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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 Cannes & the Can't

May 16, 2024

This is the week of the Cannes and the Can’t. One half of my social feed is filled with updates from the Croisette, with people raving about The Second Act from Quentin Dupieux, or more frequently about Furiosa, and reports that the business is back – films are being bought, sold, reviewed, and (most importantly) added to Letterboxd queues, and TikTok’d about. Of course, the other half are the rest of us who can’t go – some who never can go, but many who normally would, but can’t justify the costs when nothing good is happening in their corner of the business, budgets have been cut (or they’ve been laid-off), and it’s time to focus on the core.
I’m in that latter half of folks, so I’ve been having a few more conversations with others who aren’t attending, and those reports are less rosy. But it’s not just this week, of course. Over the past year, I’ve met with hundreds, if not thousands, of indie filmmakers of one kind or another. Mainly producers and directors, but also folks in different aspects of this industry from grips to distributors, to festival programmers, and even to editors, lawyers and agents (who are typically bullet-proof). And the same thing keeps coming up – this is getting harder, this is getting impossible. Others have a better game face – they’re doing fine, but no one else they know is doing well, and they’re a little worried. But the more the wine flows, the more the anxiety shows. Doing this thing we love, broadly called films, is getting harder every day. The notion that it might just be cyclical, as it usually comes around, goes around, is becoming less tenable of a notion to hold in one’s head, unless you're in Cannes.
But if you dig into those reports from Cannes, something else becomes clear – the good vibes are coming from a select few, the 1%. As Kim Foss of Camera Film (Denmark) told Screen: “During Berlin, I saw happy, smiling faces among my fellow distributors who had the same handful of titles, like Perfect DaysAnatomy Of A Fall and The Teachers’ Lounge. If you’re at the level where you can acquire those prestigious titles, in my mind you’re doing well. But if you’re a company which is picking up the crumbs, you’re in a much tougher situation.” To which Louisa Dent of Curzon Cinemas added that “audiences are going back (to cinemas) to see top quality films...But it’s feast or famine and that is a real problem. It’s all concentrated on the top films.” 
The problem is, most filmmakers read the headline – sales looking up, and they don’t dig into the fine print and realize that things are only looking up for the cream of the crop, those lucky 1% of the biggest titles (and mainly those subsidized by international funding we don’t get in the US). You don’t want to be the crumbs… which is what most of the rest of us are making and showing in the arthouse film world – glorious little crumbs that are artistically worthy, but not pulling in audiences or big sales. Or advertisers, which is what the major streamers are focused on this week at the Upfronts. Guess what? None of them were touting their latest indie film offerings – Netflix was pushing their NFL on Christmas deals, and that’s where things are going – back to TV and cable bundles, which were never exactly the place you went to find the latest quality cinema. 
But enough with the doom and gloom. The positive side of things to me coming out of this early part of Cannes was just how much buzz all of these films were getting. Which brings us back to TikTok and Letterboxd, of course. Just like I saw happen at Sundance this year, you could see a striking uptick in the activity around the titles playing at Cannes. I’ve been able to see some of this on the back-end, but even without that access, you can see it in what’s getting reviewed and what’s showing up on the home page, etc. And while most of TikTok seems to be focused on the red carpet, they released research this past week showing a strong correlation between campaigns on TikTok and ticket-buying, as well as significant new customer lift - which means this buzz might come back to help some of these films, if their distributors use it wisely (a big if).
There’s clearly a globally interconnected audience of fans here, waiting to see the latest and greatest. Our business isn’t set up to tap into this fandom in the slightest. I promise you – one could allow an early access PVOD window for Cannes (or Sundance, or other major fests) titles at over $25USD and make a killing. And some huge percentage of those renters would be your super fans, who would spread the word and bring thousands more when the film opened more broadly. You wouldn’t lose anything, it would all be upside. In fact, a substantial number of fans would still wait to see these films in theaters – I’d go ahead and watch The Second Act on my home screen, but that’s not big enough for Furiosa, so I’d wait for that one. But this would break our system – territorial and other windows – so no one will do it, even though a ton of us did it during Covid virtual-fests and the world didn’t end. But even talking about this is tilting at windmills, so let’s just be happy that enough people care about this art to add it to their queue and possibly show up for these films 6-10 months from now when they hit theaters (some, like Furiosa, open in just days). 
But that’s what Cannes will do to you – make you believe in Cinema just a little bit longer, against all odds. It will make you believe there’s an audience for these films, and maybe some new business model that will finally make it work, again. But it’s also what makes people fall back on the old models – because nothing is much older than Cannes, or the thinking about cinema that takes place there. It’s why people keep making, showing, and talking/writing about these films, even if it’s getting harder to make any sense of it outside of the French Riviera. 

