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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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Redefining the Distribution Crisis

November 30, 2023

Everyone keeps talking about the crisis in film distribution, but... The crisis is not in distribution. There are a lot of options for distribution, ranging literally from A (24) to at least Y (YouTube, and yes, I could go to Z and say ZDF the German public broadcaster), but my point here is that when we talk about a crisis in distribution, we need to be a lot more precise and drill down to what specific parts of distribution aren’t working, because it’s not for a lack of distribution options. 
Sure, those options might not be remunerative, but they exist. That’s why I’m skeptical of anyone going around town talking about how we need some new platform for certain types of films (usually the ones they make). And to be clear, even I have proposed a platform as being part of the solution at times (frustration can foul one’s cognitive abilities), but what are we going to do? Build a better algorithm than Netflix, or just one that buys our films for gobs of money, seems to be the top proposed answers. I don’t think so.
In fact, if you’re an actual cinephile, everything is awesome, and you can find and watch anything and everything you may want to see (save for some non-restored archival gems). A film might be a little hard to track down, and it might pop from service to service, and you might have to subscribe (and then unsubscribe) to a lot of different little services, or pony up some digital cash to rent or buy what you want to see, and in extreme cases find an old DVD, but you can find almost anything you want (leaving aside some big censorship issues here, of course).
But this scenario also points us towards a couple of problems. One, it assumes you are a cinephile – you are plugged in enough to know what you want to watch before it hits theaters or streaming. Second, it assumes you can afford to pay a fair sum to fill your diary of watched films on Letterboxd. Not everyone is a rich cinephile. Let’s cut to the chase, two of the real problems are awareness and ease of availability. And for the majority of audiences – the ones who don’t read the trades, follow what premiered at Cannes (much less Locarno or Sundance or IDFA), awareness is your biggest issue. If we can consider that an actual issue at all – for this assumes that if only more people knew about these great films, more of them would watch them (demand them even), and all would be well with the world. I’m not sure that’s true, either, but the only way to find out would be to do some research or experimentation, which are two things no one in the film business ever wants to try out. And that doesn’t even touch the subject of whether anyone under 20 cares about any of this?!
"But Film X was released by Distributor Y, in theaters and on Platform Z and no one showed up, so there must not be an audience," you might say. Well, this points to another problem – no one I’ve ever met thinks that anyone knows how to distribute a film well anymore, and to be more precise, they don’t think any distributor (save maybe A24) knows how to do marketing now, if they ever did. The only exception to this firm belief is among distribution heads, but I bet if you ask their junior employees, they’d all have complaints about the lack of marketing knowledge & resources within their own company(-ies). Quick aside – none of the upstart streaming platforms for indies do any real marketing either, and just think audiences will magically appear, but that, too, is another article.
So, one of the biggest problems we have here is the marketing of the films. But before we explore how to fix that, we must acknowledge that brings us to a really big problem, because when you think marketing most minds go to advertising, and most advertising doesn’t work for shit. Which is why many brands have been moving to… making movies. But hilariously, they then hope that their movies get into the same system that does such a poor job marketing them, and what happens? Their bosses ask to see some real results and they can’t come up with anything… because the film marketing system (and data reporting system, but that’s another article) is broken and they should have released the film and marketed it themselves. 
But I digress. Although I’ll be back here soon, because I think the answer to our problems lies at least partially at the nexus of the traditional film folks and them brand ones. 
Ads barely work unless you’re ubiquitous. Good on you if you’re a Hollywood movie or Modello, but no indie films can break-through the noise with the ad budgets we can allocate. But we do it anyway, because no one’s ever been fired for taking out an ad in the NYT, even if no one reads it (except your cinephiles who already know about the film). So, we turn to PR. But most PR is a wasted today beyond showboating for Academy voters because… who reads anymore? Ok, to be fair, many of our potential audiences do read, but they don’t read the places our publicists target – the NYT, trades, etc. Our reading attention has been split into a million tiny pieces and the old guardians of our news just don’t make much of a dent anymore. 
But try to explain this to a filmmaker. The other day, a friend’s film was written up rapturously in the Lefsetz Letter, and I emailed them to congratulate them, as that’s a very big deal. When they asked who Lefsetz was, and I said getting mentioned there would probably lead to more views than their NYT review, they didn’t believe me. But I’d bet on it in a heartbeat (this is especially true for any film that crosses over into music, as this film did, which is his main audience).
When that particular film was written up in Lefsetz, they were tapping into the precise audience they needed to reach – people who care deeply about music and musicians but who don’t pay attention to most movie marketing and/or are skeptical of what they do see because most of those movies don’t pay off when they do go (i.e., they ain’t very good). So, when a trusted source tells you about a movie, and you know it wasn’t a paid placement, it’s worth more than any movie review, any print or online publication advertisement, or even any YouTube, Facebook, Instagram or TikTok advertisement. It’s gold. 
Those are the communities we need to be focused on reaching – the ones who care about a subject but would never read the trades or the NYT to find out about it, and likely don’t think they’d be interested in any non-Hollywood movie. The Lefsetz example was, I am sure, pure serendipity and not a result of their marketing. But good marketing can also reach these audiences, and better marketing can build these audiences into a fan base that keeps coming back. But when film people talk about community building, they usually mean “community screenings” which are good, especially to rally the troops behind a cause, but it’s really just gathering those who are already converted. 
What we really need are more experiments with marketing to all of these adjacent communities. And that’s really hard and specialized work. But guess who knows how to do that work, for the most part? Oh, if you’ve read this far, I gave it away a few paragraphs ago – brands! That’s who. As I’ve said in some of my lectures – we’ve figured out how digital has changed everything about film from production to distribution, but what we haven’t figured out for some reason is how much it’s changed marketing. But brands have, and are pretty good at hitting certain core customers/audiences and building demand when we didn’t even know we needed a product, and finding new customers/audiences. Some of them are even good at turning those folks into a tribe, who will show up for whatever they drop or launch, and who trust them for recommendations, and even for having certain values (I know this sounds crazy if you are GenX or older). 
Which is why I think these two groups should be talking more often, and why I bother to work in this space. Because if we can get brands working with the best filmmakers to make better films, and if filmmakers and their distributors can work with brands to figure out the best way to market films to audiences, and if the industry can be honest about what doesn’t work in film today to their brand partners (instead of just asking them for money), and the brands can tell the industry how to approach marketing in the year 2023, then we might solve some of those problems we think are distribution problems, but which are actually marketing problems. This won’t solve all our problems – few brands are going to touch certain topics, and certain films need to keep their distance from any brand at all – but even those folks can learn from one another. But it could help solve one of the biggest problems we have in the field.

