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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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February 8, 2024

Oh boy, the bullshit meter has been registering new highs in every conversation this week, as person after person has told me they’re so happy the market for films (especially documentaries) is back, based on Sundance sales. I imagine many a producer is busy adding the sales titles to their comps slides of their fundraising decks right now. “My little indie is gonna sell for $15 Million because that’s what happened to X film at Sundance this year.” Sure thing. But look closer at the line-up and what sold, and what didn’t, and three things were very clear this year – the market wants big, commercially appealing projects, filmmakers knew that and were making films for this market, and Sundance’s programmers were happy to oblige. 
It's not much of a surprise that films like “Super/Man” or “Skywalkers: A Love Story” sold for top dollars. Not much surprise behind a Will Ferrell doc about “friendship and acceptance” selling either. I have nothing against these films, and liked all of the ones I saw just as much as the audience around me seemed to, but not a single sales title was surprising, and none were not commercial and “big” for lack of a better word. When I brought this up to people, they would routinely bring up “Ibelin” as a surprise, but every person who saw it cried, and then told everyone else to see it… its hopeful, inspiring message is exactly what buyers (especially streamers) want right now. 
Meanwhile, look at what hasn’t sold yet. I don’t want to call out any titles by name, and maybe we’ll truly get surprised and more of these will get picked up soon, but there are plenty of other good films that didn’t sell, and most of them would fall into the bucket of artistic, but less commercial, or more challenging. Or smaller, and nice, but not big and not commercial. 
That, to me, is no surprise. In this market, you make and buy sure-fire hits, and no one can fault anyone for going that route. And to be fair, many of these films were started long before the “crisis” in the marketplace, and just happened to come out at the perfect moment. But I’d also argue that the market was telegraphing this shift for several years. As in since about 2016, when daily life for everyone in America took a turn to where no one could stomach anything too challenging after a day of news (and America is where most of the buyers are who are setting the tone for the rest of the world, unfortunately). Give us fun, give us horror (escape), give us a reason to cry or be in suspense. Give us beautiful young people hanging from the edges of skyscrapers, but don’t bother us too much with the politics of how they ended up trying to make a living from posting these images on Instagram (the main critique of Skywalkers, but for the record, I enjoyed it). 
There’s a time and place for everything, but right now is not the time for anything too small, too challenging, too black & white (likely holding back the sale of Gaucho, Gaucho which is “big” in many other ways), or too verité (which confused critics of Union). There’s a lesson here for all filmmakers, and anyone affiliated in the space – funders/investors, brands moving into film, producers, programmers, etc. – go big or go home. If you want to succeed in today’s market, nice is not good enough. You can fight against that message, but your options for reaching audiences through the current “gate-keepers” will be severely limited. Of course, sometime in the future, someone will come up with something genius that bucks these trends and starts a new conversation about what works, but I don’t see that happening anytime soon. So, for now, if you feel remotely like you’re stretching the truth when running those comps, put that project aside for a year or two, and focus on the ones that fit the market, because this is a market that rewards those who give it exactly what it wants. 
Does that go against your artistic instincts (or any artist’s instincts)? Is it bad for the long-term health of the art? Perhaps. Ok, definitely. But that’s the state of the field right now, and those who have figured it out aren’t writing newsletters complaining about much of anything, except perhaps of having too much success. 

Stuff I'm Reading

Michael Litwak’s Social Media & Distribution Lessons For Filmmakers in 2024: Check out filmmaker (and regular reader) Michael Litwak’s newsletter for how he and the team behind the movie “Molli and Max in the Future” leveraged BTS footage and creator tools offered by TikTok and Instagram to increase buzz around the distribution of their film… all with zero Ad-spend. While Litwak acknowledges that the many hours of work that went into creating ancillary footage and navigating complex and mysterious social media algorithms “was all done on my own time and unpaid, I think that one concrete thing that distributors could do is to spend some of their Ad money actually hiring the filmmakers themselves to create ancillary content for their own movies.” A “hybrid approach,” (where a distributor handles stuff like booking theaters…etc, but where the film team is heavily involved in the marketing push for the film) “is somewhat of a happy medium between self-distribution and “let them handle it all” distribution,” Litwak writes. Watch How We Built a Miniature Sci-Fi City In My Living Room! as an example of ancillary footage for the release of “Molli and Max in the Future.” The film hits theaters (limited release) February 9th. (GSH)

