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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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Zooming Out:
To the Bigger Picture

February 1, 2024

Everyone has done their Sundance wrap-up reports, and I’ve even done mine last week, but my mind is still circling back to more take-aways on the state of the field this week. It takes that long to recover from Sundance. Half of everyone I know got sick, and was literally recovering. I am multi-vaccinated and (gasp) wore my mask often, and got lucky, so my recovery was mainly from the whirlwind that is trying to absorb all the films, meetings, random encounters and gossip from the fest. 
Post fest, I keep coming back to a few core themes that I think we need to address as a field for long-term success. 
1. There’s too much distrust, and even animosity, under the surface between the core people in the arthouse film “community” (can we even call it that??) – probably with everyone, but definitely between filmmakers, distributors, exhibitors and festivals, sales agents and the various funders of film (foundations, donors, investors). Each feels burned in some way by the others, and this is leading us into too many siloes. This isn’t new, but it felt stronger than in years past (a pandemic followed by the (justified) strikes contributed to this). 
Just two examples – in one conversation, a distributor said the solution to all of our problems was to teach exhibitors how to do their job and do better at reaching audiences. The exhibitors responded that distributors were pushing all the work on them, and not doing their job. And if you go over to the (wonderful) new Distribution Advocates podcast (see below), it’s clear that filmmakers feel ripped off by their sales agents, and their distributors, and don’t even know the exhibitors. This is an age-old problem, but in light of just how big our problems are, perhaps we should get on the same page that all of us need a big solution, and we ultimately do have the same primary goal (don’t we?) – to get films seen by audiences, and hopefully make a living while doing it.

2. This stems from a lack of communication between these actors. While all of us are getting tired of being on multiple zoom calls, panel discussions and open and closed door sessions on the state of the field, they remain necessary (albeit, in need of improved formats), because we desperately need more communication between all of these groups if we want to…. Solve the problems mentioned above.

3. This is also due to a lack of education on the business aspects of the film biz. No one really knows what anyone else does, it would seem. Most importantly, and in theory solvable, is that filmmakers don’t know enough about what happens to their films (or could happen to them, good or bad) after they make them. Here again, the Distribution Advocates podcast might help a bit, but it’s a greater need for the sector as a whole. There’s always been a debate about how much of the biz vs. the art should be taught by film schools, but it’s getting beyond embarrassing and into criminal territory that so many graduates are going into this much debt without having a clue how festivals, or sales, or distribution works- and right now, how those things aren’t working and shouldn’t be part of their dreams for their films. But I’m not just picking on filmmakers here, as everyone else has things to learn - Funders need to learn more about the real needs of artists and the realities of the business, too. Brands need to learn how both work as they continue to move into this space. Agents need to understand what brands and funders want, because it’s impacting deals and terms. The list goes on.  

4. We also need more community building and more collaboration, both of which come from solving for communication and education and will only happen if we build more trust. Luckily, the field seems to be coming together on this, and is starting to understand that we need more of both. As I said above, while it can seem our goals are sometimes not just different, but opposed, our core goals and issues are pretty similar. And as I’ll explain more below, our more existential crises are definitely not going to be solved without a stronger community, collaborating for change.  

5.There’s also an ongoing need for access between the filmmakers and the gatekeepers, especially when it comes to DEI. This one seems almost unsolvable, as we’ve been talking about it and trying to address it for a long time. And in a world where over 17,000 films submitted to Sundance alone this year, you can understand a bit of reticence on the part of the gatekeepers to making themselves any more accessible to the masses, lest they be overwhelmed – and trust me, while I am sure your film/pitch/work is wonderful, most of what’s bursting through the dam is not.   

That said, when I spoke on a panel about brands and film, Samia Khan-Bambrah – an award-winning filmmaker who I’ve worked with on a brand project, asked us how the heck she gets her work in front of brands if she doesn’t know me? (and I pointed out, I probably can’t help, either) And when I posted a show-reel recently of my company’s recent work, Cynthia Wade correctly pointed out that there was a distinct gender disparity in the work being made by brands that needs to be fixed (we are trying here at Sub-Genre, FWIW). This is also true of the film world more broadly, and it continues to be especially true when it comes to the lack of diversity in every sector of film – not just behind the lens and in the stories, but in the ranks of all of the gatekeepers. What we don’t need is another mentorship, training, contest or other gimmick – we’ve had plenty of those, and the talent is already out there, just waiting. What we need are better mechanisms to truly open the doors and provide more communication and access between the decision makers and those not in their ranks. I don’t have that solution here, but lots of other people probably do. 

6. A good focus on near-term solutions, but not enough long-term thinking on (or visions for) the big picture. Little by little, we’re starting to solve for the problems in the market. People are coming up with new distribution, marketing and audience building business plans. Others are figuring out how to measure the impact of this stuff. We’re even quantifying and speaking to (if not yet really solving) that access issue. But we’re not so good at seeing the forest for the trees. Sure, we might find a new funding source for our film, or find a creative collaboration to make sure some group of films gets distributed and have some form of cultural or societal impact.   

