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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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February 16, 2022

I’ve begun to believe that the biggest problem in arthouse/indie film is not the un-produced or un-distributed films, but the films with distribution, or rather, with how they get distributed. To be even more specific, I think the problem is this whole independent thing – meaning, we have too many independent distributors all fighting for our attention, when we probably need just one. Or, as I tend to think about it - we have too many narcissistic, small, distributors and streamers (often the same thing) who think they are all somehow doing a better job than the next guy (it’s mostly guys) and who refuse to work together, when we could probably just use one.
Now, before you think I’m crazy and argue for the value of small independent voices in the distribution ecosystem, and against consolidation, just hear me out. Because what I’m really arguing for here, is more consolidation and/or collaboration in how things get to the audience, especially when it comes to digital offerings, and less about which company owns who, although I am not opposed to some mergers, either. 
How many streaming services do you subscribe too? Most folks have about five, apparently, and I’m betting those consist of the big ones – Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Prime, Apple TV+, Disney, or maybe Discovery+, Paramount+, Peacock… you could name many more and you haven’t even gotten to the ones that specifically try to serve the indie/arthouse audience. You have offerings from IFC, Mubi, KinoLorber, Criterion, Ovid… I could list many, many more – but I gave up when I looked at the services tracked on JustWatch and realized they had over 150 streamers to choose from. WTF?! No one can keep track of all of these services, much less all of the films they might want to see across their offerings, even with a service like JustWatch. And they don’t. Most consumers stop with the top five streamers, and even the most dedicated cinephiles probably stop somewhere South of ten, I’d bet, and even they haven’t heard of most of these services, or the films on them. And forget about trying to see your favorite film from distributor X if you don't subscribe to their output deal streamer of choice - which is why I've missed too many A24 films that went to Hulu.
Whatever happened to the Universal Jukebox we were promised, and which we pretty much have when it comes to music? Who are all these megalomaniacal narcissists who think they really need to “own their audience” and that they must build these tiny subscriber bases? Why not just join forces and have one good alternative place to find all the great films – hopefully, curated a bit by good curators and people who I want to follow, and sure I could search by distributor (or filmmaker), etc. – but why not work on something like that instead of atomizing the audience across hundreds, if not thousands (when you look more globally) of services? 
I think the arthouse film audience is probably much bigger than anyone thinks it is, but it has been split across way too many distributors and streamers for any one of them to capture the total possible audience. This has been true even before streaming – too many distributors chasing the same few quality projects and competing for the same slots at the cinema, all because they think they can do a better job releasing the film than someone else. And now, it’s too many channels chasing the same eyeballs across the screens, all hoping we’ll either pay a subscription or – worse for all of us – sit through ads programmed by robots ruining our viewing experience for a VRBO commercial – in search of an aggregate of pennies that might keep the doors open.
If you look at the problem from the consumer perspective, which is what you should always do when trying to solve an industry’s problems, then it’s pretty obvious that we need a one stop shop for these niche films, aggregating them from across multiple sources, and making them available for either one low monthly price and – what no one does – allowing anyone to rent an individual title from the system without becoming a subscriber (Amazon does this, and they rule the world). And while I’d hate it, sure, you could also give them the option to watch for free with ads (Amazon again). I’d go a step further and say that this membership should also get you discounts at every arthouse theater in the country, like an arthouse MoviePass, and that the systems of curation and money exchange should be intertwined. And you could build the whole thing on the back of JustWatch... JustSayin'.
In fact, I’d bet most of us would pay for such a system over Netflix almost any day of the week. And would have done so from the start. But building that kind of system would have taken a lot of work, and a lot of real, direct audience engagement, and an investment of time and money that went completely against the dominant business model – which is, licensing out that work to someone else. So, when Netflix came along and said “we’ll do this for you,” everyone jumped onboard, not waiting to hear the end of the sentence, which was, “until we don’t need you anymore.” Which is what's now happened with Hulu and all of the other options, so we're stuck in a bad system when we could have built the right one from the beginning.
But dreaming up any such system, which I’ve done a bit in the past, requires one contemplating a lot more collaboration across the industry. And that won’t happen anytime soon. Perhaps not until ¾ of these folks have disappeared as their business model collapses around them, and the last few standing might finally realize they should have been collaborating to aggregate the audience instead of atomizing them in pursuit of a maintenance of their status quo, squeezed into a frankenstenian copy of the Netflix model (which is what we have now). The solution isn’t trying to become a niche single player Netflix, but instead building (together) the new Netflix of great films, all in one place.
One can dream…

