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:


A Distinct Chill in the Air

February 15, 2024

There’s a distinct chill in the media air as of late. Have you felt it? Been talking about it with others, and wondering when more people will wake up to it? I sure have, and in fact, I feel like nearly every day, I have a conversation with someone about this chill, and how the crisis we’re facing is much bigger than distribution or marketing, and gets closer to the nature of democracy, but no one seems to be having the conversation more publicly. What the heck  am I talking about, exactly?
Well, I brought it up a few weeks ago in the newsletter, when I wrote this:
“… 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 bifurcation blowing-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.”
Take a look around – my take here is going to be a bit US-centric (as always, sorry), but politics are not getting any better. Let’s leave aside for a moment what might happen in November, we – on the left – are losing major battles even with Biden in office. You’ve got a Congress that will burn the Government to the ground just to score juvenile points. You’ve got anti-DEI, anti-ESG, anti-women, anti-trans, anti – anything serious movements afoot. There’s a major attack on academic freedom, there’s a ban on books, and attacks on pretty much anything progressive in the world. These attacks aren’t new, but they are much more coordinated, and are going to another level – Republican lawmakers pulling their state pension funds out of Blackrock for even mentioning things like ESG, for example. I could name a hundred more examples, without even getting into the politics of the Middle East and how that’s contributing to all of this, but I think you get my point. The bigger issue is – this is leading to pervasive censorship of a multitude of voices and ideas at a level not seen in the US in my lifetime.  And again, that’s just the US. Look around the world, and many places have it worse (as always), but we could pay special attention to India, Russia, Poland, the list goes on. Hell, where can’t we look for similar issues. 
Take, for example, what just happened at the Berlinale in the past month. The co-directors of the fest invited the far-right AfD to attend the opening, then everyone freaked out about it, protests occurred, the leaders said their hands were forced, and then that they weren’t, and then they rescinded the invites. But not without more controversy. Deadline isn’t exactly a bastion of in-depth reporting, but did a pretty good job summarizing the kerfuffle here –  you can’t even hold a film festival anymore without right-wing politics forcing its way into the conversation. Just read this chilling part from Deadline: “During the interview, Rissenbeek (the admin head of the Berlinale) […] appeared to suggest it would be unwise for the festival to position itself against the AfD because they don’t know which direction German politics may turn in the future. “To act politically as a festival now, especially in times where you don’t know where politics is heading, is also very dangerous,” she told the network.” Wow (and emphasis mine). What’s scary is I can imagine this same fight, and capitulation, happening at numerous other festivals around the world – in fact, I am sure it’s happening now in many countries, and it is probably happening in many US states, and could soon happen at the national level here, too. And, she’s correct in one sense, while being wrong in the historic or moral sense.
It gets worse. I’ve now heard a rumor, twice, that one major streamer/studio is going to stop allowing credits that mention foundation funding, because they don’t want the political backlash of having programming that is funded by the seemingly “leftist” foundation world. I heard one version of this rumor that said they might not even take films that had been funded this way. Given how many documentaries, and increasingly narratives (seen Origin anyone?) are funded by foundations, this could become a big problem. 
And most filmmakers have always been worried about brand credits getting in the way of their distribution (we like dead capitalist’s funding, but not living ones, it seems). Well, now you might have an easier time with a brand funding your film than a liberal foundation or donor. I’m a proponent of brands funding films – it’s how I make my living – but we don’t want to live in a world where that’s the only acceptable (non-equity or studio) funding, and definitely don’t want to be in one that excludes foundation funding. Or one where foundations start limiting what they fund because it might not get distributed anyway – which is a separate danger in this commercial marketplace already. Brands will fund safe controversies, but not real ones. Streamers will fund serial killer exposés, but not in-depth reporting. Where does this lead? I think we know. 
Oh, and we’re not even half-way through all of the bad stuff yet. For every friend I have who is pushing for more funding for PBS (and ITVS, etc.) as a solution to these problems, there are ten times more pushing to gut public media (and arts) funding altogether. Heard about Ted Cruz’s attacks on PBS and their diversity or (in his terms)  “anti-white” agenda, for example? He literally brought this up timed to Black History month… no bounds, I tell you, no bounds. (But if they have no bounds, we have no game plan, either). Few I know of outside of the public broadcasting system or small little bubble are even talking about this. And it’s just the tip of the iceberg. Again, look globally, and conservative governments are cutting public broadcasting mandates and budgets almost anywhere you look. And this comes right as non-public broadcasters and streamers move more into advertising support, and lowest-common-denominator programming, all in hopes of attracting and keeping more subscribers, or just getting more eyeballs for their ads. None of that bodes well for any kind of serious media. Forget about serious news, analysis, or documentaries, but most of these places don’t even want a serious drama, because that won’t attract the eyeballs they need, either. 
Want more despair? I’ve got it for you. Or rather, Anthony Kaufman does, who reported in Filmmaker Magazine and on his Substack that the algorithms of Facebook and Instagram are now banning promotions of indie films that have content they think might get them in the cross-hairs of conservatives and Congress (who love nothing more than grilling tech execs about endangering minors, or just our sensibilities). One of our client films apparently got flagged as being too political because it mentions climate change, something I just learned from this article. 
And Amazon and other platforms are also banning some of these same films from being sold or rented on their platforms. Amazon and Tubi wouldn’t sell/show John Cameron Mitchell’s Shortbus recently, and Meta even banned the photos submitted to promote Embrace of the Serpent “which featured an indigenous man in a loin cloth.” Just wait til the AI robots start making these decisions for us… oh wait, that’s already happening. As one distributor told Kaufman: “they won’t even acquire “edgy” new films because they know they won’t be able to market or release them widely online.” The self-censorship of the industry – to appease an algorithm – is already happening. Please read both of Kaufman’s articles in full, as I’m barely doing them justice here.
What drives me crazy, and drove me to write this post, is that meanwhile, we’re all asleep at the wheel. By we, I mean anyone left of the hard right – as there doesn’t seem to be a middle anymore, and more specifically, those of us who consider us to be on the left and in the arts. Now, I will take the blame first here – and I also know many, many filmmakers and artists who are right in the middle of these fights and will feel I am more than late to the party. I get it. But overall, the field seems to be putting its head in the sand, denying a) that we’re losing many important battles already, and b) that we’re about to lose in the US in November, and c) that the US is just barely behind the rest of the world, and d) our Silicon Valley overlords are fine with throwing away democratic norms if it sells more AI chatbots, or gets us to Mars in electronic cars. While we’re worried about whether a film sold at Sundance or not, or whether our equity investors will recoup without any output deals at Netflix anymore, the rest of the world is burning down around us, and we’ve got much bigger problems than the “gatekeepers” of the field, or the state of the market. 
This is just one more place where we need to be coming together to think about bigger solutions to bigger problems, and where collaboration might just help us steer things back in the right direction. Instead, most of what I see is another version of the left eating itself alive, and most of us so overwhelmed by it all that we just keep our heads down, focus on our immediate issues, and hope the world just somehow gets better. But it never does that on its own, it takes hard work. None of us reading this are capable of solving for all of the problems we’re facing, but I think we could band together to solve for a few of the more urgent ones facing our field, and unless we do, that distinct chill is gonna turn into more of a freeze.

