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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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Honor Systems

June 30, 2021

To mask or not to mask? That has become the question. Or rather, for businesses everywhere – to require masks on all patrons, or only on unvaccinated ones? Do we trust the honor system? This is becoming a hotly debated issue among the leaders of cultural venues, including theaters, film fests and conferences. And with a stunning lack of leadership in the US - across the board, at the federal level, among public health agencies, and in every state and among anyone with authority – we’re leaving these hard decisions mostly to each venue. And in turn, each of them has to debate – will requiring masks of all patrons turn away more people, or encourage more to feel safe to attend. This debate is probably being approached differently depending on which State, or even City, you’re in, and the politics and vaccination rates of that location. 
It’s mind-boggling to me that this is even being debated in the US. Look at Australia, where 200 cases is being seen as “vaccine chaos” and the entire country is locking down, but the US has 300 deaths each day, and we can’t be bothered to push for mask wearing indoors in public settings. This, as the Delta variant is spreading and the W.H.O. and even L.A. County are finally saying, yes, please wear them. The science remains unclear as to whether or not a vaccinated person can carry and spread the disease, undetected and asymptomatic, to others, or not. But caring for others is not an American value, so most people (including many of my friends) seem to be saying – as long as I’m pretty safe, who cares?! 
Look, I’ll admit it – the science seems clear that vaccinated people will be safe in most situations, and for now, against most of the variants. But I know multiple immunocompromised individuals who could not be vaccinated and/or are not 100% sure that the vaccination worked for them (and tests aren’t conclusive now). And vaccination rates vary wildly depending on where you are located. In my neighborhood of Hell’s Kitchen, the rates are higher than anywhere in NYC (98.73 fully vaccinated), especially among adults. Even with our transient population – straphangers, workers, bar-hoppers, etc. it’s a safe neighborhood. But where I just was in the Rockaways, those numbers drop to under 44%. It changes, so it’s clearly still a good idea to require masks in enclosed, public spaces where different groups intermingle. Is it a hassle, sure, but it would be the easiest, safest approach, and it isn’t that hard or inconvenient. This is especially true of places where we might sit and linger for a while – like a movie theater, museum, conference or other cultural venue.
But the difference in how cultural institutions approach this is driving me crazy. Go to any museum in NYC, and masks remain required and enforced. I was just at the Whitney on Monday, and aside from a few people eating in the café, everyone wore their mask, and no one seem distressed. In fact, we met a few people at the outdoor café, and they were all super happy that they could visit NYC museums and feel extra safe. But head over to Massachusetts, and each and every museum has their own policy. Two weeks ago, The Clark required masks for everyone, while MASS MoCA was using the honor system. A week later, The Clark followed suit. Had the science changed? No, if anything, Massachusetts remains pretty safe, but these are cultural venues, where presumably people are coming in from across the country, and indeed now, from all over the world. 
We cancelled our plans to visit both this Summer. Are we over-cautious? Probably. But I bet the percentage of people who visit Museums who are over-cautious is greater than the percentage of anti-maskers. Same with going to most cultural institutions. Which is why I am a fan of the Springsteen on Broadway’s policy to require proof of vaccination, which will be a policy for many big venues. That’s an easier policy to enforce, in many ways, than an honorary mask wearing system, and it takes away the pressure on ushers and ticket takers to police masks. 
I’ll concede that moving to vaccinated only in movie theaters is a nonstarter for them. And I’ll further concede that they’ve mostly put in place good filtration and air exchanges and are pretty safe. But now that they’ve moved to the honor system/masks optional, and many (but not all) are reducing capacity restrictions, they’re off my list of places I’ll attend. Again, am I being over-cautious? Probably. But I’d argue once again that there are more arthouse attendees (probably not true for blockbusters, or for certain states) who feel the same way, than ones who are anti-mask. 
Why am I still feeling this way? I’m being just as cautious not to accidentally infect someone else as I am worried about the very small chance that I’ll catch a variant or be a break-through case. But in any scenario – it’s easy, it may be an abundance of overcaution, but until we know more about the different scientific scenarios – why not be cautious and courteous, especially when it’s not very hard. And no, I don’t trust an anti-vaxxer to “honor” any honor system.
I wish more cultural leaders would take this high road as well, and keep mask mandates in place anywhere that it’s not banned by some right-wing Governor or Mayor – it takes the onus off of their more cautious customers, and it very well could help us get back to a new normal a little bit quicker. But I think I’m in the minority on this one – I imagine most of my readers would say I’m being crazy, and we need to move on, and go maskless, and that they aren’t worried about infecting themselves or others. But I know my unscientific poll of recent conversations with friends – all outdoors or on the phone – shows that a fair number of people would prefer to keep the masks on in such settings, and are avoiding places with an honor system. Maybe someone could do a comprehensive survey, and figure out who is really in the minority on this one. But until then, I’ll be skipping any venue that doesn’t take the cautious route, and missing many great movies, shows and experiences – but so far, I’m not feeling like I’m missing out on much at all.

