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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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Butts (back) in Seats

Dec 7, 2023

This past weekend, I visited the Hampton’s Doc Fest and caught several movies on the big screen. Every screening was packed, and most of the people seemed to know one another – like most good fests, it serves its local community well, and has built its own sense of community around getting butts in seats to see films communally, and talk about them before and after the films. One of the films I watched was Anselm by Wim Wenders in 3D (NYT Review here), and even though this is one of my favorite artists, I wouldn’t have been as absorbed into the film if I wasn’t watching it in 3D, in a movie theater, with a sold out crowd. Anselm Kiefer is a bit of a ponderous German chap, and none of the power of the film will translate to the small screen. Side note – see it in 3D in theaters if you can (it’s playing now). 
But I’m likely preaching to the choir here – I imagine most of my readers are fans of cinema-going, and never doubted the power of the theatrical experience.  But a lot of other people have been doubting it for a while now. Wall Street pundits were so convinced that theaters sucked that they forced the Studios to move all of their films into streaming faster and faster. At the height of Covid, I noticed how many small but great theater chains were struggling, and I hatched a plan to buy them up and create a better circuit tied to some other business change ideas (I wasn’t writing about the need for roll-ups for nothing), but when I tried to raise the funds, I couldn’t find a single investor who wasn’t convinced that theaters were dead and gone  - a folly, and I had to give up on that idea (that’s why I’m here writing and not running a new company, I guess). Meanwhile, Disney and others released several of their movies straight to streaming, in pursuit of more subscribers. And who could blame them – at that time, no one was headed to the cinema to catch the Covid. 
Well, this week we learned Disney is not only changing course, but re-releasing those films back into theaters.  Jordan Moreau for Variety reports that Disney will put out Pixar‘s “Soul,” “Turning Red” and “Luca” in cinemas starting in January. And even though putting them on Disney+ “trained” families to watch them on streaming, according to Pixar’s Pete Docter, “We’re trying to make sure people realize there’s a great deal you’re missing by not seeing it on the big screen. […] There’s the shared experience as well, that you get to see it in a room with strangers, and there’s something about the energy that comes from other people that makes the whole experience more vibrant and interesting.”
Yeah, duh! Coulda told you that one. And as Docter goes on to say in the piece, even though millions of families have seen them online already, Disney is fully expecting to do more than break-even on the releases. Because guess what folks, there are plenty of people who will suck up the cost because it’s an evening of fun. And there’s also a sizable audience of people who just don’t watch films on streamers – they go there for TV. Or on their phones for TikTok. But not for a long movie. Those are meant for a theater for many audiences.
And then there’s an entire audience that doesn’t have Disney+ and likely missed the fact these films ever launched into the great sucking void of streaming. In fact, one can think of the mega-streaming complex (Netflix, Max, Et al.) as equivalent to Matt Taibbi’s old notion (from Rolling Stone) of Goldman being a “great vampire squid wrapped around the face of humanity, relentlessly jamming its blood funnel into anything that smells like money.” The streamers are doing the same, but in search of our money, they’re mainly just sucking away our attention as we doom/binge-scroll through their worthless algorithmic (and nearly identical) user interfaces from hell. Remember, you build your own hell, and we did it by giving our films away to Netflix for shiny near-term coins, and for the convenience of red envelopes showing up, but now we just have endless, meaningless “originals” for our viewing.
But wait, there’s more. This week, the LA Times had an opinion piece from Jehshua Eliashberg, Chales B. Weinberg, and Barend Wiernga, brilliantly titled “Just ask Taylor Swift: Data make the case for movie theaters versus streaming.” (the LAT piece is paywalled, here’s the Readerized version). They point to a two-year study of IMDb user review data (from before Covid) which found a big impact from audiences watching a film on streaming versus in theaters - “The first toll is lower box-office revenue, which is still key to most films’ financial success. The second price studios pay is subtler. Our research found that if the first viewers are on streaming platforms, the reviews would be worse than if the first viewers are all in theaters.” Previous research also found that the earliest reviews of a movie have a very strong influence on its box-office performance. More evidence, if we needed it, that there’s a reason to focus on getting butts in seats before we push things online.
And you can have the best of all worlds. Just like Taylor. Her Eras tour brought in gazillions from audiences who could pay to see her in person. And then the film bypassed streamers, went straight to theaters, and racked up $123.5 million at the box office in its opening weekend. Next week, she’ll release it – importantly, with an extended cut (like a “director’s cut”) for rental only – no free streaming – and she’ll likely wait a while and get one of the streamers to pay her gazillions more for those rights. But she’s also likely smart enough to re-release it for one more tour of theaters, with another edit, before it goes on a subscription platform (if ever… I’d just keep those rights if I were her). (Quick h/t to Greg Forston who shared this LAT piece online, as I never read the LAT, like 99% of LA, much less anyone else). 
Look, I’ve always been one to argue that we need not be afraid of the small screen, whether that’s a gigantic  screen at home or on your phone. As I’ve said many times before, I watched almost all my favorite films of all time on crappy VHS tapes in film school, and then rewatched them in cinemas, and later on Blu-Rays, and back in cinemas again, many times. The small screen got me to the big one, and it’s doing that with millions of others now – hearing about a film on #filmtok and then heading to the arthouse for repertory cinema. I’d go further and argue that all of those tiny, arthouse films that went straight to streaming back during Covid could be re-released right now and find an audience (I am biased, as I want this to happen for a film I produced, The Outside Story. Did you see it? Thought not.) I just wish some distributors would follow Pixar/Disney and give this a try. 
We’re also currently living in a time where none of the streamers want to buy and show any of the films we want to see anymore (unless you’re A24 who just signed a massive deal with Max, yay for them and us!). And once they land on streaming, none of us can find them, or remember we wanted to see them. Maybe it’s time that more of us put more attention back into the theatrical experience? Not that it’s easy-peasy there, either. Theatrical releases are hard f-n work, just ask any distributor or exhibitor. People are not showing up to them in droves for your average social issue doc (which are often average, as in meh, let’s admit it, as audiences clearly have…). But for the right film, released the right way… and especially when I can’t get it anywhere else, some of those can work. And as I’ve argued elsewhere before, if I had a streaming service that got me reduced admission to theaters and only had arthouse films from them, that’s a service I’d buy into (and I’ve heard rumors someone is building this now). 
What we really need, I think, is just more conversation between exhibitors and distributors – but not just distributors, also with filmmakers directly – about what’s working, what’s not, and what experiments we might try. None of this is news to anyone who attends the Arthouse Convergence, but I think it might be to some others in the biz. And, I think we’d all benefit from more butts in those seats, and getting more and newer audiences into them won’t just help us in the industry, but it might just help us build better communities, which we definitely need today. 

