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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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Headless Chickens

Oct 19, 2022

It’s good to admit what you don’t know, and to be willing to learn from others. I get smarter because I know I am not the smartest person in the room. Even if I act like I know what I’m doing, by writing things like this newsletter, you can trust me that I know I’m just trying to figure it all out. What’s been disconcerting lately, however, is how few people in this business seem to have any clue about anything going on, and how few people I can listen to and get a vibe for what’s really happening. No one knows a damned thing about anything, it seems. 
Least of all, Netflix. Or maybe less than Netflix, anyone who covers them in the news or on the Street.  Sarah Krouse of The Wall Street Journal has been doing an ace job of at least trying to figure it all out lately. The WSJ has a paywall, but here are just four of their recent reports on Netflix, all of which are better than anything I’ve read in the trades, or elsewhere. But what’s cuckoo ca choo land in reading all of those reports, is just how little anyone in the company seems to know about their own business. Today’s big story in the WSJ was that the company has been having internal debates over whether or not to open films more often, for longer and with more marketing support in theaters before they hit streaming. It seems everyone in the company tried to argue to Sarandos that they should invest more in theatrical as they’re “leaving hundreds of millions in box-office receipts on the table with its current strategy,” and that “showing movies in more theaters would create valuable buzz for the streaming service.” But after thinking about it a while, Ted just said – nope. Apparently, they have decided that longer theatrical “could create what is known inside the company as a “trust buster,” or a move that betrays the expectations of subscribers and degrades the perceived value of a subscription, people familiar with the discussions said. Plus, they want movies to drive new subscribers to Netflix when there is cultural chatter about them.”
Ok, so let’s not capture those hundreds of millions in lost revenue, and not build buzz, and… build an ad-supported tier instead. You know, busting the trust we had that Netflix would make great stuff and never have crap like advertising. Trust me, I just spent an entire day at Advertising Week, and the last thing you want is more of that in your life. Especially not when, as Sarah Krouse of the WSJ also reported (she seems to know what she’s doing) your users are coming to the platform with less frequency. Turns out that people are tuning out, from Netflix at least. Krouse reports: “An internal brand health tracker that regularly surveys consumers about their perception of Netflix showed that young and diverse audiences’ view of the company was flagging, people familiar with that finding said.” Not a good sign, what with TikTok ascendant and all that. 
Guess what brings people back. Great movies. The kind Netflix is making less of, as it cuts budgets and goes for broke on quantity over quality, because someone inside Netflix thinks more stuff – just not better stuff – will be more “sticky” with audiences, I guess. And as you move towards advertising, you will become more like Discovery, chasing eyeballs for advertisers with cheap content full of cheap thrills. This might bring in new ad-tier subscribers, but it won’t keep them around for longer. But again, what do I know?
But while Netflix may be the 800lb headless chicken running around, it’s not like the rest of us know any better. Over at The Ankler, Richard Rushfield is doing an entire series called “What’s The Plan” asking whether any of the Studios know what the f they’re doing, and installment one doesn’t find much hope at Warner Brothers Discovery. To be fair, he does think they have some good leaders, and are better with their debt load than most other prognosticators, but the central question remains – does this make any sense. Or as Rushfield puts it: “you can look at the Discovery+ service and HBO Max in two ways — as two services that are completely different, serving different audiences and are thus incompatible; or as two services that are completely different, serving different audiences, and are thus a perfect fit. WBD is definitely going with the latter interpretation.” To which I say… hahahahahaha.  But what do I know?
Certainly not any more than the folks I’ve been speaking to in the film festival, exhibition space, or even my brand film reps, who all seem confused as heck over the state of their own industries. Perhaps no one seems more confused than those making films, however, as evidenced in Rebecca Green’s missive this week, The Sky is Falling, Take Shelter. She notes that the tone of producer’s texts, emails and statements have become more dire, and have a bit of an apocalyptic tone to them. But knowing a thing or two, she also points out that this is cyclical and to some extent, always the case – “the sky will always be falling because gatekeepers, both in the studio and indie space, will always be chasing the dollar. The sky will always be falling because technology will always be changing, audiences’ appetite will evolve and regress, and despite all the algorithms that exist today… no one can predict success.” Her answer is to slow down, be more mindful and healthy, take a deep breath and “take shelter” (I’m paraphrasing, read it). 
I can’t really dispute that notion, coming from someone smarter than me, but after taking a deep breath, my bearings lean more towards – build a plan. Because when no one knows anything, it’s a great time to build that something that we all need, but no one can seem to figure out. I have some guesses on what that plan should entail, but not knowing much of anything, I’d love to hear from others on what you think might get us all out of this liminal space where no one knows a damned thing and back to some future reality where we’re all surer of where we’re going.

