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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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Woe In the Heights; Biblical in the Streets

June 16, 2021

I’ve been lucky to be able to spend the past few weeks out in the Rockaways (a gift my wife and I gave ourselves for our anniversary), and while I’ve been working the whole time, I’ve also spent a lot of time on the beach, and I’ve been noticing the near-constant bombardment of banner planes advertising In the Heights. I also enjoyed enough nutcrackers to fall for the hype, and felt certain that it would be a success at the box office, because lord knows they’ve been marketing it enough, the reviews were coming in strong, and it seemed to have all the right ingredients for success. 
Boy was I wrong about that one. Lesson learned, again - don’t believe the hype. Every conversation with film people this week began with some form of post-mortem on why In The Heights bombed. First, everyone was sure that it was because it was on HBO Max at the same time, with no windowing. Take that said the theater owners and lovers. But The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It opened quite well at the box office ($24M), while also being on HBO Max, so that can’t be the reason. Then, research and anecdotes seemed to show that it didn’t perform well online either. Take that, said the streamers and futurists – it’s not about the windows but the movie itself. Others blamed it on colorism. But before they could say take that, someone else said, well, Lin-Manuel Miranda just isn’t that famous and neither is anyone else in this movie. 
few others, and I am in this camp to some extent, think that it will be a slow build, kinda like The Greatest Showman, which started off with an even lower box office than Heights ($8.8M vs $11.4M), and this was pre-covid of course, but went on to be a blockbuster ($438M). I can agree with that take because this feels like a word-of-mouth movie, and if you look into it, it’s per screen average of $3,330 wasn’t all that bad considering it’s not a superhero movie, or a horror film you need to see with an audience (and crucially, before spoilers hit the news), and most theaters have limited capacity (NY and CA removed these restrictions as I was writing this piece). Only time will tell if this is the case, but if the film is truly as good as the critics say it is (I haven’t yet seen it), then the word of mouth should push this one to greater success than its opening might portend. Except...
None of these excuses seem to account for what happened here, if only because they all seem the same, so  I also have another theory – the core audience for this one just can’t be bothered because they’re too busy partying in the streets to go inside to a movie theater. Aside from (capital T) Theater lovers who saw this on Broadway, a large part of this film’s audience is likely young and/or diverse. And while some of that audience can be dragged indoors to watch horror movies like Conjuring or blockbusters like the upcoming F9, most of them are a more general audience and they are back to partying their asses off. As Sofia Pace said to the NYT (alluding to a meme online) in my favorite quote of this year – “This summer in New York is going in the Bible.” “That’s the best way that I can describe how people my age are looking at it, that it’s going in the Bible,” Ms. Pace said. “The energy level could not be higher going into the summer months.” 
That’s the feeling on the beach here, and on the streets of the City, and I imagine that’s happening everywhere in the US, or anywhere else that is seeing some light in the covid-tunnel (I know this is not the case in many parts of the world). Before I came out to the Rockaways, I would walk through Times Square every week on my way to my (safely distanced) office – something you normally avoid because of the crowds of tourists – and the scene is nothing less than a big Twentysomething party-town. The kids who would possibly watch this movie about dancing in the streets are too busy playing in the actual streets to head indoors to watch it – on the big screen or home screen. 
The story for film during covid has in many ways been about a fight for attention. How do you make a movie stand out and grab someone’s attention when they have TikTok, Instagram, Roblox, millions of “shows” to watch, games to play, and so many other things competing for their eyeballs. Well folks, now you have all of that competition, plus the return of concerts, theme parks, everything else that’s opening up – and for a younger audience, the return of socializing and partying together again. It’s gotta be a pretty special movie to grab that audience’s attention. And for most audiences, that’s going to mean action, horror, superheroes and not specialty films like arthouse, indie, or even musicals. 
Luckily – although this is hard to say from the Beach - it only stays Summer for so long. Maybe audiences will show up for the rest of us again sometime this Fall. Or maybe my theory is wrong, but it’s as good as anything else I’ve heard this week, so I’m sticking with it, and hope to have a Biblical summer – which will mean experiencing life instead of watching it on a screen. 

Stuff I'm Reading

Docs Can Make a Difference - This one got a Prisoner Released Before it's Even Finished: People debate whether docs can make a difference all the time, and while the larger debate will rage on, there are many examples of docs influencing legal proceedings directly. But as this NYT article points out, that's usually after the films have been released to the public. But Natalie Pattillo and Daniel A. Nelson's "And So I Stayed" helped a woman get out of prison before it was even completed. In 2013, Tanisha Davis was sent to prison for killing her boyfriend, who had been abusing her. Pattillo and Nelson documented her case as part of their film about women defending themselves against domestic violence. The duo cut a short film together that was shown to the judge and the prosecuting attorney, and both cited the film as part of their reason for releasing Davis. Read the full story for all of the details, and the film just premiered at the Brooklyn Film Festival. 

Documentary+ To Give Data to Filmmakers: Doc and nonfiction streaming platform Documentary+ has announced it will give a lot of viewership data to filmmakers - not just of their own films, but of others on the platform. This is a great move towards transparency, and I am glad that XTR, the owner of the channel and also a prodco doing a lot in this space, is leading this charge. But... I wonder if the data will be very helpful in the short term, as I imagine that there are very few people using the service yet. That said, it's a great move. 