Stuff I'm Reading

Go see ENO, in different cities and different iterations: One of the buzziest titles at this year's Sundance was Gary Hustwit's ENO documentary - partly because it's Hustwit (who makes awesome films, like Helvetica), partly because it's about Brian Eno, who is awesome, but mostly because the film was made using a generative AI program, and the film is edited by the AI in a new edit every single time someone watches it. Yep, you got that right - no two screenings of the film will ever be of the same exact film. And before you start screaming about the dangers of AI, that's what the artist intended and it fits thematically with the subject (a pioneer in generative art ideas), and as he's described in many an interview, more editors worked on this than a similar film not using AI. It's pretty cool, and makes us ask a lot of questions  - how do you review a constantly changing film (?!) , being just one of them. The film is likely going to get some "traditional" distribution, but any distributor has to agree to work with Hustwit and his team on keeping this aspect of seeing it in always different versions. Luckily, before that happens, you can get a sneak preview of a few versions of the film, as Hustwit is touring it to NYC, San Francisco, and Chicago - with more cities being added soon. Learn more and buy tickets here. (BN)

Academy Traditionalists Say “The System Is Broken” After Best Docs Are Chosen, But are They?: Sam Adams, senior editor and writer for Slate, unpacks the many complaints from Academy members and awards consultants surrounding the nominations for Best Documentary at the Oscars (these complaints can be found in this article for Variety). At the core of it, “traditionalists” express dissatisfaction over the fact that the doc branch didn’t nominate a single film by an American filmmaker. “In the Variety article, several subjects skate within a hair’s breadth of complaining outright that you just can’t buy an Oscar nomination the way you used to (Adams).” Adams notes that while it may be true that members of the doc branch have been significantly diversified and internationalized, maybe, just maybe, it’s that “the voters simply did what they were supposed to do: watch all 15 movies and pick the ones they thought were best.” Unlike many of the old guard, new members of the Academy think the doc branch is doing just fine: Producer Charlotte Cook who joined the Academy in 2021 tweeted that the criticisms in the Variety article were “embarrassing for the field, both incredibly depressing and disrespectful of the nominees.” Sam Adams gives his reader a lot to unpack here, so head to his piece for Slate for the full scoop. (GSH)

