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Sub-Genre Media Newsletter:
Semi-frequent musings on indie film, media, branded content and related items from Brian Newman.

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Five Insights From Sundance

Five Insights from Sundance
When you head to any of the bigger industry festivals, you not only see great films, but also get a chance to catch up with others in the industry and get a read on what’s going on in the field. This year, I was lucky enough to attend Sundance, Slamdance, and Brand Storytelling - a conference just for brands, agencies, platforms and others working in this space. I emphasize lucky here because another thing people like to do at these fests is gripe about having to attend, when it’s really quite a privilege in life that this is part of our jobs. Anyway, here’s a few of the broader trends and takeaways that hit me as important during my time in Park City:
  1. High and Low.
Entertainment has bifurcated into the High and the Low with very little in the middle - just like our society. We get to Sundance either crammed into economy seats or flying first class. The middle class has died across the world, and you’re either rich or poor.
There is no middle anymore, and that’s definitely true in the film world. Amazon and Netflix were spending $14-15 million on a few films (at least they were spending again); and outside of the 1% of top distributors, most buyers were waiting it out to see what remained and could go for cheaper. Or were hoping to capitalize on that middle gap where no one else seemed to be buying. Meanwhile, and this caused the next two trends, producers and financiers were all talking about you had to either go big, or go small, but in-between was a no-person’s land.
But my strangest experience at all of Sundance was also a high/low story - I went to see the excellent doc American Factory, where a subject in the film laments how last year he only made $27K at the factory as a skilled laborer, while his daughter brought in $13K more working as a nail technician. One hour later, I’m at a party where I overhear two (higher up) industry people debating careers and one tells the other “man, I’m telling you, you can’t live on less than $600,00 a year, it’s impossible these days.”  That to me was Sundance - and our current society - in a nutshell.
  1. Everyone wants in Early
But I digress. The high/low split leads to trend 2- everyone is trying to board films much earlier. Film Funds are launching development funds, distributors are offering early back-stop deals or outright financing, people are optioning doc subject’s life rights before making the film so they can pre-sell the narrative feature. When you can’t count on what Netflix might do, and as the market bifurcates, safety comes in getting in very early (or very late, but that is often off the table when so many people are getting in so early…).
  1. Producers (esp doc producers) are giving up on risk and moving towards commissions
Trend three also comes from the high/low divide. Conversation after conversation went like this:”No more one-offs and spec projects for me, I’m focusing my company on commissions.”  While Netflix and Amazon did open back up their wallets, last year taught people not to get caught without a big SVOD sale. Taking those risks and hoping to be the big sale at Sundance doesn’t always work, and it’s too stressful. With the middle dropping out, people want less risk and a guaranteed reward, which means seeking out and working on more commissions. Doc producers in particular are pitching projects to Netflix, Amazon, A&E, Natgeo and others early, and if there’s not a buy on the table or a commission for a series, forget about it, and drop the film. Secondary to this - trying to get a series commissioned which can pay the overhead while you do those labors of love on the side. The problem with this - but this is another article - is the downside of relying on those platforms payment schedules, which means you need to keep feeding the beast. On the other hand, I predict that this need for less risk will also lead to more producers seeking out brands for support, which should fuel an increase in quality branded content.
  1. Not selling works best for branded content
I spent the first half of Sundance running between the fest and Brand Storytelling, the best conference on the planet for people working in the intersection of brands and film. And they showed a lot of case studies, and also premiered (sometimes as a work-in-progress) many brand-funded films. And hands-down the best stuff there was the least advertising-centric and the most focused on not selling (directly) by just telling a great story. Sure, at the end of the day, these brands hope that if you like the film, you will feel better about them and about buying their products, but that’s often not the direct goal of these films. Their goal, like the filmmakers they work with, is telling a great story. This wasn’t a surprise to me - it’s what I preach to my clients all the time - but I was glad to see so many brands and their partners have embraced this mission.
