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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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Classics Crisis

July 13, 2022

This is not another article about the TCM cuts – although after speaking with some folks behind the scenes there, there’s so much more to report – but instead the other classics crisis. Wait, what crisis you might be asking… didn’t I report not long ago that repertory cinema is having a revival in theaters? Yes, that’s true, but in spite of those developments, one of the bigger concerns I keep hearing about from filmmakers and some distributors alike is the crisis in more recent “library” films getting cut from services, and the many decent ones whose rights are reverting to their owners after previous deals, but they can’t find a new digital home. So these films are getting stuck on the virtual “shelf” even when there is presumably an audience for their titles.
Example A: Just two years ago, we helped sell a very good documentary from a couple of great filmmakers – and funded by a brand, but with no heavy brand presence – to one of the major streamers. Just last week, it was announced that said streamer was removing a lot of their catalogue of docs – I can’t even say “back” catalogue, as many of the titles being removed had only been on the service for a couple of years, and sure enough, this title was one of those being cut. 
I can’t mention the title or service (ahem), but this is not an isolated phenomenon. A ton of films are being cut from streamers, and from a cursory glance at the lists (which are not easy to find), it’s a mix of titles that had expiring license deals (perhaps they had a ten year deal and are not being renewed), but also many that have years left on their contracts. I can only presume that many of them did not have guaranteed carriage for the life of their term in their deals, or only for a portion of their term. Showing the film might become optional after 2 years, for example, even though their rights are locked up for longer. In this case, the brand owns the IP and rights, and guess what… the powers that be there have moved on, and I am pretty sure I won’t be able to find anyone who will pay a lawyer to sort through the rights issues, and that film is going into the digital dustbin until someone asserts their rights and gets it back.
But good luck finding a new home for that title, or many others getting cut from the services, or with rights reverting back to their owners, because guess what? None of the platforms give a flying-f-k for “older” titles. Whether that’s two years old or twenty, or more. Because…
Examples B-Z+. I got a call this week from a very well-respected doc filmmaker who has many distributed films under their belt, one of which was even optioned and turned into a Hollywood movie that did quite well. They have the rights to their films, and can’t find a digital home for them. No sales agent (theirs is one of the best known in the doc business) will help them place the film – because, to be fair, they know they can’t make a deal and make any money on it; and no distributor wants to make a deal (even for free) for their titles. They’ve even approached a few of the aggregators, who can get films onto the TVOD/AVOD/FAST channels, and none of them showed interest in these “older” titles, either. They could use a pay-to-play service like Premiere Digital, but given that some of these films were in older digital formats, the costs to convert them to what was needed for delivery was more than the filmmaker could ever make back, and guess what else? There’s no real grant funding to help filmmakers in this situation, either. 
Lest you think this is an isolated incidence, that’s why I said examples B+… I’ve gotten this same call or email from dozens of filmmakers in the past few years. For good, even great films, mind you. Films that have an audience, that are important to our cinematic and cultural history. I know many of you will email with examples of old films that found a home, or some small distributor who wants these, and yes, there are exceptions. But I keep hearing this story again and again. 
And I hear it from distributors as well – though not as often, and not as openly. But I hear stories of libraries of film that just a few years ago could find a home on some platform, but are now relegated to Vimeo, their own sites, their stock of DVD/BluRay, and a dwindling educational market, as it seems even some of the educational aggregator platforms are less interested in these library titles. Most of the better distributors – even small ones – are finding solutions and/or finding solutions for some subset of their libraries of course, but it’s a growing problem.  Especially when you consider that for many consumers, if it’s not on one of the major platforms, it doesn’t exist (it probably exists illegally on some site, but many consumers don’t bother to look for these films there, either). 
At the same time, I keep having conversations with investors and entrepreneurs who are talking about new businesses that are at least partially built on acquiring some library of films as an anchor for their business. This might work if you acquire IFC Film’s library, perhaps (a big perhaps), but I am not seeing evidence of it working for much else of our independent/arthouse (or god forbid, better branded entertainment) libraries. There might be a bit of a flaw in those business models. Then again… KinoLorber is doing pretty well with the buying up of older titles, and taking over of smaller houses (I’m not kidding, they’ve been doing something pretty interesting). But again… perhaps this is an exception proving the rule? 
And also at the same time, as mentioned above and in previous newsletters, there is a growing interest in older cinema, as seen at arthouse theaters with repertory programming. As Letterboxd and TikTok critics rediscover the true classics, they’re also turning to the niches and the more recent classics, and there seems to be a missed opportunity for some player here. It also seems like an area for some strategic interventions. A place for foundations to refocus their energies, perhaps, and for new business models to be explored. I also think it’s a damned good place for a smart brand to make a play – plenty of “classic” brands could do something big in this space. Hell, they might even buy the problem of TCM off the Zas’s back and make something pretty damned interesting out of the bigger idea of what makes a classic film. 
I have a feeling this is just another one of my pipe dreams, but what else can one do in the dog days of Summer? Hallucinate possible futures for relics of the past. That, and head outdoors for something more fun and new, of course, which is what I’m about to do as soon as I press send on this newsletter. Maybe that’s the problem, too. Even the daydreamers can find easier ways to enjoy life than finding a home for year old movies. But… I might just dream up some solutions for this one pretty soon, and if you find it an interesting problem to solve as well… drop me a line. 

