View this email in your browser
Sub-Genre Media Newsletter:
Weekly musings on indie film, media, branded content and related items from Brian Newman.

In This Issue

Brian Newman & Sub-Genre Media


Past Newsletters


Keep Up With Brian:


Rumors, Trends, Redefinitions

January 25, 2024

The industry descended on Park City and the rumors started flying. As expected, there were the usual – will things sell, who is buying, are the films any good, is the audience smaller than usual, or bigger, and who the heck is this person I’m hugging who seems to know me so well, and do they have covid? The answers seem to be yes but slowly, everyone but maybe not A24 (?), who knows, I still don’t know and probably. 
Then we had the newer but consistent rumors – will the festival move after their contract ends in 2026? Fest “brass” won’t acknowledge this is even a rumor, which means there’s substance there, and they will yell at me for printing the rumor, but it was in (literally) every conversation I had, and let’s just acknowledge that conversation publicly, shouldn’t we? But I think this one is some self-perpetuating virus of a wish-rumor, just because everyone is sick of paying sky-high rents, but tell me where you’d rather go that wouldn’t end up with the same issues within five years?
That said, and no one will like me for this observation, but I do think we can use Sundance’s history in Utah and the current state of the politics there as solid proof that social impact documentary is not working, can’t we? Before you email me your very solid examples of true impact, just think about that for a bit, because tens if not hundreds of millions of dollars have been spent there and… ok, I’m sounding like Kieran Culkin’s killjoy character, Benji, in A Real Pain at the fest (but… it’s great and sold for $10MM) and this is probably ruining everyone’s vibe, but when I said it at a Sundance dinner with 12 doc people, they had to agree. 
As I was writing this, I received Rebecca Green’s newsletter and she and Megan Gilbride write a piece that goes so far as to propose that Sundance go further than the rumors and transform into an entirely new traveling model. I don’t have time to dive into it and address the good or bad of their piece here, but anyone thinking about the field should at least read it. 
Anyway, back to business. It’s still bad, but maybe it’s moving again, finally? I’m not sure. People put on a very good game face at Sundance and the optimism in so many voices might have been a charade. As Benji kept pointing out in A Real Pain (again) everyone keeps walking around as if nothing is wrong, when everything is really f-d. But as this film also points out, it’s hard to contextualize today’s problems (here, in the business), when history has been much worse. All of that said, there was an air of cautious optimism in the air. There were also a ton of new ideas and projects floating around, most of them trying to solve some part of the crisis in the field. 
Maybe we’ll get lucky, like the protagonists of Skywalkers: A Love Story and manage to climb the shaky heights, get acclaim (and the film seems poised for a big sale, too), overcome all odds and live to see another day and climb to newer heights. But there’s a scene in that same film where you learn the dismal fate of many of their former crew of rooftoppers – only a few scale those heights and survive. I think that’s gonna be true in our business as well. I am not sure how many of the people I met with at Sundance who had great news to report and fantastic new ideas will be around to tell me about them in 2026 when we learn for real about what happens with Sundance, too.
But some folks will survive and thrive by getting creative. Perhaps they’ll rethink the definition of success in film distribution in a similar manner to Slamdance, who had to look hard at the definition of what makes a sign (as in signage marking their HQ at the Yarrow, see the photo above), when Park City had an ordinance forbidding signs of any competing fests to the main show (they had been grandfathered in at their old HQ of the Treasure Mountain Inn), couldn’t get a waiver from anyone in power anywhere, and they figured out that a work of art didn’t fit the definition of “a sign” and got an artistic banner up at the Yarrow at the last minute. That’s the kind of ingenuity we’re gonna need to truly survive and thrive in the next few years. We can’t give up just because of the Rules of the Game being stacked against us. Rethink the rules, get creative, focus on the art, and there’s an alternate win to be had
Three things stood out to me at this year’s fest, but in a way, all three were about the same thing. One was TikTok hosting a panel to explain to all of us old folks how they might be used to save the business. I had to miss the panel, and heard it was mainly focused on the folks Paramount had paid to do some posting, but also heard this was because that was the easiest entrée for most people who aren’t native to its usage. And let’s just say that most of the film world is not native to the platform! What they seemed to be telling folks offline was – y’all better up your game here, before it’s too late. That’s what I also told a bunch of folks at a side event – go to where the audience is, and right now, that’s TikTok and Letterboxd (more on this below). Only two of my film friends attended the panel – both are over 50, but care about cultivating audiences and meeting them where they’re at. Shouldn’t that be all of us? 
The second was hanging out with someone from Letterboxd – and seeing the data behind the scenes. I can’t quote numbers here, but let’s just say that a shit-ton of people around the world are already adding this year’s Sundance films to their watchlists, just based on the buzz from Sundance and the press/reviews. These are audiences that can be tapped into easily, and it’s data that distributors and marketers would/should pay for, but… they are smartly staying focused on building a better product for their core audience and not for the business users. This focus on what the audience wants and needs, versus what the business wants is something else we could learn from in our field. And the fact that so many people were adding Sundance titles to their Watchlist from afar (we’re talking massive numbers, 6 figures or more by now) also disproves the many pet theories that no one outside of the industry is following what happens at Sundance. My parents and friends, no. True cinephiles, yes.
And that brings me to the third trend that stood out at this fest – albeit from a much smaller group of people – but some folks are waking up to the fact that it’s all about the audience. You’ve got to care about your audience. We need to cultivate audiences, especially the younger ones who are showing up again at theaters, and probably because they came there after hearing about something on TikTok and/or Letterboxd, or just through word of mouth. A few people talked about ways to build loyalty here. Most of those folks were just thinking about old-fashioned loyalty programs, but a few were going the next step and thinking about how to reward them in newer ways – for watching, for sharing, or even turning them into part owners in an artist or a film’s success. When conversations were had (at many places) about the future, and the best ideas presented in the room seemed to be that we just needed more billionaires or brands to come save us (they won’t), at least one person would point out that we needed to shift our attention from that dream and back towards our audience(s). As I’ve been writing here for months, that’s also what Angel Studios did, and I still had to explain who they were , and what’s so smart about what they do, to almost everyone I met.
I could probably list about twenty other insights from this year’s festival, and have written and deleted at least four other observations, because I just don’t have the distance yet from the experience to really give you more take-aways, yet. And guess what – the festival is still going. In person and online, and I have a full queue of Sundance titles to watch (Slamdance is also online), and that should be more fun that writing about this business we call film. I just wish more people could do the watching without being insiders with access and an expense account. 

