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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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 Algorithmically Approaching Sundance  

Jan 25, 2022, from 30k Feet

I’ve been Sundancing. And the pressure was on – everyone I ran into seems to somehow read this newsletter – not so humble brag indeed – and said they want to hear my run-down or summary of it all. Let me not bury the lede – I don’t know WTF just took place, good or bad. But while I enjoyed it all, I don’t have any takeaway of the state of the fest or the business or the artform post Sundance. Stop now if you want that answer.
An experienced, well-liked, knowledgeable film person I know- note, that could mean anyone I spoke to other than myself, which I do (speak to both parties, that is) – said something like they feel as if they’re here building an algorithm but haven’t nailed it yet, because the data points are all so disparate. Some people say the market is up, other down. Some saw crowds, others empty theaters. Some, traffic lines and Uber surcharges, others zipped through for pennies. Some heard glimmers of hope, others doom. Some note the obvious fest budget cuts, others …ok no one had a rejoinder to that one; that was prevalent, however, everyone did understand the reasons and was forgiving and accepting. But you couldn’t build an algorithm that makes sense of all these data points if you try. I’ve tried. I can’t. They were correct in saying that algo doesn’t compute. 
But here are some data points. I caution against drawing conclusions from any of them.
- The industry seemed to be holing up in their condos watching screeners instead of going to the theaters. That’s what I was forced into doing due to meeting schedules not aligning with theater schedules, so I get it. But I bet a million bucks that ¾ of these same industry folks also posted some social media nonsense about the importance of theaters to the ecosystem as they poured another glass of wine from the comfort of their home and tried to finish another movie before they conked out on the couch and burned the condo down because they didn’t open the flue. If we’re all doing this at one of the best fests in America, and are chatting about our latest series discoveries over dinners, why are we expecting audiences to do anything different?
- The people who lamented this most were the sales agents, as quoted in this Variety article. But let’s be honest – a) they hope the altitude and crowds might raise prices (so do I, of course), and b) they will also love the fact they can blame the lack of in person attendance and enthusiasm on their lack of sales. I could spend less than $500K and build an app where they can all view and bid on these films in an auction style within a 24 hr. window and close down the market side of this fest if not this business pretty fast while making it fairer and more efficient, but everyone wants to expense account some fun times while they say they’re working the market from the slopes.
- Know your tech and invest in it. This is the one place Sundance failed miserably, and it can’t be easily forgiven even after covid-forced-cuts … because we live in 2023. I am 100% positive that 99% of every empty public seat was because of tech snafus early-on and customers just gave up. Because many told me so. I am sure multiple film reviews will fake knowing the end because they didn’t truly clear the 5 hr. window (gotta nap, etc.) I don’t even know how you f-up QR codes in 2023 and force industry to use some app system instead of their badge a few days in, and try to hide it as a new great idea instead of a fuck-up. I don’t know anyone other than low-level film wannabees like me who will take about 13 clicks to login to and watch an online movie here on their new downgraded viewing system… but we’re all clearly more open to doing that than catching damned bus to stand in line with 300 of our BEST FRIENDS  to see the same film in the theater, so once again we have a disconnect between nostalgia and what everyone wants to do. 
- While I didn’t get to see as many movies as usual during the festival, everything I saw was great. That’s a pretty good hit ratio, and while I heard a lot of people saying the programming was weird or off this year, I heard many more saying they’d had great odds. That’s a positive sign for the health of the artistic part of the business. 
- There was a marked change in conversations around the state of distribution. While some films sold and a few sales agents were quoted in the trades saying things were moving again – and bearing in mind the algorithmic breakdown in making sense of this being noted above – I had numerous conversations with producers, funders (foundations, individual donors and investors) who would say some variation of – “I’m moving all of my energy and money into figuring out some solution to distribution going forward.” I have little idea what that could be, even though I think about it daily. I’ve had and heard of many ideas, but all of them lack a coherent plan for breaking through the noise and getting audiences to show up. But heck, I’m game for all these conversations and experiments.
- Everyone was happy to be back with their friends, to see the community again after far too long. Sure, many of us (myself included) have gone to other fests in the interim, but there were many people who were back on the circuit for the first time, and there’s a special sense of community, especially amongst the Americans, in Park City. It was a joy to see faces I hadn’t seen in person for three years, or who I’ve only met via Zooms. And to randomly meet new friends in 30 second encounters on Main Street. I was happy to be back, and that was the overall vibe.
Take what you will from all of that. Perhaps I’ll have clearer takeaways by next week when this has all settled into my brain’s algorithm and I’ve recovered from too many days in the snow and altitude. Have a special take from your experience at Sundance – either from in-person, or from afar? Drop me a line, I’m easy to find. Maybe even easier now that we’ve relaunched the new Sub-Genre website. If you haven’t done so, check it out. Here's a peek:


