Doc (and Art-Film) Blocking: How Algorithmic Content Moderation is Hurting Indie Films
You have to look hard to find a trailer for the recent release of Smoke Sauna Sisterhood, Estonia’s entry for this year’s Best International Feature Film category, on Facebook and Instagram — and forget about clips. Even though the lyrical documentary about women in an Estonian sauna has won numerous top prizes around the world—Best Directing at Sundance 2023; Best Documentary at San Francisco International; Best Documentary at the 2023 European Film Awards; Best Cinematography at IDFA 2024—many of the film’s artful moving images of women’s bodies were banned by Meta’s algorithms, and the U.S. distributor Greenwich Entertainment had to rely on a static image to promote the film on the platforms.
Not only was it “super frustrating,” says Greenwich Entertainment’s Ed Arentz, but the ad blocking “no doubt impacted engagement significantly,” he claims. “And there really aren’t other cost-effective paid media options out there.”
Indeed, in an age where digital marketing and distribution is the most widespread and efficient way to reach audiences, many independent filmmakers and small distribution companies are complaining that platform content restrictions are hurting their business. What’s more, the company’s strict policies have even created an industry-wide chill, with some executives saying they won’t even acquire “edgy” new films because they know they won’t be able to market or release them widely online.
Most prominently, Hedwig and the Angry Inch director John Cameron Mitchell’s 2006 follow-up, the NC-17-rated Shortbus—recently remastered and re-released by Oscilloscope Laboratories in 2022—was banned from both Amazon Prime Video and Tubi. Only a week before its launch date on Amazon Prime, Oscilloscope head of digital and home entertainment Tom Sladek discovered “the film was not available due to ‘content issues,’” he says. When Sladek tried to investigate what happened, he received a boilerplate automated response outlining the company’s content policies.
“The sad fact of the matter is that Amazon still accounts for an outsized portion of the digital transactional business,” says Sladek, “so when they arbitrarily pull down titles, or worse, don’t even make titles available from the jump, we definitely feel it, as by extension do the film makers.” Sladek notes a range of films—such as Eugene Jarecki’s The King, Andrea Arnold’s acclaimed Wuthering Heights remake, and Estonia’s 2017 Oscar submission, a horror fantasy called November (what’s with the Estonian films?)—have all been removed from Amazon Prime.
However, the more widespread issue has to do with the marketing and promotion of independent films on new media giants such as Amazon, Apple, and Meta, with key art and video campaigns often getting restricted. Oscilloscope head of marketing Nick Camacho recalls one memorable example when ads for their 2016 Colombian Oscar nominee Embrace of the Serpent, which featured an indigenous man in a loin cloth, were rejected multiple times by Meta.
And it’s gotten worse, says Michael Belkewitch, Senior Director of Social Media at digital agency Submersive Media, who was hired for Greenwich on the Smoke Sauna Sisterhood campaign, and has worked for a range of companies, both big and small, for the last decade.
“It’s become harder because the reasoning has become vaguer over time,” he explains. “It’s no longer a case where the content has to be sexually explicit to get flagged. It can simply suggest sexual content and that’s enough now.” Any kind of nudity, even non-sexual, can be struck down by the platforms, he says, referring to Smoke Sauna Sisterhood. “And especially in recent years, any sort of female receiving sexual pleasure, or even being perceived to receive pleasure, now gets flagged.”
Once an ad is flagged and blocked, filmmakers and marketers typically can re-submit a new version. But because the process is typically automated, it’s not always clear what is the offending material. “It’s like a game of whack a mole,” says Belkewitch. “Is there a quick shot of someone smoking? So you cut that out. Is it the characters kissing? And then you cut that out.”
Savvy marketers can bypass the type of paid social media advertising and trailering that is subject to these policies altogether by creating viral “organic” content that works on its own. But for most film releases, paid advertising is a necessary assurance to spread the word.
And such marketing has proved particularly onerous for independents. “If you’re a smaller company,” says Belkewitch, “and your movie is a little edgy—or even sexually suggestive—you’re going to get flagged more easily than the studios.” If an ad gets flagged, people can appeal, “but the back-and-forth appeal process is going to be longer if you’re at a smaller company,” he adds.
Belkewitch says appeals can take anywhere from an hour to two-to-three days to get resolved, but those 48 hours can be especially crucial if a rejection occurs right on the eve of a film’s launch.
That’s what happened recently during Utopia’s recent release of Divinity, a 2023 Sundance sci-fi horror acquisition. “Even though we had delivered the artwork weeks earlier,” says Utopia’s head of marketing Kyle Greenberg, “we heard from [Amazon] on the day the film was coming out that the ad work was rejected because the character appeared to be in a ‘torture chair.’”
The Divinity ad rejection was particularly surprising, not only because the reasoning seemed arbitrary given the images, but also that many marketers say that horror film imagery is widely accepted in paid trailers and advertising on the platforms. Belkewitch, who works on campaigns for horror labels IFC Midnight and Shudder, says “We’ve worked on hundreds of horror films and we’ve delivered just the most gruesome things—and I always think it might be too violent—and they get through.”
According to distribution and marketing executives, larger studios more often have a dedicated “marketing specialist” or “ad manager” that can make all the difference in getting ads approved. Without human representatives, independent filmmakers and distributors say the platforms have often threatened to close their accounts altogether for trying to appeal too many rejections.