Stuff I'm Reading

Film Distribution in Crisis - My Talk with FilmShop for their Luminary Awards: I'm honored to be named a "Luminary" by the folks at FilmShop (not sure what that means, but it sounds cool). And On Feb 8th, I'll be giving a talk on the state of the biz, the crisis in distribution (or as I've said, it's really in marketing), and more. I'll also be advising four filmmakers on their current projects. The entire event takes place Thursday, Feb 8th at the National Opera Center in NYC, from 7-830p. The tickets are cheap and benefit the organization. You can get more info and tickets here and this link gets my readers a $5 discount! (BN)

What's At Risk in the Streaming Media Age: My good friend and former head of the Sundance Institute, Keri Putnam, just published this excellent piece over at the Shorenstein Center at Harvard. Keri's been studying the field on a Fellowship there, and (I think) this is just the beginnings of a much bigger project she's working on about the state of the field. The piece dropped during Sundance, and I'm just now catching up to it, and will likely have more to say about it soon. But the quick takeaways - Putnam identifies the major problems in our sector: the great consolidation; the downturn in what streamers buy, and their appetite for politics and risk (zero); the risk that we'll lose important fiction and doc filmmakers (and their films); and how hard it is to find this stuff in a sea of content. She identifies some general areas of great opportunity as well, including: public media; the possibility for more regulation of the sector (as other countries have done and it's not a pipe dream); and most importantly, entrepreneurial innovation. Give the report a read at the link here - it's well worth it. (BN)

