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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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Things are Getting Real

April 18, 2024

As I write this, I’m in Los Angeles for the IDA Getting Real conference, and the opening night of the TCM Classic Film Festival. If you’d asked me about a year or so ago, I wouldn’t have thought either of these things would be possible. IDA was going through some major labor and management issues, and many in the field thought they might not survive, and TCM had undergone major cuts, which included firing nearly everyone who ran the place, including the team running their super-successful film festival (again, labor and management issues). So, I am very pleased that both entities have regrouped, and both are in full swing this week. There’s not a lot of good news in the film business as of late, but this counts as double good luck. 
On the plane, I bumped into a good industry friend who works in the TV/streaming doc space who was also headed to LA, not for these same reasons. They happily reported that despite the turmoil, they not only had a job with some good projects in development but described to me one that actually sounded original and not just another true-crime, sensational, bring the masses type project. There was a celebrity attached, but the series has real artistic and historic bonafides, and happily is also focusing on diversity in the industry – which everyone fears is under threat right now. I can’t say more about it, as it’s not been announced, but let’s just say that it was good sign number three for the week – I’ll take it. 
Not that everything is rosy in film land – the problems remain real, and at what everyone calls crisis levels, but to me feels like just a return to the norms we had before the bubble burst. Did people really expect that major companies like Amazon, Netflix, etc. were going to just keep supporting good art for arts sake? I guess they did, but I was surprised the getting was so good for so long, and always expected the bottom to drop out. Sure, these companies shouldn’t be so short-sighted because they need to nurture the talent of tomorrow, but their algorithms don’t tell them that’s their job. We’ll have to take that job upon ourselves. No one is coming to the rescue
But that’s also becoming apparent to most of the folks I know in this space. Every convening I attend, every Zoom, every lay the cards on the table and tell the truth drinking session, the conversation always turns to some version of – we’ve gotta save ourselves, and now people are starting to build some solutions for that future. I went to one such gathering in NYC last week, and it was refreshing to hear 4 or 5 folks who were building things for the future, not just talking about the problems, anymore. I only thought one of those ideas has any chance of succeeding, but hey – just trying is a start. 
But I also left that event having a conversation with some smarter folks than me, and everyone agreed that what we need to build are solutions that are much bigger picture than most of what’s being proposed. Systemic change type stuff. Such big picture thinking that it almost seems impossible to achieve. Those are the only things that might work. This is not a time for incremental change, or smaller experiments. Most of the ideas I hear today would work better if they were all merged into one bigger idea. This might not take the form of an actual merger, as it could just be a bigger collaboration of ten ideas, but most of these ideas need more scale. They tend to only solve for documentaries, or social issue docs in particular, but that imagines an audience member who only wants docs, and every study I’ve ever seen shows that people who love films love a wide variety of them and not just one form (this is also true of music and other arts). 
We also need more strange bedfellows. Going back to an issue I’ve brought up many times before, I think we could see a lot more collaborations between brands and quality arthouse films – and not just on financing for production, which is what most people are focused on now. And also not just on brands making bigger films, with Hollywood producers, which is that those producers want, and some brands want in a mistaken notion that the future somehow lies there (it decidedly does not). Smart brands should be wanting to make and support authentic, quality storytelling that can reach a big audience, but that isn’t just another mainstream media piece lost in the plethora of “content.” They have the same problems we have with quality cinema – getting good distribution, and breaking into people’s consciousness in an oversaturated environment. The best place for this collaboration is on curation, and building a destination for these films, and bringing them to audiences. A smart brand underwriting a good series of films at Metrograph, or on tour to multiple arthouses would be much more meaningful than funding another movie that barely stands out from the competition. TCM’s brand, and their festival, is a good one for brands to emulate in their own way.
Anyway, those were my thoughts going into this conference and festival – I started writing this while on the plane to the event, knowing I’d not have time to write it between sessions. But then, as I was arriving, the big news broke that Participant shut down. That was also not a surprise to me, but it was a pretty major announcement and it seemed to signal a definitive end to an era. It didn’t help that the NYT described the changes like this: “Streaming services like Disney+ and Netflix have started to sell ads, and advertisers prefer all-audience, apolitical content. Eat-your-broccoli documentaries and dramas that explore underrepresented communities (both Participant sweet spots) are harder to sell than ever.” 
Which is true, but bringing out the broccoli argument against these films, right as we gathered to “get real” about documentaries definitely put an exclamation on the point. If you weren’t sure about the state of docs (or of good but serious films more broadly), the closing of Participant tells you loud and clear – it’s time to get real, and build new models, because the old way of doing things is done. Luckily, between some of the doom and gloom at the sessions here at IDA’s conference, that was the spirit of most of the people in attendance. 

