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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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All That is Solid...

March 28, 2024

WTF? I go on vacation for a couple of weeks and the whole world falls apart? Can’t people hold it together without me? Just kidding, but not about the importance of the big changes. There’s been some weird shit going on. First, you’ve got Joana Vicente stepping down from Sundance, which while posited as a voluntary change, is a major leadership change at an important institution (luckily, artistic head, Eugene Hernandez remains in place). Then you have the news that the Human Rights Watch Film Festival is shutting down after 35 years due to financial issues. Just as you process those events, you get the bombshell that not only is Hot Docs having severe financial troubles, but now political and artistic ones too, as ten programmers left en masse, their artistic director stepped down and there’s lots of gossip over the reasons why. Wow. And that's not even getting into the not-too-distant shake-ups at the Berlinale, etc. 
I am not privy to any of the true back-story on any of these, the three news items are probably unrelated, and I am not hinting at any comments about any of the particular people involved here, but you can say one thing – all that is solid is melting into air. Not completely in the traditional Marxist sense (maybe there’s some of that behind the scenes??), but in the sense that nothing we take for granted can be counted on as being here tomorrow. In trying to make sense of all of this news – along with other developments I’m hearing about more sotto voce – just convinces me that we are living in a time of great change. Everything is up for grabs. Nothing is solid, and you can’t count on any continuity in this business.
First, one must acknowledge the great turmoil this is probably causing for the people directly impacted. Joana leaving Sundance sounds more voluntary, but that’s still a big leadership change. The other two changes are big losses for the field – losing an entire well-respected film fest (HRWFF) and being on the cusp of losing another. People leaving jobs in an already precarious industry, and apparently after having put up with way too much turmoil already- none of that is easy stuff, and I both feel for everyone, and extend an offer to be of assistance with anyone looking for a new job. 
But all this change can also be exciting in some ways. Anything can happen. One minute you think the festival order is X, Y, Z and now… it’s pretty much all up for grabs. Which fest will grab the mantle of most important fest to launch a doc in North America? Where will new leadership take the Sundance Institute ship? What new fest might take on the important, challenging gap left in our festival space by the loss of a major curatorial voice when it comes to important films “speaking truth to power.”? Which fest is next – meaning not just who is in danger, but who is next in line to take on new challenges? 
But it’s also a reminder of just how fragile our field is right now. All this change is happening at a very precarious moment. Festivals are emerging from Covid, and it feels like the biggest festivals suffered the most, because the smaller ones were so scrappy to begin with, they can survive almost anything you throw at them. But if you are bigger, you have more at stake, and more stakeholders, and it’s clear not all of them are coming back together in a big kumbaya hug. It’s also clear that behind the scenes, the politics associated with Israel/Palestine are tearing film organizations apart – especially documentary ones (this also came up with IDFA, Berlin, and CPH:DOX), at precisely the same moment that we need to be working together because our problems are not small ones. 
Everyone has been talking about the “crisis” facing the film world – mainly in distribution, but also through consolidation, budget cuts, the pull-back in originals and acquisitions, the trouble “breaking through the noise,” etc. But we also face more existential threats. Where do you distribute your important artistic film or “truth to power” documentary today? Well, capitalism is closing the streaming door – they need subscription growth and advertisers, and that means more commercial work, more crowd-pleasing and less substance. Meanwhile, we could always turn to public broadcasters. But in the US, the Right (namely Ted Cruz) have their targets on the backs of not just CPB/PBS, but also ITVS and all diversity programs affiliated with the system. Meanwhile, as the recent Color Congress report shows (more on this in the news roundup below), alternative spaces for diverse voices are underfunded and feeling besieged as well. We need collaboration to develop new systems and new business models, but we also need what infrastructure we have in place already – which are the places like Hot Docs that are under stress. The Right might not have to put targets on these places, because we’re tearing them apart ourselves, without realizing the full scope of the threats we’re facing. And this isn’t just in the US, mind you – you can see versions of this problem across the Globe. 
I’ve been very excited with all the new experimentation happening in the film world as of late. But there are also many dark undercurrents to be found. I think the issues we’re facing are bigger than the pockets are deep of the few philanthropists who even bother to care about the film world, and as Mark Duplass said in another context about indie film – "the cavalry is not coming, there is no cavalry.” We’re going to be truly independent when it comes to finding solutions. My hope is that we’ll get out of our siloes and collaborate a bit – as the Color Congress is already doing, and ditto for the Film Fest Alliance and Arthouse Convergence folks with their Ind/Ex conference – because with this much change going on, we need to collaborate to innovate our way back to some sense of stability - and it will only happen if we focus on new futures, not rebuilding the past. 

