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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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Smoke Signals

June 8, 2022

I woke up Tuesday morning and went for a jog on the Rockaway Beach boardwalk, where I’m staying for a bit right now, and there was a weird haze in the sky, distorting the sun, and making me wonder what was wrong in the world. Kinda like how I feel about the film world most days.
I took a ferry back into the City for a doc film event at the Ford Foundation, and all seemed well with the world – great films getting made, and a support system for them, and funders filling the room to hear their pitches. But by the time that ended on Tuesday evening, the NYC skyline was positively apocalyptic. I was back to wearing a mask outdoors again, and I had re-learned what is old news now – that the smoke from the Canadian fires was taking over Manhattan. Air quality was supposedly worse than Delhi, India and hundreds of other places we like to think we’re “above” here in the US.
And as you hopefully guessed by the air quotes – that’s the problem. Thinking we’re “above” the problems of the fires around the world. There’s a whole lot of that going on around these parts, and by parts, I mean not just NYC but the North and Western world, and for us – the film and media sector therein. The smoke comes before the fire, but it’s the sign of a conflagration soon to engulf us all, but that “other’s” have been living with for some time. In the simplest of terms – climate change has been happening in big ways across the world, impacting those least responsible for a long time, and “we” are just waking up to it now (yes, many activists and filmmakers have been telling us about it for decades, but the larger “we” hasn’t been fully listening).
In the film world, we’re learning that the smoke – of a bad marketplace, of the streaming business not buying anyone’s films, of layoffs and strikes and all that jazz – is just a small sign of a much bigger fire just over the horizon. No one wants to face that one either, so we pull on our masks and wait for the winds to shift, for some temporary reprieve. Say you read it here first – where there’s smoke, there’s fire, and we are in for a big one in the film world, and we’re barely seeing the smoke signals now. There will be more company closures and mergers, and layoffs, and censorship (see below on Showtime/DeSantis), and even less of an opportunity for quality films to be brought into the marketplace.
But these are also “first world” problems. The fact that no one is buying that documentary you made with $1.5MM-2MM USD of donated and/or invested wealthy folk’s money is a rich problem to have. The rest of the world should be so lucky and is welcoming us to the crowd. (I know many US filmmakers are working on shoestrings as well, but that’s the average price being quoted in doc circles these days for quality docs). Don’t even get me started on the average indie narrative. But try explaining these problems to any filmmaker out of the US/North America/UK and Western Europe for a few minutes and… tiny violins. 
The smoke filling the skies of NYC also happened to coincide nicely with Chris Licht’s self-immolation over at CNN. Which is just the smoke before the fire from all the money still to be burned by Zaslav as he destroys a few empires – while keeping his cash in a fireproof safe. But that burn out was also caused by a similar phenomenon – old white dudes thinking they need to broaden the appeal of CNN to some fictional middle-ground, make more room for right wing crazies at town halls, and somehow save the Great White Man from the changes ahead. (Quick aside, it's so rich that Amy Entelis is now one of the Co-CEO's taking over for a bit, since Licht had killed CNN Films, which she led....woot!).
That same phenomenon is at work with DeSantis and his ilk – thinking they can ban all the books, negate trans lives, ship the migrants to NYC or the Vineyard, and somehow rebuild a White X-ian society onto a world that has moved on from them. They smell smoke, fear the fire, but it’s too late. 
An anonymous contributor noted to Vulture this week, talking about the implosion of streaming happening right now: “People are getting fucked. By the way, there’s a real social-progressive way to look at that, which nobody talks about, which is that the people who’ve gotten pushed out of the Hollywood economy generally are older white men. Because now they’re competing with younger people and women and people of color that they never had to compete with before. And it hurts.”
Too true. But getting back to that doc film event – I can’t give too many details because it was private and many of the films being presented by their grantees remain confidential and in early stages – we saw a lot of films about smoke and fires around the world, of all types. But the stories had hope for the future, and they were decidedly not from the old guard. Many of them were about the old guard fighting the future, but you could easily see the grand narrative of who is on the correct side of history, and who is ultimately winning. And all of us were gathered there because we believed that telling these stories matters. Even if our distributors might not be buying them. But I also hope that their grand narrative of the correct side coming out on the other side of the fire holds true for our film business. Burn down the old system, and replace it with something better.
The stories are being told. We just need the same energy that’s been put into making them to be applied to getting them to the public that needs and – I think – wants to see them. And luckily, I started getting some smoke signals of possible fires on that horizon this week. After last week’s newsletter about our need for more strategic action on this front, my phone, email and socials were a bit afire with feedback from people who want a new solution, some of whom are in a position to help make that happen. Let’s hope we see more of those “good fires” before we get more of the bad ones, poisoning our air just before burning our world to the ground.