But step back a bit, and… democracy is at stake, globally, in ways most of us haven’t seen in quite some time. This is also tied to a concerted attack, around the world, on public media, news, and outlets for alternative voices. Couple that with the rise in disinformation and complete fakes, and a bifurcationblowing-up of anything resembling shared values or concepts of truth and reality. Then throw in a mix of a gargantuan mergers and consolidation, and the quest for subscribers, ratings, and now (once again) advertising dollars – and the accompanying need for more eyeballs, which leads to a general dumbing down of what gets distributed at all anymore, before you even look at outright censorship, and well… not a pretty picture we’re facing. The stakes are much bigger than whether your indie coming of age story, or your hard-hitting exposé of corruption, finds a buyer. We need to be thinking bigger not just to save our investors, but to save… ourselves from ourselves, I guess.
Or, to take a less depressing, dramatic fact – what’s happening in artificial intelligence is a much bigger opportunity and threat to everything we know about the art and the business of storytelling than any of the conversations we seem to be having at the bargaining tables and the festival panels. It will likely make the streaming wars a blip in our media history – those tiny moments before the colossal behemoths collapsed under the weight of their own stupidity, trying to use AI to “only” reinvent their algorithms, while others were building entirely new artforms and business models that bypassed these systems, and built new, even bigger ones. Ones that will undoubtedly start (like all technologies) as a liberating force for creativity, before consolidating again into a one-way monopoly of our art in terms of commerce – but hey, it’s gonna be a lot more fun than arguing over whether we need a new Netflix for indie films. Merge what’s happening in AI with what’s happening at Neuralink, along with what’s happening in Web3 (for lack of a better term), along with what’s happening with VR/AR, virtual production and so on, and things start to get interesting. Throw that in with our dystopian political future (seeming… I am optimistic that the dystopias are all coming from people in their death throes, their last gasp, so to speak), and… not so pretty. We all need to be thinking bigger (me included, obvs).

7. But to bring it down a notch, we also need more story-telling about the good things that are happening, even when on a smaller scale. This came up on the Sundance/Redford Center panel I spoke on at the festival. People speak about having climate fatigue – buyers at the streamers tell us that audiences don’t want these depressing stories, etc. etc. But the reality is, people aren’t fatigued with climate stories, they’re fatigued with depressing stories, and that’s exactly what the “other side” wants us to do – get fatigued, and not talk about all of the good stories. This is true on multiple other subjects, because we’re winning, but we need to tell that story better.  

But often these good things come on a smaller scale, so if we’re thinking too big (like I was in #6 just now), you can miss the trees for the forest, instead. I was reminded of this when one of my readers chastised me (gently) for saying last week that impact films clearly weren’t working. For the record, I was saying that in the context of – we’ve played them in Park City for 40 years now, and nothing has changed for the better in Utah’s politics. But as this reader pointed out to me: people often expect too much from any one film and then say these things don’t work, but “are we mad at the Band-Aid we put on the amputated arm for not saving the patient -- if we applied no other life-saving measures?” One film is just “one important part of a larger ecosystem of people and organizations working on solving that problem.” They’re right, but we need to disseminate these little stories of success more broadly. Not just for impact films, either, but all the little successes, because in aggregate, they add up to a lot of good going on between all of the bad.
And that, in the end, is the story from Sundance. The picture is bright, but only if you step back and look at the sum of many disparate parts, and only if we continue to put a lot of work into assembling the pieces of this puzzle to solve for the bigger picture.

Stuff I'm Reading

Distribution Advocates Presents Podcast Launched: The good folks at Distribution Advocates just launched the first two episodes of their new podcast this week, and it's already sounding pretty good. Hosted by Avril Speaks, the podcast "demystifies the world of independent film distribution with honest insider stories. How can we better understand what’s happening to the ecosystem and start to create more equitable distribution systems moving forward? This series of conversations examines concerning practices in the industry and explores innovative and sustainable solutions." Episode one is about sales agents... quite a starter topic, and episode two is about Awards campaigns (which do I hate more???). Find all of the episodes and more info here. (BN)

Young Moviegoers Are Coming Back: As reported here many times before, people are reclaiming cinema. Pre-Covid, art house films relied on older moviegoers to do well at the box office. “But that relationship collapsed during the COVID-19 crisis and has yet to be fully restored,” writes Pamela McClintock for The Hollywood Reporter. But recently, 18-35 year-olds have been turning out to theaters for arthouse movies in numbers that resemble the early 2000s, according to Lissa Bunnell (president of distribution at Focus Features). A few examples: (1) 70% of opening week ticket buyers for “Poor Things” were under 35; (2) Over 60% of opening weekend ticket buyers for “Iron Claw” were under 35, including a large chunk between ages 18-24; (3) Over 40% of opening weekend ticket buyers for “The Holdovers” were under 35. All of these movies were box office successes. Why the uptick in young cinephile moviegoers? First, streaming is offering less and less at higher rates. Second, loyalty programs offered by the big circuits make going to the movies less cost-prohibitive and some theaters (like the Alamo Drafthouse) are good at creating community. Third, going to the movies is “partly a nostalgia thing, like coming back to records (Neon distribution chief Elissa Federoff).” Check out the full article here for the details. (GSH)