Stuff I'm Reading


Film Is Alive and Well on Letterboxd: Letterboxd, a social media platform where users can share their tastes for films and discover new ones, exploded during the pandemic and now boasts over 10 million accounts. Half their active users are under 35 yrs-old, and over half of those are between 16 and 24 yrs-old. What’s more, the data indicates that users are there to review and learn about older films rather than new releases, supported by the fact that Martin Scorcese, who’s on Letterboxd to share lists of his favorite films, is the most followed account on the platform. J. Kim Murphy for Variety has the news. (GSH) I've been skeptical of Letterboxd's audience and impact in the past, but during Covid, they rocketed into being one of the more important drivers of traffic to film theaters, and to film watching. Kudos to the team. Building a community that works takes time, and they've done it. (BN)

Generative AI in Film & TV Special Report: Now that the writers and actors strikes are over, Hollywood must consider how studios and creators will and should use generative AI models/tools in the many creative processes involved in making film & TV. Variety’s Audrey Schomer cues us in to Variety Intelligence Platform’s special report “Generative AI in Film & TV” which “examines the capabilities and limitations of gen AI models and emerging software through the lens of their present, near-term and future uses in film and television creation…. [and particularly analyzes] the value and usability of this expanding, diverse and powerful set of AI models and tools for tasks in screenwriting, VFX, previsualization, content localization and sound editing.” VIP Variety subscribers can access the special report here. (GSH)

The Unbearable Slowness of the Film Biz: Two items hit this week which indirectly brought up just how painfully slow and inefficient the film biz can be - nothing gets done quick around here. First, in an article for the NYT about Obama's Higher Ground finally getting its footing,  Obama had this to say:“It’s ironic that the private sector is made out to be this hyper-efficient thing, and the government is plodding, slow,” he said. “I think part of it is ideological and part of it is people’s experience with the D.M.V. [...] Everything takes so long — decisions, contracts, scripts,” Mr. Obama said. “We organized a major address or a G20 meeting in three weeks. Getting somebody to read a script in three weeks is lucky, much less write a script in three weeks.” OUCH. We're worse than the government! And then in a WaPo article (readerized) about Ava DuVernay's journey to get Origins made, Guillermo Del Toro had this to say: "“At worst, Hollywood is the land of the slow no,” del Toro said. “And at best, it’s the land of the slow yes. It takes you convincing everybody on board a ship that you need to sail now.” Amen. As James Schamus has always said (as I've heard it) - get to no as quickly as possible. What would it take to get things moving faster? Lord, I wish I knew. (BN)

Branded Content

Surprise, Ads Don’t Work Too Well: A new Association of National Advertisers’ programmatic media supply chain transparency report which analyzed campaign data from 21 major brands finds that top advertisers, to put it bluntly, are wasting their money. Some key findings: (1) Of the $88 billion in open web programmatic ad spend, the ANA estimates that around $22 billion is wasteful and unproductive”; (2) “Only 36 cents of every dollar that enters a demand-side platform reaches a consumer”; (3) “The average campaign among study participants runs on 44,000 websites, although 63% of impressions came from the 500 top websites, by volume of impressions.” The takeaway for brands, as Bill Duggan, ANA group executive vice president and co-author of the report puts it, is “to be curious and to take an active interest in this.” So brands, it’s time to be curious, and actively turn to innovative ways – like branded film & entertainment – of building and reaching core audiences. More details at Catherine Perloff’s piece for Adweek. (GSH)

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

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