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Sub-Genre Media Newsletter:
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Abundance Demands Awesomeness

October 26, 2023

There’s nothing like flying for 46 hours (23 each direction, roughly, to and from Sydney, Australia recently) without Wi-Fi to center your mind on what’s worth watching in a world of abundance. I had my laptop loaded with several films people wanted me to watch for some reason or another – a client project, an indie filmmaking friend’s new rough-cut, another screener I’ve been needing to watch – but staring me in the face was a tiny little airline screen filled with an abundance of brand new, old, and classic (in both the TCM sense, and the should I watch Keanu kill some people again sense) films and I confess – I did not run out of films new to me to see and never fired up the laptop for the newer indie or client films. 
I didn’t fall down the re-watching hole at all, and 90% of the films I watched were critically or friend-acclaimed films I hadn’t gotten around to seeing yet; this in spite of having attended at least a dozen film festivals this year where I watched 4-5 films a day. Just one example – I have somehow missed PAST LIVES a gazillion times, and missed it in theaters, and on PVOD when all my friends were talking about it, and then I learned again just how much someone can cry when 30,000 feet in the air. Should I have seen it on the big screen in a more timely fashion? Yes, but that was just one of a dozen or more films I finally caught on Delta instead. And every other film I watched was similar to that one, in that they were great films I still wanted to see – because everyone told me they were awesome – and they each gave me a gazillion reasons not to watch the films I needed to see because the filmmaker or client really hoped I’d take the time to watch their film instead of all of these awesome films, but… let’s face it… I knew they would not be as awesome.
That’s the MVP you need to be today, and not enough films are truly awesome. Sorry, as I know this won’t be a popular sentiment around these parts. But it’s a pretty simple fact – in a world of not just abundance, but Super-Abundance, you need to be awesome, and many films are just AOK. I have a producer friend who reminds me of this almost every time I write about the crisis in film distribution. Yeah, they say, but how many of those films were really good enough to warrant your attention, and thus Amazon’s acquisition? (note a lot of A’s in this news). When I posted about the PassionRiver news on social, linked below, they asked me – yeah, but how many of those had sold enough on TVOD to cover their delivery costs? Maybe they got lucky and came out net-positive? This might seem cynical, but it’s nothing but acknowledging that whole awesomeness truth again – to grab anyone’s attention in a world of abundance, you gotta be awesome. 
Back around 2009, I was going around the world giving a talk about how to be “better than free.” That was another time of crisis in the film distribution industry – cuts being made due to the recession, and “sky is falling” talks by people like Mark Gill, and a lot of concerns that all of our problems were attributable to piracy. What was the solution? Make films that were so awesome that they grabbed my attention so much I would want to pay for them at any cost. Guess what? That’s the same lesson today. We can see it with Barbenheimer, or even with Sound of Freedom (it ain’t awesome to me, but I’m an atheist, and not the (very sizable) audience built by Angel Studios (another A)), and even with smaller films like Past Lives, or if you want smaller than an A24 release, a littler film like 32 Sounds, by Sam Green, which is such an acoustically avant-garde film that you’ve gotta see it… it’s awesome. 
This is all old news – I’ve been writing some version of this since 2008, so that’s 15 years now at least – but I don’t think filmmakers (or their funders) are wrapping their heads around just what it means to live in a time of superabundance, and an attention economy. It’s not good enough to be good enough anymore. We all have pretty much any film we want to see at our beck and call online, often for free (without even getting to the piracy part, just via 250+ streaming services being available now). I can choose literally any awesome movie from A to Z, and the entirety of film history, not to mention the latest, greatest stuff mostly being available up in the air on any flight I take. And then you add TikTok, Insta, gaming, and other time sucks, and your film must be beyond awesome for it to get anyone’s attention. As an aside, that’s also true for my day job – brand funded films – those must be even better, because who wants to see X film brought to you by Y brand, when they have all of these same options, unless X film is also pretty awesome, and as Kenyatta Cheese says – your audience has an audience. So, unless someone I know and trust has told me that they saw your film, and I must see it too, it won’t make it onto my list of things to watch. And it shouldn’t make it onto anyone’s list of things to fund, or to make.
Now, just to be clear… we don’t want to live in a land where “everything is awesome” even if that movie was…_ . We need to be shaken out of our comfort zones. And we need those truth to power films (I couldn’t think of an A-based synonym, dammit). And yes, every now and then you have your passion project that just has to be made. And if you’ve been commissioned… er, Assigned??, a project, meaning Netflix already paid for it and you are guaranteed an Audience, or if you know there’s a sizeable underserved audience starving for your film, go ahead and make those films. But also be honest – accountable to yourself – and acknowledge whether your film is that film, and as such, is it awesome? If not, think twice, because in a time of abundance, all the audience wants is awesomeness. 

