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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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No Time to Die... Or To Talk of Dying

Oct 13, 2021

I did it, dear reader, I went to the theater. 
Wait, maybe that’s how I’d open it if I’d just gone to see a play at the Theatre. Let me start again. 
Yo! I went to the movies. Yep, like many other people over the age of 35, I was finally dragged kicking and screaming to AMC Theaters to see Bond. The simple truth – my wife was going to go come hell or high water, and if an KN95 doesn’t work there for her, I was screwed either way, so there was no sense in staying home alone and trying to find something worth watching on Netflix (not possible anymore). 
Of course, we went at 9am when only 20 other cinephiles would be awake in Manhattan, and we’d have plenty of space between us and the next vector. I know a gazillion of my friends are already going to film fests, sitting in crowds (of vaxxed/masked folks, who are pretty damned safe to be around, I know…) and then going to parties sans masks – I’ve seen your Instagram feeds and I am not tempted. 
Actually, I am tempted, because those are crowds of people I know and can trust. At the AMC, the usher didn’t bother to be sure our ID’s matched our Vax records – not that I can blame the underpaid, hard working at 9am guy; within ten seconds of sitting, some fool had not only removed their mask but claimed to have lost it (my wife asked, and gave him a new one; we were fun patrons to be around); and oh yeah, the ventilation system doesn’t help with covid if it isn’t turned on because management is saving money in the AM (but again turned it on when my wife asked, making us the favorites of management and patrons alike). And… we sat there, through 20 minutes of trailers and 163 minutes of No Time to Die, which was about 73 minutes too many, even for a fan. After the movie, we got outside, stripped our masks off and jointly said – never again.
Ok, not never. I already have tickets to Sundance in 2022, but what we meant and probably many others like us feel the same way, was that going to even your favorite movies on the big screen in 2021 remains a chore that just isn’t as fun, as captivating, as enticing, or as worth the price of admission as it was about 20 months ago. Because going to the movies was never about just the big screen. It was about getting lost in the big screen while being around others doing the same.  It was about going with a group of friends, taking up a row and enjoying it together; or going with a date; or skipping work and going it alone, sneaking in a show where no one could reach you. It was about laughing at the same silly, overused Bond lines and gadgets, or gasping at the same car chase scene, together. Sharing the energy, and yes, the same air. It was also about enjoying a tub of popcorn and a Coke, and even if you didn’t always do this, you could. All of those things make the magic of going to the movies, and all but one of them – the big screen (and sound, ok, two) – are gone. For now. 
Mind you, I wouldn’t go right now if I could do all those things, because covid. And I fully support keeping all these rules in place until we figure this shit out, because it’s the safest way to operate. I also don’t mind putting my mask on at all – I fog up my glasses with one daily, and it doesn’t interfere with much of anything… except the pleasure of movie-going.
It’s also why we shouldn’t be ending the stimulus – the one that barely got to theaters and other venues that rely on audiences in the first place – until we get back closer to normal. But all of the things that make it safe, make it less worth the ticket. And that’s going to continue to make predictions about the future of cinema a pretty shitty business, albeit no less popular, for some time to come.
But believe it or not, this is a pro-cinema-going piece! What?! That’s right, I bring all of this up to say – I still don’t believe movie-going is dead. But I also don’t believe those who wrote articles saying that Bond proved that older movie-goers are gonna come back soon, either. In fact, I still don’t believe you can say much of anything about the future of movie-going based on the box-office of any single film – be it day/date, exclusive to theaters, made for fan-boys, or made for arthouses, or anything else. Because, again, Covid. The audience remains fickle. Too many are like me – they are dying to see a lot of movies on the big screen, but they aren’t willing to risk dying for any of the upcoming crop of movies on the big screen. Or in my case, not more than once. Some pundits said that Bond didn’t pull out enough of the older crowd, others said that’s what saved it. Others said it didn’t pull out the younger crowd, but we saw plenty of them too, and they clearly will show up for Venom, especially if they have a Y-chromosome. Guess what folks – we’re on the roller-coaster for the foreseeable future, and  nothing about movie-going – or restaurant going, or other things best enjoyed in groups without a mask – will get back to normal for quite some time. 
There is a big question about which theaters can raise enough money, attract enough other support, or get creative enough to make it through this ongoing pandemic. We’ve already seen some bankruptcies, some crazy-assed fanboy driven stock gyrations, and every day someone emails me a link to a theater being put up for sale. But all of this could be predicted way back at the beginning of this shit, and I wasn’t the only one to say so. 
It hurts my eyeballs every day when I have to read what passes for smart punditry about movie theaters in the tech world – Rich “Light Sabre” Greenfield and Kara Swisher being the worst of the bunch – because it is coming from people who are helping to fuel what I bet will be the next CDO-backed crisis, the coming Streaming Implosion… but that’s an article for the future. For now, can we just acknowledge that anyone who makes this argument:

