Everyone you know is a Disney princess, which means AR is queen

This weekend, all of your friends morphed one by one into animated, Pixar-inspired characters. This isn’t a fever dream, and you’re not alone.

On Thursday, Snapchat released a Cartoon 3D Style Lens, which uses AR to make you look like a background character from “Frozen.” Naturally, even though TikTok’s own AR cartoon effects aren’t quite as convincing as Snapchat’s, people are turning to TikTok to share videos of themselves as Disney princesses, because of course they are.

This isn’t the first time that a Disney-esque AR trend has gone viral. In August 2020, Snapchat had 28.5 million new installs, which was its biggest month since May 2019, when it got 41.2 million new installs. It might not be a coincidence that in early August 2020, Snapchat released the Cartoon Face lens, which users realized could be used to “Disneyfy” their pets – the tag #disneydog got 40.9 million views across platforms on TikTok. Then, Snapchat struck viral gold again in December, when they released the Cartoon lens, which rendered more realistic results for human faces than the previous iteration.

According to Sensor Tower, Snapchat’s global installs continued to climb month-over-month throughout the rest of 2020, though installs slightly declined in December. Still, Snapchat got 36 million downloads that month. Now, after the newest Cartoon Style 3D lens went viral again, Snapchat hit number 6 on the App Store’s free apps charts, compared to TikTok’s number 2 slot. Still, Snapchat downloads in May were 32 million, down from 34 million in April, while TikTok saw 80.3 million installs in May, up from 59.3 million in April.

Image Credits: Snapchat, screenshots by TechCrunch

But there’s a new app in the number 1 slot that also made an impact on this weekend’s cartoon explosion. Released in March, Voilà AI Artist is yet another platform that turns us into cartoon versions of ourselves. Unlike the AR-powered effects on Snapchat or TikTok, Voilà is a photo editor. Users upload a selfie, and after watching an ad (the ad-free version costs $3 per week), it reveals what you would look like as a cartoon.

Voilà AI Artist was only downloaded 400 times globally in March 2021. By May, the app surpassed 1 million downloads, and during the first two weeks of this month alone, the app has been downloaded over 10.5 million times.

Again, like the repetitive iterations on the “Disneyfy” trend, apps like Voilà aren’t new. FaceApp went viral in 2019, showing people what they’ll look like when they’re old, graying, and wrinkled. The app became the center of a privacy controversy, since it uploaded users’ photos to the cloud to edit their selfies with AI. FaceApp made a statement that it “might store updated photos in the cloud” for “performance and traffic reasons,” but that “most images” are deleted “within 48 hours.” Still, this ambiguous language set off the warning bells, urging us to think about the potentially nefarious implications of seeing what we’ll look like in sixty years. Two years earlier, FaceApp put out a “hotness” filter, which made users’ skin lighter – FaceApp apologized for its racist AI. Voilà, which is owned by Wemagine.AI LLP in Canada, has also been criticized for its AI’s eurocentrism. As these apps grow in popularity, they can also uphold some of our culture’s most harmful biases.

Image Credits: Voilà

Like FaceApp, Voilà requires an internet connection to use the app. Additionally, its terms outline that users grant the company “a non-exclusive, worldwide, royalty-free, sublicensable, and transferable license to host, store, use in any way, display, reproduce, modify, adapt, edit, publish, and distribute Uploaded and Generated content.” Basically, that means that if you upload an image to the platform, Voilà has the right to use it, but they don’t own it. This isn’t abnormal for these apps – when we upload photos to Instagram, for example, we also grant the platform the right to use our images.

Still, it’s a good thing that apps like Voilà force us to consider what we give up in exchange for the knowledge that we’d make a good Disney princess. Earlier this month, TikTok updated its U.S. privacy policy to dictate that the app “may collect biometric identifiers and biometric information” from users’ content. This includes “faceprints and voiceprints,” terms that TikTok left undefined. When TechCrunch reached Tiktok for comment, they couldn’t confirm why the terms now changed to allow for the automatic collection of biometric data, which refers to any features, measurements, or characteristics of our body that distinguish us, even fingerprints.

It’s no wonder that as Voilà climbed to the number one slot on the App Store, Snapchat re-upped their Pixar-inspired AR lens. Facebook’s own Spark AR platform is rolling out new features, and last week at WWDC, Apple announced a major update to RealityKit, its AR software. But these trends reveal more about our growing comfort with face-altering AR than they do about our nostalgia for Disney.

#app-store, #apple, #apps, #ar, #augmented-reality, #canada, #computing, #disney, #instagram, #internet-culture, #mobile-applications, #photo-editor, #realitykit, #snapchat, #software, #technology, #tiktok, #united-states

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Atomic-backed Jumpcut uses data to advance diversity in film

Jumpcut founder Kartik Hosanagar is a professor at the Wharton School, but about ten years ago, he spent his summer in an unlikely way: he wrote a screenplay. Set in India, his script garnered some interest from producers, but no one took the plunge to fund a film by a first-time Indian director.

Now, films featuring diverse casts are gaining traction – this year, Chloé Zhao became the first woman of color, and only the second woman ever, to win the Academy Award for Best Director. At the previous ceremony, Bong Joon-ho’s “Parasite” became the first non-English language film to win the Academy Award for Best Picture. Still, according to a recent report from McKinsey & Company, Hollywood leaves $10 billion on the table each year due to the industry’s lack of diversity.

