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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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Creative Encounters with 
Chance Operations

April 20, 2022

As I’ve noted here many times lately, the film biz has been pretty crappy as of late, especially in the documentary sector. As I suggested in my talk at CPH:DOX, I think now is a very good time to focus on films that are festival proof, and distributor proof – meaning films that have an identifiable niche audience that is so strong, you can distribute your film to them successfully, even if no major festival programs your film, and the Netflix/A24’s of the world don’t buy it. That doesn’t work for every film, but it needs to be your focus in this market. I’ve also said here that now is the time to pioneer new models, and I hear almost daily from someone doing just that. 
This past week, I heard about one of the best ideas I’ve come across in quite some time, from one of my favorite filmmakers, and it’s something you can check out now – Gary Hustwit’s Chance OperationsHustwit is one of my favorite filmmakers, being best known for multiple design films – Helvetica being the most famous; but I first encountered his work via I Am Trying to Break Your Heart, his documentary about Wilco making their album, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. Gary has always been a filmmaker who makes “distributor proof” films. He makes great films that happen to have a rabid audience, who are hungry for good stories about their favorite subjects – design, music, or women’s skateboarding. The common thread in each of these films has always been creativity, and exploring the creative process.
Now, he’s doing something super creative that I love – building a home for his creative musings, all his films, his archive of unused (but not un-useful) materials, new creative work in multiple formats, and more. You can read his description of what Chance Operations is here, but this week I was able to speak with him for about an hour, and this is what I took away from that conversation and my perusing of the site. I think there’s a lot to learn from here for filmmakers, others in the film industry, and the brands I work with in this space. 
First and foremost, Chance Operations is a creative hub. It’s a place where Hustwit can collect all his artwork in one place, while adding to his creative output. He has links to all his films, and he’s making all of his archival material available as well. Want to watch the entire interview he did with Massimo Vignelli?  Go right ahead. All of that stuff that usually hits the cutting room floor will now be available in one place. Alongside lots of new material as well. He already has up an informative interview with artist (and his collaborator) Brendan Dawes about AI and creativity.  He has info about his upcoming film on Brian Eno, and a related generative-AI, “endless” Eno film/installation he’ll be showing at the Biennale later this Summer. 
It's also multi-disciplinary. Chance Operations will include a mix of text, photos, films, podcasts, interviews, pretty much whatever Hustwit wants to explore and share, he can post in one place. But he’s not limited to just film. In fact, one of his key inspirations is being able to share things without having to turn them into films. Films can take time, and they get expensive. But he can just do a quick interview, or video, or photo essay instead. And it he decides he wants to do more, he can turn it into a film later. Or maybe the audience responds so strongly that he decides its worthy of being a film, or a book. He can use it as an IP generator – a chance operation that becomes some other work of art. 
It's a place to express creativity and to inspire it in others. Hustwit can explore his ideas on the site, but he’s also using it as a place to let others find inspiration for their own creativity. Subscribing to it and engaging with it might inspire your own creative musings (it’s already inspired mine). His work is about creativity, and everyone he interviews and profiles is exploring the creative process, and by engaging with it, so are you. 
In that way, it’s also participatory. It’s not a one-way expression, but a conversation. And if you subscribe, you can engage in that discussion as well. As Hustwit explained to me, he was tired of social media and just giving away all of that creativity. By launching this on Substack, he encourages participation and conversation in a way much different than on FB or Twitter – and as Substack expands its offerings with notes and other new formats, this aspect will only get better. He also plans to poll the community for topics to cover, what to share next, and for other creative ideas. 
It's also a revenue stream and a possible path to sustainability. A lot of his posts are free to anyone, but to get access to everything you must subscribe – at a very affordable cost (currently $6 a month or $60 a year). This is a consistent revenue stream that can help underwrite his creative endeavors as he builds an audience and community. As Hustwit told me – “every filmmaker needs to talk about this now. You have to diversify your income and you can’t just count on the streamers as your main revenue source.” 
It's also both an experiment, and a new model for others to follow. As the name of the site hints, there’s an element of experimentation and chance here. Chance encounters that might lead to something creative – or not. It can be iterated upon and changed based on what’s working. It’s also a new model – a way to think about being creative, sharing that creativity, and building a new model for reaching an audience over time. And for finding, developing, and distributing new projects. And for possibly making it sustainable. Or as Hustwit put it to me: “I like learning from others, and the idea of cross-pollination. It’s about how to stay creative and still pay the rent.” Not a bad model to follow, I think, and as a creative hub, there's something to explore here for almost anyone working in this industry.
I do have one small issue with this – that he went with Substack. I’m not a fan of the platform, and if you look around the web, you’ll find plenty of critiques of it. Some people think it allows too much misinformation, and spreads hate. Others don’t like the way it forces you into a same-ness of design. Or that you are reliant on another platform that you don’t control, and which could just disappear at any time (or go in a bad direction, like Twitter, forcing you to move). I brought this up in our conversation, and Hustwit feels that it’s more about the functionality, and the ease of use for him and for subscribers. While I wouldn’t make the same decision, I think it’s a valid one, and it’s also a lot easier for others to follow his lead on the platform than by doing it from scratch. 
That minor quibble aside, I’m a big fan of what Hustwit is doing with Chance Operations, and will be following it closely for inspiration as much as for news of what he’s doing and how well it works. I’ve already returned at least three times to his interview with Brendan Dawes about AI and art (mentioned above). It’s probably the best piece I’ve read on the subject, and that’s because it’s a conversation between two artists experimenting with AI right now, both of whom are constantly trying to figure out where to land between copying the past and breaking into the new. All creativity is some mix of that dichotomy, and reading their dialogue has been fascinating – I recommend that you start your journey there. 

