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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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Time for Some Evil Genius Thinking

September 28, 2023

People really responded to the dragonfly story last week. I’ve been asked to repeat it at a conference, and in a couple of small group gatherings, along with the usual email responses (thanks for reading, folks). What interested me about the dragonfly’s journey that day was the notion that the ecosystem is actually doing just fine (dragonflies show up around good water, usually), it just had to find the side door. We are also stuck behind a screen in the current film biz, and we’re stuck because we’re trying the most obvious routes instead of the side doors. 
That’s also been the theme of a few posts I’ve made this year - like this changing lanes one from earlier this Summer. And what I mean by the ecosystem being ok is that audiences are out there for our films. We can see them showing up at film fests, and talking to one another about good films on #filmtok and Letterboxd. We are just having trouble getting to them through a market that’s abandoned both sides (quality filmmakers and savvy audiences) in pursuit of streaming dominance, and greater market share. If we look for the side door, we can get back to where we need to be. But it’s not gonna be that easy, because…
At the same time, I’ve also been a little shocked at realizing how few filmmakers understand the depth of the issues we’re facing as a field, and how many think we are going to see a rebound in the market for their films soon. Which we won’t. We might build something new, but the market has tanked and it’s not coming back. Go ahead, raise the funds, make the film on spec, submit it to Sundance and hope for the best. Come tell me how that went next year. Unfortunately, that’s precisely the depth of most filmmaker’s plans.
We’ve been here before, of course. But what’s striking about this market correction is how it seems to be hitting all my friends at the same time – the producers with the microbudget projects as well as the ones who thought they’d moved up to the big budgets; the fiction folks along with the documentary ones; the sales agents along with the buyers; the donors along with the investors; the streamers as well as the theaters; the arthouses as well as the chains. Mainly the Americans, but the international folks seem not to be doing too much better than us. 
There are pockets of good – Barbenheimer and Eras are helping some theaters have the best years of their recent lives, even while they report a drop in attendance for most everything else. The smaller, regional fests can scrape by even with sponsorships dropping because, well, they always scrape by. But the mid to big tier fests are facing budget gaps that can’t be bridged with layoffs alone. A film sells here and there. But these are the stories we all tell and hear because we need hope. But the stories we tell when we sit down together over beers are much more real. And what I hear more often are variations of – I am tired; I don’t know how to do this anymore; I’m ready to tear it all down and start anew, but I have no f-n clue what to build that would work anymore. I’ve heard all of these in the past few weeks as I’ve traveled from town to city for various film fests, conferences and confabs, and I’ve said a few of them myself.
But I’ll tell you one damned thing. We need to take a lesson from our enemies. I’m assuming most of my readers lean left, if likely righter than me (I’m left of Marx). You don’t see those folks crying and bemoaning their situation – which is pretty dire if you really look at it. Nope, they go evil genius route every time. They pull out something you’d never expect, and damned if it don’t work most of the time. We need more of that evil genius kind of planning on the left, of course, but also in our film world. What does that mean or look like? I don’t know – I’m evil, but not genius. I am, however, sure that we need some of that kind of thinking. In my experience, the best ideas come from some variation of crazy. Most of my ideas here would get me arrested, but I’m sure some of you can thread that needle between jail and a new business model.
You know what else they do? They plan really far ahead and turn far flung ideas into full-fledged assaults on the system. A crazy idea starts at an obscure think-tank, and next thing you know, it’s the official policy of the Supreme Court. We need more of that kind of action, too, and there I’m pretty sure I know what we need. Ideas that lead to advocacy, which leads to policy change in our favor. Everyone thinks I’m crazy when I say we need to force the Streamers to fund and carry more truly independent work (from the US and elsewhere). But I think the Streamers know that might actually happen, and are already laying the groundwork to fight it, while we sit on our hands wondering what we can accomplish. If that weren’t the case, they would not have just started a massive lobbying effort to push for the value of streaming at the state and federal levels, and staffed it with top gun DC gurus. They know that we might be coming for them soon and want to be sure no one thinks consumers aren’t happy with the status quo – their first press release noted that, “seven out of ten voters polled viewed streaming services favorably, with higher favorability among younger voters and communities of color.” That’s the talk of a scared industry. We should be getting just as organized because they’re more aware of their weaknesses than most of us. 
We also need new business models and ideas. And for that, we need funding to experiment. We can’t build the new system while we’re trying to just participate in the old one. It doesn’t work that way.  I keep saying to some friends that we need an incubator fund for disruptive ideas in our field – whether that’s an alternative distribution plan for a film, an entirely new platform, or something being dreamed up by a college student right now – or by an AI hallucinating a solution. We don’t need more funding for production – unless it’s tied to distribution funding – but we do need funding for entirely new models.
Luckily, these conversations seem to be happening on the sidelines of a few film events. I hope to join more of them. So, let’s get some more of us together and do some long term planning for evil genius ideas.