“How do you make a bet on underrepresented voices or underrepresented stories?” asked Hosanagar. “While there’s awareness, there’s no action, because nobody knows how to do it. So that’s what got me into Jumpcut. It’s this rare company where 20 years of my work on data science and entrepreneurship meets with who I am outside of my work.”

At Wharton, Hosanagar is the Faculty Lead for the AI for Business program. He was a founder of Yodle, which was acquired by web.com for $340 million in 2016. But for this next venture, he wanted to tackle Hollywood’s homogeneity hands-on by using his experience with data science to de-risk media projects from underrepresented creators.

“The vision is to create a more inclusive era of global content creation,” he said to TechCrunch.

Hosanagar started working on Jumpcut in 2019, but today, the Atomic-backed company launches out of stealth as the first data science-driven studio working to elevate underrepresented voices in film. Already the studio has 12 TV and film projects in the works with partners like 36-time Academy Award nominee Lawrence Bender (“Pulp Fiction,” “Good Will Hunting”), Emmy Award-winning producer Shelby Stone (“Bessie,” “The Chi”), and showrunner Scott Rosenbaum (“Chuck,” “The Shield”).

Jumpcut models itself after Y-Combinator in its approach, pairing emerging talent with buyers and producers. First, Jumpcut uses an algorithm to scan hundreds of thousands of videos from platforms like YouTube, Reddit, and Wattpad to find promising talent. The algorithm narrows down the extensive field to locate creators who are consistently finding new audiences and increasing their engagement. Then, the Jumpcut team – including advisors and veterans from Netflix, Buzzfeed, CBS, Sony, and WarnerMedia – identifies who to connect with.

In one example of the algorithm’s success, Hosanagar pointed to Anna Hopkins, an actress who has appeared on shows like “The Expanse” and “Shadowhunters.” Though Hopkins has found some success in front of the camera, she also wants to write.

“We discovered some of her short films, and the algorithm identified it because people had strong emotional reactions in the comments, like, ‘heartwarming but in a positive way,’ or ‘give me a tissue,’” Hosanagar explained. Since Hopkins isn’t publicly known as a writer, she assumed that Jumpcut found her through a television network she had pitched a script to, but that wasn’t the case. “We said, ‘no, our algorithms found you.’”

Once a creator is identified by Jumpcut, they can A/B test their ideas with audiences of over 100,000 potential viewers, which helps the company prove to funders through data science that these ideas can sell.

“The idea there is that we don’t wait for creators to get discovered by the traditional Hollywood agencies, because that requires the creators to have access to the top agents, and that again brings you back to the old boys club,” Hosanagar said. “We’re automating a lot of that process and discovering these people who are creating great stories that are resonating with audiences, not waiting for some Hollywood agency to discover them.”

Once the creators have an idea that tests well with a wide audience, they’re invited to Jumpcut Collective, an incubator program that helps artists develop an idea from a concept to a pitch in 6 weeks. Then, Jumpcut helps match projects with producing partners and buyers.

So far, Jumpcut has hosted three incubator programs. Out of the twelve Jumpcut projects currently underway, Hosanagar says that nine or ten of them came out of the incubator. One project, for example, is now being developed in partnership with Disney’s Asia Pacific Division.

Jumpcut isn’t disclosing the amount raised in this round of seed funding, but confirms that Atomic is the only investor in their seed round.

Hosanagar is joined on the project by Dilip Rajan, his former student and a former product manager at BuzzFeed, and Winnie Kemp, a former SVP of Originals at Super Deluxe and CBS. There, she developed and executive produced “Chambers,” the first show with a Native American lead, and “This Close,” the first show with deaf creators and cast. Most of their funding will go toward payroll, which includes engineers, data scientists, and product managers on the product side of the company, as well as development executives on the creative side, who run the incubator.

#actress, #advisors, #artificial-intelligence, #atomic, #buzzfeed, #chuck, #director, #disney, #executive, #founder, #funding, #hollywood, #india, #jumpcut, #media, #netflix, #producer, #product-manager, #sony, #startups, #svp, #tc, #warnermedia, #wattpad, #writer, #youtube

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Apple introduces SharePlay for co-watching, streaming, and screen sharing over FaceTime

As part of its FaceTime update in iOS 15, Apple introduced a new set of features designed for shared experiences — like co-watching TV shows or TikTok videos, listening to music together, screen sharing and more — while on a FaceTime call. The feature, called SharePlay, enables real-time connections with family and friends while you’re hanging out on FaceTime, Apple explained, by integrating access to apps from within the call itself.

Image Credits: Apple

Apple demonstrated the new feature during its Worldwide Developer Conference keynote this afternoon, showing how friends could press play in Apple Music to listen together, as the music streams to everyone on the call. Shared playback controls also let anyone on the call play, pause or jump to the next track.

The company also showed off watching video from its Apple TV+ streaming service, where the video was synced in real-time between call participants. This was a popular trend during the pandemic, as people looked to virtually watch movies and TV with family and friends, prompting services like Hulu and Amazon Prime Video to add native co-watching features.

But Apple’s SharePlay goes much further than streaming music and video from just Apple’s own services.

The company announced a set of launch partners for SharePlay including Disney+, Hulu, HBO Max, NBA, Twitch, TikTok, MasterClass, ESPN+, Paramount+, and Pluto TV. It’s also making an API available to developers so they can integrate their own apps with SharePlay.

Image Credits: Apple

Users can screen share via SharePlay, too, so you can do things like browse Zillow listings together or show off a mobile gameplay, Apple suggested.

