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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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Keeping the Faith

Nov 2, 2023

This week, the number four film at the box office is a documentary film - After Death, a faith-based (or at least faith-friendly) documentary being released by Angel Studios. It’s also the best performing documentary of the week, and of the entire year, having grossed over $5MM already. I’d argue that’s an even bigger deal this particular year, because documentaries have not been doing very well at the box office ever since Covid hit, and since we’ve started going back to the movies. In fact, as any regular reader knows, I’ve just been going to meeting after meeting discussing the dire state of documentaries in the marketplace, and then boom… along comes a doc from out of nowhere, and it’s huge. Of course, I’ve also been telling everyone in the film world that we should all be paying a lot more positive attention to what Angel Studios is doing, and they’ve proven that once again. 
Of course, this being an Angel Studios release, the trade press and reviewers were out for blood instead of praising them for figuring out a system to make films work for exhibitors and audiences (the folks we should care most about here). This IndieWire review, for example, was so clearly biased against the film that one can only guess it drove more traffic to the film from people wondering what could be so upsetting. And I’m sure the core audience was angry enough to buy more “pay it forward” tickets as a result, just to spite the reviewer. At the end of his review, David Ehrlich makes fun of this ticket model and jokes that people can “stick around for a very special message about how you can Venmo me lots of money so that other people might be able to experience the eye-opening wisdom of my film criticism.” But I’d be willing to bet the filmmakers would happily Venmo him a cut of the extra profits he sent their way. 
The film, and Angel’s entire model, is just one more example of doing what I’ve been preaching ever since I was told about it by Tom Putnam (of Burn, etc.) – make films that are festival proof, traditional distributor proof, and critic proof. If you make a film that a sizable, targeted, underserved demographic wants to see, they will show up in droves to see it, even if the gatekeepers try to keep them away (or just ignore your film altogether). 
It's mind-boggling to me that the trades aren’t beating down these folks’ door to glean insight; that every film festival doesn’t have a panel with them teaching lessons learned (I’m looking at you Sundance programmers planning for 2024); and that more quality filmmakers with films that are not faith-based, but positive/uplifting and maybe family friendly, aren’t begging to be put into the Angel system. The folks at Angel have been pretty vocal that they don’t consider themselves a Christian or even faith-based company. That might be hard for some folks to believe based on some of the films they’ve released – or more so the reviews of those films – but I believe them. I was speaking with someone there this week, and they told me they’re really a tech company built around optimizing for a sizable core audience, and I believe that, as well. But even if you are more skeptical than me – I think we should be able to admit that (using their language a bit here) they’ve been a ray of light in a pretty dark time for most films, and docs in particular, and we should be taking notes, and copying what we can from their success. Sure, not all of our films qualify as “wholesome,” but we also have a pretty sizable underserved audience. And maybe, just maybe, part of the problem is how we activate them around our films, as well as the language we use to do so. 
But while we’re on the topic of faith-adjacent things – holy cow, folks, there’s a lot of other faith related stuff performing quite well in the market these days. Look at film number five at the box this past weekend – The Exorcist, Believer – for example. I’m not kidding – you don’t have to be a believer or Catholic to notice the connections here. Or look at number one - Five Nights at Freddy’s. Now, this is not a faith related film in any real way, but while most people have focused a lot more on things like its day/date release, or that it brought out a young audience (30% of its audience was under 17 y/o), while baffling most adults completely; it’s also a faith adjacent film in some ways. Its creator, Scott Cawthon doesn’t hide his religion, and given his past as a Christian game developer, I’m sure just as many people went to see it because of that, as those who think he “sold out” and went mainstream. Or look over at Netflix, where one of their newest and supposedly well-performing series is Mysteries of the Faith, which apparently takes great pains to not alienate its more faithful audience.
I could take this further and point out that the other major story at the box office has been Taylor Swift and her Era’s Tour film. And Beyoncé not far behind her. And just how far are these folks from the new gods of our era? You can kinda classify Oppenheimer in the same arena, can’t you? One doesn’t have to be too much of an armchair sociologist to start having all kinds of theories about what must be going on in our culture to push so many faith-adjacent projects into our cultural zeitgeist at the same moment. 
For me, I’ll just go with – when things fall apart, people start to look for answers. Heck, this entire newsletter has been me searching for answers – the new gospel – in the wilderness of our film world. Too often, the answers offered up to me seem to be one of three things – have faith, young one, you too will be anointed into the land of the chosen ones (Sundance, Netflix, et al.); or, follow the gospel of Saint Peter (Broderick) to new rewards; or, trust the new gods (tech, data, AI), and we’ll blaze a new path to glory. Being a skeptical atheist who refuses to follow any crowd, I am not buying into any of these religions. But I’m not above learning from those who are more friendly to them… if it might help us build a new future sometime soon. But I want to see it in this lifetime, not in the afterlife.

