay more, but you pay less for the front row, or the same for side-view seats. Opinions were definitely mixed. Variety called it “one of its boldest bets yet,” and pointed out that variable pricing is the norm in many other places like sports, concerts, airlines, etc. Elijah Wood captured the sentiment of most of my friends (on an informal LinkedIn poll and looking at FB comments) saying on Twitter: “The movie theater is and always has been a sacred democratic space for all…This new initiative by AMC Theatres would essentially penalize people for lower income and reward for higher income.”
But the fact that this is what constitutes “big news” and “boldest bets” in movie exhibition tells you that a lot less has changed since I quit working at AMC than it might first appear. Is it a rip-off? Yes. Is it a transparent attempt to get people to join the AMC loyalty program to avoid the fees? Yes. Is it bold or innovative? No. And that’s the bigger problem. We need bolder bets and bigger experiments, because if we all love cinemas and want them to survive, they need to be thinking much bigger than dynamic pricing, and turning movie-going into something as soul-sucking as flying has become these days. And real innovation hasn't happened much in exhibition since those days when I was an usher. 
Dynamic pricing works in airlines only because people have to fly, and they’ll put up with crap seats and variable pricing only because they have no other choice. They’ll also put up with it for sports and concerts because they are flocking to those things and love them deeply. Movies don’t have that going for them – aside from a select few of us, very few people want to go to the movies that often, and no one is forcing them. Indeed they have lots of other options for equally compelling storytelling experiences.  As Gallup recently wrote: “Americans watched an average 1.4 movies in a movie theater over the past 12 months. This includes a historically high 61% who did not visit a movie theater at all, 31% who saw between one and four movies, and 9% who attended five or more.” Sure, that’s partly due to Covid, but that just makes an argument for why we need experimentation that encourages people to go to the movies, not a pricing scheme that turns people away from them.
A smarter pricing scheme is what AMC and other theaters did with Paramount on 80 For Brady this past week, where they extended matinee pricing for all screenings, to lure in the older crowd we so desperately need back in our cinemas (meaning a discount of as much as 30% in some places). That news was soon eclipsed by the Sightline program, but it should be considered more often, and extended to family films and others where we need to encourage movie-going habits among younger audiences. They could also try dynamic pricing in different ways – for example, lowering costs for emptier screens, showings and times of day. Everyone says this might de-value certain films and times in the public’s mind, but we’re beyond those concerns – we need them to show up at all, and see it as a bargain. 
The biggest changes need to be made on the marketing side of things. There are exceptions, and many members of the AHC list are doing great work, but there are many theaters that just put out their print ads, send a newsletter or email and then expect the distributor to do all the work to get butts in seats. And I’ve seen (often) how little the distributors often care about doing that, as they often feel that unless it’s a pre-determined success, their main upside will come from transactional VOD. We need to start making bold experiments on building audiences through smarter marketing initiatives. This is also a place where some collaboration with brands moving into film might be smart to explore (I know I’m working on that this year).
But my goal today is not to give a list of all the things wrong, or all the things that could be done. It’s just to spark some thinking on what we might do differently if we were starting from scratch. What practices can we throw out the door? And what new ones can we bring to the table to help re-establish cinema-going as more than just a loss leader/attention-getter for the digital release, which is what it has become in many circles? 

As I was writing this article, Ted Hope also published a piece about his thoughts on building the perfect arthouse, and as he pointed out, exhibition thoughts are in the air, as Ira Deutchman had just published some of his ideas on this as well (more on that below). There you have it – three white guys are thinking about it… Ok, to be fair, a lot of theater owners are chatting about it a lot more on the AHC listserv, but I do hope we can see bolder experiments than Sightline if we broaden the conversation a bit. And part of that does mean having non white guys thinking about this, making decisions, making the movies and going to them - as that is the audience that is most underserved and wants to show up. All of these thoughts will also inform the theme behind my keynote at CPH:DOX coming up soon (also covered below), as we need this kind of thinking across the film sector, not just in exhibition. 

I'm back on the road, and doing a few more panels and talks. I have two upcoming ones to promote. 

SXSW: Film Distribution in Metaverse and Gaming Panel. I'll be speaking on this panel being hosted by Unifrance at SXSW on March 10 from 4-5p CT. Check out the full description here. I'll be joining Diana Williams of Kinetic Energy Entertainment, Daniela Elstner of Unifrance and director Julia Ducournau to discuss what the future holds for film in a metaverse/gaming world. The description is a bit focused on how we market films in those spaces, but I think we plan to make the conversation much wider, and speak about the future of storytelling in such worlds. And if you're a fan of Ducournau, make sure to also catch her talk at SXSW and the Austin Film Society is holding at least one screening with her at the same time. 

CPH:DOX Conference Keynote: Embrace the New: I'll also be giving a keynote as part of the prestigious CPH:DOX Conference on March 23rd in Copenhagen. The entire conference line-up is pretty great, and I've been wanting to attend this conference and fest for many years - we had a client film that was supposed to premiere there at the start of Covid in 2020, and while the fest went virtual (and was the first to do so), I missed being able to visit in person. My talk will be an extension of an earlier news post I made where I suggested we need to throw out the old ways of doing things, and embrace the new. Or as the conference description puts it: "Being distributed doesn’t mean being seen,” writes Brian Newman, in his Sub-Genre newsletter – suggesting that in a time of turmoil in the documentary ecosystem, we need to put aside our fears, give up on antiquated systems and build something new for the future. What could that look like, and what steps do we take to get there?" 

If you are attending either conference/fest, I hope to see you there.