Stuff I'm Reading

Can TV Find Answers In The Indie Film Business?: Rising inflation, soaring interest rates, and unpredictable streaming subscription trends have derailed old production and financing models – today, you just can’t depend on a big streamer like Netflix or HBO to fully finance your show, even if it’s really good. But despite insane production costs (i.e. one hour of TV drama in the U.K. costs $3.1 million USD) big streamers face the same, if not rising demand for content. So, if the bigger budgets are going to such a small percentage of projects, how do we finance and develop the rest? David Flynn of the independent production group WiiP says that instead of counting on streaming giants to cover the costs, the industry should look to the independent film business for alternate models. Check out Scott Roxborough’s piece for the Hollywood Reporter for the details. My takeaways: (1) We’ll see an evolution of the TV sales business because there’ll be a surge of independently financed shows that need to be sold somewhere; (2) It’s choppy waters ahead, but smart producers who can make successful shows for less money can help reignite the industry. (GSH) and 3) this hasn't worked so well for indie filmmakers, so let's see what happens next (BN).

Historic Writer’s Guild Strike Looming: Last Monday, 97% of Writers Guild of America members (the WGA represents writers for scripted TV and major movies) voted in favor of a strike, arguing that because of the entertainment industry’s massive investments in streaming, writers have been underpaid and undervalued. A strike will likely take place May 1st or shortly after if the Guild and Hollywood studios don’t reach an agreement beforehand. If a deal isn’t reached, scripted late-night shows will likely be the first to cease production, soap operas will run out of episodes after about a month, and fall TV show seasons will be delayed. “The survival of writing as a profession is at stake in this negotiation,” union negotiators write, but the WGA also proposes, somewhat paradoxically, that writers be allowed to use AI tools like ChatGPT to write and edit scripts and still receive credit. You can read more about that here. Nicholas Reimann for Forbes has the news. (GSH)