Stuff I'm Reading


DIY/FYC: One Night, Four Films, For Your Consideration: In an Oscar season first, four independent documentary films that premiered at Sundance unite as DIY FYC to host an event at DCTV’s Firehouse Cinema in New York on Thursday, November 30 at 6:30pm followed by one at Vidiots in Los Angeles on December 6. These screenings and panel discussions address the state of the industry and how underrepresented stories can fit into a field dominated by large corporations and known names with massive promotional budgets. DIY FYC aims to introduce new models for documentary awards campaigning, centering collaboration over competition, while creating space and opportunity for a much-needed conversation around the future of documentary distribution. It’s not too late to change your plans for tonight and head on over to the Firehouse! NYC tickets here, and all info here. (GSH)

Streaming Giants Bow To Political Pressures at the Expense of Good Film and Free Speech: Give Gerry Shih and Anant Gupta’s piece for The Washington Post a read to learn how India’s Prime Minister and his party’s culture of censorship have subtly and dramatically permeated the streaming landscape, “sanitizing” Netflix and Amazon Prime of films that host the country’s political discourse. Shih and Gupta include insights from various filmmakers, writers, producers, and industry insiders who anonymously share their experiences and speak to why American streamers that service hundreds of millions of viewers are shying away from defending original projects that deal with India’s political, religious, and caste divisions. This is a really engaging read, with lots of impactful anecdotes along the way. Here's a Readerized link if you don't have a WaPo Subscription. (GSH)