Portrait Creative Network Launches New Tools For Sundance: With their launch of new tools on their app, Portrait Creative Network allowed industry pros to see which phone contacts were at Sundance, browse industry attendees, look up Sundance filmmakers, swap contact info, and set meetings. They also made it easier to delineate P&I screenings from public screenings on your phone (a feature I requested (BN)). Portrait was an official partner of Deadline and Sundance this year and threw member parties to celebrate the 70% of Sundance films made by Portrait members - and lines were down the block. Request an invite and join Portrait here for future fests (I also have codes for readers)! (GSH/BN)

The Streaming War Gets Messier: “Just like many of us are experiencing hybrid work, we are also experiencing hybrid television (Mike Proulx, vice president and research director at Forrester).” HBO is now streaming live news from CNN, Disney is bringing its streaming-only series “Only Murders in the Building” to ABC, and Paramount rebranded Showtime’s linear channel as Paramount+With Showtime but won’t include all of Paramount+’s offerings. Industry experts, according to Bill Bradley’s Adweek piece say SVOD is already a thing of the past, evidenced by streamers raising ad-free prices and pushing viewers to ad-supported plans. 2024 will see a “blurring of lines between linear, digital, and streaming which will lead to creative ways of bundling and re-bundling premium video, which will transform the TV industry (Marianne Gambelli, president of ad sales at Fox Corp.).” And Gen. AI will start to actually be implemented into creative processes, rather than just being talked about. The takeaway: “The cable TV ad-supported paradigms of the past are the way of the future (Bradley).” “What changes at the end of this transition is simply the delivery mechanism (Proulx).” (GSH)

Branded Content
Quick Take on Brands and Film from BrandStorytelling and Park City: In addition to my takeaways i the main piece above, the other thing I noticed in Park City, was the rise in interest in brands funding films – in ways both good and bad – and the way many brands are “upping their game” in this space. On the plus side, I always attend the BrandStorytelling Conference, which takes place up in Deer Valley at the same time as the main festivities. It’s a great gathering of about 400 people active in this space – brands, filmmakers, agencies and other partners. They show some of the best work of the year, have panels and great networking. But it wasn’t what was on the stage or the screen that excited me most. Instead, it was the conversations I had with more than a handful of the brand reps there who are shifting their focus to financing even better-quality films – the kinds being played down the hill at Sundance (they’ve programmed brand financed films too, btw). More brand folks than usual were talking to me about meeting good filmmakers and looking at awesome projects. Or they’re already developing good ones with amazing folks. And a few people are also now building better ways to show the impact of this type of work, and are building metrics to prove it works. This continued maturation of the field is great (that said, no, don’t email me with your pitch for a project that needs a brand. I can’t help.)
On the bad side… I heard more than one person and/or groups of persons talking about how what we need is just more brands to help save the field (along with some more billionaires). And there was a very real sense of filmmakers increasingly hoping that brands would fund their films not because they even really fit with a brand, but just because they need money from somewhere, and they’ll take it from anywhere. That is not the solution, folks. It won’t happen. It's not what brands want to do, and it’s not their interest or concern. And it’s also not what any of us should want, either. When I was hearing most of these proposals, it just reminded me of how Hollywood and Indiewood have always worked – finding the next person to fleece. This stuff only works well when it’s a collaboration, with bigger goals in mind (artistically, impact-related and/or values adjacent), and if you are just looking for a big pot of money – or to just sell a product on the brand side – it almost always fails. Yes, some good things are happening here, but this won’t be what saves our sector. More on this subject soon. (BN)

