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Discordant Notes from a Great CPH:DOX

March 24, 2022 (a day later than normal due to work travel)

I just spent a whirlwind of a week between London and Copenhagen for work, and when you shift those time zones, run between films, pitches, meetings and parties you can become a bit discombobulated; you get the brain fog. Perhaps it was just that, but that was the predominant theme of my week at CPH:DOX – discordance. Discordance between what the market wants, is buying, and showing us on our screens, and what is getting made, pitched, and shown (to crowds) at film festivals. 
First, let me be clear – I loved CPH:DOX in every way, and the staff are amazing. The programming is top notch, and as Variety has noted, it has become one of the most important stops on the doc circuit. And I got to jog around one of the greatest cities every morning. This post is in no way a critique of them – in fact, it’s an homage to how much better a great festival can be compared to the rest of the business.
I gave a talk at the CPH:DOX Conference, and attended many of their other panels. Attending one populated with buyers from major commercial streamers and cable platforms, and one American public broadcaster, one would think the world of docs was rosy, with nothing but variety and opportunity. Going later to one filled mainly with sales agents, everything was doom and gloom, nothing much is selling, but at least it might just be cyclical. The panel with successful producers was back to rosy. When an audience member gasped when one producer nonchalantly mentioned raising seven figures for a doc from one source, and then asked from the mic if they’d heard that right – this being an astronomical amount for many European producers cobbling together funds from many (great) State funds and public broadcaster “co-pros,” the producer did admit they were now in a rarefied space where big projects just naturally come their way, at least. For those not as lucky, there was also a great keynote from Rebecca Day of DocuMentality about solving mental health issues in the doc field. Much needed.
Caty Borum of the CMSI at American University presented very well-researched data showing that from 2014-2020, most distributed docs were not from diverse subjects, or about them either, and too many were coming from White male directors. She also pointed out that the data showed that commercial streamers and broadcasters were more guilty of this than public media – and that funders are funding the more diverse stories, and festivals are showing them… so the gatekeeping against this is happening at the distribution level. The response from the commercial folks – “Oh, I’m sure we’ve gotten better in the past two years.” When she asked whether they wanted to address the fact that they are now mainly commissioning work from more established producers and less from emerging, and far less acquisitions… crickets. At least she’s throwing the data and the questions out there, but the exchange just added to the dissonance.
Walking over to the Forum, multiple amazing stories were being pitched. The field was feeling vibrant, and filled with great story-tellers from around the Globe, and quite diverse in all senses of the term (which I know is not a great one, really), telling a variety of stories. But as you walked to the coat check, or to lunch and chatted with your neighbors, many were wondering why they were there taking pitches that largely didn’t fit the major market buyers. True – and this can’t be said enough, or loudly enough – public broadcasters, especially European ones – are doing God’s work and helping finance and distribute many hard-hitting, non-commercial works. But they can only do so much. 
During my keynote at the CPH:DOX Conference, I presented some slides about what’s being bought. Talking to many buyers and various sales agents over the past year – and reading reports in the trades, the consensus comes down to some version of this list of what the buyers want:
•Pop Culture
•Music - Rock Docs
•True Crime
•Political Scandals
•Paranormal Stories
•Reality, contest formats
Sure, there are exceptions, and variations – one buyer told me they really like the political scandals that are also kinda creepy, for example. I also showed this quote from Variety where someone described the Hulu doc mission – “The ongoing slate reinforces the doc unit’s brand identity of exploring prominent moments in popular culture, as well as buzzy true crime tales and the lives of famous or infamous figures.” That sounds pretty differentiated from Netflix and HBO, right? No? I didn’t think so, either. 
Those are not the only (or even main) films that were being shown in the festival, for sure. My speech went on into some ways we might begin to envision alternate or new realities for the world of docs (and film more broadly), and believe it or not, I ended on a hopeful note. And I acknowledged, as I did here just above, that European public broadcasters were programming much more varied and pressing work. But of course, one stood up to remind me of that. I guess she missed my footnote. Dissonance. 
Again, there are exceptions. And those commercial streamers will tell you there are buying and programming based on what people watch. And the algorithm. Supposedly. But we’ve seen many mismatches between what the data tell us and what people really want (seen any elections lately?), and these algorithmic decisions are also being built on what fed the machine to begin with, as well.
On the plane ride home (I'm halfway through that journey back as I write this now), I finally started reading Megan Garber’s Atlantic article on the metaverse, whose title and subtitle says it all: “WE’VE LOST THE PLOT - Our constant need for entertainment has blurred the line between fiction and reality—on television, in American politics, and in our everyday lives.” It’s in the March print edition but went online back in January (a backwards way to promote subscriptions if you ask me, but that’s another post). Garber brings us back to the Sixties, when we were facing a similar dissonance in the media landscape. As she writes,
In 1961, Newton Minow, just appointed by President John F. Kennedy to lead the Federal Communications Commission, gave a speech before a convocation of TV-industry leaders. He was blunt. The executives, he said, were filling the air with “a procession of game shows, formula comedies about totally unbelievable families, blood and thunder, mayhem, violence, sadism, murder, Western bad men, Western good men, private eyes, gangsters, more violence, and cartoons.” They were turning TV into “a vast wasteland.”
She goes on to explore how we’re turning media and the metaverse into a “vaster wasteland,” and are essentially turning everything into entertainment, amusing ourselves to death (as Neal Postman said). She goes on to point out that yes, we all want and need to be entertained (me too), but we also need the stories that make us better citizens, not just more entertained consumers – and brings in Hanna Arendt’s fears – where we have an audience not knowing fact from fiction, where totalitarian dictators thrive (I highly recommend the article). 
Luckily, yes, we have the film funders and film festivals ensuring some of us get to see the films that don’t completely fit the mode. Sure, they also entertain us, but they make sure the important, hard films get seen, too. And yes, it’s where the dialogue about this state of affairs can take place, which was happening, but primarily off the stages and after saying “off the record…” That was a phrase that one prominent funder told me they had heard before every conversation they’d had at the festival. The rest of our conversation was… off the record. 
Adding to the discordant tone, I left the awards ceremony for the Forum pitches, where people were celebrating with lots of free beer, wine and actual roses, and went to a small dinner with the founders of the Ukraine War Archive, another place where hard hitting truths are being documented, and which CPH:DOX was also helping to support a bit, especially by connecting them with some folks who might be able to help their efforts. There was nothing more serious than what they discussed and what they’re doing, and they are also doing God’s work. Not all of the footage they collect can be accessed or used in films – some of it is too sensitive during a war, and will be mainly used as evidence in the future. But some will find its way to films, and those films will hopefully help amplify these stories. One hopes that more than one of those resultant films might make it through the pitches, the fest premieres and onto a service… the stories are a mix of thriller, political scandal, contest and a true crime. That’s half of the criteria for being bought, in one reading of the buckets being filled.