“Screen sharing is also a simple and super effective way to help someone out and answer questions right in the moment, and it works across Apple devices,” noted Apple SVP of Software Engineering, Craig Federighi.

The feature will roll out with iOS 15.

read more about Apple's WWDC 2021 on TechCrunch

#amazon-prime-video, #api, #apple-inc, #apple-music, #apple-tv, #apps, #computing, #craig-federighi, #disney, #espn, #facetime, #hbo, #hulu, #ios, #itunes, #mobile-applications, #national-basketball-association, #nba, #software, #technology, #tiktok, #twitch, #wwdc-2021, #zillow

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JJ Abrams: Lack of plan in Star Wars’ latest trilogy was a “critical” flaw

No, the Collider interview doesn't mention Jar Jar, but who doesn't love an opportunity to put JJ next to Star Wars' other big "JJ"?

Enlarge / No, the Collider interview doesn’t mention Jar Jar, but who doesn’t love an opportunity to put JJ next to Star Wars’ other big “JJ”? (credit: Sam Machkovech / Lucasfilm / Getty Images)

An upcoming interview with filmmaker JJ Abrams will span the entirety of his career, and that means it includes significant statements about his work on the latest Star Wars trilogy. From the sound of things, 17 months of distance from his last Star Wars film, Episode IX: The Rise of Skywalker, have given him either the clarity or the cushion needed to speak frankly on what the film arguably flubbed.

Ahead of the full interview’s publication—which takes advantage of the upcoming 10th-anniversary Blu-ray of Abrams’ Super 8—Collider released an excerpt on Wednesday focusing on his directing and co-writing work on both Episodes VII and IX. The takeaway seems loud and clear: the new trilogy as a whole, which he bookended, would have benefited from more consistency.

Abrams’ quotes in isolation may sound like he’s speaking about the entirety of his career, but they’re specifically in response to Collider’s questions about the director and writer hand-off between entries in the “Rey trilogy.” His first answer includes a bigger-picture estimation about best-laid plans, hinting to issues with a single actor or when “a relationship as written doesn’t quite work.”

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#disney, #disney-plus, #gaming-culture, #jj-abrams, #lucasfilm, #star-wars

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Despite big Marvel and Star Wars shows, Disney+ falls short of targets

Meta-sitcom/adventure series <em>WandaVision</em> was one of Disney+'s most successful recent shows.

Enlarge / Meta-sitcom/adventure series WandaVision was one of Disney+’s most successful recent shows. (credit: YouTube/Disney+)

Analysts expected Disney+ to reach 109 million subscribers in Disney’s most recent financial quarter, but the streaming service fell short, landing at 103.6 million. The shortfall resulted in lower revenues than expected for the company and a small stock price stumble.

Alongside word that Netflix also saw fairly slow growth in its quarter, the news suggests that there is, in fact, a limit to the explosive growth that streaming platforms have experienced amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

Still, Disney is staying the course with its current strategy of pumping out TV series in established Disney brands like Marvel and Star Wars, as well as releasing new motion pictures on the platform at the same time they premiere in theaters.

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#disney, #gaming-culture, #marvel, #movies, #star-wars, #streaming, #tech, #tv

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With new owner Naver, Wattpad looks to supercharge its user-generated IP factory

Toronto-based Wattpad is officially part of South Korean internet giant Naver as of today, with the official close of the $600 million cash and stock acquisition deal. Under the terms of the acquisition, Wattpad will continue to be headquartered in, and operate from Canada, with co-founder and Allen Lau remaining CEO of the social storytelling company and reporting to the CEO of Naver’s Webtoon, Jun Koo Kim.

I spoke to Lau about what will change, and what won’t, now that Wattpad is part of Naver and Webtoon. As mentioned, Wattpad will remain headquartered in Toronto — and in fact, the company will be growing its headcount in Canada under its new owners with significant new hiring.

“For Wattpad itself, last year was one of our fastest growing years in terms of both in terms of revenue and company size,” Lau said. “This year will be even faster; we’re planning to hire over 100 people, primarily in Toronto and Halifax. So in terms of the number of jobs, and the number of opportunities, this puts us on another level.”

While the company is remaining in Canada and expanding its local talent pool, while maintaining its focus on delivering socially collaborative fiction, Lau says that the union with Naver and Webtoon is about more than just increasing the rate at which it can grow. The two companies share unique “synergies,” he says, that can help each better capitalize on their respective opportunities.

“Naver is one of the world’s largest internet companies,” Lau told me. “But the number one reason that this merger is happening is because of Webtoon. Webtoon is the largest digital publisher in the world, and they have over 76 million monthly users. Combined with our 90 million, that adds up to 166 total monthly users — the reach is enormous. We are now by far the leader in this space, in the storytelling space, in both comics and fiction: By far the largest one in the world.”

The other way in which the two companies complement each other is around IP. Wattpad has demonstrated its ability to take its user-generated fiction, and turn that into successful IP upon which original series and movies are based. The company has both a Books and a Studios publishing division, and has generated hits like Netflix’s The Kissing Booth out of the work of the authors on its platform. Increasingly, competing streaming services are looking around for new properties that will resonate with younger audiences, in order to win and maintain subscriptions.