Counternarrative: 2023 Was Really Bad Year For Gaming: With a slate of new software and hardware releases, with gaming ecosystems becoming massively popular (Roblox boasted 70 million users in Q3 of 2023), with streaming giants like Netflix looking to evolve its gaming offering, and with movies based on games smashing box offices (Super Mario Bros movie grossed $1.4 billion worldwide), observers and gamers alike would think that 2023 was one of the best, if not the best year for the gaming industry. But Matthew Ball writes an article underscoring all the reasons why 2023 was brutal for the industry. Here’re a few points Ball makes that stood out to me: (1) A record of 10,500 game developers, artists, testers, and other employees were laid off in 2023; (2) Video game revenues are actually falling. U.S. gaming revenues in 2023 are 2.1% under 2022, 14.3% under 2021, and 13.6% under 2020; (3) Though one of the clearest ways to expand the gaming market is to introduce a new device type, VR/AR headset sales fell 8.3% in 2023, a year after sales fell almost 21%; (4) the industry is seeing a stagnation in core/mid-core/hardocre mobile games; (5) “Gaming’s ossification creates a vicious cycle – studios don’t take (or are sometimes punished for) risk-taking, which means less innovation in mechanics, and less likelihood of expanding the market…”. But Ball does give multiple reasons why gaming will bounce back after a rough year, one of those being the adoption of Generative AI: Though the ethics, laws, optics, and compensation is all hazy, Ball says Gen. AI  innovations will become essential in improving competition in the sector. (GSH)

TikTok News: Threatening YouTube & Killing Doomscrolling: TikTok began testing the ability for users to upload 30-minute videos, a stark move away from the short-form video format that made it such a hit. Read about it at Aisha Malik’s piece for Techcrunch. My take: TikTok’s threatening of YouTube with long-form videos is an indicator that our experience between apps online will become more and more homogenous… which will honestly make the internet a boring place, until the new/next TikTok comes around and shakes things up a bit. In other TikTok news, TikTok is about to kill doomscrolling (the tendency to endlessly and often painfully scroll through your feed with no end in sight) with…wait for it… auto scrolling (you’ll never have to lift a finger for that next bump of content)! The auto scroll feature is available for select users and will eventually hit everyone’s screen. In all seriousness, similar to a slot machine, “flipping up on the screen with your thumb – gives you a dopamine hit (John Brandon, Forbes),” which apparently auto-scrolling minimizes. Brandon’s takeaway: “This automated scrolling feature might be a step in the wrong direction. When we don’t have to do anything… our brains lapse into fatigue. We want to escape… My hope is that features like auto-scrolling….We’ll finally wake up and realize we’ve become mindless zombies” (just like in WALL-E). More detail in his Forbes article. (GSH)

The Future Of Fiction Is (still) Human, Survey Finds: Check out Rob Salkowitz’ piece for Forbes for a summary of the new “Future of Fiction” survey conducted by Wakefield Research and released by online storytelling platform Wattpad. In short, the findings illuminate the power that GenZ and Millennials have in driving reading habits, especially as AI storytelling enters the mainstream. A few points that grabbed my attention: (1) “65% of Gen Z and 71% of Millennials embrace webnovels, e-books and webcomics, while less than half of the Gen X and Boomer generations say the same”; (2) “90% agreed that storytelling technologies will shape the future of reading, but 92% think it is important that humans be involved in writing and producing books”; (3) “43% [of authors] are concerned AI could limit their monetization and publishing opportunities”; (4)  23% [of authors worry] that AI could undermine sensitivity reading to ensure cultural accuracy and respect in stories; (5) Readers of all ages vastly prefer human recommendations to algorithmic curation (80% to 20%). (GSH)

GSH = Articles written by Sub-Genre's Gabriel Schillinger-Hyman, not Brian Newman (BN)
Like This Newsletter? Subscribe & Past Issues
Copyright © 2024 Brian Newman, All rights reserved.

Want to change how you receive these emails?
You can update your preferences or unsubscribe from this list.