Stuff I'm Reading

A New Arthouse for The UWS of Manhattan?: Ira Deutchman thinks the UWS is under-screened for arthouse films, and he's right. He's also been working on a plan for a solution - along with Adeline Monzier and some other folks, they've identified a potential site, made some plans and all they need is a lot of money. But that's never stopped a good idea. Read his recent newsletter to learn more and if you know someone with some spare change to spend saving movies, send them his way. (BN)

Fundraiser for Tarnation director Jonathan Caouette: One of my fave films of the last 20 or so years was TARNATION by Jonathan Caouette. Wholly original and mind-blowing, and one you should seek out if you haven't seen it. Turns out that Caouette has been having some serious health issues, and his former distributor and other supporters, including: Marie Therese Guirgis, Stephen Winter, Brian Kates, John Cameron Mitchell, and Gus Van Sant are all trying to raise funds to help him out. Learn more and think about spreading the word and/or supporting the cause here. Indiewire also has an article about it here. (BN)

Fujita's 10% Rule for Filmmaking: My friend Rob Sheard wrote a nice post about applying some lessons from a tuna trader in Jiro Dreams of Sushi to the doc business, in light of that Vulture article I covered last week (about the state of the doc biz). As Rob explains it: "The 10% rule, as presented by Fujita the tuna trader, is an idea that has been simmering in my mind for some time now. It posits that only 10% of an artist’s labor should be dedicated to the finished product, with the other 90% being consumed by the messy, grueling work of research and development" I'd say this is also true about other aspects of the film biz - spend 90% of your time planning before making the film, the project, the brand content campaign, etc. (BN)
Branded Content

Opportunity Alert - Diversity Imperative at BrandStorytelling: If you've ever worked in brands/content for a second or more, you know that it's more white (and male, and...) than almost any other aspect of the business, and that's saying a lot when it overlaps with both film and advertising, which are both pretty damned white (and male, and...). The folks at the BrandStorytelling conference, who also host a certificate program with ETSU (where I am an instructor and founding member), are trying to address this issue. During their conference this January alongside Sundance, they held a meeting about it that was supposed to last 1 hour and ended up lasting 3 hrs, and among the many things they're doing, they have launched a Diversity Imperative component of their Certification program. 

Click on the link above for more info and to apply, but they are accepting applications for people to join the certification program for free (no hidden costs), and that gets you a ton of training, access to decision-makers, mentorships, access to jobs, and a lot more. There are a ton of diverse filmmakers who don't need training or mentorship, per se - already being expert filmmakers, etc. - but even some of those filmmakers might want to consider this opportunity, because it helps bridge the gap between making great films and knowing how to pitch them to the brand world, and it comes with an actual RFP opportunity, where a brand is taking the pitch (another client, GoDaddy is this term's sponsor). So, spread the word, and if you qualify, consider applying. If you're a reader and you do apply, let me know. (BN)

Dentsu Creative Launches Investment Fund to Finance Branded Entertainment: Dentsu Creative, a global agency network formed by Japan’s Dentsu advertising conglomerate, launched an investment fund to “help brands act as entertainment companies.” We can expect Dentsu to help brand-clients create projects in TV, film, podcast, AR/VR experience, and interactive gaming. The takeaways: (1) Dentsu is pushing brands to create culture and build their own audiences; (2) the agency is pushing brands to think like publishers and create everything from characters to movies. Brian Steinberg for “Variety” has the news. (GSH)

Google’s Bard to rival Microsoft-backed ChatGPT: Google is working on a ChatGPT competitor named Bard, an “experimental conversational AI service,” soon to be rolled out to the general public. Though Google has been wary of backlash against untested AI tools in the past, mainly for fear of spreading false information, the coming launch of Bard “marks a step change in Google’s approach to this technology,” writes James Vincent for “The Verge.” In addition to Bard, we can anticipate new AI features to be built into Google Search, along with other Google functions. (GSH)

FRIDA, the Robot Arm that brings AI-style art to Canvas: Carnegie Mellon’s Robotic Institute created FRIDA (Framework and Robotics Initiative for Developing Arts), is an AI project exploring the intersection of human and robotic creativity.” Whereas AI projects lille DALL-E require little human influence to produce “art,” humans are needed not only for text inputs but for actual paint mixing. What’s more, the robot is designed to be imprecise: “the goal of such robotics is generally getting things as accurate as possible. Here, however, the system is allowed to make mistakes and adjusts the remainder of the painting accordingly…. Speed isn’t a priority either. Each painting takes hours to complete.” Brian Heater for “TechCrunch” has the story. My questions after reading this piece: Is there space for an AI-powered machine that makes mistakes in 2023? Will machine imperfection become the new perfect in art and entertainment? Will robots like FRIDA serve functional purposes, like become artist-assistants... will they become something greater? (GSH)

NYT Investigation Finds That Elon Has Made Twitter’s Child Sexual Abuse Problem Worse: The distribution of images and videos of child sexual abuse is a problem on every social media problem, but Twitter just allowed it to get a lot worse. A New York Times investigation “found empirical evidence of Twitter being slower to react than in the past, not reporting the material it should be reporting to the agencies set up for that purpose, cutting off Thorn from both money and collaboration data, and many other things.” Key context: Twitter relies on software created by an anti-trafficking organization called Thorn. Since Musk’s arrival at Twitter, the social media giant hasn’t paid the organization, probably in an effort to cut costs. What’s more, the NYT report found that Twitter helped promote child sexual abuse content through its recommendation algorithm. The takeaway: Despite Musk’s talk of fighting this problem, the company has gone backward, to say the least, and dangerously so. Mike Masnick for “TechDirt” brings us the news.  (GSH)

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