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Sub-Genre Media Newsletter:
Semi-frequent musings on indie film, media, branded content and related items from Brian Newman.

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Creativity, Covid & Digital Detox

Every Summer, since 2010, I take the month of August as a break from all social media, and I take the latter two weeks of it and into Labor Day as a Holiday from email and any phone calls except from my immediate family (or emergencies). It’s always the most creative time of my life. I take all the time I would be spending on social media and put it into something creative, and I’ve learned that even in those times when I might be staring at the wall, or the floor of the subway (oh, to do that again), I’m allowing my brain to get the little vacations it needs in order to be more creative. I’m about to do this again, and I am suggesting some of you might want to experiment with doing the same. (Got no interest in that idea? Click here to skip to the news.)
A year ago, I essentially didn’t come back – to social media, that is. I decided to take all of my saved time from social media and use it to increase the frequency of this newsletter. I began writing almost weekly posts – not just here at Sub-Genre, because I also contributed guest posts to Brand Storytelling and some other places. But in general, I wrote more and my audience kept growing and I got more feedback, and was much happier. Behind the scenes, I also focused on more of my own creative writing and journaling, and didn’t miss the social media feed one bit. Mind you – I didn’t unplug from news and become a completely clueless human being – I still read two newspapers in print every morning, and (when not on vacation) read countless online news, blogs, etc. but I just skipped the social feed.
Every now & then, I would post one of my newsletters on social media, but usually on LinkedIn, which is more work related, and very seldom on Twitter or Facebook. But I was not an engaged/participatory poster – which is bad practice, I know, but I had to keep my sanity – and would just post, manage any client pages real-quick and then get out without perusing the feed at all. And I get more feedback off social media too - via email, mainly. Ok, my cheat was that I would post to Instagram every now and then, and look at the feed for five minutes, but even that was rare. I deleted all of the other apps from my phone.
That was B.C. Once covid hit, I kept up the writing, but let myself slip back into the feed. We were all sheltering in place, and I wanted to keep up with my friends. And a lot of that was good – I wouldn’t have known about some people’s struggles with the virus, or of other’s struggles with sourdough, without it. And it wasn’t all personal, several film-industry friends started up very good groups focused on responding to the crisis, and those were quite helpful. And I have loved things like going back on TikTok and finding the incredible talents of people like Jeff Wright or Maria DeCotis on IG, and IGTV theater from the 24Hr Plays #viralmonologues, and comedians saving comedy clubs like Mike Birbiglia,(or what we're trying to do for #pausedfilms on my movie). And I think those people using social media creatively are helping to change the world for the better.
But along with all that good, there has been some bad – at least for me. The worst part is probably the vitriol. From all sides. I get it – we have now lost over 100,000 lives in the US alone (as the NYT captured so well) mainly because of a botched response at the top, and that can piss you off, among other things. And I’m also worried, because the vitriol of the right is much more prevalent. You can’t scroll TikTok for more than ten minutes without encountering some idiot yelling about masks, but aside from NowThis, I don’t see much UGC countering it from the left. But I get enough anger to last me more than a day just reading the news. I don’t need endless variations of the same stuff the rest of the day from everyone else (I am not saying people shouldn’t do this, just that I don’t need to see all of it). Trust me – the anger I need to sustain my protests or my art of dissent is more than well informed by the news I consume. The social media anger around politics has added plenty to my angst, but zero to my fire.
The biggest problem is that even with the good and the bad, it is a time suck that steals time from my brain’s need to disengage to be creative. I can feel it, literally, in my bones. In fact, I am almost convinced that all of social media is an accidental plot to steal away the time we need for contemplation, creativity and real innovation. I say accidental because I don’t believe in conspiracy theories, but you could build quite a few here – that’s not my goal.
My grandmother used to say that gardening brought you closer to God. I am not a religious person – or even spiritual, you hippies – but she was right. As monks, meditators, swimmers (that’s my religion), runners, and many others can tell you, she was right because you need to empty your mind to really get anywhere. Checking the feed, quelling the urge by glancing at the phone, and responding to one last post is not allowing my brain the emptiness it needs.