Generative AI To Muddy The Historical Record, APA Warns: The newly formed Archival Producers Alliance (APA) “is working to raise awareness about the thorny issues inherent in using generative AI in documentary film.” The APA flags the following examples of Generative AI use in documentary films as particularly problematic: (1) “A lack of transparency with audiences when historical voices are generated by AI, leading viewers to believe they are hearing authentic primary sources when they are not.”; (2) “Creating AI-generated ‘historical’ images to depict people and events, rather than sourcing real ones were available, in order to save time and money.”; (3) Generating recreations and non-existent historical artifacts without identifying them as such.” The list goes on. You can read the APA’s full open letter calling for generative AI guardrails in Mia Galuppo’s article for The Hollywood Reporter. (GSH)

TV History Repeats Itself: Free TV dominated from the 1950s to the 1990s. During this era, viewers accepted ads and enjoyed whatever was broadcast. Come the late 90s, cable TV households exceeded non-cable homes. Initially, basic cable had a modest fee, but it escalated with tiers, bundles, and additional channels, often exceeding $100 monthly. Then came ad-free internet SVOD (notably Netflix in 2007) which led to “cord cutting” as subscribers sought a return to a single low-cost, ad-free service with a variety of on-demand content. Fast forward to 2023, and the streaming landscape is cluttered with tiers, bundles, and ads, approaching $100 per month if multiple SVOD services are used (it’s all starting to feel a little… cable-y). In an ironic twist, the combined hours on true free AVOD (streaming services that aren’t part of a paid subscription service) and FAST (free ad-supported TV w/ linear channels) are expected to exceed SVOD this year. Schuyler Moore for Forbes has the news (check out the numbers in-article.) (GSH)

I'll be joining a few of my heroes next week on a panel hosted by Firelight Media. And best of all- it's online for anyone to attend. Check out the info: 

Join Firelight Media for a Beyond Resilience event via YouTube Live on Thursday, December 7 from 4-5pm ET that will bring documentary veterans from across the industry together to encourage gatekeepers at every level to take collective action in support of the independent documentary ecosystem.

Moderator Marcia Smith (Co-Founder & President, Firelight Media) will be joined by Brian Newman (Founder, Sub-Genre), Avril Speaks (Founding Member, Distribution Advocates), and Geralyn Dreyfous (Co-Founder, Impact Partners) to discuss the market shifts that explain the current state of the documentary industry. The panel will also highlight encouraging developments, ideas for modernizing the documentary ecosystem, and provide the audience with a clear directive of how they can advocate for a better future for documentary. Full description and registration info is here. (BN)

Accessibility Notice: This event will include live ASL interpretation.

Branded Content
What is Marketing?: Surprisingly, few people can agree. But since today's main news item is about marketing, and the photo above comes from this article as well, check out Seth Matlin's article in Forbes about how different CMO's and CEO's define marketing today. (BN)

Recent News in AI: Unpacking The Open AI Revolt & Meta’s Disbanding of its Responsible AI Team: (1) In his piece for The Guardian, Robert Reich writes about the firing and subsequent reinstatement of Open AI CEO Sam Altman, and what the whole ordeal says about the wrought structures in place that were created to balance capitalist ambitions with humanitarian goals and safeguards. Reich concludes, while we’ve been fed the story that AI could be a Frankenstein monster (we gave it life, now it’ll turn around to steal our jobs and kill us…etc), “the real Frankenstein monster of AI is human greed.” (2) Wes Davis for The Verge writes about Meta’s disbanding of its Responsible AI team (RAI) as it pours money into generative AI, a move that echoes Microsoft’s gutting of their ethics and society team earlier this year. (GSH)

Who Needs a Record label? Indify as a model from Music for Film?: The WSJ has a great article on VC's funding music artists directly, especially via the Indify platform (that link should give free access). From the article: "On Indify, artists cut individualized deals, often for one song or one album, and investors take a portion of streaming royalties. Artists maintain ownership over their music, must keep 50% or more of their earnings after an investor is made whole and have creative control. Indify takes a 15% cut of an investor’s post-recoupment upside." And it's working for many investors. With some tweaks (music is different than film), it might be a good model to explore for filmmakers as well. (BN)

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