Stuff I'm Reading

Atlanta's Escobar - new owner of the Tara Theater - and the importance of experience: Christopher Escobar, who runs the Atlanta Film Society (which I used to run when it was called IMAGE many moons ago), and who is now the owner of the local Plaza and Tara Theaters, gets interviewed by Garden & Gun magazine about the theaters and how he plans to keep them thriving in a challenging environment. My favorite part is where he talks about the experience he's trying to create: "We’re aiming to create spaces that are so cool and exciting that they’re worth the price of admission alone... That’s why I’m obsessive over every detail in the Plaza, right down to the toilet paper. I want people to find the experience so rewarding that they want to come early and stay after the movie is over. The movie itself is just a bonus." That's how obsessive about customer experience every exhibitor (and fest, and brand) should be, really. (BN)

A New Era Of AI Filmmaking?: Click the link to watch THE FROST, a short film in which every shot is AI generated. How it happened: Josh Ruben, exec producer at an AI video creator company called Waymark wrote the script and fed it to image-making model DALL-E 2. The team used D-ID, an AI tool, to animate the still images, make mouths speak, and eyes move. Will Douglas Heaven, writer for MIT Technology Review points out that Waymark created THE FROST to explore how generative AI can be used to create commercials for companies fast and cheap. He notes that while artists have historically tended to be some of the first to experiment with new technologies, it’s the advertising industry that’s pioneering generative video. Takeaways: A new era of filmmaking is setting in, but that doesn't mean it’s going to take off immediately. Chris Boyle, cofounder of Private Island, a London-based startup that makes short-form video says he’s “spoken with many companies who seem interested but balk at putting resources into projects because the tech is changing so fast.” They’re also weary of all the ongoing lawsuits around the use of copyrighted images. Check out the piece for more details and to learn about a handful of other AI-generated films that are already out in the world. (GSH)

A New Leader for ITVS: Kudos to ITVS for selecting Carrie Lozano as their new leader, taking over for Sally Jo Fifer, who is retiring and leaving the organization in good shape and now in good hands. ITVS is an ever more crucial organization for independent documentaries, as we get more media consolidation and a constant focus on entertainment over substance. Lozano brings lots of experience and documentary knowledge, coming to the job immediately from Sundance, and from IDA before that, has been a producer and done many other cool things (read the piece for her bio). As someone else said on FB- finally, some good news for the doc world. (BN)

Can Our Emotions Curate Entertainment For Us?: Launched last week (by a newsletter reader), harnesses AI to present TV and movies that’ll move consumers to their desired emotional state in under 2 minutes. And they’re probably onto something... the endless surfing across your 5 streaming subscriptions only to watch something crappy gets tiring pretty quickly. In addition to the expected slate of films and shows that Netflix would put in front of you, surfaces classic, indie, and foreign films you’d normally never be recommended. Check out their blog for more information on how it works! (GSH)

Showtime Pulls ‘Vice’ Episode About DeSantis and Guantanamo: A recent episode of Vice newsmagazine series that contained potentially explosive material about Florida governor Ron DeSantis was removed from the schedule before its premiere on Showtime. Due to air May 28, the episode “investigates allegations from former Guantanamo Bay detainees that Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis witnessed acts condemned by the United Nations as torture during his past service at the controversial detention camp as a Navy JAG officer (The Hollywood Reporter).” No reason was given for the episode being pulled. A Showtime spokesperson said in a statement that “we don’t comment on scheduling decisions.” Note that DeSantis announced he’d run for President of the United States on May 24, just days before the episode’s premiere. Takeaway: This feels like the blatant censorship of a reputable on-the-ground reporting source. Denise Petski for Deadline has the news. (GSH) All the more reason we need some actual regulation of the major streamers, and more outlets like ITVS (BN).