Stuff I'm Reading


Attention Documentary Filmmaking Community: Open Call – Launch of Producer Group : In an effort to support independent non-fiction film, Facet is sponsoring the development of a new experimental producer group. The group will explore new avenues for producer-to-producer collaboration and create a space for creative inspiration and professional growth. The group will be producer-led and be active for a minimum three-year term. Individual producers will continue making their own films under their own production companies, but within the framework of a small producing community. Each participant will receive a yearly living stipend of at least $25,000 in recognition for their contribution to this endeavor. Learn more, find out if you’re eligible and apply here by Nov 13. (GSH) This is a fabulous new program for producers, and I hope other funders in the field follow Facet's lead in supporting more producer focused funding. (BN)

Jon Reiss launches the Six Month Distribution Intensive: To help filmmakers do “the hard work”, as Brian Newman has called out, distribution innovator, Jon Reiss, has launched the Six Month Distribution Intensive which is a weekly, six month immersive program. Reiss, who helped create and run the IFP/Gotham Distribution Lab,  created this program because of the strong need for a collaborative environment that offers filmmakers the kind of knowledge, guidance, and resources they need in order to succeed in the ever-changing film distribution landscape. In an intimate cohort of up to ten film teams, filmmakers will learn how to create the best path to release and market their film. The Intensive consists of presentations by Jon and other noted experts in the field, hands-on discussions, feedback on their film and marketing materials, and one-on-one sessions with Jon to develop a concrete actionable plan to distribute your film.  The first Cohort starts in November.  For more information click here. (info from Jon Reiss/BN)

Hundreds of Filmmakers Screwed by PassionRiver: In a news story that should be getting more coverage than here and in Films Gone Wild, hundreds of filmmakers have been screwed by PassionRiver, a small distributor that went bankrupt, sold off the company and its assets, but didn't pay any of its liabilities. Making matters worse, filmmakers can't get any info on their rights, and have been having trouble shifting their films to other distribution options. This has impacted a few former clients and filmmaker friends of mine, and I'm glad that John Wildman has written about it here. Apparently, the major trades all passed on the story. After posting this link on FB, someone directed me to a lengthy Distribution Advocates report on the situation as well, and you can read that here. (BN)

Serial Churners and Price Hikes Shake Up The Market: The U.S SVOD streaming market is evolving, with many subscribers – like myself – regularly switching between streaming services (we call them “churners” or “churners and returners”).  A growing proportion of new subscribers belong to a category that Antenna researchers dub “serial churners,” who apparently account for 1/3rd of new subscriptions in 2023, up from just 10% in 2019. Additionally, researchers found that over 33% of users who canceled a premium (ad-free) subscription between Q1 and Q2 of 2022 re-subscribed 12 months later and that 25% of viewers during the same time period were won back after just 3 months of canceling.  Head to George Winslow’s piece for TVTech for more on the numbers. My takeaway: People aren’t loyal to one streamer or another as they might have been just a few years back. Big streamers will need to put in the work to reel viewers back in, and keep them hooked, but as of now, all I see is price hikes: In August, Disney+ hiked prices by $3/month for the second time this year and also raised Hulu prices. Discovery raised prices in Jan 2023 for the first time and Netflix increased its ad-free plan to $22.99/month (a move that I imagine would deter serial churners). (GSH)

A24 To Lean Into Commercial Films: Can A24 successfully balance arthouse and commercial projects while maintaining their reputation for high-quality filmmaking? Avid A24 enthusiast and TheGamer author Tessa Kaur is worried about the A24 brand after they declared they were searching for ‘action and big IP projects,’ and that they were  ‘de-emphasising the traditional character/auteur-driven dramas’. Already, a Friday the 13th series is on its way. While it may be true that IP and Action movies tend to make more money than arthouse projects, Kaur cautions that the same pivot didn’t work well for companies like Miramax, Annapurna, and The Weinstein Company (each went commercial after building a reputation for their auteur-focused films). Kaur leaves readers with three questions: (1) “If A24… can’t survive without turning to commercial films to pad the coffers, who can?; (2) While A24 says they intend to expand its offerings rather than replace its arthouse slate with commercial films, how long will this be sustainable? And finally (3) how long ‘til A24 follows the money, instead of its reputation? Read her piece here. (GSH)

