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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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Cloud Cuckoo Land

May 12, 2022 -
Recommended Soundtrack for this Post – Birdsong for the Birds, by Cynthia Hopkins/Gloria Deluxe (Spotify link). 
I was reading the WSJ today, and they had an article about Tucker Carlson launching his new show on Twitter, and they had this to report: “Twitter responded to an emailed request for comment with an auto-reply of a poop emoji.” I stared at this (in print) for a good ten minutes. “This is where we are today,” I muttered, head in hands. But apparently, this is old news and it’s well known that it’s just how Twitter responds to all press inquiries now. Which is how I realized we are all now stuck in boring rich people’s cloud cuckoo land against our collective will. 
It’s not just true of what Elon’s done to Twitter, but of what the Orange man has done to our politics in the US, and the Fed to our interest rates, and the list goes on and on, but in our world -  to what the suits have done to Hollywood, and the Street and the VC’s have forced the Streamers to do to our entertainment, and the sales agents and investors to the doc business, and… well, you get my drift. 
This has become more apparent every day. Netflix closed because it only had 1.5MM subscribers – mind you, the NYT still makes a print edition that only has 710K subscribers, so it’s not that you can’t have both. And had thousands of movies that were not available on streaming, but those aren’t valuable to the money-folks in the C-Suite living in Cloud Cuckoo Land. They have a streaming business to wreck, and that takes a lot of money and time.

HBO was a brand, an actual beloved brand, and now it’s sucked into Zaslav’s giant money suck, that is guaranteed to leave him rich, while it destroys many a good business (and jobs). As Jacob Oller pointed out in a much-shared Paste Magazine article this week, we now live in VC IP Land. Oller points out: “The management decisions keeping workers from their fair pay—as described by Writers Guild of America board member John Rogers in a thread about the current strike—are the same ones milking old IP for all it’s worth: “The new robber barons of Hollywood are on a suicide run.” This shift is tech-bro economics, Wall Street-fellating “vulture capitalism” here to feast on the industry, not further it.” It’s not just the art itself, but most of the business – including its infrastructure – being burned to the ground as money-sucking vultures pick clean the corpse. But that’s not all…
“I’m stuck in Cloud Cuckoo Land!” (or as Aristophanes first called it, Nephelokokkygia) is what I find myself exclaiming nearly every day as I hear some new cockamamie idea about the film business, most of it caused by people whose heads have been put in the clouds by others selling a dream of a world that no longer exists. It’s what you hear in the week leading into Cannes, as the Toronto deadline hits us, and Sundance announces its submissions timeline (ahem, that would be this week; everything all at once, as they say). Everyone suddenly thinks, again, that the business will open up. That they’ll sell their film at one of these places or find the one that will sell to audiences. Or they find themselves staring at the news about the writer’s strike and ask me – so… maybe we’ll see more movement in the doc business now that the streamers need content, right? To which I say, haven’t you been reading this newsletter? Yep, I too am in cloud cuckoo land thinking people read newsletters!
Cloud Cuckoo Land. I muttered it to myself again this week, as a filmmaker argued with a financier about equity stakes, as if the film in question would ever go into profits. I muttered it again as an executive producer argued to get more credit for their contribution to a film. I muttered it again as a brand client gave me their celebrity EP suggestions to attach to a different film project. And again, when someone showed me a PowerPoint deck for a 100MM investment in a new super-niche streamer. And once again, as I debated with good friends about how we might build our way out of this crisis for less than 100MM in investment. And again, when asked if we could get a film project featured on the Today Show. And again, when someone suggested that we don’t need to worry about AI, and once again when watching a different person post a TikTok about how AI was stealing their creativity and was evil. 
I could go on with this rant, but I guess I’m just the cuckoo lander yelling “wake up” into the cacophony of birdsong, while blissfully thinking that might be possible. But because we are all in cloud cuckoo land, none of us can hear the others due to all the birds blocking our communications (that’s what Aristophanes was referring to in the first place). 

But that’s the thing about cuckoo landers. Sometimes, they stumble into some brilliant insight that no one rational would ever think to propose. Not that I am doing that here – but that maybe, one of these cuckoo landers driving me crazy is either onto something, or will stumble into it soon. At this point, that’s about all we can hope for – some accidental brilliance coming by just staying stuck in the clouds. That maybe, we’ll look up soon and someone will be standing there, great idea- or movie – or business plan -  in hand, oblivious to the madness, just showing us the way.
Which is possible, actually. Because if we go back to my original point – this cloud cuckoo land has been built around us, against our will. No one wanted dozens of streamers fighting for our eyeballs. No one (smart/artistic) made movies to get rich. Documentaries (all films?) died when the sales agents showed up at the festival. Most of us are stuck in a political (and artistic) world we don’t want, didn’t create, and have just been suckered into someone else’s reality because… that’s what happens to us humans. But if those of us not stuck with our head in the clouds band together and dream up something new, we might build it upon the ashes of the old business. The question is just how long we’ll all take trying to make the old system work, instead of building the new one.  
My bet is that most of us will keep trying at least through Cannes, and maybe through Sundance of 2024. And I get depressed thinking of all that wasted time. This is when I do the only rational thing, and stop thinking about it, and just enjoy the birds. It’s gonna be 80 degrees in NYC today. The birds are already singing their songs outside my windows. I think that like Cynthia Hopkins sings in my suggested soundtrack, I’ll just go whistle with the birds. 