Stuff I'm Reading

Netflix unveils its ad-supported product: In just under a month, Netflix’s ad-supported tier will go live. Here’s what you should know if you’re on the fence about subscribing: (1) It’ll cost $6.99/month; (2) It’ll be available in only 12 countries, including the U.S., U.K, Japan, Brazil, and Mexico; (3) Ads will run for about 15-30 seconds; (4) You’ll see around 4-5 ads/hour; (5) Not all TV shows and movies that you can watch now on Netflix will be available on their Ad-tier (we’ll be missing around 5-10% of their library until deals are renegotiated); (6) Some movies will carry only pre-roll ads as opposed to mid-roll ads which will make for easier, uninterrupted viewing; (7) Netflix will collect some of your data (your gender and age) when you set up your account so that ads are appropriately targeted; (8) Though Netflix will have your email address, it remains unknown if there will be any email-based targeting; (9) Once the ad-tier is launched, you can expect Netflix to crack down on account cannibalization (password sharing). Tim Peterson for Digiday brings us the news. (GSH)

Disney warns France that future blockbusters could bypass cinema: Disney warns that unless France’s “anti-consumer” distribution rules are reformed, its biggest movies including Black Panther: Wakanda Forever will skip the movie theater and go straight to streaming beginning in 2023. WHAT??? While France’s windowing system is designed to protect cinemas and the film industry as a whole, Disney said they “believe the [French windowing system] is anti-consumer and puts all studios at increased risk for piracy, which is why… it needs to be revised.” Disney’s ultimatum comes at a time when French movie theaters are struggling big time, thanks to the pandemic (only 7.4 million tickets were sold last month, the lowest it’s been since the 1980s). Disney’s announcement follows in Netflix’s wake, which began financing French cinema production in exchange for reducing the window from 36 to 15 months. Where are we now? Disney has refused to sign a similar deal and France’s Minister of Culture said she’d reopen the discussion on windowing rules as they aren’t set in stone. Alex Barker and Leila Abboud for The Financial Times have the news. (GSH)

Branded Content

This week's Branded Content Section has three big Sub-Genre Updates:

Making Oscar Worthy Branded Entertainment - My Talk at the Advertising Week Amazon Ads Studio: This Tuesday, I was interviewed at Advertising Week as part of their streaming sessions at the Amazon Ads Studio. My chat was about the best films/shows being made by the best brands, and how others might follow their lead. If you happen to have a badge, you can watch it now - just go here to check out the sessions. If you don't have a badge, you can apparently watch these sessions as they stream live, and there are some other great speakers and panels for the next couple of days.(BN)

My session description: This year, a brand-funded film won an Oscar (The Long Goodbye, presented by WeTransfer). We’ll explore the different ways brands are approaching film and episodic content, how they can best get their message to audiences, find distribution at scale and make an impact through entertainment. We’ll look at why agencies and creative partners need to add this skill set to their arsenal to help brands achieve their goals and how to do it in a manner that ensures success. 