“Wattpad is the IP factory for user generated content,” Lau said. “And Webtoons also have a lot of amazing IP that are proven to build audience, along with all the data and analytics and insight around those. So the combined library of the top IPs that are blockbusters literally double overnight [with the merger]. And not just the size, but the capability. Because before the acquisition, we had our online fiction, we have both publishing business, and we have TV shows and movies, as well; but with the combination, now we also have comics, we also have animation and potentially other capabilities, as well.”

The key to Wattpad’s success with developing IP in partnership with the creators on its platform isn’t just that its’ user-generated and crowd-friendly; Wattpad also has unique insight into the data behind what’s working about successful IP with its fans and readers. The company’s analytics platform can then provide collaborators in TV and movies with unparalleled, data-backed perspective into what should strike a chord with fans when translated into a new medium, and what might not be so important to include in the adaptation. This is what provides Wattpad with a unique edge when going head-to-head with legacy franchises including those from Disney and other megawatt brands.

“No only do we have the fan bases — it’s data driven,” Lau said. “When we adapt from the fiction on our platform to a movie, we can tell the screenwriter, ‘Keep chapter one, chapter five and chapter seven, but in seven only the first two paragraphs,’ because that’s what the 200,000 comments are telling us. That’s what our machine learning story DNA technology can tell you this is the insight; where are they excited? This is something unprecedented.”

With Naver and Webtoon, Wattpad gains the ability to leverage its insight-gathering IP generation in a truly cross-media context, spanning basically every means a fan might choose to engage with a property. For would-be Disney competitors, that’s likely to be an in-demand value proposition.

#animation, #canada, #disney, #internet, #machine-learning, #mass-media, #naver, #netflix, #publishing, #streaming-services, #tc, #toronto, #wattpad, #webtoon

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Head, tail, knees and trees (knees and trees)

Some fun ones this week, so let’s get all of those pesky business transactions out of the way first, shall we? I mean, not that tens of millions of dollars changing hands for future robotics technology is boring, he said, tugging at his collar for comedic effect.

Image Credits: Plus One Robotics

Big raise this week for Plus One Robotics. The San Antonio-based company raised a healthy $33 million Series B, bringing its total funding above $40 million. The company mostly traffics in the warehouse and logistics space — obviously a category with a lot of excitement around it after last year’s massive shut down. As many companies have told me, most clients are simply looking for a way to help their footing in the competition against Amazon.

In addition to its massive headcount and seemingly bottomless resources, the e-commerce giant has deployed a huge army of robots in its warehouse. Plus One, for its part, doesn’t make the robots, but rather the vision software that works with them. The company’s product is designed to work across a broad range of robotic arms and grippers, allowing workers to control up to 50 systems at once.

Image Credits: Roam Robotics

We’ve talked about exoskeletons quite a bit on these pages, but Roam offers an interesting alternative to a number of bigger, bulkier and harder products on the market. The company’s latest device I liken to a standard knee brace, with AI and robotic capabilities that assist with movement. Specifically it helps with things like walking up stairs and standing up from a seated position.

And here we have a tiny tree man. Project Kiwi is kind of like Pinocchio if he really leaned into the whole wooden thing in the process of becoming a real boy. Obviously Disney’s going for the (sometimes) littlest Guardian of the Galaxy, Groot, for its latest extremely impressive animatronic.

Matthew was extremely impressed seeing the beautiful little tree guy in action and, living vicariously through some YouTube videos, I definitely have to confirm.

A fun bit of research out of Carnegie Mellon this week. The latest bit of biomimicry is a bit surprising. Obviously Cheetah has been a big inspiration for a number of quadrupedal robots (MIT in particular has a whole lot going in the Cheetah department). Specifically, though, the CMU researchers are looking at the big cat’s tail. Per CMU:

The cheetah’s lightweight furry tail is known as an aerodynamic drag tail; that is, it acts sort of like a parachute. Most robotic tails have high inertia, but the cheetah manages to retain low inertia. Inertia is a physical quality that describes an object’s resistance to changes in motion — high tail inertia means the tail can apply high forces. Aerodynamic tails instead use a different principle — aerodynamic drag — to achieve high forces without a large inertia.

#disney, #plus-one-robotics, #roam, #robotics, #robotics-roundup

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Daily Crunch: Meet Disney Imagineering’s new robot

We get up close with a robotic Groot, SpaceX has a successful astronaut launch and cryptocurrency prices tumble. This is your Daily Crunch for April 23, 2021.

The big story: Meet Disney Imagineering’s new robot

Disney Imagineering’s Project Kiwi represents a real robotics milestone — a free-walking robot that seems to fully capture the personality of the original character. In this case, the original is Groot, the beloved tree character from “Guardians of the Galaxy.”

I’m not just saying that based on the demo video, either. Matthew Panzarino has seen Project Kiwi in person and reports:

The pint-sized character has accurately rendered textures on its face, hands and feet. It’s dressed in a distressed red flight suit that you may remember from the films. And its eyes are expressive as it looks at me and waves. This is the moment, the one that Disney Imagineers and park goers alike have been waiting decades to realize.

Startups, funding and venture capital

SpaceX successfully launches astronauts with a re-used Dragon spacecraft for the first time — This was SpaceX’s second official astronaut delivery mission for NASA.

Hyundai invests in teleoperations startup Ottopia as part of $9M round — Ottopia’s first product is a universal teleoperation platform that allows a human operator to monitor and control any type of vehicle from thousands of miles away.

Introvoke raises $2.7M to power online events that can be embedded anywhere — While there’s been plenty of attention and money lavished on virtual event platforms over the past year, Introvoke co-founder and CEO Oana Manolache predicted that we’re only at the beginning of a “third wave of digital transformation.”