Open Call For Creatives: Long Story Short 2024: Filmmakers, start planning for Long Story Short, Kickstarter’s annual celebration of short films! Whether you’re established or emerging, working in narrative, animation, or documentary, this is the time to launch a short film campaign. Between now and March 2024, Kickstarter will share resources for short-form filmmakers. Then, in March, they’ll promote shorts in Kickstarter newsletters, on social media, and more. How to get involved: (1) Create a short film on Kickstarter and select “Shorts” as your subcategory; (2) Launch your project anytime between March 1 and 31, 2024; (3) Read the guide for tips and best practices for running a campaign. (GSH)

Film Distribution in Crisis - My Talk with FilmShop for their Luminary Awards: As mentioned last week, 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)

Branded Content
Nike, A Formidable Player in Brand-Funded Films: “Sue Bird: In the Clutch” is a documentary that premiered at Sundance and will soon be available on Netflix. Backed by Nike’s 3-year-old production arm Waffle Iron Entertainment and directed by Sarah Dowland, the doc explores WNBA star Sue Birds’ life on and off the court. Business Insider’s Lucia Moses explains that  “the doc is in line with how Netflix has been leaning into sports-related programming and popular TV shows that can increase engagement and build its ads business. At the same time, it's cutting back on its original film output.” Check out Moses’ full article here. (GSH)

The BrandStorytelling Awards: Alongside Sundance, BrandStorytelling (a sanctioned event) hosted its annual conference and awards. This is the best conference in the brands funding films space, and it was a stellar event as expected. Head over to their official site here for an update on what took place, and who took home the awards. Special shout-out to our client (but not for this film) John Deere, who won the Jury Award for Eternal Polk's Gaining Ground: The Fight for Black Land, produced by Al Roker Entertainment. Eternal is an awesome filmmaker and friend, and the entire team is well deserving of this award. And kudos as well to all of the other award-winning films and teams - lots of great stuff. (BN)

Content Creators are at the Center of The Golden Globes: Through a carefully crafted choreography with content creators and extremely quick-working post-production editors, Dick Clark Productions reimagined how to cover the Golden Globe Awards. They partnered with a variety of content creators with large followings including Matt Friend who shared his candid impression of Paul Giammatti backstage for Paul himself.” Like Friend, other creators had extremely quick turnarounds with their videos (some shared over 50 clips in just a handful of hours on their social media channels). And the strategy paid off: In the first two days after the show, the Golden Globes drove over 130 million views on their TikTok, 120 million on Instagram Reels, and 10 million on X. The Awards saw a 50% increase in viewership and their TikTok following grew by over 85%. The takeaway is, as Jeremy Lowe (Dick Clark Prod. VP) puts it, “award shows and red carpets have become ‘content playgrounds’…. Creators will continue to be part of red carpets.” Jon Youshaei for Forbes has the story (full article here). (GSH) (BN: this felt more like branded content than film, but also newsworthy, unlike most Globes press.)


Universal Music Group Pulls Its Music From TikTok at Midnight, Jan 31: Universal Music Group plans to stop licensing content to TikTok and its music-focused service TikTok Music. The label accused TikTik of trying to build a “music-based business without paying fair value for [artists’] music.” TikTok replied with, “Universal Music Group has put their own greed above the interests of their artists and songwriters…. [UMG has] chosen to walk away from the powerful support of a platform… that serves as a free promotional and discovery vehicle for their talent…” Meanwhile, TikTok is experimenting with an “AI Song” feature that uses AI to compose songs based on user prompts. Kyle Wiggers for TechCrunch has the story. (GSH)

AI Combats Election Misinformation: How does OpenAI plan to combat election misinformation? Altman’s company has been updating their policies to address the issue which Alex Cranz nicely summarizes in her piece for The Verge: (1) “OpenAI tool users and makers are now forbidden from using OpenAI’s tools to impersonate candidates or local governments”; (2) Users cannot use OpenAI’s tools for campaigns or lobbying; (3) Users are not permitted to use OpenAI tools to discourage voting or misrepresent the voting process; (4) OpenAI plans to incorporate the Coalition for Content Provenance and Authenticity’s (C2PA) digital credentials into images generated by Dall-E “early this year” which would make it much easier to identify AI generated images; (5) Open AI will direct voting questions in the U.S. to Sounds decent, no? Ehh… the catch is that all these tools are still just being rolled out (who knows when they’ll be ready and fool-proof), and their success is still heavily dependent on users reporting bad actors. So, come election season, embrace media literacy and don’t rely on ChatGPT to save democracy! (GSH)

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