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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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Just The News This Week

June 10, 2021

Well, it’s finally happened to me – I have nothing I want to say this week. I’ve been posting weekly missives since at least 2017 without ever missing a beat, except when I take an annual vacation from it in August. The newsletter has been going on since January, 2006 but for years I would post about once a month at most, but sometime in 2017 I decided to step way back from most social media, and take all the time I spent on it to just write. And it was the best thing I ever did, and most weeks, I have no problem just sitting down and writing my post. 
But this week, there is nothing happening in the film/media news that got me riled up, or excited enough to make a post beyond my comments below on the usual news items (full disclosure, I write most of these, but one of my colleagues helps compile and writes the first draft of some of the news listings). I thought I’d write about the crisis of authenticity in brand docs, or maybe a bit about what’s happening with AMC’s stock. Or maybe a bit about how brands and indie filmmakers need to work together even more since the SVOD and major platforms really don’t want to work with either of them too much right now. But these all felt like minor items that are handled better in the news links below, or that I’ll get around to writing about in the future. So for this week – it’s just the news.

Sometimes, less is more, so read on below for the news that we found interesting at Sub-Genre’s virtual HQ this week. I’ll be back next week with more thoughts – I hope.

Stuff I'm Reading

Streaming is Changing Documentaries’ Nature – And Maybe Even Their Purpose: Documentaries are in high demand, with both audiences and the streamers. But in the streaming era, indie documentary filmmakers, most of whom commit up to a decade of research and hard work to put out a feature-length documentary, are now competing with big streamers who in the need for constant content, pop out (often lower quality) documentaries left and right with increasing speed. Noel Murray of Polygon takes a look and writes: “In the streaming era, the air of prestige the term “documentary” used to connote is fading... it is disheartening to see the distinctions between the subgenres of documentaries get flattened out, such that the kind of programmatic fare that fills up any given day… ends up sharing space on a landing page with meticulously researched and constructed films with strong points of view.” His argument is that these insta-docs are increasingly becoming filler, the stuff you put on in the background "while folding laundry," and there's some truth to that, which isn't great for the field. 

AMC is playing the Meme Stock Game Well - It's a strange day when I find myself agreeing with anyone in the WSJ Opinion Pages, much less Holman W. Jenkins, Jr. but this week, he has it right on AMC and CEO Adam Aron. The WSJ is behind a paywall for most, but he essentially boils down what's going on at AMC with the meme craziness, and how Aron is playing it right, by using the inflated stock price to shore up his finances, while being sure to tell the SEC and investors, not so subtly, that you're crazy to value the stock anywhere north of $5 bucks (it's currently around $50 and has been higher). 

39% of Americans added Streaming Subscriptions during the Pandemic: An Adweek-Morning Consult survey finds that:
  • 39% of Americans added streaming subscriptions during the Pandemic
  • Netflix is still the most popular streamer. 62% of American households have a Netflix subscription, Hulu is in 2nd place (56%), Amazon is in 3rd (54%), and Disney+ is in 4th (33%). 
  • Newer streaming services are struggling to compete with the big ones
  • 49% of Americans prefer to watch ads over paying a higher monthly cost for an Ad-free platform 
Branded Content
Capturing Authenticity: What is Brand Sponsored Documentary Video, A Report: During the height of covid times, I was contacted by a grad student, Alicia Carter, doing a research project on brand sponsored docs. Carter's project consisted of a very comprehensive report on brand docs, with interviews with 19 experts, and also the creation of some brand content. She did a great job, and I recommend reading the report, which you can download from her website.  She's also just graduated and seems like someone with a lot of knowledge that could be useful to anyone working in this space. Here's some more on the report from her website:

"Capturing Authenticity is an analysis, an explorative approach to documentary storytelling, a journal to ask questions, a workshop to complete activities, and a story. It is read as a journey in color-coded chapters with symbols that promote engagement including “Pause,” “Snapshot,” and “Activities.” Whether you’re a brand looking to engage in documentary work, a journalist wondering about its ethics, or an agency figuring out where you fall, your voice is in there... Although Patagonia is the most well-known for documentary video, my research found that dozens of brands create brand-sponsored documentary video stories. The time for understanding this large emerging influential industry is now before it runs away from its creators. My findings cannot be conclusive in this short time, but instead, I ask pertinent questions to develop a greater understanding. For example, are brands actually cutting through the content noise and making deeper connections with consumers? Or how do you uphold journalistic principles in marketing content? My analysis informed my approach to working with two companies, S’well and Burt’s Bees, in creating a short documentary and a documentary storytelling workshop series. The obstacles and conversations I uncovered in these partnerships brought up new questions, like, what does brand transparency mean today? Or, how do we value storytellers?"