Advice and analysis from Extra Crunch

2021 should be a banner year for biotech startups that make smart choices early — Be wise when managing legal risk and choosing investors.

After going public, once-hot startups are riding a valuation roller coaster — A short meditation on value.

Should you give an anchor investor a stake in your fund’s management company? — A GP stake investor brings significant advantages and disadvantages.

(Extra Crunch is our membership program, which helps founders and startup teams get ahead. You can sign up here.)

Everything else

Crypto market takes a dive with Bitcoin leading the way — Cryptocurrency prices continued to tumble today, with Bitcoin leading the charge.

India restricts American Express from adding new customers for violating data storage rules — In a statement, the Reserve Bank of India said existing customers of either of the two card companies (American Express and Diners Club) will not be impacted by the new order, which goes into effect May 1.

Just one week left to save $100 on TC Early Stage 2021: Marketing & Fundraising — Get ready to join your community of early-inning startup founders for a two-day bootcamp July 8-9.

The Daily Crunch is TechCrunch’s roundup of our biggest and most important stories. If you’d like to get this delivered to your inbox every day at around 3pm Pacific, you can subscribe here.

#daily-crunch, #disney, #entertainment, #robotics

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ILM shows off the new Stagecraft LED wall used for season 2 of ‘The Mandalorian’

The first season of The Mandalorian last year wasn’t just a great show, it was the result of an entirely new paradigm in film and TV production. Stagecraft, the enormous LED-wall volume ILM used to shoot that season has since been expanded and updated to be better, faster, and easier to use.

In a behind-the-scenes video, directors and others from the production weigh in on how the system makes everything easier, and enumerate the improvements for the 2.0 version.

The most recognizable piece of Stagecraft is “the volume,” an enormous space inside a two stories and a roof of high-resolution LED-based displays. With physical sets placed in the center, the feeling of being in a larger space is real — and if you shoot it right, you can’t tell a virtual background from a real one.

Fundamentally this is huge, allowing “on location” shoots to combine with intricate sets (and regardless of weather or travel schedules), but far more gracefully than the soundstages or portable green screens that actors have stood in front of for decades. Not only that but it pulls together many disparate parts of the production process into one shared process.

“What’s wonderful about this system is now everyone is on the same page,” said Robert Rodriguez, who directed several episodes of the show (as well as numerous films), in the ILM video. “It inspires the actors, it inspires the filmmaker to now see what they’re shooting. You know, it’s like you’re painting with the lights on finally.”

But while it would be difficult to call Stagecraft anything but a rousing success, it’s still very much a work in progress. As an end-to-end system it must integrate with dozens of renderers, color suites, cameras, pre- and post-production software, and of course the LED walls themselves, which are always improving.

Producers look at a bank of screens with images from the set of The Mandalorian on them.

Image Credits: ILM

“By the second season, ILM developed some software that was specific to this technology and to what the hardware was capable of,” said Jon Favreau, executive producer of the show and indefatigable patron of new technology in cinema.

There were lots of specific requests from various members of the team, plus the usual bug squashing and performance improvements, leading to an improved workflow. Plus the volume itself has gotten bigger and better.

“It also has forced us into having a more efficient workflow that draws pre-production, post-production, production, all into one continuous pipeline,” Favreau said. Not only is it more natural and better looking than ordinary location or green screen techniques, it’s faster — they’re working through 30-50 percent more script pages per day, which any producer will tell you is unbelievable.

I plan to dig deeper into the technical improvements and pipelines that ILM, Disney, Unreal, and other companies have put together to make this all possible. In the meantime you can watch the behind the scenes video below:

#cinema-tech, #disney, #entertainment, #ilm, #industrial-light-and-magic, #led-walls, #media, #stagecraft, #star-wars, #the-mandalorian, #unreal, #unreal-engine

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Consumers spent $32B on apps in Q1 2021, the biggest quarter on record

The pandemic’s remarkable impact on the app industry has not slowed down in 2021. In fact, consumer spending in apps has hit a new record in the first quarter of this year, a new report from App Annie indicates. The firm says consumers in Q1 2021 spent $32 billion on apps across both iOS and Google Play, up 40% year-over-year from Q1 2020. It’s the largest-ever quarter on record, App Annie also notes.

Last year saw both app downloads and consumer spend increase, as people rapidly adopted apps under coronavirus lockdowns — including apps for work, school, shopping, fitness, entertainment, gaming and more. App Annie previously reported a record 218 billion in global downloads and record consumer spend of $143 billion for the year.

Image Credits: App Annie

These trends have continued into 2021, it seems, with mobile consumers spending roughly $9 billion more in Q1 2021 compared with Q1 2020. Although iOS saw larger consumer spend than Android in the quarter — $21 billion vs. $11 billion, respectively — both stores grew by the same percentage, 40%.

But the types of apps driving spending were slightly different from store to store.

On Google Play, Games, Social and Entertainment apps saw the strongest quarter-over-quarter growth in terms of consumer spending, while Games, Photo & Video, and Entertainment apps accounted for the strongest growth on iOS.

By downloads, the categories were different between the stores, as well.

On Google Play, Social, Tools, and Fiance saw the biggest download growth in Q1, while Games, Finance and Social Networking drove download growth for iOS. Also on Google Play, other top categories included Weather (40%) and Dating (35%), while iOS saw Health and Fitness app downloads grow by a notable 25% — likely a perfect storm as New Year’s Resolutions combined with continued stay-at-measures that encouraged users to find new ways to stay fit without going to a gym.