UK Doc Filmmakers Have it Bad Too: In one more sign that the sky has fallen for the documentary field, a group of doc filmmakers in the UK has issued a report saying the field is facing an "existential threat." The leading doc organizations in the UK, as well as many individual filmmakers, signed the letter, lobbying for more funding and support. Read all about it in Variety. (BN)

American Masters announces the Visibility, Inclusion and Accessibility (VIA) Initiativebuilding upon American Masters’ commitment to presenting programming for, by and about disabled communities. The initiative, announced today in honor of Disability Employment Awareness Month, will include Renegades, a new digital series about disabled cultural icons; an innovative incubator for disabled filmmakers; and expanded accessibility features for programming distributed by American Masters. Of note, the RENEGADES series will be produced by FWD-Doc co-founder Day Al-Mohammed and FWD-Doc Interim Director Amanda Upson, and Executive Produced by Charlotte Mangin, and will have 5 teams of disabled filmmakers producing, directing, and writing the episodes.  Additionally, Upson will lead the creation of the VIA Incubator, aimed at providing opportunities for disabled filmmakers in the public media system, with the goal of improving diversity and representation in front of and behind the camera. Read all about it here.(BN)
Branded Content

On the Hook Podcast - Featuring Me (BN):
I joined my good friends at Yellow Pike Media recently for their "On the Hook" podcast, where we discussed how brands are making quality films, especially those made with independent and arthouse directors. But our conversation went into many other aspects of brands funding entertainment, and it was also a fun conversation. You can check out the podcast on Spotify or YouTube, and I also recommend checking out their other episodes. (BN)

Chipotle On Its Way To Becoming Synonymous with Street Fighter 6: This month, Chipotle’s ongoing partnership with “Street Fighter 6” took the form of a three-week-long series of branded tournaments. All participating tournament players were given 250 in-game “Fighter Coins” which could be traded in for a total of 40,000 redemption codes (all sold out immediately). Players also had the option to buy food at Chipotle for codes. In addition to the tournament and in-game brand activations, Chipotle continued to feature traditional in-game ads displaying their signature pepper. And apparently, their efforts to entrench the brand in the gaming community without turning off harcore gamer fans is paying off: Tweets from the Fighting Game Community (FCG) influencers suggest Chipotle’s doing it right (see photo). Alexander Lee for Digiday has the news. (GSH)

Gen Z and AI at a Glance: Digiday’s Cloey Callahan and Seb Joseph share some instresting insights with us about Gen Zers’ relationship to AI. One survey found that 45% of Gen Z participants were concerned that AI could replace their parents’ jobs or professions they aspire to enter. At the same time, only 10.7% believed that AI would have a negative impact on society. A separate survey finds that 40% of young workers were excited about integrating AI capabilities into their job roles, and 53% believed AI had the potential to bring about positive change in the workplace. Read on here. (GSH)

New Tool Allows Artists To "Poison" AI: A new tool called Nightshade has been developed which helps artists to fight back against generative AI, by poisoning any of their creative works which might get scraped up by the robots without their permission. A professor at the University of Chicago created the tool which subtly alters an image when it's used by AI, so that a dog looks like a cat, and other crazy changes. The same professor, Ben Zhao, created another tool called Glaze which masks an artist's work. "Artists who want to upload their work online but don’t want their images to be scraped by AI companies can upload them to Glaze and choose to mask it with an art style different from theirs. They can then also opt to use Nightshade. Once AI developers scrape the internet to get more data to tweak an existing AI model or build a new one, these poisoned samples make their way into the model’s data set and cause it to malfunction." Even better, the tools have been open-sourced, so others can continue to alter the models, and further "poison" the generative AI tools hoovering up artist's work without permission. Complex, but cool stuff. Read all about it in  MIT Technology Review. (BN)

We've Got Samantha from Her in AI Now: This just in under the wire before publishing, but Daniel Miessler reports that OpenAI has launched an app and function to add a conversational AI to your phone, and yes, you can give it the voice from Samantha in Her, or many others, and carry out some intelligent conversations. It's not just a gimmick of having a cool voice, but as he explains, the AI gets to know you, it can not just carry a conversation, but teach you a language, or act as your therapist... this stuff is moving fast, and getting creepier and cooler all at the same time. (BN)

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