hasn’t spent much time thinking about the value of what’s available to watch on each streamer vs. what’s in the average movie theater? Netflix and Friends are all fighting to be the next Discovery, not the next cineplex. I can barely go there, but making a comparison between the price of a movie ticket versus a streaming subscription’s value misses so many things. The value of not having to spend 20 minutes watching previews is more than balanced by not having to spend 30 minutes trying to find something to watch. Of getting to see Bond definitely outpaces getting to see… Squid Game, or… The Comey Rule? I could go on, but arguing that watching a worse cable TV somehow beats a movie theater just doesn’t win for me or anyone I know. In fact, they would be better together – why I still can’t pay to see a movie at AMC and then pay them a little less to watch it again on (the same day) remains one of the biggest mistakes the industry has made. But again, this is another article.
But as wrong as these tech/Wall St. pundits are, the theater world still needs to wake up to the fact that only the best of the best of the arthouse films will bring an audience to the arthouse (and museums/festivals) anymore, and only the blockiest of blockbusters will bring ‘em to the multiplex (which will need to also downsize their number of screens in turn). We’ll have less of each, but neither will disappear. And none of us will figure out much about what will succeed (beyond what we know, like Marvel and A24), until we see some other side of this pandemic. In the meantime, since I’m pretty sure as many SVOD platforms will fail as theater chains, why don’t we spend the interim time figuring out something better than a new, pricier version of cable TV or better reclining seats/beer (or 45 days vs. 90) as some happy medium of the two?

Stuff I'm Reading

Is going to the Movies at a Cinema Undemocratic? That's the stupid question going around this week thanks to Twitter. Neon, the art-house distributor is releasing the film Memoria in theaters only, and only in one theater at a time- sequentially going on tour. That’s right, the film will never make it on streaming platforms (so they say), sparking a Twitter debate. A.O Scott from The New York Times explains that while some “applauded the “Memoria” strategy as a defense of the aesthetic superiority of going to the movies”, others viewed the distribution strategy as “elitist and exclusionary.” But the debate is “misguided”, according to Scott — “How is it that a quintessentially democratic cultural activity — buying a ticket and some popcorn and finding a seat in the dark — has been reclassified as a snobbish, specialized fetish?  The answer, I think, is a form of pseudo-populist techno-triumphalism that takes what seems to be the easiest mode of consumption as, by definition, the most progressive.” And let’s not forget that streaming services like Netflix, too, cost money (or that the average American household subscribes to multiple services). Scott urges us to break our streaming habit and go “find movies out in the world, where they are looking for us.” Note further - this is the strategy Neon is using in the US, but the film sold for the rest of the world to MUBI... a streamer. (GSH and BN)

Why is the Streaming Experience So Terrible? I ask this every day, and apparently, so does John Battelle. Much as I implied above, John points out about our new experience: "Compared to cable, streaming television has 1. A far worse user interface 2. Little to no cost advantage and 3. A far worse advertising experience — for both consumer AND advertiser. In fact, the only thing that has gotten materially better — and this is absolutely true — is the television programming itself." (ed. note: television). His proposed solution:

"I’d start by creating an open, neutral protocol to which all streaming services adhered. This protocol would allow any and all streaming services to bundle their content with their business model (subscriptions, advertising, distribution policies, and the like). Anyone could then take that protocol and build what I call a “meta service” around it. Entrepreneurs would compete to build aggregate services which solved the consumer experience problem — which by default would also solve the  marketers’ problems as well. Imagine: one place to find all your television, with one interface to rule them all. Kind of like cable used to be — but better."