AI For Filmmakers Resource Catalog: Check out Academy Award nominated and Emmy winning film producer Basil Shadid’s spreadsheet for a long list of AI Tools for Filmmakers. Shadid catalogs close to 60 AI resources he thinks could be useful and invites others to add to his list by completing a short survey. Though he’s not recommending any particular AI service, it’s nice to see creatives thinking about how to stay at the forefront of such a quickly evolving industry. (GSH)

Branded Content

Film Is The New Fashion: Saint Laurent, the iconic fashion house recently launched Saint Laurent Productions which is kicking off with films made by renowned directors. These include a pair of shorts [films, not short pants] that are world premiering at Cannes: “Strange Way of Life” by Pedro Almodóvar, starring Ethan Hawke and Pedro Pascal. They’re also developing projects by Oscar-winning director Paolo Sorrentino, film legend David Cronenberg (“The Shrouds”), Abel Ferrara, Wong Kar Wai, Jim Jarmusch and Gaspar Noé. Artistic director Anthony Vaccarello explains that for him, the step into film is “a natural extension to another field of creativity that perhaps is more general and popular.” There’s no Saint Laurent branding involved, though Vaccarello will design the costumes for the films produced by Saint Laurent Productions. Elsa Keslassy for Variety has the news. (GSH)

Couples Therapy: Filmmaker and activist Richard Curtis launched a 2 minute film starring “Game of Thrones” stars Kit Harington and Rose Leslie to increase pressure on U.K. banks to stop financing the fossil fuel industry. Entitled “Couples Therapy,” the short criticizes major banks for getting in bed with big oil despite warnings of a climate catastrophe. The film followed the release of the Banking on Climate Chaos report, which found that the top U.K. banks collectively financed $37.3 billion towards the fossil fuel sector in 2022 alone and $419 billion to the fossil fuel industry since the Paris Climate Agreement was signed in 2016. Hopefully someone watches. Naman Ramachandran for Variety brings us the story. (GSH)


The Gamification of Work and RealityJonathan Stringfield for VentureBeat defines gamification as the “view that we can improve any number of aspects of our day-to-day life through the medium of video games”. At the forefront of the conversation surrounding gamification is human work and productivity, and as technology has accelerated, the conversation is more relevant than ever. Stringfield writes a pretty in-depth piece about it, but for now, here’re my takeaways: (1) “Gamification is, in actuality, the perfect fit for our efficiency-obsessed orientation towards work because it allows for both strict monitoring of performance [and worker incentivization]”; (2) Reality might not always be an effective motivator. Sensibilities from gaming could change the very nature of work; (3) While we know that games can fulfill needs, they haven’t conclusively managed to improve the circumstances of work; (4) There’s good and bad gamification. Harmful gamification “causes us to compete with ourselves in a way that amounts to little more than self-surveillance,” whereas good gamification can satisfy intrinsic human needs. (GSH)

Montana Bans TikTok - Yes, You Read That Right: Montana banned TikTok last Friday with a bill titled SB 419: Ban tik-tok in Montana (note: they didn’t even spell TikTok correctly which says a lot about the guys who wrote the bill). Not only does SB 419 prohibit mobile app stores from offering TikTok to Montana residents, it also bans Montana residents’ ability to download TikTok. Let’s get one thing straight – SB 419 is completely unconstitutional for at least 5 reasons. Mike Masnick for TechDirt breaks it down for us: (1) It’s a bill of attainder, which is barred by the Constitution (bills of attainder declare a party guilty of a crime and punishes them, often without a trial); (2) It violates the 1st Amendment rights of TikTok; (3) It violates the 1st Amendment rights of app store operators; (4) It violates the 1st Amendment rights of TikTok users who want to use the app to communicate with others; (5) It violates the Dormant Commerce Clause in regulating interstate commerce. Stanford researcher Rianna Pfefferkorn states, “It’s a maddening irony that American legislators’ idea for countering China is to act more like China, home of the Great Firewall that censors its citizens’ free access to the flow of information.” Masnick concludes: “Montana residents deserve elected leaders who don’t shit on the Constitution.” (GSH)

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