  1. Trusted Word of Mouth Still Rules Discovery
This seems obvious, right? But I think it’s key to keep in mind as we move ever further into an algorithmically governed world, and as companies will increasingly use AI to serve us what they think we want to watch. Plus, I can plug a filmmaker and film this way.
Even at Sundance, you go into the festival hoping for a bit of algorithmic luck - you chose films based a bit on which ones are playing while you’re there, which ones the programmers put in the P&I at a time you can attend, etc. And you use word of mouth - from trades, industry friends, distributor tracking lists (when you can get them), publicists you trust, etc. But the word of mouth that matters most is from people you trust. Every year, I have an experience like this:
It’s my last night in Park City. I’ve seen three films (one great, one meh, one annoying but it sold for a lot); and I have just left one party and am debating whether to go a) the party known as one of the best at Sundance, or b) a film by a filmmaker I love, but that I know will come out soon and I can see it later. I have a spontaneous, text arranged meeting with someone I’ve never met before, and we decide to meet at the Treasure Mountain Inn’s restaurant because it won’t be busy. This is also Slamdance HQ and on my way out to option A or B, I run into Paul Rachman, a friend, filmmaker, co-founder and programmer of the fest who tells me Option C is my only option, and it’s playing right now, there’s only one seat left and he can get me in (we go back…). Very few people could have swayed me to skip party A or film B, but Paul also told me that Steven Soderbergh was a guest of the festival and loved this movie/director and it would be one of those moments where you say “I was there when…”
The film was worth staying for, and made everything about Park City 1 million times better for me. It was worth skipping other stuff, it was worth the crappy seats and screen at Slamdance (I love them, but let’s be honest), and it will be worth bragging about later. But the point is, this only happened because of a lot of serendipity (timing, etc.) and a lot of trust in two person’s opinions of film. Not critics either mind you, but people I trust as curators for other reasons.
No one has built in an easy way to take advantage of this trusted source recommendation in film discovery on any platform. We tried it with Flicklist - but we failed for so many other reasons. But when I’m flicking through the endless scroll of recommendations on Netflix, or watching another shitty movie because it has a good IMDB or Rotten Tomatoes score because you can’t trust the crowd - I wish I had access to just the recommendations I trust. I want this for film, for other culture and even instead of Yelp, or any other crowd-sourced system I know of. So if you are out there and you are smart, please, please, build me this machine - a system that let’s me designate people I trust to recommend the best stuff. That’s all I want, and it should be easier to make than an autonomous car.
Long story short, if you trust me at all, or Paul or Soderbergh, add The Vast of Night and its director Andrew Patterson to your watch list. It has its issues, but it signals a tremendous new talent. I can’t say it any better than Amy Taubin (another voice to trust, who was also tipped by Soderbergh) did in Film Comment: “For me, The Vast of Night was the kind of discovery that one comes to Park City for, a display of visionary moviemaking intelligence equal to that of my most memorable Utah experiences; Richard Kelly’s Donnie Darko or Shane Carruth’s Primer, or for that matter, Christopher Nolan’s Following, which also premiered at Slamdance.”

Stuff I'm Reading

What I’m Reading: Film & Content
Finally, an open source, useful film festival database: Created by filmmaker Michael Forstein, on his own time, and not by any of the “filmmaker service organizations” or “film festival alliances” that in theory should have done this shit a long time ago. But I’m glad someone did this - and as of now it includes a searchable, sortable Google Doc database, as well as two map versions for geo-targeting (BTW, for those looking, it has deadlines in the master database tab).  It needs more international fests, and has a few minor errors - but it’s one person doing this for free. Some foundation should retroactively give him a grant for his work (I’ll be donating, which you can do here).
Who is Netflix’s biggest competitor? HBO? Hulu? A new Disney service?  It’s actually Fortnite. In a letter to investors with their Q4 results, Netflix recently outlined how they aren’t just competing with streaming services for screen time, but also with other forms of media such as video games. “”We compete with (and lose to) Fortnite more than HBO," Netflix said.” A good reminder to anyone in this space - you aren’t competing with just other movies for people’s attention, but everything else they can do with their time. The “Attention Economy” is here.