Increasingly cynical consumers are tired of brand's pretense:  A new survey from Havas finds that consumers don't trust brands to actually do what they say. Michael Bürgi of Digiday has the breakdown, including:
  • “71 percent of consumers said they have little faith that brands will deliver on their promises, saying they are tired of brands pretending they want to act for the good of society when they are mostly out to generate profits.”
  •  [47 percent of respondents] say they trust brands”
  •  “And three out of four brands could disappear overnight and most people wouldn’t care, the survey found again.” 
  •  “[73 percent of] respondents think brands “must act now for the good of society and the planet.”
  •  “64 percent of respondents said they prefer to buy from companies with a reputation for purpose as well as profit — a 10 point surge compared to the 2019 Meaningful Brands study.”
So what's the takeaway? Maybe brands should start gaining consumer trust by not just signaling virtue, but actually doing something as well. 

Roku Debuts First Series from New Branded Content Studio: Roku Brand Studio is launching “Roku Recommends”, a short weekly entertainment show that seeks to help users choose what to watch and get brands in front of users. Roku Brand is killing 2 birds with 1 stone: Chris Bruss, head of Roku Brand Studio explains, “What we’re hoping to be able to do here is not just create an entertaining program that’s really valuable and solves a problem for our user [having to choose from so much content], but to allow the brands to be a part of that process in a meaningful way." That's a pretty smart combo if done right.  Adweek has the news

Netflix and USA Today Show How Not to do Branded Content Advertorials: As my friend Steve Peters said on LinkedIn...FFS! You gotta read it to believe it, so head over to Gizmodo for a run down of how Netflix advertised Sweet Tooth on the front page of the paper. In my experience, newspapers seem to be the worst offenders in the how not to do paid-content departments, which is a bit ironic. 

Aaron Swartz Vindicated: Eight years ago, Aaron Swartz committed suicide, at least partly influenced by being charged with 13 felonies under the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (CFAA) for violating the terms of service on the JSTOR database of scholarly articles. He was allowed to access the files as a student, but the prosecutors used the CFAA - a law written under Reagan that is overly broad - to argue that the way he accessed the articles (using a script) was breaking the TOS, and therefore he was a criminal. Computer activists have been upset about this and many similar cases, and Swartz and they were vindicated a bit this past week when the US Supreme Court ruled in another case that the DOJ was interpreting the law too broadly. It's a bit complex, but read Cory Doctorow's Pluralistic newsletter for a good run-down of the ruling. This should stop companies like Facebook from their own broad interpretations, which often stifle competition, but the law still needs to be updated for modern times. 

Virtual Reality Therapy Plunges Patients Back into Trauma. Here is Why Some Swear by It: ICYMI, the NYT had this great article  this past week on the promise of VR therapy. Author Dani Blum explains, virtual reality exposure therapy “uses V.R. technology to immerse a patient in a three-dimensional environment that mimics a traumatic memory.” One study on VR exposure therapy in Iraq War veterans found that “16 out of the first 20 patients no longer met the diagnostic criteria for PTSD after completing treatment.”

Google says it’s committed to ethical AI research. Its ethical AI team isn’t so sure: Google’s Artificial Intelligence ethics team is in a state of disarray - with key researchers and staff being fired and leaving, and a whole lot of behind the scenes arguments. Google has an obligation to the public to develop its technology ethically and is failing to take this responsibility seriously. Shirin Ghaffary of Vox - Recode has the news: “Six months after star AI ethics researcher Timnit Gebru said Google fired her over an academic paper scrutinizing a technology that powers some of the company’s key products,” Google promised to strengthen its AI team by increasing funding and staff. But word is, the AI ethics research team has since lacked leadership and structure. One researcher on the team stated, “I don’t see much of a path forward for ethics at Google in any kind of substantive way.” 

Don’t End Up on This Artificial Intelligence Hall of Shame: Launched in 2020, the AI Incident Database (dubbed the AI Hall of Shame) currently marks 100 incidents. To get on the list, a company’s AI systems must have “caused, or nearly caused, real-world harm.” The database was created to hold tech companies publicly accountable. Some of these incidents reveal some of the seriously concerning consequences of AI failures (examples include wrongful arrests due to faulty facial recognition and a Google service that tagged Black people as “gorillas”).“The 100 incidents logged so far include 16 involving Google, more than any other company. Amazon has seven, and Microsoft two,” reports Tom Simonite from WIRED
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