Stuff I'm Reading

Color Congress Report Finds A Growing, Powerful Ecosystem For Filmmakers of Color: Created in 2022 to repair a fragile and fragmented industry, Color Congress supports POC-led organizations that serve doc filmmakers, leaders, and audiences of color. For context, and as mentioned in their press release, “prior to Color Congress, organizations supporting POC filmmakers were largely disconnected from one another” and suffered from it. But a new report — The People of Color Documentary Ecosystem: Engines for a New American Narrative (PDF) — released by Color Congress “tells the story of a documentary ecosystem in ascension and a field in transition (CC press release)” despite historic underfunding,  disinvestment, and current industry challenges. As detailed in the report, now, “individual, disparate organizations [become] a powerful web of support that offers filmmakers and audiences of color opportunities to contribute to new narratives” evidenced by the fact that “in 2023 alone they collectively served 15,000 documentary filmmakers and more than 10,000 documentary film professionals, with a reach of over 20M audience members.” The report also explains what POC-led organizations vital to the documentary community need in order to support a thriving network of artists. More information in the press release, linked above, and of course, in their report, also linked above. (GSH) This report is worth the deep-dive, and brings up a gazillion things to think about - both good and bad, but mainly inspiring and good - I recommend reading it in full. (BN)

Goodbye Human Rights Watch Film Fest: Human Rights Watch announced this month that it was closing its long-running film festival due to financial constraints. Founded in 1988, the Human Rights Watch Film Festival was the world’s longest-running human rights film fest, showcased nearly 1,000 independent films and screened films in over 30 cities across the globe. Read their farewell statement here.  Anthony Kaufman, journalist and founder of Chicago’s Doc10 film fest warns that the festival’s closure “isn't just a threat to film fests, but empathy itself.” Kaufman tips his hat to the Human Rights Watch Film Fest programmers in his substack entry: “[They] had a knack for programming “issue” films that were also artful and complex…. They didn’t pander to audiences; they didn’t preach; and they showed that the world’s troubles could be conveyed… through indelible individuals who audiences could not forget." (GSH)

Watch Online, Free Now: The Redford Center Sundance Film Festival Session — An Antidote to Despair: How Independent Film is Driving Climate Action, January 2024
: On Jan 19, the Redford Center hosted an environmental impact filmmaking panel at Sundance Film Festival to combat the dominant trend of bleak and hopeless climate narratives with emerging solutions coming from independent filmmakers. This event featured film industry leaders paving the path towards claiming space for hopeful narratives in fiction and nonfiction forms of popular media including our own Brian Newman, who says, “We’ve been told by people, executives at companies, that they’re suffering ‘climate fatigue’ and they don’t want these films. And they think that’s what consumers think too. But when we talk to audiences… especially younger audiences, what they really are tired of is despair, and they want positive stories.” Watch the panel discussion for free here, and thank you Redford Center for providing the image. (GSH)

IDA “Getting Real” Conference (Brian Newman Speaking & Discounts Available): International Documentary Association (IDA) is holding its sixth biennial Getting Real conference between April 15–18, 2024, in Los Angeles and virtually worldwide. Thinking holistically about the lives and afterlives of documentaries, #docsgetreal will spotlight how documentarians should access institutions, people, spaces, and resources so the doc community can benefit from each other. Getting Real ‘24 celebrates a decade of what is now the largest peer-to-peer gathering of its kind in North America. Note: Sub-Genre’s Brian Newman will be speaking at this event about brands and film, and this is a rare opportunity where he will workshop how to pitch your film to a brand for a small group of filmmakers (info for how to apply for the workshop is on their website).  IDA is offering Sub-Genre newsletter readers a discount of $50 off All Access Passes and 50% off of the Virtual Pass. To redeem it, email here, asking for the Sub-Genre discount code. Register now for the hybrid event here. (GSH)

Tubi Report Finds GenZ & Millennial Viewers Prefer Original Content and Ads When Streaming: Check out this article by The Wrap’s Kayla Cobb for key takeaways from Tubi’s annual report, “The Stream,” conducted in partnership with The Harris Poll which surveyed 2,503 Gen Z and Millenials who streamed at least one hour of video a week between Dec 2023 to Jan 2024.  Here’re a few points that stood out to me: (1) “71% of people surveyed… said they would like to see more more TV shows and movies on streaming that are either independent or from smaller creators”; (2) The average consumer subscribed to four different streaming services (with a 3.8 average) and paid $120/month; (3) “53% of Gen Z and Millennial viewers polled said they believed they were overspending on streaming. An additional 71% said they canceled subscriptions due to tiered memberships that force them to pay for certain content”; (4) “Overall, 62% of those polled said they preferred ad-supported streaming over paid,” and 58% said they’d prefer to watch ads while streaming and afford an extra coffee per month. (GSH)

Branded Content

Shoutout to REI’s Co-Op Studios: Check out Jeff Beer’s piece for FastCompany to learn about REI Co-Op Studios, the in-house content arm of the outdoors retailer that Sub-Genre helped build (just a little, with an awesome in-house team). As Beer explains, REI Co-Op Studios works with other studios and producers to co-produce social impact feature films with a  nature/outdoors and social activism focus (these are not commercials) that screen at film festivals, theaters, and on streaming platforms. 2023 releases and upcoming films that Sub-Genre has consulted on include FRYBREAD FACE AND ME, CANARY, and FULL CIRCLE: THE FIRST ALL BLACK EVEREST ASCENT. You can learn more about REI Co-Op Studio films here and here, and our involment here. (GSH) As we always say on the A-Team - we love it when a plan comes together. (BN)

New “Shot On iPhone” Film: Takashi Miike’s latest film, MIDNIGHT, is a live-action manga adaptation that tells the story of a mysterious taxi driver and a young girl pursued by assassins. Produced in collaboration with Apple as part of their “shot on iPhone series,” it’s a pretty fun watch. Check out the 19 minute film on YouTube here. (GSH)

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