At Oscilloscope, Sladek says that “in theory” they have a contact at Amazon, “but as it’s pretty clear the company wants to automate the process as much as possible,” he says. “This individual has little to no time for us. In fact, when I do reach out, I usually receive no answer whatsoever. And on the exceptionally rare occasions I do get a response, the help given is non-existent.” Repeated attempts by Filmmaker to contact Amazon representatives via email received no response.
According to Matthew Delman, who founded digital marketing company 3rd Impression, it’s clear that companies and individuals that spend less have access to less customer service. “I’ve seen companies who started spending less lose their account manager,” he says. Though Delman works with a lot of filmmakers directly, as an agency with many clients, he has the benefit of having a human representative at Meta.
Utopia’s Greenberg feels no such benefits and claims independent companies are continually treated unfairly. “Even when we go to great lengths to de-sex the sexiest of films,” continues Greenberg, “we still run into issues and then find ourselves being inauthentic when we remain confident we aren’t showing anything that isn’t already seen on all of these same platforms.” Greenberg cites last year’s campaign ads for Lena Dunham’s Sharp Stick being disapproved for being “non-family safe.”
When Utopia’s consulting agency Collective Circle recently tried to promote Kit Redstone and Arran Shearing’s King Baby, which just premiered at this year’s Rotterdam Film Festival, Letterboxd agreed to premiere the poster—which shows one of the character’s bare butts— in their Instagram feed, but Meta removed the post and temporarily locked Letterboxd out of their account. Even when they covered over the man’s ass with a black circle, the poster was still rejected.
By comparison, Greenberg points to A24’s poster and trailer for their new release Love Lies Bleeding, which are explicitly sexual, and widely available on A24’s Facebook and Instagram pages with no issue. “If we posted these ourselves, I’m fairly confident we would run into rejections,” says Greenberg. “What is the difference between showing half a boob and covering up a butt and showing a guy’s back?”
Jon Gerrans, co-head of Strand Releasing, the venerable decades-old distribution company known for releasing art-house and queer films, agrees. “There’s a total double standard,” he says. In complaining directly to the platforms in the past, “We would often point out similar shots in bigger movies, and how can a scene that is showing the same position and sexual acts be acceptable between a man and a woman and then not acceptable with two men doing the exact same thing?” Gerrans says. “We’ve even been rejected for fake penises,” he adds.
Gerrans says this has happened less recently, primarily because they just don’t take on as many risqué films these days. He estimates that Strand passes on one-to-three films every year that he thinks have both commercial and artistic value, but because of online content policies, he can’t take the risk “if I am not able to get them onto digital platforms.” He adds, “and I am not going to ask the director to edit the film if the sexual content is important to the film.”
While Gerrans notes their recent re-releases of Gregg Araki classics didn’t face ad blocking, he points to the recent releases of other arthouse films, including Emily Atef’s poignant French drama More than Ever, whose trailer was flagged and blocked due to a one-second glimpse of the terminally ill protagonist and her partner joyfully jumping naked into a lake.
Elizabeth Woodward, producer of Another Body, the 2023 SXSW award-winning doc about a college student who discovers deepfake pornography of herself circulating online, also faced several hurdles marketing the film online. While the Utopia release and its trailer doesn’t include any explicit imagery, it does show websites where the deepfake content is hosted, which were flagged by Meta as graphic. The team had to quickly scramble to re-edit all of their promotional materials, blurring anything that could be seen as offensive or implying pornography, but that was also rejected.
According to Ian Tarbert, who heads up marketing firm Tarbert Digital and was hired for Oscilloscope’s release of Another Body, a 30-second cut was eventually approved by Meta for the remainder of the theatrical release, but the very same piece was then rejected weeks later during the campaign for the digital launch.
Such confusion seems to confirm the arbitrariness of Meta’s content policies. Similarly, the rules are also seemingly incompatible with any film or documentary setting out to expose anything controversial, as the algorithmic content moderation can’t tell the difference between a well-meaning film from the subject it is exposing. In a similar way, recent reports have shown how breast cancer survivors trying to raise awareness through social media are frequently shut down because the A.I. software flags the images as pornographic.
When Tracy Droz Tragos was trying to promote Plan C, her latest documentary about abortion pill access in the U.S., she also faced similar pushback from Meta, because anything having to do with the word “abortion” was flagged, “which is really hard to avoid when you have a film about abortion access and abortion pills,” she says.
Political documentaries can go through an elaborate process on Meta to register as a kind of verified human-driven organization—complete with address and phone numbers, available to the public—which allows for the running of social-issue related ads. Tragos eventually employed a company called Fever Content to run such ads for the film. But she also learned some creative tricks employed by the kinds of abortion advocates she was profiling—such as spelling the word “abortion” as “aborshun,” or “ab0rti0n” with zeroes—to work around automatic censoring protocols. For Tragos, it was “soul crushing,” she says, to have a film that was created explicitly to stand against censorship and the suppression of information be subject to the same kind of restrictions.
During his 10 years working in marketing and distribution at companies from Gunpowder & Sky to Utopia, Greenberg says the landscape is “becoming even more increasingly restrictive in a scary way,” he says. And he’s particularly upset how the systems in place “put already disadvantaged independents with smaller budgets and less advertising avenues at an even further and very great disadvantage,” he says, “especially when trying to showcase non-homogenized art in a landscape becoming more and more homogenized.”
Correction: An earlier version of this piece misstated the name of the company rejecting the artwork for Divinity. That company was Amazon.