Yes, that's true, but that would require some self-awareness, an acknowledgement of the need for a change before an implosion comes, and some transparency... none of which the streaming industry is known to possess or desire to have. But it's a start for a conversation.

Paramount+ Adds a Social Impact Division: As announced in the Hollywood Reporter and RealScreen, Paramount+ has launched their VIS Social Impact Studio Division, which will focus on films and series about climate, equity and health. It will be run by Georgia Arnold, SVP of social responsibility for ViacomCBS Networks International. Their first show is Protest & Progress "from photographer and social activist Misan Harriman. The 3 x 60-minute docuseries is set to premiere on Paramount+ at the end of next year. The series will see Harriman travel the world to uncover stories behind some of the most powerful images and art forms that have defined movements, aiming to educate on the importance of protests." 
Branded Content
How NASCAR is getting in on the race to develop a brand identity for the metaverse: NASCAR just partnered with esports entertainment company Subnation, to launch the racing brand in the metaverse. Among other things, “NASCAR could create NFTs that fans could then exchange for real-life rewards such as tickets or seating upgrades.” NASCAR’s chief development officer explains that they’d be “stitching together the virtual world into our physical world, which allows you to kind of duck in and out of the two environments.” Again, in this piece as with the New York Times story, we run into the theme of the real overlapping the virtual. And brands are gearing up to inhabit both ecosystems. Digiday’s Alexander Lee has the news. (GSH)

Hormel Foods Films Holds the World Premiere of Out of the Smoke during its Spirit Week events, celebrating the SPAM® brand connection to Smokejumpers: Hormel Foods Corporation (parent corp. of Spam, Columbus meats, Skippy, Corn Nuts and more) sponsored Out of the Smoke, a short film that premiered September 29 about a wildland firefighter’s career-ending injury and incredible path to recovery. Why Hormel Foods? Because Spam is the meal of choice for these smokejumpers as it’s easy to cook over an ember-filled tree stump. It’s also a compelling story, and now more than ever, Brands want to share them. You can watch the short here. (GSH) 

One Man's Dopamine Hunt in VRThe New York Times recently came out with a piece about a man on his perpetual hunt for a virtual reality-triggered dopamine rush. The man’s experiences with V.R illuminates an uncanny reality: We’ve reached an age when escaping the virtual by taking the VR headset off is increasingly difficult… In other words, the line that separates the virtual with the real has eroded. For instance, what happens when your real wife meets your V.R crush? What happens when inhabiting your virtual world becomes as (or more) comfortable and/or stimulating than your real world? The NYT piece challenges readers to deconstruct the (false?) dichotomy of real vs. virtual. Cade Metz has the story.  (GSH)

The social media blackout: What has the world come to?: Al Jazeera’s Belen Fernadez writes a reflective piece about October 4, 2021, the day of the Facebook blackout. In that ‘off-day’, she comes to a few conclusions—some might seem obvious, and others not so much: (1) “In marketing our own brand of “self”, we essentially chip away at the “self” itself, which can progressively disintegrate and evaporate into the online world.” (2) While social media is a tool used to agitate or activate users, in “the United States, the mass [technological] distraction helps to thwart the kind of collective focus required to effect systemic change.” Her final takeaway; while it’s a privilege to have such untapped access to humans across the globe, the victims of the social media age are us, humans.(GSH)

(GSH: Denotes articles written by Sub-Genre's Gabriel Schillinger-Hyman)
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