Stuff I'm Reading


It’s Time To Make the Movies Greener: Big movies make big messes. Diesel generators are humming around the clock, airplanes are flying talent and crew in and out, wood, cars, and other materials used in sets are being blown up and/or thrown out…the list goes on. The Green Production Guide’s 2021 Carbon Emissions of Film and Television Production report finds that feature films emit an average of 3,370 metric tons of CO2. Hollywood has a lot of work to do, and should take notes from a female-founded company called Earth Angel. They’ve been in operation for a decade and have reduced the carbon footprint of films like “The Whale,” “Amazing Spiderman-2,” “Marvelous Mrs. Maisel,” and more. Earth Angel’s sustainability practices have reportedly saved productions hundreds of thousands of dollars and in 2022 alone they donated over 45,000 meals that were left untouched by cast and crew on-set. Joan Michelson for “Forbes” urges movie, TV, and corporate producers, directors, actors, and crew to turn to the Green Production Guide for sustainable solutions. (GSH)


Making Movies That Watch Audiences: Richard Ramchurn creates interactive cinema, though not like Netflix’s “Bandersnatch.” He’s interested in making movies that watch its viewers.  His previous brain-controlled films used brain computer interfaces (BCIs) “to analyse electrical signals from the brain, allowing people to effectively control a device with their minds.” When hooked up, audiences were able to “create a non-conscious edit of the film in real time.” More recently, Ramchurn partnered with BlueSkeye AI which analyzed viewers’ facial expressions to film clips to develop algorithms to leverage data to control a film’s narrative. “Our research aims to generate conversation about how users’ emotion data can be used responsibly with informed consent, while allowing users to control their own personal information,” Ramchurn explains. All this to get viewers to enjoy a more personalized experience of the film? I’m all for evolutions in the way we tell stories, but this is starting to feel a bit dystopian. Check out the full article on “The Conversation.” (GSH)

Branded Content

“Unfair City,” A Branded AI Film: Dublin Simon Community, the Irish homelessness charity, is using AI in a BBDO Dublin short film called “Unfair City” to share the story of Ireland’s housing crisis. “One of the difficulties of telling stories of homelessness is that it can be very exposing for Dublin Simon’s clients. Reliving traumatic moments in their lives in front of cameras, lights, and microphones can make them feel very vulnerable. The great benefit of using AI in this instance is that it allowed [one homeless man] to tell his story on his own terms in a way that was still visually engaging and evocative (“Unfair City” creative director).” You can check out the short film in the article. John Glenday for “The Drum” brings us the story. (GSH) 


A Dangerous Game of AI (Misinformation) Telephone: Generative AI is a goldmine, but the big tech companies that create these projects should probably slow down. Check out James Vincent’s article for “The Verge” for an example of AI misinformation telephone, “in which chatbots [were] unable to gauge reliable news sources, misread stories about themselves, and misreport[ed] on their own capabilities.” It’s a funny little story, but with potentially serious repercussions: “Given the inability of AI language models to reliably sort fact from fiction, their launch online threatens to unleash a rotten trail of misinformation and mistrust across the web, a miasma that is impossible to map completely or debunk authoritatively. All because Microsoft, Google, and OpenAI have decided that market share is more important than safety.” Now imagine what you could do if you wanted these systems to fail, he threatens.(GSH)

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