And about Fortnite: Redef has a great run-down of the myths and realities of what makes it tick. And when all is said and done, this is why it’s a threat not just to Facebook, but to Netflix and even movie-going: “Fortnite’s most significant achievement may be the role it has come to play in the lives of millions. For these players, Fortnite has become a daily social square – a digital mall or virtual afterschool meetup that spans neighborhoods, cities, countries and continents.”
Games moving to Subscription - Like Netflix and MoviePass, Games are moving towards a subscription model as well,according to The Week, which coupled with a freemium model (free game, pay for add-ons), should only increase their popularity. If the Bandersnatch model catches on, it could extend the freemium model to film as well - pay to get a better ending; or what I’d prefer - let me pay more to get a better selection of films instead of tv shows!
How important is Disney+? Many analysts are calling Disney the “safest bet in streaming,” with UBS projecting they sign up 5 million subscribers in their first year and grow to 50 million by year five.  That’s half as many as Netflix already has, but close to their US base as of now. Disney announced this week that they’ve already lost $136M in this quarter building the damned thing - but consider that an investment in a robust future.
Viacom bought Pluto: Viacom is officially enlisted in the streaming wars, buying (not the planet for those of you who have never heard of the free, ad supported service). They’re also saying their $340M acquisition will become a $5Billion ad business.
M&A: BTW, this confirms my prediction from a few weeks ago in the newsletter about mergers and acquisitions coming this year, and you can Add The Orchard to that acquisition list as well.
Forbes is predicting Amazon and Netflix will launch an ad-supported version of their services soon. My take: Amazon, sure, but there’s no evidence that Netflix would do this at all. I could see it in certain foreign markets on a mobile-only version, but “no ads” is one of their biggest selling points.
Netflix still has 2.7 Million DVD subscribers - and they brought in $85 Million in revenue last quarter from it. Small change for Netflix, but I predict the DVD service might grow since you can actually get a better mix of films there than on SVOD (which is why I still get the DVDs).
Amazon Prime just booted a bunch of indie films off of the service with no heads-up the filmmakers. TheNextWeb thinks its a travesty, which it is, but apparently only some 3000 people agree, as that's how many are signing the petition to bring back indies to Prime. Which begs the question: is the sum total indie audience less than 4000 people?
At least we have a new niche streaming service: There’s a new Home for Classic Films as the Criterion Channel sets Launch date of April 8th. Will there be enough consumer support to keep Criterion alive when FilmStruck shut down in 2018? While I love Criterion, my bet is that they need a lot more capitalization so they can curate a much broader selection to remain competitive. I still don’t believe that enough people want only niche films to keep a niche service alive - I know I need a bit of both (niche and mass entertainment).
What I’m Reading: Media
 Unless you are living under that rock, reading a print newspaper, you may have noticed that this past week/month might go down as the time when all hopes for the future of the media finally died - in print, digital and in many people’s dreams.
Buzzfeed, Vice, HuffPo, Gannett and others all announced layoffs. Jill Abramson’s book about her time at the NYT and what’s happening in the space hit bookstores and the reviews and articles became even more timely as a result (read Jill Lepore in the New Yorker in particular, the image above is their's too) The free vs subscription wars seem to be coming down in favor of paid subscribers being the only solution, but no one seems sure what to do in a world where Facebook, Google and now Amazon own most of the advertising space, and the eyeballs. I believe that what’s happening in journalistic media is similar to what we’ll see in film as well, and worth watching closely.
So what can we take from this?
Jeremy Littau in Wired has some good thoughts to keep in mind -  First: “The internet wasn’t just paper—it was also the paperboy. It was a content, platform, and distribution model all in one.” Remember this, filmmakers/content-makers. And second: that a lot of overlooked audiences (women, people of color) finally had somewhere else to go: “The internet gave these already dissatisfied audience segments new choices—and reason to leave newspapers behind.” Which will happen to film if it doesn’t continue to diversify its voices/audiences as well.
