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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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It’s about the Brand

April 11, 2024

I’ve been seeing a lot of pitches for new ideas in the film world lately – new plaforms, new festivals, new business models, new everything, because nothing else has been working, so we might as well try something new, right? And given that nothing else seems to be working, I also hope that several of these new ideas work – that they succeed and offer us new ways to make, connect with, watch and hopefully profit from great films. But one thing seems missing from many of these new ideas – and pitches for ones just around the corner – any sense of building a unique, identifiable brand. 
Yet, it’s all about the brand. Think about it, and almost anything successful in the film world has been about a great brand. There’s Disney, of course, but you can also think about individual auteurs – Orson  Welles was a brand; Oscar Micheaux was a brand; and of course most true movie-stars are brands. It’s true about documentary filmmakers – think Errol Morris or Stanley Nelson. Think about successful producers – Will Packer is a brand, so is Jason Blum, so is Tyler Perry, and so are Killer Films. Successful studios and mini-majors, too – at one point, Focus Features meant something (I’m not sure it does anymore). Criterion is a brand, perhaps one of the best in the biz, alongside TCM. A24 is the premiere example, but even Neon is a close second. Exhibitors can also be brands – Alamo Drafthouse or Metrograph. Sundance is the only major US film fest that has truly built a brand, but Fantastic Fest has also done a great job, as has BlackStar, and so has MountainFilm. Weirdly, Apple hasn’t built any real brand around its streaming service, and Netflix once did (those days are gone), but Tubi is killing it by building a very specific brand. Most of these are obvious, but not all of them. 
Another important thing about these brands – they’re usually catering in some way to a very identifiable and sizable underserved audience, or an audience that had been underserved before they came along. Disney is the obvious choice once again – quality entertainment for the family, which wasn’t a sure thing when they started. Tyler Perry knew there was a huge, underserved Black audience who wanted broad comedy, but also wanted it to be friendly to a church-going audience. Today’s best example is Angel Studios, who knew there was a huge faith-based film audience who wanted better quality than what they’d been served before – and crucially, also understood that the audience was particularly atuned to the idea of participatory culture (both in the pews and in crowdfunding). 
Just yesterday, Roy Price pointed out in his newsletter that Paramount+ could build a name for itself it focuses on “a fairly significant underserved gap in the market, which is some combination of comedy (The HangoverTropic Thunder, etc.), which just isn’t getting made except in the most anodyne and boring form, and what you might call just red stateish drama and action (think everything from Cannonball Run to American Sniper). This is a big audience that Hollywood doesn’t serve. There is no brand for this audience and nothing you can subscribe to.” Whoever serves that audience (presumably a new Skydance/Paramount/CBS) will do quite well. 
There are a lot of these underserved audiences in search of a brand. So many, in fact, that my new prescription for success is to just identify these groups of audiences, and build a brand for them – and you will profit. But instead, what I often see is someone identifying a small problem they have, which only a small, niche of people care about, building a new film or platform or service for them, but not even bothering to build a brand around themselves, either. I was looking at a new streaming platform the other day (not to be named), and it had no brand. No identifiable audience one could easily presume wanted this service, and no brand “voice” in its presentation or marketing. It was just another hodge-podge of films, with a home screen that looked like almost any other. Of course, you can also say this about many of the major services, but Amazon can afford to not really have a brand (beyond having everything), and few others have that luxury. 
Weirdly, many brands are now making films, but while they are presumably experts at brand building, very few are doing a great job of building a brand for their film studios. I have judged numerous brand film awards, attended many others, and work with brands in this space daily (it’s my main job). While there are some notable exceptions, there are far too many brands who are making films that do align with their brand, but not any more than others in their space. Without naming specific names, just look at the outdoor film world, and try to guess which outdoor brand sponsored which film. Eighty to Ninety percent of the time, almost any outdoor brand could have made the film, there’s very little that makes it scream “Outdoor Brand X” versus “Outdoor Brand Y.” I work a lot in this space, and I can tell you the difference with a couple of key brands, and bet you can as well, but there’s also a lot of sameness in the space. This is also true of brands in the CPG (consumer packaged goods) space, business brands (watch a few films about small businesses, and tell me who made which ones), etc. So, many brands need to up their film brand-building game as well. 
Bottom line – it’s not just about making and delivering a great film to an audience. It’s also about building a brand that a sizable audience cares about. And I think anyone starting something new – a film, a company, a career – should be just laser focused on building their brand if they want to succeed.