Stuff I'm Reading


The Current State of Development Labs (Something Needs to Change): Development labs – places filmmakers have historically applied to in order to engage with industry professionals, receive mentorship, and participate in workshops – have been struggling to stay up and running. The Tribeca Film Institute (TFI) closed two years ago, the Gotham Film & Media Institute placed two of its labs on hiatus, the Sundance Institute eliminated multiple programs, and the list goes on. Sub-Genre’s Brian Newman (also the former ceo of TFI) explains that the shutdowns are “a symptom across the board of all our artist organizations chasing the money…. Corporate sponsors are more attracted to big public-facing things, like film festivals and awards shows, unlike hard-to-quantify filmmaker development initiatives.” What’s more, brands “might have supported a lab in the past, but now they’re just funding a filmmaker to make a movie about a particular issue or story that resonates with their brand (Newman).” Despite the fact that dev labs do offer valuable resources, creators who go through these programs still have to face a difficult reality at the end of the experience: “a dysfunctional marketplace, with fewer distribution options for independent projects and exploitative business practices (Anthony Kaufman, Filmmaker Magazine),” and labs that aren’t integrating discussion of exhibition and distribution aren’t doing filmmakers a service. Amy Hobby (also a former ceo at TFI) hopes that these slowdowns will create space for more community-driven, grassroots programs (like Stanley Nelson’s Firelight Media). Though less visible or well funded, perhaps they’ll offer “a more empowering way forward (Hobby).” You can find Kaufman’s full piece here. (GSH)

Göteborg Film Festival To Produce & Debut AI-Altered Version Of Ingmar Bergman’s ‘Persona’: I think the headline says it all, but wow, pretty cool. The Göteborg Film Festival is working with Ingmar Bergman's estate to use AI to produce an AI-generated version of Persona, with Liv Ullmann replaced by Alma Pöysti (who I just saw in Aki Kaurismäki’s Fallen Leaves at TIFF). Talk about embracing the future, while commenting on the current fears of actors around AI, all while referring back to Bergman's own lines in the film... as Jan Holmberg, Ingmar Bergman Foundation CEO, added: "‘Every intonation is a lie, every gesture a forgery,’ it is said in Bergman’s 1966 film. This becomes even more true now! In a time when we outsource ourselves to machines and at the same time seek our authentic selves.”' Read all about it in Deadline. I can't wait to see how this one plays out- but I won't be able to see it, nor can you if you don't attend the fest - as it will only be shown to audiences once, at the fest, as an experiment. (BN)

SKIN OF GLASS Documentary Premiere & Screenings: Greatly looking forward to the premiere and tour of Denise Zmekhol’s SKIN OF GLASS, an amazing documentary that follows Zmekhol’s journey after discovering that her late father's most celebrated work – a modernist glass skyscraper in the heart of São Paulo – has become occupied by hundreds of homeless families. In the wake of a shocking tragedy, Zmekhol connects with the residents of the building seeking to understand how São Paulo’s most vulnerable found shelter within a modernist icon from Brazil’s golden age of architecture. Watch the trailer now! Bay Area folks: Her film premiers at The Mill Valley Film Fest October 14 and 15. New Yorkers: SKIN OF GLASS plays at the Architecture and Design Film Fest Oct 14. Europeans: Screenings in Venice, Barcelona, Prague, and Rotterdam begin in October (more to come soon). Note: I served as a post-production assistant on this doc.  (GSH)

Reinvent to Save Cinema: Check out Martin Scorsese’s new profile with GQ (author: Zach Baron) for his thoughts on comic book / franchise culture and more. Here’re a couple larger points he makes: (1) Because of what massive blockbusters “are doing to our culture…. there are going to be generations now that think movies are only those — that’s what movies are.” “They already think that…. Which means that we have to then fight back stronger. And it’s got to come from the grassroots level. It’s gotta come from the filmmakers themselves…. Go reinvent…because we’ve got to save cinema.” (2) On streaming-era “content,” as opposed to ‘actual cinema,’ Scorsese says, “What do these films…give you? Aside from a kind of consummation of something and then eliminating it from your mind, your whole body, you know? So what is it giving you?” Scorsese’s next film, “Killers of the Flower Moon,” hits theaters on Oct. 20. (GSH)
Branded Content

Video Games: From Sub-Culture to Mainstream: Today, over 160 million adults in the U.S. are gamers. The average gamer is 33 years old and is as likely to be female as male and 71% of Gen-Zers spend a quarter of their time playing or watching video game content. The Takeaway: Video gaming is not a sub-category of culture. It’s mainstream culture itself. Brands that want to be on the forefront of the cultural conversation are entering the esports and live-streaming space (L’Oréal sponsored five-time world champion women’s esports team Dignitas, and had the team give live makeup tutorials), they’re setting up initiatives with real-world incentives (KFC rewarded players who recorded their use of Colonel Sanders and his moves), and creating clothes and ‘skins’ (Lacoste created a digital collection for Minecraft and then produced a full physical wardrobe of clothing). Check out the Adweek piece for more on the cultural evolution of gaming and how brands might consider being a part of it (note: the article is sponsored by Twitch). (GSH)

Leaning Into The Phygital Future and More: What GenZ Wants From Brands: Gen Z is the most powerful and diverse consumer group yet. To better understand what Gen-Zer’s want, AdAge interviewed a few of them. Here’re some quotes I’ve pulled that I found particularly illuminating: (1) “It’s important that brands showcase [their] core identity through raw and authentic storytelling (Fay Shuai).” (2) “I have been obsessed with when big brands have been able to work really quickly to activate on a current cultural phenomenon and  when brands have leaned into a ‘phygital’ future (Ziad Ahmed).” [Phygital is a marketing term that describes blending digital with physical experiences]. (3) “I wish that brands would… [build] long-term, meaningful relationships with communities defined by co-creation, collaboration and co-ownership (Ahmed).”; (4) “Every time I see a paid influencer advertisement, not only does it make me immediately scroll past it, but it also causes me to feel even less incentivized to purchase the product (Shuai).” If you’re interested, you can catch Ahmed, Shuai, and others at the Business of Brands conference on Nov. 8 and 9 in New York. Elizabeth Moore for AdAge gave us the sneak peek. (GSH)
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