Stuff I'm Reading

My "Freewheeling" Conversation with the D-Word: Last week, I joined my friend, filmmaker Doug Block, for a "freewheeling" conversation about everything from my career to what's going on in the current marketplace for documentary films. The video of that conversation is now up on the D-Word YouTube Channel and you can watch it here. (BN)

Documentaries and Docu-Series Today: The Symptom and the Problem?: Om Malik, a San Francisco-based writer and entrepreneur, writes that documentaries, once hard-hitting mediums of truth-telling and investigation, are now the newest frontier of the internet’s insatiable appetite for (meaningless) content. For documentaries/series distributed by major streamers to be both the symptom and vessel of info-pollution is… glum. Om doesn’t offer any solutions to the problem, and even admits that this “problem” to some is also a solution to others (“marketing and media makeover gurus”). His depressing takeaway: “What doesn’t matter is fact, truth, reality, what’s right or wrong. As long as it is presented with a palatable, believable truthiness.” H/T to Media Redef!  (GSH)

Ode to Victor Nuñez: Check out Jim Hemphill’s IndieWire piece for a dive into the artistry of Victor Nuñez, “the best director most people never heard of,” yet who’s had immeasurable influence on iconic directors like Ava DuVernay and Stanley Kubrick. Just a couple days ago – on July 8 and 9 – a body of Nuñez’ most vital work including “A Flash of Green”, “Ruby”, and “Ulee’s Gold” was screened at the American Cinematheque in Los Angeles as a tribute to Nuñez, who appeared in person alongside actors from his films. Hemphill concludes that “[the] intersection between the personal and the political and the visual poetry with which Nunez explores it makes his work essential viewing for anyone who cares about American independent cinema and how it reflects the culture — which in turn makes the Cinematheque retrospective and the arrival of a new Nunez film cause for celebration.” (GSH) Nuñez is quite literally one of my favorite directors, and I showed retrospective of his films in Atlanta when I ran that festival, so I made Gabriel post this one up for everyone! (BN)

‘The Arc of Oblivion’ Immersive Experience
: From director Ian Cheney, executive producer Werner Herzog, and Academy-nominated Sandbox Films, “The Arc of Oblivion” seeks to answer a deeply existential question: “In a universe that erases its tracks, why are we so hellbent on leaving a trace?” Cheney built a massive ark in a field in Maine, inside which experts across various fields reflect and reveal how nature inspires the human drive behind filmmaking. During the month of August, Sandbox Films invites audiences to watch ‘The Arc of Oblivion in the Ark itself, where a post-screening panel discussion with the director and special guests will take place. Grab your tickets now at the link! (GSH)

Zaslav: Only Good For Breaking Things?: Note from BN: The article referenced below was originally slated to run on GQ, but rumors have it that Zaslav spent a week of his time - he's not busy enough gutting things and running a company - to killing this story. It also came out that the editor who killed the story...has a movie being made with Warners...Discovery/Zas. Interesting... Now for GSH's take on the article:

Just a few years ago the name David Zaslav wasn’t a name people knew. Now, the CEO of Warner Bros. Discovery is getting booed out of universities and is probably the most hated man in Hollywood. Why? Zaslav, alongside Paramount+. Starz, Showtime, Disney+ and Hulu is overseeing the quiet disappearing of several dozen series and underperforming originals for tax purposes, “creating giant swaths of shockingly recent yet bafflingly “lost” media.” What’s more, the merger of HBOMax and Discovery+ resulting in “Max” resulted in the failure to credit filmmakers, writers, and producers appropriately and overall represents a loss of quality programming. The laundry list of crappy Zaslav moves goes on – you can check out Jason Bailey’s article for GQ, now on for the comprehensive list. But “there’s a crucial difference between Zaslav and the old-school moguls he’s attempting to emulate,” writes Bailey. “They loved movies, and cared about filmmakers. Zaslav… is only interested in… “content” that can make him and his stockholders a quick buck. Anything that doesn’t, he’ll happily gut.” (GSH)