Stuff We're Reading


Artificial intelligence X Film News
: The application of AI in the filmmaking process is pretty much inevitable. To move forward, the film industry will need to address concerns over artistic integrity and consider if the overall impact is net-positive for audiences and creators… and generally, we need to figure out if we can entrust AI to make us art at all! Check out Drew Turney’s article for AutoDesk and Winston Cho’s piece for The Hollywood Reporter for insights into the AI-meets-film discussion and significant developments in AI that’ll change the way the movies are made (or re-made). Here’re a few: (1) Graz University of Technology used AI to colorize black and white footage, which previously was doable, though was extremely labor intensive and didn’t look great; (2) Cornell Tech and Google Research collaborated on DynlBaR which takes existing footage and creates a clip from a new point of view (i.e. imagine watching Harry Potter from the perspective of Hagrid or Star Wars from the point of C3PO, God forbid); (3) OpenAI’s Sora can create hyperrealistic clips in response to a text prompt of just a few sentences which “has the ability to really democratize the film industry (Sidney Leeder, Shy Kids prod-co),” meaning, the barrier of entry to filmmaking might get a lot lower. You can check out a short film called “Air Head” made with Sora here. (GSH)

Can ‘Cinema Therapy’ Help Audiences, Brands, and Save The Movies?: Camilla Yates, strategy Director at ELVIS, makes the case that we — audiences, brands, the film industry, and governments — should leverage the therapeutic effect of movies in the context of anxiety, depression and other psychiatric illnesses to create a healthier, more culturally rich society. While cinema therapy isn’t backed by a large body of research, MediCinema, which provides cinema experiences inside hospitals “found that its service reduces isolation, anxiety and stress.” A couple other studies have found that going to the cinema can also boost creativity, memory, slow cognitive decline, and that cinema audiences experience synchronized psychological effects when watching a film together, thus potentially reducing their feelings of isolation. Tanya Goodine, author of ‘Off,’ echoes this sentiment: “One of the antidotes to our isolation is a shared big screen experience when we all go through the same emotional journey together… in a way that solitary screen scrolling can never do.” Yates explains that “with cinemas struggling to achieve pre-pandemic levels of attendance, they should be leveraging this meaningful and significant benefit when engaging with both guests and advertisers…. Advertisers can play a role in the cinema’s wellbeing effect by leveraging pre-show ad spots to communicate relevant messaging, curating content series that explore therapeutic themes or simply giving away cinema tickets.” More detail in Yates’ article for The Drum. (GSH) 


Branded Content

Brands Should Re-Brand Themselves as ‘Creator Brands: The creator economy is in a constant state of evolution and is currently booming – Goldman Sachs predicted that it’d approach half a trillion dollars by 2027. Check out Kimberly A. Whistler’s piece for Forbes a read to learn more about what brands can do to thrive in this quickly changing landscape, contribute to the cultural discourse, and interact with its key players in a profitable and authentic way. Here’re a few key points: (1) Brands should understand that content creators aren’t just creators… they’re basically a specially honed distribution channel that deeply understands its audience and in many cases has a real (virtual) relationship with them; (2) Creators are in the business of creating viral videos and breakthrough content. Brands can’t expect to buy their way into a hit… instead, they should think about making great content that meets or exceeds the expectations of the creator’s audience; (3) Instead of interrupting a user’s experience (with ads…etc), brands should reposition themselves as “creator brands,” entities that develop content that people want to see and drive community and commerce from that content. (GSH)


A Breakthrough in ‘Soft Robotics’: Mouse Cyborgs: MIT researchers are using live muscle tissue from mice together with robot parts for a new class of robots known as “biohybrid.” “We build the muscle tissues from mouse cells, and then we put the muscle tissues on our robot’s skeleton. The muscles then function as actuators for the robot — every time the muscle contracts, the robot moves (MIT Professor of Engineering, Ritu Raman ).” Currently, Raman’s team is focused on creating tiny biohybrids that could one day operate inside the human body and perform minimally invasive procedures. Brian Heater for TechCrunch has the news. (GSH)

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