Branded Content

UK (all?) Viewers Surprisingly Ok With Branded Content: UTA IQ, the data-analysis division of Hollywood’s United Talent Agency conducted a survey on UK audiences’ interest and tolerance for branded TV advertising. Here’re some of the stats: (1) 90% of English viewers said they weren’t bothered seeing brands prominently visible in entertainment content; (2) Around 66% were “open to some version of branded entertainment, though only 22% said they feel confident in defining it”; (3) Audiences take branded content more seriously when it’s on a Traditional TV show or movie than when it’s attached to an online creator; (4) Nearly 60% of respondents said they looked into buying a product or brand after seeing it on a show. The takeaway: Considering that the UK has very strict regulations around advertising and branded content on TV, the survey results are very promising for brands interested in film and TV. David Bloom for Forbes has the news. (GSH)

2023 Branded Entertainment Awards Announced: The Brand Entertainment Awards were given out this year in a virtual ceremony on Tuesday. The awards are put on by Campaign US, PRWeek and MM+M, and I was on the jury again this year. Lots of great work was submitted, and you can learn about the winners here. Kudos to everyone who won an award. (BN)

TribecaX Selections - Sub-Genre Clients & Friends: Next week, TribecaX will be held during the Tribeca Festival on June 14th, and Sub-Genre will be there to celebrate some great brand work and thinking with friends. Sub-Genre client Adobe and Anonymous Content were selected for their series Full Bleed, directed by Patrick Daughters. We premiered this at SeriesFest to a sold out audience, and Sub-Genre is helping to distribute the series (an announcement on that will be coming soon). In addition, Sub-Genre client John Deere is also selected for a great film we aren't working on (we're helping on a different film), but it's also directed by my friend Eternal Polk, who is a great director. The film is Gaining Ground: The Fight for Black Land, and it's been premiering at many great festivals and events. Another Sub-Genre friend, Passion Point Collective, has been selected for The Big Idea for MIT Solve, which was directed by our friends Sarah Klein and Tom Mason, and was also helped by HP and Angela Matusik, another friend of ours (We also did some consulting on the distribution for this one). And rounding out the friend fest, our great friends at BrandStorytelling helped program the entire day's events and panels. You can check out the full line-up and panels at this link. (BN)

Dissecting the “Existential Risk” and “Hero Scientist” Narratives with Leading AI Researcher Kyunghyun Cho: Kyunghyun Cho, AI researcher and associate professor at NYU known for his foundational work in neural machine translation, is frustrated with  the current discourse around AI risk. Check out his interview with VentureBeat, brought to us by Sharon Goldman. For now, here’s a summary of what he had to say: (1) The AI “existential risk” narrative is distracting scientists and policymakers from addressing the immediate harms and benefits of AI on our society; (2) The “hero scientist” narrative is being amplified by the media. “This hero worship, combined with this AGI doomerism … I don’t know, it’s too much for me to follow.”; (3) Many of the petitions relating to AI-risk are funded by Silicon Valley giants like Dustin Moskovitz (Asana and Facebook co-founder). Cho thinks “there are too many people in Silicon Valley with this kind of savior complex. They all want to save us from the inevitable doom that only they see and they think only they can solve.”; (4) “The idea is that either AI is going to kill us all or AI is going to cure everything — both of those are incorrect… In fact, it’s probably the role of AI education — let’s say K-12 — to introduce fundamental concepts that are not actually complicated.” (GSH)

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