Image Credits: App Annie

The top apps in the quarter remained fairly consistent, however. TikTok beat Facebook, in terms of downloads, and was followed by Instagram, Telegram, WhatsApp and Zoom. But the short-form video app only made it to No. 2 in terms of consumer spend, with YouTube snagging the top spot. Tinder, Disney+, Tencent Video, and others followed. (Netflix has dropped off this chart as it now directs new users to sign up directly, rather than through in-app purchases).

Image Credits: App Annie

Though Facebook’s apps have fallen behind TikTok by downloads, its apps — including Facebook, WhatsApp, Messenger and Instagram — still led the market in terms monthly active users (MAUs) in the quarter. TikTok, meanwhile, ranked No. 8 by this metric.

Up-and-comers in the quarter included privacy-focused messaging app Signal, which saw the strongest growth in the quarter by both downloads and MAUs — a calculation that App Annie calls “breakout apps.”  Telegram closely followed, as users bailed from mainstream social after the Capitol riot. Another “breakout” app was MX TakaTak, which is filling the hole in the market for short-form video that resulted from India’s ban  of TikTok.

Image Credits: App Annie

Gaming, meanwhile, drove a majority of the quarter’s spending, as usual, accounting for $22 billion of the spend — $13 billion on iOS (up 30% year-over-year) and $9 billion on Android (up 35%). Gamers downloaded about a billion titles per week, up 15% year-over-year from 2020.

Among Us! dropped to No. 2 in the quarter by downloads, replaced by Join Clash 3D, while DOP 2: Delete One Part jumped 308 places to reach No. 3.

Image Credits: App Annie

Roblox led by consumer spend, followed by Genshin Impact, Coin Master, Pokemon Go and others. And although Among Us! dropped on the charts by downloads, it remained No. 1 by monthly active users in the quarter, followed by PUBG Mobile, Candy Crush Saga, Roblox and others.

App Annie notes that the pandemic also accelerated the mobile gaming market, with game downloads outpacing overall downloads by 2.5x in 2020. It predicts that mobile gaming will reach  $120 billion in consumer spending this year, or 1.5x all other gaming formats combined.

#android, #app-annie, #apps, #computing, #disney, #facebook, #google-play, #india, #messenger, #mobile-applications, #netflix, #roblox, #tiktok, #whatsapp

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Star Wars: The Bad Batch trailer arrives ahead of May the Fourth launch

This week’s one-two Disney+ news punch revolves around Star Wars—a PB-and-choc combo of TV series that has so far paid off richly, especially after the shaky conclusion to the franchise’s latest film trilogy.

First up is the newest Star Wars series to debut, coming in barely over a month. We learned last month that new series Star Wars: The Bad Batch is slated to launch on Tuesday, May 4 (huh, we wonder why they picked that date). On Tuesday, Disney followed that news with the premiere of that CGI-animation series’ first trailer, which immediately follows in the footsteps of Clone Wars‘ revival on Disney+ a little over a year ago. The new series also sees longtime Clone Wars steward Dave Filoni return as co-executive producer.

Tailed by Tarkin

Clone Wars‘ seventh season opened by focusing squarely on the Bad Batch, a ragtag group of clone troopers (also known as Clone Force 99) whose mutations turned them into supersoldiers above the rest of the clone fray. Their combination of action-filled missions and comic-relief banter set a solid tone for a season that barreled toward epic set pieces long-teased by Filoni, particularly the Siege of Mandalore.

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#bad-batch, #disney, #disney-plus, #gaming-culture, #obi-wan, #star-wars, #star-wars-the-clone-wars

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‘Black Widow’ and ‘Cruella’ will get Premier Access releases on Disney+

In what looks like both an endorsement of its Premier Access streaming strategy and a tacit acknowledgement that theatrical moviegoing won’t be returning to normal anytime soon, Disney just announced that its movies “Black Widow” and “Cruella” will be coming to Disney+ at the same time that they’re released in theaters.

That means Disney+ subscribers will have the option to pay an additional, one-time $29.99 fee to watch the live action remake of “Cruella” at home on May 28, or to do the same for “Black Widow” on July 9. (The movies will later become available to all Disney+ subscribers at no extra charge.)

Disney first tested out this strategy with the release of the live action “Mulan” last fall, followed by the animated “Raya and the Last Dragon” earlier this month. The studio has released other movies, like Pixar’s “Soul,” directly to Disney+ without an extra fee, and it says it will do the same for Pixar’s “Luca” on June 18.

Other big Disney releases have been pushed back repeatedly — “Black Widow,” for example, was originally supposed to be released on May 1 of last year, and Marvel Studios head Kevin Feige has reportedly resisted sending it straight to Disney+. (This will be the first Marvel Studios film released since the beginning of the pandemic.)

However, Disney executives may only be willing to wait for so long. And because Marvel’s movies and new Disney+ shows are often interconnected, delaying one release can also require pushing back several others at the same time.

As vaccinations continue and COVID-19 case numbers decline from their peaks, movie theaters are reopening in major markets like Los Angeles and New York — but at reduced capacity, with box office numbers still far below what they were pre-pandemic.