Focus on quality and loyalty: News organizations chose to compete with each other on mass scale, rather than finding what they’re best at. As Rafat Ali says in the article (but really back in 2016): “‘Time to focus on what matters: building loyalties, both with users and advertisers (if that’s a constituency), focus on doing the things that build revenue base, stay away from hiring diva-stars for the sake of hiring them, and focus on quality as consumers are tiring off cheap tricks.”
The future of media is niche. While all these layoffs are happenings, news organizations such as The Ringer, The Athletic, and Politico are doing well. Why? A super loyal reader base, which they own, and not attempting to compete with large tech companies such as Apple and Google. But it also means you can’t count on the hyper-growth targets demanded by VC’s, so it’s better to take funding elsewhere and build for the long-term - go figure!
The Solution is constant experimentation to serve your audience better:  Corey Ford, Founder of Matter Media’s solution for media companies is true for film companies too: “The focus needs to be: If you’re going to be long-term sustainable, how do you build an organization with a culture and processes that enable teams to constantly be understanding their audience and adjusting — constantly be experimenting with new technologies, and constantly seeking out new sustainable business models? If you’re a leader of a media organization and that’s not the No. 1 thing you’re thinking about every single day, I don’t think you’re leading your organization to long-term success.”
Brands/Platforms need to be intimate.
While consumers are becoming more wary of social media, brands are seeking to create more personalized and relatable relationships through consumers. What does this look like? Well, Conde Nast gives a good example when they “launched a private Facebook group called Women Who Travel, which provides a safe space for passionate female travelers to ask each other questions, leave suggestions and offer encouragement. Since the group is private, it requires moderator permission to join and provides a sense of exclusivity and authenticity that can be hard to find elsewhere on the web. The group has quickly grown to more than 120,000 members strong.” That’s niche, intimate media for the win.
But as Nick Child’s reminds us: don’t get too intimate: because false personalization kinda sucks.
What I’m Reading: Culture
Guidestar and the Foundation Center are now Candid: If you’ve ever raised money for a film or nonprofit from grants, you’ve probably used the Foundation Center’s database of grants. And if you’ve ever applied for a job at a nonprofit, you are stupid if you didn’t use Guidestar to search for top executive salaries, and (more importantly if you might take that job), their financial backgrounds via their 990s. And now the two have merge into one entity called Candid. I love this. I’m a big fan of mergers for greater efficiency and services, and this looks like just such an example. Kudos to the leadership of both organizations and the funders who paid for the merger.
What I’m Reading: VR/AR

Screen reports that AR will grown into a Trillion Dollar Industry - Or so said Ted Schilowitz, a futurist in residence at Paramount. Me: A trillion dollars may be spent on it over time, but that doesn’t mean any profits will be made. Ok, I’m being cynical, and I think AR does have a future, but after playing around with the latest and greatest at Sundance, and speaking with the teams there about costs and potential, I’d say the costs to get involved - as a maker or a consumer - are too high and the payoff is too low to see this happening anytime soon.
Blatant Self-Promotion Department: A film I’ve been consulting on is now available on multiple digital platforms.Check out Long Time Coming if you haven’t seen it already: Synopsis:
You don’t have to be a baseball fan to appreciate this incredible story of two groups of 12-year-old boys and their coaches who snubbed southern segregation because they wanted to do one thing: play ball. Florida’s 1955 Little League Championship was one of the first integrated Little League games in the South. For the all-black Pensacola Jaycees, it was a long trip away from home to play the Orlando Kiwanis, and the film brings the two team captains together after 60 years to discuss for the first time how that historic night felt for them … and maybe get a little play in while they’re at it. With commentary from Ambassador Andrew Young, Hank Aaron, Cal Ripken Jr., and others, this film is about baseball, sure, but it’s much more about culture, society, and a few important childhood hours that hold meaning and questions for both sides over a half century later.
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Copyright © 2019 Brian Newman, All rights reserved.

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