That New Sports App Won't Last Long - Every now and then you find some good stuff in the WSJ's editorial pages - believe it or not. This week, Holman Jenkins, Jr. writes a pretty good piece on why the new Disney, Fox. WBD sports app is destined to fail before long. As he calls it, this "dog's breakfast of a cable bundle" is a last gasp at piecing together some kind of revenue stream from disparate parts, and with expiring rights. He also smartly points out that the future of sports is going to be much more interactive, and gamified (and tied to gambling). Or as he puts it: "The future is coming into view, and it will be a melding of entertainment, artificial intelligence and e-commerce." Most of the industry would do well to read this one and think about how it applies to everything else we're doing. But fair warning - if your politics are like mine, you won't agree with much else that he - or other Op-Ed writers at the Journal - writes about. Oh, and while you're there, the WSJ typically has better international news coverage than the NYT, too. (BN)

The First Movie Financed With Biden’s Green Energy Tax Credits : Give Tatiana Siegel’s article for “Variety” a read to learn how Travis Kelce, Superbowl LVIII winner and boyfriend of Taylor Swift, is taking advantage of Biden’s 2022’s Inflation Reduction Act to finance his film, “My Dead Friend Zoe.” The short of it: Biden’s Inflation Reduction Act marks “the single largest investment in climate and energy in American history (according to the U.S. Department of Energy’s website)” and Kelce’s film was financed by green energy entrepreneur Mike Field’s sale of surplus tax credits (Field is also a producer on the film.) “My Dead Friend Zoe” producer Ray Maiello explains, “Hollywood is risky, right?.... These federal tax credits [cut] the risk [in half].” Kelce, Maiello and Field are using the same strategy to finance a second film, “King Pleasure,” a Boardwalk Pictures documentary about Jean-Michel Basquiat. (GSH) I smell a crazy run for the money, and a crack-down within a year or two, so move fast, producers...(BN)


Last Week Was A Big Week for AI Transparency: Last week, major AI players Meta, OpenAI, Google and others announced new transparency and detection tools for AI content to curb fakes. Meta is working on labeling AI images from outside platforms, OpenAi will include metadata for images generated by ChatGPT and DALL-E, and Google will support Content Credentials (basically a nutrition label for AI content). Government agencies, too, are working on preventing AI-generated misinformation: Just last week, the Federal Communication Commission banned AI-generated voices in robocalls. Marty Swant for Digiday has the news — lots more detail in-article! (GSH)

Universal Music Group vs. TikTok (Hint: The Creator Loses In The End): In our newsletter 2 weeks ago, we wrote about how Universal Music Group (UMG) would stop licensing content to TikTok and accused them of being  a “music-based business without paying fair value for [artists’] music, to which TikTok replied, “Universal Music Group has put their own greed above the interests of their artists and songwriters.” Well, UMG failed to ink a new licensing deal with TikTok and “just like that, thousands of [TikTok] videos featuring music by artists like Drake, Taylor Swift, and Bad Bunny were suddenly silent (Sean Rameswaram and Hady Mawajdeh for Vox).” Rameswaram and Mawajdeh cite angry artists and songwriters in their article, but point out that non-musician creators are just as angry. “Most of my friends in LA are content creators, especially dance creators… So immediately we all were angry about the decision made between UMG and TikTok (Jarred Jermaine, content creator who breaks down music samples on TikTok). Digital activist and writer Cory Doctorow coined the phrase “enshittification,” the process that digital platforms use to give customers goods or an experience they can’t find elsewhere, only to make it worse for them down the line in order to better serve their business partners. “I think that the calculus that TikTok is making is that they would rather inflict pain on their customers than on their shareholders (Doctorow).” Head to the Vox article to listen or read a conversation the Vox authors had with The Verge’s editor-in-chief about the issue. (GSH)

The CIA has a Creative Writing Group: Who knew? And a gift shop, and a museum, and very terrible parking. Johannes Lichtman had the story in the Paris Review back in January. I just found it viaBruce Schneier's Cryptogram. (BN)

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.