Stuff I'm Reading

Who gets to be in love onscreen?: Maya Cade, film historian and founder of the Black Film Archive explores the history of Black intimacy in cinema with her curated program “Try a Little Tenderness” for the LA Academy Museum of Motion Pictures, on show through Feb 25th. Check out a beautiful interview in-article with Cade and NBC’s Uwa Ede-Osifo about the historical and present-day significance of “Try a Little Tenderness” and the Black Film Archive. In the meantime, I’ve pulled one of Cade’s central points: “Black film, as it’s being largely discussed right now, it’s from a place of trauma. How can we look through Black film’s past, through the archives, and highlight moments of joy and affection? "Why tenderness?" This is an offering to understand Black film history in a different lens. It really is an invitation to connect with our desires, our joys, our hopes across time.” (GSH)

Netflix Encounters Backlash in Canada and Gives Refunds to Advertisers in Australia: Netflix's desperate need to show Wall Street that it has a revenue plan has led to its shift to ads and push to crack-down on password sharing. It's not going over too great, either. Up in Canada, people aren't happy about the password crackdown. Check out this piece in Cinemablend for some hilarious TikTok's from pissed off customers who are cancelling their subscriptions as a result. While some are just mad they can't use their parent's accounts anymore, but many people have legit complaints about how it impacts their use on vacation, etc. Then over in Australia, Netflix is being forced to refund advertisers who aren't seeing the audiences they were promised - something which is rumored to be happening elsewhere. The Drum reports. (BN)

How Google Fell Behind The AI Boom and What They’re Doing To Catch Up: In 2014, Amazon blindsided Google by releasing Alexa, now THE household-name voice assistant. In 2022, the so-called “AI First” tech giant, was again shown up, but this time by a start up called OpenAI (OpenAI overshadows Google’s Bard, also a chatbot). Today, Microsoft, which pumps billions into OpenAI, is working on their own AI tools to revolutionize the internet search. It’s time for Google to play catch-up, and in order to do so Google will reportedly “recalibrate” the amount of risk its willing to take in releasing new AI tech/products, “a stunning admission for a big tech company so closely scrutinized for the toxic content that crops up on its platforms.” Check out Richard Nieva, Alex Conrad, and Kenrick Cai’s piece for “Forbes” to learn why the favorite hasn’t dominated the AI space as it was expected to. (GSH)

The Tik Tok Ban is a Distraction: TikTok will get banned if it’s deemed a national security threat. But the conversations about the TikTok issue have been “hollow” and “nationalistic” (Karl Bode, writer for TechDirt.) The conversation started to shift thanks to an NYT opinion piece by the former general counsel at the NSA who writes:”[a TikTok ban] would sidestep a broader problem — our nation’s overall failure to address concerns over the huge amount of personal data collected in our digital lives, especially when that data could be used by foreign adversaries…. if it wanted to collect information on Americans, China could sidestep a ban and legally, though with a little more effort, purchase almost limitless amounts of information from data brokers who stockpile information about our online activities.” Bode concludes that “the real path forward is meaningful privacy legislation and actual, meaningful penalties for companies that routinely play fast and loose with consumer data, both foreign and domestic.” He also points out that the same “GOP folks hyperventilating about TikTok’s potential for propaganda and influence also couldn’t care less about our own domestic propaganda system built over decades by the GOP across AM radio, local broadcast news, cable TV news, and the Internet,” a system that’s “radicalizing Americans, fomenting violence, chipping away at the cornerstones of democracy, and undermining public health advice in a way that’s far more concrete than TikTok.” (GSH)
GSH = Articles written by Sub-Genre's Gabriel Schillinger-Hyman, not Brian Newman (BN)
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