Stuff I'm Reading


Virtual Film Fest Transformed Into TVOD PlatformNightstream, initially conceived as a virtual film festival during the pandemic in 2020 (by a trio of real-world genre festivals), is making a comeback as a transactional Video on Demand platform with a specific focus on genre films. Relaunched by the Brooklyn Horror Film Festival in association with the Boston Underground Film Festival and the Overlook Film Festival, Nightstream will offer more than 30 titles from indie distributors. Customers can choose to rent or buy films, typically set at $4.99 to rent and $12.99 to buy. “Finding a way to support new indie films along with keeping our collective festivals afloat during the pandemic was our priority and I’m thrilled that we can continue that for the long term…. “Not only will we be sharing revenue with the films on the channel, but a portion of the proceeds will also be split among the other founding festivals (Brooklyn Horror Film Festival Director Justin Timms).” Dade Hayes for Deadline has the news. (GSH) And this is exactly the kind of partnership and forward thinking I wish more festivals would consider. (BN)

What Can a New Distribution Future Look Like? Karin Chien's Keynote: My friend Karin Chien of Distribution Advocates (and a producer, and distributor, and...) gave a stellar keynote at the recent Color Congress National Convening. I'd been hearing all about it from other attendees, and now they've posted her speech online and you can read or watch it here. Karin's done a lot of hard thinking and work around what is wrong with and might be fixed/recreated in film distribution and I highly recommend reading this and spreading the word to others. I don't agree with all of it, but all of it is smart stuff. (BN)

Time For A New Everything Product: Jason Kilar (yeah, the former head of Warners and Hulu, etc.) writes in Variety, that in today’s rapidly-shifting entertainment landscape, companies lacking the scale of giants like Netflix must embrace a modern "everything product." Historically, bundled television channels were Hollywood’s “everything product,” attracting 9/10 consumers, generating significant engagement, benefiting various contributors like studios, sports leagues, and talent. What does this mean for today’s Hollywood? Kilar writes that the companies that are investing heavily in the streaming space but aren’t getting the scale they need “should be architecting a modern everything product that consumers will adore,” and suggests that Hulu be its new home (conveniently enough....): “Given its history… Hulu presents a rare situation where Hollywood companies could… quickly and productively align on a product and economic vision that could delight customers and work well for themselves … and get to market swiftly.” Easier said than done, but designing a product that virtually 9/10 consumers would purchase and spend a lot of time on is probably priority #1 for most entertainment and sports companies in the world. Read on here. (GSH) BN's take: Everyone loves to hate on Kilar, but what he's also saying here is - if you can't get bigger than Netflix, and fast, you might as well give up. And he's not wrong about that. (BN)

Can A24 Go Mainstream And Still Play On Core Strengths?: After a series of big hits (like “Everything Everywhere All At Once”) and massive bombs (like “Beau Is Afraid”), A24 needs to offer more mainstream films alongside the arthouse works it's known for, as highlighted in this report. While the studio has excelled in horror it’ll need to venture into new genres and secure sequel-friendly IP to remain competitive and appeal to potential buyers (in 2021, Variety reported A24 was looking to sell for $3 billion). Apple, once a suitor, is now an aggressive competitor on the festival circuit and snatches up films for prices A24 can’t match. Head to Kaare Eriksen’s piece for Variety for more on why A24 is making this shift plus some interesting charts & figures. Readerized version linked here. (GSH)

Branded Content

New Branded Series: “The Burger Files – Lifting The Bun On Burger Crime”: Wendy’s UK rolled out a true crime-style branded podcast called “The Burger Files” led by Sarah Barron (host) and Joel Morris (TV & film comedy writer) who investigate real ‘crimes’ against burgers across 7 episodes that led up to a Halloween special. “Everybody loves true crime, but they also love comedy. And it’s the ability for us to do our tongue-in-cheek approach that we still pride ourselves on (Lisa Deletroz, regional marketing director, Wendy’s).” Over 18,000 visits to the podcast were logged in week 1 through the QR code alone, a testament to podcasts being the “perfect vehicle to capture the ears of both millennials and Gen Z (Bjorn Thorleifsson, head of research at amp sound branding).” Stephen Lepitak for AdWeek has the news, and you can watch the podcast promo video here. (GSH)

NBA Uses AI To Personalize & Customize Content For Viewers: The 2023 NBA season will see the implementation of generative AI to streamline content creation. According to Digiday’s Julian Cannon, the tech will be used to “analyze and categorize each play during games, to automatically generate individualized highlight packages for each player in every match… [and] used to create social-style content that (hopefully) resonates with fans to drive more people to the league’s app.” Bob Carney, the NBA’s SVP of digital and social content says “we simply don’t have the human manpower to be able to create the volume of content that we need to create on a daily basis to be able to delver on personalization.” As of now, according to Cannon, this development hasn’t resulted in any layoffs. We can expect other sports leagues and teams to take AI implementation seriously – already, the NHL is using AI for content analysis efforts and the LA Rams are utillizing AI to support sponsorship deals. (GSH)

Former Boss Of Playstation on Consolidation and Cultural Preservation in Gaming: Shawn Layden, former CEO of Sony Computer Entertainment America has made a number of appearances lately where he discusses two critical issues facing the gaming industry: Consolidation and game preservation. Layden criticizes the traditional AAA blockbuster model for stagnating the industry and highlights the success of indie studios and more innovative game concepts. He warns that consolidation can stifle creativity, threaten the loss of creative voices, and lead to repetitive game genres. Regarding game preservation, Layden emphasizes the importance of protecting gaming history and making older titles available for future generations. You can check out the full interview here, which Timothy Geigner describes in his TechDirt piece as “a breath of fresh air coming from a guy tied to the industry.” (GSH)

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