In the face of this uncertainty (as well as a general shift to streaming), other Hollywood studios have adopted a variety of hybrid strategies for their 2021 theatrical slates. All Warner Bros. movies will be released simultaneously on HBO Max this year, while Paramount will be bringing its films to Paramount+ in an accelerated fashion, 30 to 45 days after the theatrical release.

#disney, #entertainment, #marvel-studios, #media, #the-walt-disney-co

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Black Widow’s delays will finally end with combined theatrical, Disney+ launch

After losing its initial May 2020 release date to the emerging COVID-19 pandemic, Disney and Marvel Studios’ Black Widow has finally settled on a release strategy: a simultaneous launch in theaters and as a “premier access” purchase on the Disney+ subscription service, both coming Friday, May 28.

Should you choose to watch Black Widow at home, this will require a one-time payment of $30 on top of your Disney+ subscription fee, which will unlock the film for repeat viewings ahead of its eventual release for all base subscribers. The same will apply to Cruella, the live-action prequel to the Disney animated classic 101 Dalmatians, which will get its own theater-and-Disney+ simul-launch on Friday, July 9.

The announcement, as distributed in a Disney press release on Tuesday, notes that this follows the “successful release” of CGI-animated feature Raya and the Last Dragon both in theaters and on Disney+ on March 5—apparently confirming that the decision made dollars and sense for everyone at Disney, following a similar release strategy for 2020’s live-action version of Mulan.

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#black-widow, #disney, #disney-plus, #gaming-culture, #hbo-max, #marvel-studios

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Falcon & Winter Soldier series premiere: More of Disney+‘s slow-burn status quo

How much energy can you muster for a drawn-out superhero option on TV this weekend? In terms of content that favors deliberately paced cinematics over instant, wham-bam action, the DC Comics universe already has a four-hour option capturing headlines—and for good reason.

Hence, HBO Max has mildly spoiled the debut of new Disney+ series The Falcon and the Winter Soldier. The first episode launched Friday, March 19, without the surprise and weirdness factor that came with January’s Wandavision premiere. Without novelty on its side, the series has to stand on more familiar laurels. Thankfully it succeeds at that, but the results don’t quite reach the “rush to watch right now” conversation-starter status Disney+ has enjoyed over the past few months.

Shield retires a shield

This is now Marvel Studios’ second post-“unsnappening” series, and it’s the first to take a more predictable tack on the fallout throughout the Marvel universe. Endgame set this new TV series up in shameless corporate-synergy fashion when Chris Evans handed his Captain America shield to Anthony Mackie (The Falcon) and Sebastian Stan (The Winter Soldier), essentially telling audiences, “Two superheroes will continue a specific plotline—so stay tuuuuned.”

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#disney, #disney-plus, #gaming-culture, #marvel-studios, #tv-streaming

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Why Disney+ only needed 16 months to crack 100 million subscribers

Why Disney+ only needed 16 months to crack 100 million subscribers

Enlarge (credit: Aurich Lawson / Disney)

In the Walt Disney Company’s latest shareholder call, we expected to hear good news about its popular Disney+ service—especially as a highlight for a company otherwise besieged by the realities of a pandemic. Sure enough, the news was incredibly good for the company’s upstart streaming service, with CEO Bob Chapek confirming a tidy threshold: over 100 million subscribers.

Thanks to Disney’s recent fiscal announcements, the number isn’t entirely surprising, considering we saw counts of 86.8 million this past December and 95 million in February. But in two other respects, the number is gargantuan. First, Disney originally projected a four-year plan to get to 90 million subscribers, and that estimate has clearly been blown past.

Second, the other megaton streamer in the conversation, Netflix, needed much longer to cross that alluring 100 million mark: a whopping 10 years. Disney+ only needed 16 months.

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#disney, #disney-plus, #gaming-culture, #netflix, #video-streaming

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Virgin Galactic Chairman Chamath Palihapitiya sells off remaining personal stake in the space company

The man who arguably ushered in the current SPAC rush with the merger of Virgin Galactic with his Social Capital Hedosophia holding company has divested the remainder of his personal holdings in the space tourism company. Chamath Palihapitiya, who serves as the Chairman of Virgin Galactic’s board, still holds 6.2% ownership in the company in partnership with investor Ian Osborne, but his solo holdings are now at zero.

Palihapitiya sold 3.8 million shares in December 2020, noting that he was selling that equity “to help manage [his] liquidity” in order to provide funding for “several new projects starting in 2021.” At the time, Palihapitiya said he “remained committed and excited fore the future of SPCE [Virgin Galactic’s stock ticker on the NYSE].”

The sale this week comprised 6.2 million shares, netting Palihapitiya roughly $213 million in the process. He has yet to comment on this most recent sale, and we’ve reached out to Virgin Galactic for additional context, and will update if we hear back.

Virgin Galactic has had some setbacks in its testing program that pushed the projected date of its first paying commercial tourists flights out into 2022, from an earlier target of sometime this year. The company installed Disney Parks leader Michael Colglazier as its new CEO last July, replacing George Whitesides, who moved into a Chief Space Officer role, before it was revealed Thursday that he’s departing the company.

Space as a sector has been a hotbed of SPAC activity of late, with mergers from a number of companies including Astra, Spire, Rocket Lab, BlackSky, and Momentus announced over the course of the past year. Virgin Galactic, as one of the earliest, will be closely watched by anyone looking for a yard stick by which to measure the tactic. The company’s share value is down just over 5% pre-market, and has been on a steady decline since reaching an all-time peak around mid-February.