Jassy To Monitor Amazon Studio Spend: Amidst tough competition from streaming giants, Amazon’s CEO Andy Jassy is taking a closer look at how the company’s Hollywood studio spends on original TV programming. In the last 9 months, Amazon released a batch of expensive series that didn’t deliver huge audiences (their most expensive series, “Citadel”, which cost $250 million for one season made the top 10 most watched series in the U.S. for only one week). But money has been disappearing down the drain for a while now – back in 2018 Jen Salke was appointed head of Amazon studios and went on a spending spree with Bezos’ blessing that yielded a handful of failed projects. Bloomberg’s Lucas Shaw explains that Amazon’s biggest challenge in assessing the performance of Amazon’s studio is that the company’s goals are different than those of most entertainment companies. While Amazon executives do measure the number of people who watch their shows, the video business exists to attract customers to the company’s Prime shipping service. The company often tries to determine if a show has increased the number of people who pay for Prime… [but] The metrics to prove this are imprecise.” Read on for the details.(GSH)

Create Your Own Distribution Strategy Workshop: My friend Jon Reiss is teaching this class soon for DocNYC. From their website: “Traditional” documentary distribution is in a state of disruption – often leaving independent filmmakers on their own to find new and creative solutions to ensure their films reach audiences in an impactful way. Join us for an insightful and honest discussion on strategic planning to explore the complex landscape of creative distribution. Discover real-world strategies for success and tips for overcoming challenges in the ever-changing and often-daunting realm of impact and distribution. We welcome media strategist, filmmaker and author Jon Reiss (Think Outside the Box Office) along with independent producer Lance Kramer (The First Step, City of Trees) who will outline fundamental principles and essential elements to defining, crafting and implementing a successful distribution, impact and marketing campaign.Highlighted topics include knowing your goals and audience, defining success, creating a hybrid path utilizing various modes of distribution, building partnerships to expand your reach and how to prepare for your film’s release during production. All info and registration here. (BN)

Branded Content

Texas Monthly: New In Branded Documentary: “Texas Monthly,” the Texas’ star magazine since 1973 has expanded into film and TV with its first-ever feature documentary. Directed by Award-winning filmmaker Deborah Esquenazi and to be made in partnership with Peabody, the untitled documentary “centers on James Reyos, a gay Apache man who for 40 years has sought to clear his name of the brutal murder of a Catholic priest in oil-rich West Texas.” A Myths of Monsters and Naked Edge Films production, the documentary is being produced by Daniel J. Chalfen, Adrienne Collatos and James Costa with Texas Monthly’s Scott Brown and Megan Creydt set to join as exec producers. Matt Grobar for Deadline has the news.(GSH) Note from BN: I am sure both Texas Monthly and my friend Daniel Chalfen will dispute that this is branded content. Fair enough, but I am calling it that, because while this is a "real" film with real filmmakers and pure, unbranded intent... the reason Texas Monthly does this is to extend their brand, just like the NYT with OpDocs, as I've explained before here - the best branded content... isn't. (BN)


Companies Using Recruitment AI Under Inspection Under New NYC Anti-Bias Law: On July 5th, New York City began enforcing Local Law 144 which “requires employers using algorithms to recruit, hire or promote employees to submit those algorithms for an independent audit — and make the results public.” These reports must at a minimum make public the algorithms they’re using as well as the average scores candidates of different races, genres, and ethnicities receive from these algorithms. Companies found not to be in compliance will face a range of penalties. Why is this important? Khyati Sundaram, the CEO of Applied, a recruitment tech vendor, explains that “recruitment AI in particular has the potential to amplify existing biases — worsening both employment and pay gaps in the process.” The proof is in the pudding: Amazon scrapped a recruiting engine a few years ago after it was found to discriminate against women candidates (more examples in-article). Despite the risk of AI-recruitment tools, about 1 in 4 companies already use AI to support their hiring processes. The takeaway: It’s too early to tell if NYC’s Local Law 144 will affect change, but whether it succeeds or fails, its implementation will affect laws to come elsewhere (D.C., California, and New Jersey lawmakers are on their way to passing similar legislation). Kyle Wiggers for TechCrunch has the news. (GSH)

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