A24 Distribution Exec Joins Metrograph Pictures & Other Arthouse Film News: It’s only February and already there’s a lot of new activity in the specialized arthouse film space. For one, David Laub, a distribution exec from A24 is joining Metrograph as head of Metrograph Pictures. A label that’s mainly focused on restorations of classic films, Metrograph Pictures plans to release 10 new films a year. Jill Goldsmith for Deadline has the news. Furthermore, streaming and distributing giant Mubi recently acquired Amsterdam and Brussels-based distributor, Cineart (“The Whale”, “Slumdog Millionaire”...etc). Led by Marc Smit and Stephan De Potter, Cineart releases independent films across Benelux. Tim Dams for “ScreenDaily” has the news. (GSH) I think we'll be seeing a lot of interesting new distribution efforts in 2024, as well as more mergers and investments like these. (BN)


“RLHF, like parenting, is an art rather than a science.”: Rob Toews for Forbes asks the question, “as AI gets more powerful, how can we make sure that it reliably acts the way that we want it to?” The answer lies, in part,  in a technology known as Reinforcement Learning from Human Feedback (RLHF). RLHF, Toews writes, is what made ChatGPT such a success (RLHF made it approachable, easy to talk to, good at following directions, helpful…etc.). But for reasons carefully detailed in the article, the mechanics that power RLHF are very complex and take a long time. That’s why Direct Preference Optimization (DPO), a new technique for creating reliable AI that essentially removes the “RL” from RLHF, is on the rise. This is a super dense read (if you’re afraid of acronyms stay away) that when distilled, is essentially about “how to instill values in strange, alien, human-level intelligences who will inevitably inherit the reins of society from us—namely, our kids (Brian Christian, author of The Alignment Problem).”  (GSH)

Mixed Reality Growing Pains: The Apple Vision Pro, just released, brings a lot of attention to the possibilities of mixed reality (the merging of the real-world environment with a computer generated one). If it becomes dominant, it’ll change how we see the world. Adam Clark Estes for Vox cites Stanford researchers who found that (1) the cameras introduced distortion; (2) People nearby can become invisible due to a narrowing of the wearer’s peripheral vision; (3) After taking the goggles off, it took time for their brains to return to normal – distances were hard to judge and many reported nausea, dizziness, and headache; (4) “People in the real world simply felt less real.... Being in public could sometimes feel more like watching TV.” The takeaway: Mixed Reality tech is still an experiment and there are always going to be inevitable growing pains when new tech is introduced to the masses. “But the situation might be temporary…. it wasn’t that long ago when wireless earbuds, including Apple AirPods, meant that people were standing on street corners seemingly talking to no one (Estes).” Check out the full article here. (GSH)

Is Opting Out Of AI Generators An Option?: “The pervasive nature of [AI generated imagery] seems especially egregious to creators who are fighting to stop their works from being used, without consent or compensation, to improve the very thing that threatens to disrupt their careers and livelihoods.” That’s why tools like Glaze and Nightshade are being developed (and why perfecting them is incredibly important to many creators). Jess Weatherbed for “The Verge” explains, Glaze “works as a kind of cloak, making [invisible to human] pixel-level changes to images that confuse AI software trying to read them” and Nightshade is “intended to “poison” generative AI models that train on them, sabotaging the outputs for text prompts” (i.e. Nightshade might replace a creators’ image of dogs with cars). It’s true that a handful of AI companies like OpenAI and Meta AI models provide creators with ways (like filling out a very simple form) to opt their work out from Generative AI training datasets. But these AI company-offered “solutions” have so many holes in them that some artists feel like it’s all “just a fake PR stunt to make it look like they were actually trying to do something (Bethany Berg, conceptual artist).” TBD on when tools like Glaze and Nightshade will become available for other forms of media like music, audio, and writing. Find the full article here for much more detail. (GSH)

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