Similarly, I’ve always argued that one reason many nonprofits find it hard to innovate is that they don’t have the “monetary breathing room” to think differently and get out of their rut and dream up something new. The one time I was able to be innovative in my thinking as a nonprofit leader was when I inherited a nonprofit that was going nowhere fast, but had a board that gave it enough money that they could give me three months to contemplate its future, and change its direction. That’s contributed, I think, to the lack of innovation among many arts and film organizations right now. Again, not to be misunderstood – there is innovation happening, I’m not talking about everyone here. But many folks don’t have time to innovate because the house is on fire. For me, stuck at home (in a very privileged position, I am quite aware), social media is adding fuel to the fire analogy and sucking the air out of the room that might spark my creativity. How’s that for not being creative?
But seriously, I’ve come to realize that if I want to come out of this with better ideas for how to build the future I want to see, I need to be operating at maximum creativity. I’ve done an informal audit of my life over the last few weeks, and a lot of things have helped me in that regard, but not social media, and any collateral/accidental good is outweighed by the bad. On top of that, even if nothing creative or innovative comes out of any down-time from social media, I’ve decided it will surely be offset by the other positive of just having more time to focus on things that matter to me more – like my wife, my family and my mental health.
I am writing this from a place of privilege. I know that, and also know that even acknowledging it doesn’t change that it’s true. While my client work is down, and I have a film stuck in limbo, my situation is vastly better than that of so many others. And while I will take some of the gained time from not being on social to do more volunteering (via phone), I’m not pretending, or under any delusions that I’ll be changing the world.  But I am quite sure that I’ll change my world – my personal world – for the better by spending less time on social media and more time doing things that matter more to me. And if that small subset of the world who bothers to read this every week sees an improvement in my writing, then that’s good enough for me.
I do know from experience that disengaging from the social webs can increase my productivity, my creativity and my happiness. So from now – Memorial Day (when this was written) – to Labor Day – I’m taking a social media vacation. I’ll keep writing, hell maybe even more. And I will stay informed via news and politically/socially engaged in other ways. In spite of my skepticism about Zoom panels, I’ll keep doing those and will watch a few. Some clients still contact me on LinkedIn, so I will have to check for that a bit, but for the most part, I’ll be off the social webs. Why am I telling you here? Because they’ve become so ubiquitous that everyone assumes you’re always there, and I need to point it out. It’s also a way to keep myself honest.
But I also recommend that anyone who has made it this far into this long post considers some form of unplugging as well. You don’t have to go cold turkey like a social media AA. Tiffany Shlain does it once a week as a digital detox Shabbat, and she just wrote an excellent Op-Ed about it for USA Today (we must be on the same wavelength this week). It may seem counterintuitive to unplug at a time when those lucky enough to be safely home and with broadband are missing friends. But covid is hard even for those of us lucky but not in the 1% - a lot of people I know say they are doing ten times as much work for 50% less pay (and that’s still considered lucky). Just like some people are realizing that their quarantinis might not be contributing to their sanity, I’d suggest that getting off the social feed can be a much needed recharge for other parts of your life. And if you are in the creative industries, in any of the numerous roles that might encompass, I think we all need more of your creativity – either during or after this mess.
Creativity, innovation, insight, inspiration, hell – even well-targeted rage -  comes from many things, but I’ve found it to definitely come hand in hand with being more disconnected. For some, it’s just sitting down in front of the screen (or paper) until you write that novel, poem, short story, political screed or script. For me, it’s that too, but also about the little down times when your mind wanders. Once the urge to pick up the phone and check the feed goes away, those little moments come more often and your mind wanders more, and it’s never once led me to something less interesting than anything I’ve found via the endless scroll.
A&E IndieFilms Speakeasy:
Online Festival Strategy for Documentary Filmmakers