Stuff I'm Reading

The Island of Bad Ideas: Oh, that would be Great Britain, that has the Great Channel 4, which has been around for four decades as a publicly owned broadcaster, but is now under serious threat of privatization under the current government. They make the specious argument that, somehow, privatizing it will allow it to flourish and compete against the Netflix's of the world. Pity that the leadership doesn't agree, and that the only way a private company will buy it, is if the Government gets rid of all of the legal requirements it has for, you know, public interest and what not. Channel 4 doesn't actually received public funding - it sells ads, but instead of making a profit, it invests in UK based prodcos (small businesses) to make its shows, which must be in the public interest. Is it perfect, no. But trust me - if Margaret Thatcher of all people was fine with a public broadcaster, then its decades of non-privatization should outlast its numeral. This is as singular a bad idea as Brexit. The Guardian has the news. (h/t to reader and producer Chris Moore who pointed out to me that this has heated up again recently). And my friend James Mullighan clued me in to this good BBC podcast about the issue as well. And pay attention readers in other countries and the US, because this push will amplify everywhere. 

With Maybe One Good One: That said, the UK Government also said that it would start regulating Netflix and Amazon more stringently, and would force them to show viewership numbers for British produced shows on their services. I'm not sure their regulation will help save British TV or film, but more transparency is a good step.

Adrift at Sea: That would be you and me, and everyone we know, trying to figure out where the hell to watch the latest movie. When even Variety is penning articles (in their vernacular) about the difficulty of keeping track of which movie is where - theaters, netflix, HBO, hulu, or on Pluto, we have a problem. And recent research cited in RapidTV News says that all of the streaming fragmentation is "causing chaos," and that "49% of TV content viewers say they find it hard to know what shows are on which streaming services, and 44% say they often have a hard time something to watch at all." I've tried to make a solution, but it failed. Someone, please save us. 

Losing Influence in China: Wendy Su of ChannelNewsAsia argues that China is giving up on Hollywood films, and it's a mix of cultural changes and politics. Su reminds her reader that film industries are inherently tied in diplomatic relations and geopolitics. These complex and evolving relationships serve as a framework to help us understand why Hollywood is losing traction among Chinese audiences. “The status that Hollywood films enjoyed in China was closely related to the status of the United States as “a city on the hill” and a beacon of democracy… [but] "the failure of the United States to control the pandemic has… greatly disillusioned the Chinese audience, shattering their pre-existing good faith in the US system.” And the numbers reflect this disillusionment: “China surpassed the United States to become the world’s biggest movie box office in 2020. Imported movies now account for only about a sixth of China’s total box office – a nearly 55 per cent decrease year-on-year – with China’s homemade movies outperforming Hollywood imports”. 
Branded Content
Facebook's VR advertising plans feel inevitable, but it's starting off rocky: CNET’s Scott Stein reflects on Ads in VR (virtual reality), concluding, there are just too many problems with Facebook’s first stabs at placing ads in VR. (1) Ads in VR headsets are inherently more intrusive than other mediums for showing ads (it’s hard to “just look away”). (2) Data and privacy: “Facebook has promised that some data, like movement and camera capture of my room, won't be used. But as more sensors get added to future headsets, where will the lines be drawn?” (3) When people bought Facebook’s Oculus Quest 2 VR headset for $300, they didn’t think they were going to have to watch ads. Now they do, and it feels unfair. Stein writes that a “streaming video subscription ad model could be applied, in a sense: Hulu with ads, or Hulu without ads.”

Digital Redlining Exists: CNET takes a look at the lack of broadband access across the US, and finds that most of it overlaps with old redlined neighborhoods - and that essentially it disproportionately affects lower income, Black and Brown neighborhoods. (h/t Redef).

Top EU Court Rules Online Platforms Are Not Liable For Copyright Infringements Of User Uploads, Unless They Actively Intervene: Are internet sites responsible for users illegally posting copyrighted material? The Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU) ruled on two cases –– one of which involved the posting of music on YouTube –– that touched on this question. They decided that “platforms need to be involved in making material available in some active way before they can be held liable” and that "appropriate technical measures" must be taken to "counter credibly and effectively copyright infringements on that platform.” YouTube’s technical measures (filters) were ruled “credible” by the court, but the CJEU ruling refers to an antiquated law created before the Copyright Directive came into force. This complicates the matter. The CJEU ruling may have been too lenient on platforms like YouTube. Read more form Glyn Moody in TechDirt.
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