HBO Max's Ad-Tier is Light on Ads: HBO Max launched their ad-tier, and it has upped the competition for other streamers… big time. For only $9.99 a month, the ad-tier features 4 minutes of ads maximum, which is 1 minute less than Discovery+ and Peacock (these streamers previously boasted the lightest ad loads). What’s more, during HBO Max originals, ad breaks tended to be 1 minute or less, designed around the story so as not to disrupt its flow. I wouldn't pay 10 bucks for any ads, but I bet other people will.  Kelsey Sutton from Adweek has the news.

Jumpcut uses data to increase diversity in film: Jumpcut is a startup which uses data science to get decision makers in the film space to increase representation of historically underrepresented voices and stories. It’s the first studio to do this. So how does Jumpcut do it? “First, Jumpcut uses an algorithm to scan hundreds of thousands of videos from platforms like YouTube… to find promising talent. The algorithm… locate[s] creators who are consistently finding new audiences and increasing their engagement. Then, the Jumpcut team – including advisors and veterans from Netflix, Buzzfeed, CBS, Sony, and WarnerMedia – identifies who to connect with." Amanda Silberling of TechCrunch has the news.

LiquidMedia acquires Filmocracy and iGemsTV; announce Filmocracy's FestDANCE: Filmocracy, an online fest and SVOD platform that rewards users for watching and sharing films, and iGemsTV, a film recommendation engine, have both been acquired by LiquidMedia of Canada, which also owns the old Reelhouse assets among others, and seems to be building a suite of tools for creatives to make content (including games) and get discovered. Filmocracy also announced its new FestDance Summit, which will be held August 4th & 5th, 2021. Find out more here.
Branded Content
‘Marketers are leaning into the metaverse’: Roblox ramps up brand partnerships + It's Competing with Streamers: By Seb Joseph, Digiday. Roblox is looking more and more like the present and future of branded content. Creative technologist Sam Cox explains that “Roblox enables an… interactive experience where any brand can accessibly build any metaverse-type shared experience –– this is a compelling motive [for brands] to get involved.” And indeed, household name brands are already using Roblox to reach younger audiences.

Roblox and Warner Bros, for instance, recreated New York’s Washington Heights as a response to Lin-Manuel Miranda’s new musical, “In the Heights.” In this metaverse, players can meet characters in the musical including Miranda himself. Just a few days ago, players were able to enter the metaverse and attend a “virtual watch party for an exclusive clip of the movie followed by a Q&A session with some of the cast.” 

And importantly, as Gabriel here at Sub-Genre pointed out to me - Roblox is also competing with the streamers for attention now -  While Netflix users averaged 3.2 hrs of streaming in 2020, Roblox users averaged over 2.5 hrs. And that's a much more active slice of their time as well.

Closer Than Ever: The Role of AR/VR In The New Marketing Era: Via Zein Jaffer (Martech Series):“Change [in marketing strategy] has happened fast and full-scale, with AR, VR, and XR cementing themselves as cornerstones of the new, normal customer experience.” During the pandemic, artificial reality (AR) kept brands afloat, if not unscathed. For instance, retail brands that suffered from reduced foot-traffic in stores were able to harness AR to “[offer] high-end, virtual try-ons... [simulate] a shade of lipstick, or [demonstrate] how a piece of furniture would fit into the existing set up of a room… [as well as] offer a modernized and personalized brand experience.” 

But what’s next in this futureworld? It’s extended reality (XR). “XR technologies... are meant to extend the reality that consumers or users experience by merging the real world and the virtual world in varied combinations.” The potential impact of these technologies on virtually every industry, from healthcare to manufacturing is massive. The author describes the effects of XR on marketing as “unlimited.”  


Ships of the Northern Fleet - Real Fans, Fake Show - My friend Harriette Yahr turned me on to this NYT article about the fan created world of Ships of the Northern Fleet. which is just about as pure an example of the rise of participatory culture as one can read. The short of it - like all good things these days, a corona-bored creative went on TikTok and asked people to share memories of a made up TV show that had never existed, and soon enough a core team and a crowd-sourced league of folks started building an alternate universe around this show, including story-lines, characters, and a very inclusive and diverse world-view. It's pretty damn cool, and it sent me off on an hour long exploration on TikTok, and, well, it's brilliant. And I should add- something you can watch while still partying in the streets.

Why you can’t write for Bulletin, Facebook’s new Substack clone: Peter Kafka of Vox, Recode writes about Facebook's new Bulletin platform, which launches soon, as a competitor to SubStack. The difference - Facebook is betting they can better connect communities at scale, and they will be limiting the writers to those that FB curates and pays. This could be a great new resource for journalists, or another way to make for bitterly divided discourse. It also proves, once again, that FB is a media company. 

Map Of The Internet Exposes The Lie That 'Big Tech' Controls The Internet: Martin Vargic, internet cartographer, has some stunning maps of the web that send out a powerful lesson: While big companies like Google, Facebook, and Amazon seemed to have divided up the online world, “there's a lot of "land" out there that isn't controlled by the big players, and we should be celebrating that," according to Mike Masnicjk of TechDirt. Vargic produced another map of the internet 7 years ago and it’s entirely different, “[reminding us] of just how much the internet keeps changing, even in [a] fairly short time frame…”.   The maps are pretty cool so check them out. Here's an excerpt I liked:

Lina Khan, Big Tech Critic, Named FTC Chair by Biden, with Bipartisan Support: That map aside, the big guns are coming for big tech. Biden named Lina Khan to head the FTC, after she had just been confirmed 69-28 in the fiercely divided Senate, which shows that both parties are ready to break up big tech. It's gonna get fun, soon. 
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