Stuff I'm Reading


2024 Redford Center Grants Open Call: Calling all environmental filmmakers! The Redford Center's 2024 Grants Program Open Call is now open for submissions and is seeking solution-oriented environmental films at any stage of development. Apply by May 10th for your chance to receive $25k in funding and join their cohort of nearly 50 films, including award-winning films streaming on major platforms such as HBO, Netflix, Hulu, Disney+ and more. Learn more and apply here. (GSH)

On The Life and Death of Hollywood: Daniel Bessner for Harper’s Magazine writes a really important (lengthy, though very digestible) piece on the existential threats TV and film writers face today. He discusses the history of the streaming ecosystem, industry-shaking mergers & monopolies, the (ever decreasing) value of TV writers and destabilization of their careers, the culture surrounding (little-to-no) data sharing, and significant problems and loopholes with the new writers strike agreement. He references a couple solutions to the “Death of Hollywood” including “one change in particular [that] has the potential to flip the power structure of the industry on its head: writers could demand to own complete copyright for the stories they create [instead of “separated rights”].... But if they were to retain complete copyright, they would have vastly more leverage.”  Bessner’s unsurprising, but nevertheless important takeaway here is that “Profit will of course find a way; there will always be shit to watch. But without radical intervention, whether by the government or the workers, the industry will become unrecognizable. And the writing trade—the kind where one actually earns a living—will be obliterated.” (GSH)

Participant Has Died: Or been killed off, by its founder. This news has been all over the place, and was the talk of the town at the IDA Getting Real Conference (it is in LA and about docs, btw). I won't add much to the takeaways here, because right now I just feel really bad for a lot of good people who just lost a job. The NYT has the news. One could do worse than starting a new company by just hiring most of these folks post haste. (BN)

Mobilizing for Monuments

Check Out the Mobilizing for Monuments Film
: We've been working at Sub-Genre for a few months with the great folks at The Conservation Alliance, along with their partners SmugMug/Flickr, Rivian, Nuestra Tierra and many, many others on the release of the Mobilizing for Monuments Road Trip Film, which premieres TODAY online on their website and on YouTube. From their own description: An epic journey across the American West that will inspire and make a meaningful impact. Meeting with local business leaders, elected officials, tribal leaders, on-the-ground champions, and recreationalists, The Conservation Alliance, Rivian, Flickr and Nuestra Tierra embark on a road trip from Colorado to California to advocate for the permanent protection of National Monuments. And great news is coming on that front soon.

National Monuments are one of the most effective ways to permanently protect the places we love. That’s why The Conservation Alliance, Flickr, Rivian, and Nuestra Tierra are proud to finally introduce you to the film dedicated to showcasing the depths of their importance. President Biden has already protected millions of acres of land through National Monument designations and we’re urging him to do more. You can now watch the Mobilizing for Monuments Road Trip film and learn how to join us in taking action at #M4MRoadTrip Check out the campaign website for more news, and help us to spread the word. (BN)


Avoiding AI Catastrophe With Lessons Learned from Social Media: Nathan E. Sanders and Bruce Schneier for MIT Technology Review discuss the lessons technologists learned from social media’s unregulated evolution to help us avoid making the same mistakes with AI. Sanders and Schneier identify 5 fundamental attributes of social media that have harmed society (attributes AI also has), noting that these attributes have the potential to do both good or bad. These double-edged swords are as follows: (1) Advertising: “Just as Google and Meta embed ads in your search results and feeds, AI companies will be pressured to embed ads in conversations. And because those conversations will be relational and human-like, they could be more damaging” ; (2) Surveillance: “Social media’s reliance on advertising… to monetize websites led to personalization, which led to ever-increasing surveillance…. with chatbots increasingly being integrated [on websites] exposure to this kind of inferential data harvesting may become unavoidable” ; (3) Virality: AI has the potential to supercharge [viral videos which drive outrage and reward misinformation] because it makes content production and propagation easier, faster, and more automatic”; (4) Lock-in: Social media companies make it very difficult for users to leave their platforms. “Similarly, companies creating AI-powered personal digital assistants will make it hard for users to transfer that personalization to another AI…. If you think of your AI as a friend or therapist, that can be a powerful form of lock-in”; (5) Monopolization. Check out the article for more details + actions we need to take to move forward (hint: it starts with government regulation!). (GSH)

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