Stuff I'm Reading


Humans Beat AI This Time Around: AI Film Fest Opinion Piece: Kyle Wiggers for TechCrunch unpacks Runway’s 2nd annual AI Film Fest, noting that many films followed a dull formula and “it tended to be obvious — sometimes painfully so — which parts of films were the product of an AI model.” Given that submissions were finalized in the beginning of the year (prior to recent AI x Film advancements), some of the resulting disjointedness was to be expected. Perhaps not surprisingly, Wiggers says the highlight for him was the human contribution within these films: “Léo Cannone’s “Where Do Grandmas Go When They Get Lost?”... triumphs… thanks to a heartfelt script (a child describing what happens to grandmothers after they pass).... “The emotionality in a child actor’s voice? That sticks with you. AI-generated backdrops? Less so.” Watch the top 10 finalists for free here.  (GSH)

Cannes Embraces Extended Reality With New Immersive Competition: Cannes Film Festival, which began this week, added extended reality (XR, AR, and other spacial computing variations) as an official competition and category. Check out the eight works selected for Cannes’ “Immersive Competition” here, and watch the trailers/learn more about them at Charlie Fink’s piece for Forbes. Key takeaways: (1) Some of the VR works like EVOLVER accommodated up to 6 people at a time which is pretty cutting-edge. “[The audience size is] peanuts compared to cinema, however, it’s easy to forget that cinema, like XR, was once an emerging art form and medium (Fink).” (2) XR is the (or at the very least “a”) new wave of storytelling and it’s significant that Cannes is putting its name, resources, and a brand-new competition behind the medium. (GSH)

Branded Content
Technology, Brand Storytelling, and Keeping it Human: On May 14th’s The Speed of Culture podcast episode, Matt Britton is joined by Maureen Polo, head of direct to consumer at Reese Witherspoon’s media company Hello Sunshine, where they discuss the power of AI in storytelling and content creation, how to leverage tech to push human-centric storytelling forward, and the role that consumer data plays in shaping media strategies. Check out this Adweek piece for the takeaways and listen to the episode for free here. (GSH)

The Rise Of The Virtual Influencer: Virtual influencers are digital characters that have and are being used instead of human influencers to reach new audiences and showcase innovation. Coach, a luxury fashion brand used a virtual influencer named Imma in its “Find Your Courage” campaign last march and TikTok is “reportedly developing an AI-powered feature that would generate AI influencers to star in videos that would potentially compete with human creators for ad deals (Krystal Scanlon, Digiday).” Oh no, not even influencers are safe from getting their jobs stolen! You can check out Scanlon’s article to learn about the debate for and against virtual influencers. Here’s the short version. Pro arguments: (1) Virtual influencers offer low production cost; (2) they’re low risk in the sense that they can do basically anything a marketing team wants while avoiding legal and insurance fees; (3) they have flexible schedules (because they aren’t human); (4) marketers retain full creative control. Arguments against virtual influencers: (a) Creating an effective virtual influencer requires a lot of expensive tech and time coding them; (b) they lack authenticity and human emotion; (c) AI influencers could drive human influencer rates down, which isn’t a good thing for most brands (or creativity and human expression) either. (GSH)

Google’s ‘Veo’ Can Do Incredible Things… Thanks to YouTube Creators?: On Tuesday at its I/O developer conference, Google said its newest generative AI video model Veo can generate high-quality 1080p res videos over a minute long in a wide variety of cinematic styles. Users will be able to feed Veo text (including cinematic terms), image, and video-based prompts.  Some Veo features will be made available to “select creators in the coming weeks.” You can sign up for the waitlist here. Jess Weatherbed for TheVerge has the news. You may be wondering, How does Veo learn to generate video? Douglass Eck, lead researcher at Google DeepMind tells TechCrunch’s Kyle Wiggers that “Google models may be trained on some YouTube content, but always in accordance with our agreement with YouTube creators.”  Wiggers is quick to point out that “the “agreement” part may technically be true. But it’s also true that, considering YouTube’s network effects, creators don’t have much choice but to play by Google’s rules if they hope to reach the widest possible audience.” (GSH)

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