Stuff I'm Reading

The True Battle: Humanity Vs. Capital: James Schamus and twelve-thousand of his Writers Guild of America colleagues went on strike last week. This strike comes 16 years after the last one which cost LA over $3B in economic damages and this one is about to be more costly, he writes. But check out his piece for “The Guardian” because it discusses the power structures that are bound to form between (human) writers and AI in the entertainment industry. While he doesn’t know how AI will function as a storyteller, Schamus is pretty sure the bosses will first use AI as managers: “[The bosses] have every intention to use [AI] to place us deeper and deeper in indentured servitude, under the guise of liberating us… into a state of eternal job-seeking, “free” agency.” But this isn’t a story of machines taking over human control and agency. This is a story of new technologies that “sit atop a mountain of… hidden and unacknowledged human labor – labor that is overwhelmingly immiserated and exploited.” He concludes that the writer’s strike and the struggle of invisible and exploited laborers who fuel our beloved AI systems is not a battle between humans and machines, but between humanity and capital. Shout out to “Filmmaker Magazine” newsletter for putting this article on our radar. (GSH)

Doc Filmmaker Wakeup Call and Food for Thought: Doc consultant (extraordinaire) Peter Broderick highlights the best opportunities in today’s documentary distribution world, as well as some sad truths about where the industry’s at. Let’s start with the reality: At Sundance, only 4 out of 25 amazing docs sold and the sales price for at least 3 of them were likely pretty low. Streamers bought zero docs at Sundance and are prioritizing docs in the categories of true crime, music, and celeb-driven. So stop looking at festivals and to the past for sales. Instead, design a customized strategy that’s selective and up-to-date. Here’s what you should be thinking about: (1) Global virtual screenings and direct virtual distribution worldwide; (2) Get creative with your distribution model. Think interactive presentations and special events. (3) Try working with NETA to have your film screened on PBS stations throughout the country; (4) Partner with nonprofits, orgs, government agencies to build awareness among target audiences; (5) Present at relevant annual conferences and reach community stakeholders/ key leaders in the field; (6) Get orgs and/or influencers to urge their members/followers to rent or buy your film. Broderick concludes, “I’m very excited about all the innovations that will come from independents with nothing to lose and everything to gain.” Find the full report at this link. (GSH)

Leaning Into The Inevitability of AI in Media Production: AI in media production is getting exciting, and it’s going to flip the industry on its head. Check out an interview with Michael Cioni, Adobe’s Senior Director of Global Innovation. Here’s the video or you can read the transcript in Joey Daoud’s Filmmaker Magazine article. Cioni’s central point: “My advice to cinematographers and photographers, creatives in general, is to really recognize that, enormously, the percentage of images that are photographed or recorded in the world for production is going to go down…. Productions that are looking for that kind of savings are just going to go right [to generative AI]. If we fight this technological change, I think it’ll be a miss… so lean into it.” (GSH)


Death of the Metaverse: Ed Zitron for Business Insider says “RIP Metaverse.” Starting three years ago it became the obsession of the tech world and Wall Street investors. But then came along something sexier – generative AI – leaving the Metaverse dead in the ground. Zuckerberg promised intense immersive experiences, but we only ever saw pixelated avatars. Major companies that put billions of dollars into the metaverse have pulled out (Microsoft laid off 100 members from its industrial metaverse team, Disney closed its doors on their metaverse division two months ago, and Walmart ended its Roblox projects). And even Zuckerberg abandoned his baby. He declared last March that Meta’s "single largest investment is advancing AI and building it into every one of our products." Zitron concludes “The death of the Metaverse should be remembered as arguably one of the most historic failures in tech history….It should also be the cause for some serious reflection among the venture-capital community, which recklessly followed Zuckerberg into blowing billions of dollars.” (GSH)

Epic Games Hands Power to Creatives: Epic Games is creating a teeming ecosystem of creatives and is setting itself up to be the hub of user-generated content (UGC). Here’s what Digiday’s Aron Garst has to say about the space: For starters, Epic wants to give Fortnite creatives more control. Creators will have access to tools game developers use to build out deeper mechanics and soon, independent creators and brands will be able to design in-game skins and custom avatars. There’ll be recommendation algorithms similar to YouTube’s that directs players to work/experiences created by other users. Garst notes that there’s real opportunity in this creator economy – Epic Games shifted its revenue model to what it calls “Creator Economy 2.0” in which creators now get 40% of all Fortnite revenue. Epic Games senior vice president Sax Perrson says “the next level of content is going to drive the next wave of people to the ecosystem.” My takeaway: The question isn’t if the space Epic has created will take off, but how big will it get and when will we participate in it. (GSH)

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