The Climate Pledge Future Forward Film Series at VERGE22: The secret is out. I can finally talk about this great project we've been working on at Sub-Genre for over a year. Next week, we'll be premiering a new short film series at the VERGE22 Conference in San Jose. We worked with The Climate Pledge team to design this entire series, helped bring in Majority to produce it, and are building the distribution campaign now, which starts with this sneak preview premiere at one of the prime climate/sustainability conferences in the US. We'll be doing more premieres soon, leading up to a major launch in 2023. The films are all directed by some of the top names in the business, including Academy and Emmy award winning filmmakers. Each film features a different business sector, and what they're doing as part of the Climate Pledge. They're all pretty inspiring, and I'm looking forward to launching the series. And now you can check out the films at VERGE, or here, and get all the info on the Pledge site. (BN)

The Reciprocity Project at A week ago, REI launched The Reciprocity Project on their website and social channels. The Reciprocity Project is a collaborative effort between Nia Tero, a global nonprofit uplifting Indigenous land sovereignty through policy and storytelling, and Upstander Project, which uplifts silenced narratives through film and education, in association with REI Co-op Studios. Reciprocity Project is a series of short films made by Indigenous filmmaking teams in different communities, each exploring the question: What does reciprocity mean to you?  

The project is rooted in the knowledge that Indigenous peoples and communities have been in good relationship with—and speaking the language of—this land since the beginning of time. Diverse Indigenous value systems offer a path forward.  

All seven short films in the first season of the Reciprocity Project are available to view on the  Sub-Genre helped bring these groups together and we're very honored to have been able to work with - and learn from - this project. (BN)

Sundance Cancels the New Frontier Program: Sad news out of Sundance this week, as they cancelled the groundbreaking New Frontier program. According to a spokesperson mentioned in an IndieWire article about this, it had nothing to do with budget cuts. But when you say that, of course it is. I'm sure there were other reasons too, but no one starts curating something and then cancels it unless some crazy combination of factors forced a closure. Regardless, it's a loss to the field, as the New Frontier program didn't just launch the VR/AR projects they've become famous for lately, they were also important to the launch of many interactive works, performances, and other cutting-edge new media projects. I used to run an organization that gave the Rockefeller Fellowships, which included grants for New Media artists, and I could count on seeing dozens of those artists premiering new projects at Sundance each year. It was also a place to catch some glorious failures - art that aimed high but just confused everyone, or didn't work at all - but that was also a sign of its vitality, because they let artists take those kinds of risks. You don't get that often at a film festival, and you don't see it much at many of the copycat programs out there today. Eric Kohn at IndieWire has the full report. (BN)

Sketches of the Lands Between: Do you like video games? Do you like jazz? Do you like video game soundtracks turned jazz? Well, you’re in luck! Elden Rings is having living jazz legend Kenny Garrett (alto sax) and Takuya Kuroda (trumpet) perform “A Night in the Lands Between.” The Dec 3rd concert at Hollywood’s Bourbon Room will reimagine Eldin Rings’ soundtrack through jazz. It’ll also be available for livestream. Check out a video of Garrett and Kuroda sharing their thoughts on the project here. Andrew Webster for The Verge has the news.  (GSH)

Revyze is building the TikTok of educational videos: French startup Revyze is on a mission to bring together social media and education in a way that actually works. Aimed at high schoolers, teenage creators (as opposed to older teachers) will create educational videos on a broad range of topics for other teens. Though their product will look and feel pretty much like TikTok, a creator’s video won’t instantly go live once it’s posted. “Videos are validated by [Revyze] and the community,” according to Revyze’s co-founder. Eventually, a peer moderation system will be put in place followed by machine learning. My takeaway: Sounds like a great way to foster an academically-engaged community. How Revyze is going to ensure accurate lessons on a large scale seems like the main challenge here. Romain Dillet for Techcrunch has the news. (GSH)
GSH = Articles written by Sub-Genre's Gabriel Schillinger-Hyman, not Brian Newman (BN)
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