I'll be speaking on this great panel next week:

As more festivals make the move online, documentary directors are left questioning, what is the right path for their films? Join us for a discussion on emerging strategies for nonfiction filmmakers, where we’ll tackle the most pressing concerns and questions about the changing festival landscape.
Moderator: Deirdre Haj, Full Frame director
Panelists: Josh Braun, co-president of Submarine EntertainmentRamona S. Diaz, filmmaker, CineDiaz Brian Newman, founder of Sub-Genre (me!).

Register today and learn more about the panelists joining the discussion.

Stuff I'm Reading


VR Production is Gonna be Big: I was literally just about to write a post about the upcoming VR studio revolution, but Richard Janes beat me to it, so go read his article. People think this is just gonna be for the Mandalorians of the world, but I already know of producers setting up such studios for smaller films, indies, made for TV movies, and more. And as the examples in Richard's article show, low-budget indie folks are already experimenting here too. 

Reimagining Film Festivals Panel Now Online- The panel I spoke on last week about reimagining film festivals is now online, posted by Dear Producer on Vimeo. I joined alongside three of my favorite producers - Marilyn Ness, Karin Chien and Rebecca Green. 

AMC Entertainment - Will it Fail or Thrive? Seeking Alpha has the rundown, and about 60% of the bet is on acquisition or folding in some way. I agree with the author, and expect an acquisition soon, probably from a major like Amazon.

Can a Film have Social Impact? Yes, says the star of Roma - In an excellent op-ed for the NYT, Yalitza Aparicio, the lead from Roma, speaks to the way the film impacted Mexico and the very real changes, such as "On May 14, 2019, a few months after the Oscars ceremony, in which “Roma” won three awards, Mexico’s Congress unanimously approved a bill granting the two million domestic workers in the country rights to social protections and a written employment contract, along with law-mandated benefits such as paid vacation days, Christmas bonuses and days off." Which also led to calls for reform in the US. 

What Does the Film Industry Think about the Future of Exhibition? Stephen Follows did a survey to find out what filmmakers, exhibitors, sales agents and others think is gonna happen next (or should). Guess what? There were differences of opinion.

Filmmakers, got any questions for festivals? The Film Fest Alliance has a panel later today with a few different festival directors, and the purpose is to answer filmmaker's questions - about the new festival models, or even the old ones. And it's a good group of festivals. They might also report on their Film Festival Alliance Day, which has been an exciting new model to explore.

The New Model Film Fest is Great and Here to Stay, says Peter Broderick in his always optimistic and well-thought newsletter. He gives a great rundown of how CPH:DOX made the quick transition to an all online fest, and how this changes the paradigm for the future. I agree with almost all that he says, but... many things, such as a filmmaker being able to build a bigger online audience/fan-base, will only work if festivals listen to him and start building the infrastructure to help make these things a reality, and... they gotta survive to make that happen. Good reading, though.

Some movies are making (relatively) good money at the drive-in box office - The Drive In works for some movies - as you've probably been hearing, but AV Club has some numbers. No surprise that genre fare is doing well.

Amazon could be a huge threat to the gaming industry - Yahoo Finance covers the launch of Amazon's first big budget game, Crucible, and how their acquisition of Twitch in 2014 leaves them with a trajectory to completely disrupt the gaming industry. 

University Project Shows Hot/Cold Tempature Change VR Research - Upload writes on how a college project is breaking ground in VR tech using scents to mimic temperature changes; as Facebook shows a Prototype AR/VR Interface designed to Replace your Laptop.
Branded Content
TikTok's Augmented Reality Ad-Format is Gonna Be Disruptive - Says Forbes.  Brands will be able to insert interactive elements that consumers can then re-use. DigiDay explains it in more detail.

The Atlantic's Layoffs may sound the death-knell for video and live events - Bad news from NiemanLab in analyzing how these layoffs mainly hit these departments, and may signal worse news for other publishers who hoped this would be the holy grail. While technically not just branded content, I think it's important for this sector to consider as well.

Do Audiences Mind Brands Funding Film? No, says a bunch of advertising people to PR Week at the...Brand Awards. Ok, I'm only slightly teasing here because I was on the jury for these awards and know all of the speakers and organizers, and also believe that a good film, which is transparent about its nature, by a brand can be acceptable to lots of audiences. But I do find the set-up here to be kinda funny. Why don't we survey audiences instead? Anyway, as said in the article, it's hard for anyone to make a good film, so kudos to the brands that are making the good ones.

How Social Distancing is Sparking more Creative Content - Despite the limitations that come with quarantine, content creators have been making successful content not by pushing against those limitations, but by embracing them. 

No, Broadband has NOT been a success during the crisis, and the FCC hasn't been good for us - go figure. In a well-titled post from Mike Masnick - Beware Of Op/Eds Falsely Claiming The US Internet Only Works During A Pandemic Because Lobbyists Neutered The FCC, he points out that the digital divide continues. In fact, "The pandemic has been making it very clear that might not have been a great idea. It has also brought renewed attention to the fact that 42 million Americans lack access to any broadband whatsoever despite the US having thrown endless billions at US telecom monopolies. There are millions more who can't afford service because captured regulators have intentionally turned a blind eye to monopoly domination of the sector and the lack of competition, high prices, and terrible customer service that routinely results." Read the full article if you want blood to boil.
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