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Sub-Genre Media Newsletter:
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Post TIFF-Mortem

September 14, 2023

As expected, I left TIFF/Toronto thinking once again – it’s the best of times, the worst of times, and no one can agree on which, or what would flip the switch from one to the other. If you just want to see good films, it’s hard to argue against the best of times argument. The festival is so chock full of them that even if you do five a day, you are missing the best of them, somehow. And lines were around the blocks, as always, for even the most obscure films. 
What is in the water in Toronto, btw? They show up in droves for films as the best aesthetes, even if they somehow had a hidden Soviet era of building the ugliest architecture on the planet and keep adding to the ugliness with cranes everywhere. That said, there is no finer waterfront for my (new-ish) sunrise runs than in Toronto (thus the photo above), and it remains in my three favorite festivals. 
Luckily for TIFF, sources have it that the ongoing rumors of the ScotiaBank Theater (one of their main venues) being lost as it’s sold off for condos, is on hold for now because no one is buying them. Less good for TIFF, word went out around day one that they lost their biggest sponsor, BELL, after 28 years. Let’s just say that if your sponsor doesn’t stick around for that 30th anniversary 2 years away, something went very awry. Add to that the announcements that their COO and Chief of Partnerships departed recently… and, ouch. (Full disclosure, I’ve worked with that former COO). 
On the misery side, we can add that less sales agents showed up than perhaps ever before. Part of this was because of the Strikes, but not all of it. I don’t have an official count, but speaking to foreign sales folks, there was a noticeable decline in attendance from the “folks who matter,” and at more than one European party, people commented not only on the decline, but on their considerations of not attending anymore. A leading fest that throws a gigantic party every year said they might not do it next year because it’s become less crucial to be there.
Add to that the talk of the town, which was Carlo Chatrian stepping down from Berlin, instead of sticking around for their government mandated changes (200+ film folks protested that one in a letter). Or a close second, the apparent installation of a right-wing cultural minister in Italy, which will dramatically impact Venice and other Italian fests (this is a rumor I can’t substantiate and is out of my league, but was being discussed everywhere). Then you had the other talk of the town, which was the substantially confirmed budget deficit at a major US festival to remain unnamed…ahem…, as well as many fests admitting that sponsorship is tougher than ever this year, and things don’t look great in festival land. 
But let’s continue. Then you meet with the US sales agent types, and… things look rosy. Several agents looked me in the face and said things are better than six months ago. They like to lie, it’s their job. But, heck, they weren’t saying that back in January. Word seemed to be that the market was starting to move again, even if most people prefaced that by saying “only for the obvious wins” and the sure hits. One agent told me they can’t get traction for any little indie, darling drama type film, and acknowledged that docs remain a tough sell, but said they were more hopeful than they’d been in a long time. And a few buyers did tell me they were sensing a buyers’ market (translated, buying, but cheap) as folks prep to have content during the ongoing strike. 
Then you have the mixed bag report from exhibitors. Several arthouse folks told me that times have never been better. These were the ones who were able to do Barbenheimer, and some of whom will be able to show the Taylor Swift film. And the trend for repertory and special events continues. But most said the doc world was dead (other than those one-off type events, which I’ve seen with our client projects), At the same time, several told me some variation of – we’re throwing spaghetti at the wall and praying. And there was no consensus of when the Arthouse Convergence might come back to be a major force – but hopes remain high. 
I didn’t have a problem getting into any P&I screening, which was rare pre-Covid, but a new norm for TIFF. I would even join lines only to see screenings fill up at the last minute, if at all. But the public screenings seemed pretty full, for the most part. I went to a major gala premier that was 65% full, to be generous, but their second screening sold out. So…. Who can say? The absence of stars and red carpets was noticeable, but while undeniably important to press and sponsorship, have always been a side-thing for the industry (insofar as reviewers, buyers and fests don’t care). 
I was at TIFF for work – meetings with clients, buyers, agents, etc. But I always go for what I call the “gimme” aspects – seeing a few great films before the rest of the world. For me, both aspects were fulfilled, but I had a distinct impression that more than a few industry might not make the trip next time. It just felt less urgent, and you would not have said that 3-4 years ago. 
What does this mean for cinema? Well, we’ve all been complaining that every festival has become ruined by too much focus on celebrity, sponsorship and becoming a “market.” Maybe it will be good for TIFF and other major festivals to get back to just showcasing the best in cinema. Audiences seem happy, as lines remained long for public screenings (even with the Ticketmaster ticket price scandal). The true cineastes will keep coming, and it’s also true that every festival needs to keep its primary focus on the audience – connecting them to great films they want and need to see (and thus helping filmmakers, which is close second goal two). 
But the problem is the art vs. commerce war gets in the way of that every time. The audience can love your fest and fill every seat, but that won’t pay the bills. The costs have to be subsidized strongly by sponsorship and donors (and for many fests, government ministers who give out subsidies), and guess what they like – big names, red carpets, tourists coming for those, and a sense that their festival is an important destination for business to get done. A TIFF without stars and big sales slowly becomes not TIFF. 
But I look at this and see nothing but good things for other festivals. The entire festival world is open for change. The world order of which fest is the most important is up for grabs. Any festival with good ideas and leadership focused on innovating the festival model could grab the top slots away from the others (ok… maybe Cannes ain’t going anywhere, but everything else is up for grabs). What makes a festival is open for change. Maybe it won’t even be bound by geography, because the rest of the world isn’t, anymore. Maybe instead of sales agents flying around the world spewing carbon in their wake, we can just let them do business via big screens in their living rooms and a fancy app on their phone, and let the rest of us watch what they’ve bought and sold at the festival, along with what they missed, and maybe the audience can turn those into hits. Maybe the loss of sponsorship and budget cuts will force the bigger fests to slim down and get nimble and change some of their calcified structures. Maybe new entrants will come along and force change on everyone else. Who knows? Not me. But it is gonna be fun to watch it from the sidelines. It will be fun for leaders willing to embrace change. Only one thing is certain - it won’t be fun for those clinging to the past.