Stuff I'm Reading

Film Festivals and Open Captions (after the Sundance walkout): “All Film Festivals and Movie Theaters need open captions,” writes filmmaker Alison O’Daniel in an article for Variety. Why? As a Deaf/Hard of Hearing person attending a closed caption screening, O’Daniel must request a CaptiView, a device which sits in the seat cup holder and displays the captions in sync with the film. In addition to squeaking very loudly, O’Daniel “leave[s] screenings with a headache from looking back and forth between the device and the screen.” On the other hand, open captions – which means dialogue and sound descriptions appear on the screen for everyone to see – are much more preferable to the Deaf/Hard of hearing community. But people who have impaired hearing aren’t the only ones who benefit from open captions. Apparently, Gen Z and Millennials are turning to captions in huge numbers. “If the fear of a film not being sold is a reason to not caption, that’s a huge missed financial opportunity”, writes O’Daniel. But “[e]conomics should not be the reason for access. Access should be the reason for access.” See also Variety’s piece by Tatiana Siegel, Matt Donnelly, and Brent Lang for more about movies and (in)access — Jurors for Sundance walked out of a screening when a hearing impaired juror and audience members weren’t supplied with functioning caption devices. (GSH)

Explaining Hollywood: How to get a job as a film festival programmer: What do film festival programmers do, and what does the industry look like? Ada Tseng for the LATimes interviews insiders to find out. Here’re my takeaways: (A) Film festival programmers do much more than watching films. They’re constantly “screening submissions throughout the year to get the final selections; they’re building relationships with filmmakers and other industry members; they’re providing support for up-and-coming talent. Their work helps films continue to have impact beyond the time audiences are watching it.” (B) If you’re looking to enter the space, try volunteering at a local/regional festival. Many festivals need the extra help. Then, look for a chance to get on a pre-screening or screening committee. (C) Many programmers find themselves doing a lot of temp work/freelancing to make ends meet.  (D) The industry has definitely evolved in the past decade. For starters, digital options make programming more accessible (you don’t have to haul around 50lb 35mm film cans anymore). There’re also hundreds more film fests today than ever before, festivals are more inclusive, and many of them are branching out and creating storytelling programs of their own (“Outfest started a free virtual queer museum called the OutMuseum.”). And finally, some advice for now and future film fest programmers from the director of artistic development at Outfest:  “Practice wonder, curate justice and cultivate belonging.” (GSH)
Branded Content

Brand Storytelling Theater Winners: While in Park City, I also attended the Brand Storytelling conference, which had a theater showing a juried selection of the best brand funded films of the year. Sub-Genre had three clients with projects that were selected, including Amazon's The Climate Pledge, GoDaddy and Stripe. And we're all excited to learn that one of them, Stripe, won the Best Feature Award for We Are As Gods, the film about Stewart Brand which we helped set-up a few years ago. The film had a covid-stricken SXSW premiere, a theatrical release and is on digital now. Congrats to all of the winners. I'll likely post a longer update about this great conference next week. (BN)

In-game advertising startup Anzu has secured a pivotal patent for tech that can measure ad viewability in 3D worlds: In-game advertising is a massive and quickly growing industry. Anzu, an in-game ad startup just changed the landscape with a patent that can measure the percentage of an ad “on-screen in a 3D world “accounting for the size of the ad, how long it is in view and the angle it is viewed at.” Why is the tech monumental for the ad industry? Because in-game player “viewability requires much more work to prove in 3D than it ever did in 2D,” explains John McCarthy for TheDrum. The takeaway: Marketers now have access to a system that will allow them to understand the impact of their ads in highly engaged 3D spaces and will make it easier for them to find the most lucrative ad spots in the future. (GSH)


Why the gaming industry might not be as recession-proof as once believed: During the 2008 financial crisis the gaming industry went unscathed, with video game sales soaring above those of other retail products. But can the industry slip by the looming 2023 recession? A handful of signs warn, ‘no’. For instance, video game publishing giant Ubisoft reported a loss of over €500 million this past fiscal year, Riot Games laid off almost 50 staffers last week, and Google shut down Stadia, its cloud-based gaming service. What’s more, BMW and other brands are pulling out of the esports space, warning each other of an “esports winter.” Consumers’ wallets, too, are feeling the changing times (gaming consoles are way more expensive now than they were a decade before). But despite a bumpy road ahead, markets within the gaming industry that thrive today barely existed last recession: “In-game purchases, for example, were a niche revenue stream in 2008, but a source of billions of gamer dollars in 2023. Gamers are certainly more down to spend their money on virtual items these days than they were back then.” Check out Alexander Lee’s piece for Digiday for the full scoop. (GSH)

Can The Generative AI ChatGPT Brand Keep Going Strong Or Will It Fizzle Out, Asks AI Ethics And AI Law: A multitude of conversational interactive AI apps have come and gone. But pretty much only ChatGPT has ‘stuck.’ Thanks to its visibility and widespread use in such a short period of time, the generative AI app has become its own brand that shapes the way we perceive today’s AI capabilities. Forbes’ Lance Eliot writes an in-depth piece about this AI brand/phenomena and argues that the AI app “could start to wobble and might not remain the darling of them all.” (Sorry ChatGPT enthusiasts, GSH).

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