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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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The Dali, The Key & Infrastructure

April 4, 2024

Watching a ship named the Dali take down entire the Francis Scott Key bridge was horrifying. It also felt oddly similar to watching what’s taking place in the film industry as of late. Lots of theories of what happened at the bridge are being discussed, but it seems pretty clear that no matter what contributed immediately to the catastrophe, it was just a part of something much bigger. If you allow the shipping industry to build gigantic container ships that will easily destroy our existing infrastructure if something goes wrong, then you can’t blame the captain of the Dali when a bridge falls and six Bridge workers die. You probably can’t even blame the ship’s owner – they too were just doing what late-stage capitalism wanted them to do – and everyone else was doing before them – build bigger, ship more stuff for cheaper, never-mind the capacity of our infrastructure/system, and think about the consequences later. When a massive bridge falls in a split second.
Sound familiar? Here in film-land, we’ve allowed a similar dynamic to take hold. The streamers have bulked up and become so big that you can’t even find your movie in the queues when it launches without typing in your title, letter by letter, and that’s if they gave you space on their service in the first place. The studios have merged to the point of such bloat they needed to cut gazillions of positions to try to tame their massive debts. Apple has become so big they’re afraid of Jon Stewart even speaking with Lina Khan of the FCC, because she will get something done if given the time (a big if). And none of these players have any interest in what's left of the arthouse/authored film sector, even if that's what has historically fed the engine with new talent, Awards, some semblance of artistry and sometimes our biggest surprise hits. 

But in arthouse land our infrastructure is crumbling - major film fests are struggling, losing leadership/programmers, while trying to entice more donors and sponsors to keep the ships afloat, while many question their value in the current ecosystem. Box office is slowly rebounding for many, but Alamo Drafthouse is for sale, which is usually a sign that your investors think they’ve reached their peak value and need to cash out before it bottoms out. Indie filmmakers are having trouble getting films made because it’s hard to land the right cast when they’re taken by TV shows, and when it’s getting harder to justify equity investments as the industry contracts (collapses?), so where do you get your funding. And if you'e an investor or even a donor, you're wondering why do any of this if your films don't get seen? 

One could go on with this list, but the bottom line is that audiences are left with a glut of content (I say content here not to devalue film,  but because they’re choosing not just from films, but also TV, podcasts, games.. everything) that is more than their attention spans can handle, and they’re starting to notice a lessening in quality and originality – or, a proliferation of junk. It’s a race to the bottom in most of streaming land, and we’re suffering culturally for it, while also chipping away at those things that support higher quality, artistic films. There's plenty of anecdotal evidence of demand for better quality, original films, but we might not have anyone left to make or show those films the way things are going.
What we’re facing here is an infrastructure problem. We’ve exceeded capacity, while losing focus on the fundamentals. The system has conspired with itself to overbuild. Only the biggest can survive (Apple, Amazon, Netflix), others need to merge to survive, and new entrants can’t emerge in the first place. They're focused less on infrastructure, or building something that will last, than on satisfying Wall Street, which wants quick results and scale. Which means getting more subscribers, adding more interruptive ads for another revenue stream, and cutting out anything that doesn't bring the masses. We’ve had zero policy efforts to rein in the mergers and monopolies, and pretty soon a gigantic conglomerate will bump into our crumbling architecture and bring the system to a halt.
Unless we wake up and start to rebuild our core infrastructure, start advocating for policy change to strengthen our independent media, and start collaborating more to effect change. Luckily, as I’ve mentioned before, there are some signs of that starting to happen, mainly in the documentary space. But I fear we’re a little too focused on the sparkly and new – making new films, building new models -both of which I like as well. But we need more focus on shoring up our infrastructure (film fests, arthouses, nonprofits supporting filmmakers, etc.), and more on policy (fighting big media, supporting DEI efforts at and increasing funding for ITVS, POV and PBS, generally, etc.). These aren’t as sexy as launching a new start-up of course, but they’re just as necessary if we want to avoid future disasters. And building infrastructure takes strong leadership at the top, and if the past few weeks of turmoil have shown us anything, it's that we're missing such leadership at the higher levels - meaning above the captains of the ships (hint, it's the boards, whether at the conglomerates or the nonprofits).

And as we saw with the Key Bridge, things can go from stable to crumpled in the blink of an eye. One might start to wonder whether we're about to see our infrastructure crumble, or whether if it might have happened so fast that we missed it, and it already happened? Scary thought.

Stuff I'm Reading


The Popcorn List: Supporting Overlooked Indie Film Gems: The Popcorn List, organized by Lela Meadow-Conner and Barbara Twist (two indie leaders behind many cool endeavors), is an annual survey of award-winning independently-produced feature films that do not currently have domestic theatrical or digital distribution that come recommended by film festival programmers from across the U.S.  Gaining support in Ted Hope's Substack here and here an Indiewire write-up, and support from Letterboxd HQ, Lela and Barbara are eager for exhibitors and distributors to give the attention these incredible yet overlooked films deserve. This first list is the catalyst for a much larger vision for theatrical exhibition of independent films; one that supports independent filmmakers, recognizes the significance of film festivals, and believes in the necessity to keep community-based, mission-driven cinemas thriving. Film still above is for EGGHEAD & TWINKIE, the most nominated film on the list produced by Sarah Kambe Holland, Danielle Fountaine, and Valerie Starks. (GSH)

IDA “Getting Real” Conference (Brian Newman Speaking & Discounts Available): We ran this last week, but once again, with the code hereInternational 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 on a Getting Real '24 All Access or Virtual Together pass, apply code H5RJZEJZJTAK0O4 at checkout HERE. (GSH)
Branded Content

SATURDAY IN THE PARK Nominated for a Webby. Vote Now!: Good news for REI Co-Op Studios: One of their documentary shorts, SATURDAY IN THE PARK (which Sub-Genre assisted with a bit, full disclosure) was nominated for the 28th annual Webby Awards! Voting for the People’s Voice Award is open now through Thursday, April 18th. Click here to vote and please share with your network! Learn more about SATURDAY IN THE PARK and watch the full film here. Congrats REI Co-Op and Saturday in the Park team! (GSH)

British Garment Brand Releases Documentaries To Shift Perceptions About Autism: Vanish, a U.K garment care brand collaborated with Havas London to create the “More Than Just Clothes” project, based on the insight that 70% of people with autism think their lives would improve if people understood why clothes matter to them. In two documentary-style films, two real autistic teenage girls tell their stories alongside animated sequences that illustrate their ties to clothing. The campaign comes with a social toolkit, posters and a badge that can be shared with audiences to take a pledge to help everyone feel empowered to wear the clothes they’re comfortable in. Havas London’s creative director explains that Varnish’s campaign is notable because “neurodiversity has for so long been underrepresented” in advertising and media, despite the fact that around 15% of U.K’s population is neurodivergent. Brittaney Kiefer for Adweek has the news. Head to the article to watch the shorts. (GSH)

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