Stuff I'm Reading

Exciting Changes at Abramorama: Abramorama has long been an innovative little distributor for social impact and music-based documentary films, as well as other artistic films with niche audiences. I worked with them for the release of Love & Taxes, which I produced, for example. Yesterday, Deadline announced that founder Richard Abramowitz has elevated longtime business partner Karol Martesko-Fenster to CEO and Co-Chairman of the indie distribution company, and Evan Saxon has been promoted to President, Head of International Distribution. I've known Karol for a long time, and he's been a mover and shaker behind many important parts of the film biz - Palm Pictures, Filmmaker Magazine, IndieWire, and much more. He's one of the few people I speak with regularly (via zoom nowadays), and who always gives me new ideas for the industry. Can't wait to see what he and Evan do next at Abramorama, building out from the strong base Richard Abramowitz built already. (BN)

Disney Moves Back to Physical Media: In two months Disney releases the Disney Legacy Animated Film Collection which includes Disney and Pixar movies and bonus content crammed into 3 volumes of discs that span the years 1937-2023. Costing a whopping $1,500, the collection’s volumes fold out into a storybook-style presentation, revealing poster art, character quotes, and the year it was released. Needless to say, this is a product made for the upper-echelon of Disney enthusiasts. The rest of us can dig out old DVDs from our basements or subscribe to their streaming platform. Check out the full list of films (100 total) in-article. Wes Davis for “The Verge” has the news. (GSH)

Branded Content
Writers’ Strike on Ad-Spend and Viewing Habits: Writers and actors seeking out better pay and protection around AI use in entertainment have been on strike for 5 months. If the strike drags on for much longer, industry experts predict that the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers (AMPTP) will receive increased pressure from media owners and maybe even brands to meet striker demands. Though the impact of the strike on advertisers has been minimal thus far, it “may become more difficult for media owners to serve up audiences, which can ultimately lower advertisers’ returns on spend” (Kendra Clark, “The Drum”). But the most impactful outcome of the strike from an advertising perspective is likely a shift in consumers’ viewing patterns. Hollywood being closed for business could “accelerate the dramatic shift in television viewership patterns we’ve observed over the past three years [e.g. a boost in streaming adoption and sports and reality TV watching] (Tony Marlow, chief marketing officer at LG Ad Solutions), thereby changing what living room entertainment – and advertising – looks like. Check out Clark’s piece for more details. (GSH)

Nanoinfluencers: The Future For Brands: Kim Kardashian, who has 334 million Instagram followers and charges 1.69 million per post only engages 1% of her followers (measured by likes and comments). By contrast, ‘nanoinfluencers’ (with followings ranging from 1k-10k) in the U.S. have engagement rates of 12%, are considered experts in their niche, charge a lot less than their celebrity counterparts, and as a result often build a very targeted, super passionate audience. That's why 39% of brands view nanoinfluencers as their preferred partners, 19% want to work with nanoinfluencers, and only 12% prioritize collabs with celebrities. Give Yauhen Razhko’s piece for Adweek for his advice for brands when engaging with nanoinfluencers and ways to measure successful brand projects & campaigns.  (GSH)


Salesforce Reveals Generational Gap In AI Use and Understanding: Salesforce surveyed over 4,000 people aged 18+ in the U.S., Australia, India, and the U.K. on their use of generative AI tools, revealing a massive generational divide. Here’re are some of the findings: (1) 70% of Gen Z uses new generative AI technologies; (2) 68% of those who haven’t tried generative AI are Gen X or boomers; (3) 75% of people who use generative AI use it for work; (4) almost 9 out of 10 non-users don’t see how generative AI will impact their life, and 40% of non-users they aren’t familiar with the technology; (5) 90% of people who do use generative AI say the results of these models have met or exceeded their expectations. Takeaways: The survey results aren’t so surprising, though they point to a skills gap that could become a problem for older populations in the workforce. John Koetsier for “Forbes” also points out that the 40% of non users who aren’t familiar with the technology are particularly vulnerable as they “don’t understand existing uses of deepfakes created with generative AI for financial and political scams.” Check out Koetsier’s piece for more numbers. (GSH)

Dr. Devorah Heitner on Social Media Panic and Health: Devorah Heitner, an expert on children’s relationships with media and technology is out with a timely new book called “Growing Up in Public: Coming of Age in a Digital World.” As social media bans and limitations come into effect — by next March, kids under 18 in Utah will be allowed to use TikTok and Instagram only if they have explicit parental permission — here’re some points Heitner makes for your consideration (summarized by Melinda Wenner Moyer for “The New York Times”). (1) It’s important to consider the negative consequences of too much restriction. “One study found that adolescents with limited access to social media had lower self-esteem than those who used it regularly.” (2) “Just because we can monitor our kids’ location or read their texts doesn’t mean we should (Dr. Heitner).” This 2018 study found that parental monitoring apps negatively affected kids’ relationship with their parents. (3) Parents need to model good online habits in order to create good digital citizens (seems obvious enough). Check out the link for the details!  (GSH)

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