#aerospace, #blacksky, #ceo, #chairman, #chamath-palihapitiya, #companies, #corporate-finance, #disney, #george-whitesides, #michael-colglazier, #momentus, #outer-space, #rocket-lab, #social-capital, #space, #tc, #virgin-galactic, #virgin-group

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Netflix to release 41 original Indian shows and movies this year

Netflix said on Wednesday it will roll out 41 Indian films and shows this year, its biggest annual roster of Indian content to date, as the American giant makes further push to win subscribers in the world’s second largest internet market.

The streaming giant, which committed to spending about $420 million on locally produced Indian content in 2019 and 2020, is this year spending significantly more on the new Indian catalog, which is three times larger than the past two years combined.

The new titles feature high-profile Indian actors and directors including Madhuri Dixit, Karan Johar, Manoj Bajpayee, R. Madhavan, Raveena Tandon, Neena Gupta, and Dhanush.

The new roster includes “Bombay Begums,” which follows stories of five women across generations wrestling with desire, ethics, and personal crises, “Decoupled,” a comedy by writer Manu Joseph on India and marriage, and a second season of Emmy-winning drama “Delhi Crime.”

Also in the list are comedy specials that have become immensely popular on streaming services in India. Netflix said comedians including Sumukhi Suresh, Aakaash Gupta, Rahul Dua, and Prashasti Singh — all of whom have participated in comedy shows by Amazon Prime Video — will have shows on the streaming service this year.

Kota Factory, a show that debuted on YouTube about a group of students preparing to compete to get into the prestigious engineering colleges, will premier its second season on Netflix. The Viral Fever, the producer of the show, had collaborated with Indian edtech startup Unacademy, for the first season of the show.

Dice Media’s “Little Things”, which also began its life as native advertisement for a few firms but has since grown into its own show, is getting a fourth season this year.

“Our upcoming lineup features more variety and diversity than we have seen before. From the biggest films and series, to gripping documentaries and reality, and bold comedy formats. We are taking our next big leap in India to bring you more than 40 powerful and irresistible stories from all corners of the country,” said Monika Shergill, Vice President of Content at Netflix India.

“This is just a taste of the films and series to come. We are so excited to share these rich and diverse stories from the best and brightest creators and talent from India to the world,” said Shergill.

R. Madhavan and Surveen Chawla in a still from Netflix’s upcoming show “Decoupled.” (Netflix)

Netflix’s growing catalog in India comes as Bollywood, which churns out more movies than any other film industry, struggles to deliver big hits as theatres across the country report low footfall amid the coronavirus pandemic.

Last year, the Indian film industry began releasing several movies directly on streaming services after some pushback from several key players.

Karan Johar said at Netflix’s virtual press conference that streaming services are increasingly reaching the level of scale in India that the next “Kuch Kuch Hota Hai” — one of the biggest blockbuster films in India, and also one directed by Johar — can release directly on Netflix.

Thanks to the availability of some of the world’s cheapest mobile data and proliferation of low-cost Android smartphones, more than half a billion Indians came online in the past decade, much of it in the last five years.

YouTube reaches more than 450 million internet users in India, TechCrunch reported in January. (India’s IT Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad corroborated the figure at a press conference last month.) Disney’s Hotstar has amassed over 30 million paying subscribers in India. Media consulting firm MPA estimates that Netflix has about 5 million subscribers in India, a figure that has grown in recent years as the streaming service inked a deal with India’s largest telecom operator Jio Platforms.

Netflix’s growing focus on India also comes at a time when New Delhi is getting more involved with the nature of content on on-demand streaming services. Until now Amazon Prime Video and other streaming services have operated in India without having to worry too much about the nature of their content. But that’s changing, according to new rules announced by India last week.

“The category classification of a content will take into account the potentially offensive impact of a film on matters such as caste, race, gender, religion, disability or sexuality that may arise in a wide range of works, and the classification decision will take account of the strength or impact of their inclusion,” the new rules state.

Amazon issued a rare apology to viewers in India on Tuesday after some people — including lawmakers with governing Bhartiya Janata Party — objected to some scenes from its political mini-series “Tandav.” Netflix, itself, has faced some heat, too. A police case was filed against two top executives of Netflix, including Shergill, after some people objected to scenes of the show “A Suitable Boy.”

#amazon, #amazon-prime-video, #apps, #asia, #disney, #entertainment, #hotstar, #india, #media, #mx-player, #netflix

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India sets more stringent rules for social media, streaming services

India announced sweeping changes to its guidelines for social media, on-demand video streaming services, and digital news outlets on Thursday, joining several other nations in posing new challenges for giants such as Facebook and Google that count the nation as its biggest market by users.

Ravi Shankar Prasad, India’s IT, Law, and Justice minister, said in a press conference that social media companies will be required to acknowledge takedown requests of unlawful content within 24 hours and deliver a complete redressal in within 15 days. In sensitive cases that surround rape or other similar criminal cases, firms will be required to take down the objectionable content within 24 hours.

These firms will also be required to appoint a chief compliance officer, a nodal contact officer, who shall be reachable round the clock, and a resident grievance officer. They will also have to set up a local office in India.

Prasad said social media firms will have to disclose the originator of objectionable content. “We don’t want to know the content, but firms need to be able to tell who was the first person who began spreading misinformation and other objectionable content,” he said. WhatsApp has previously said that it can’t comply with such traceability requests without compromising end-to-end encryption security for every user.

Firms will also be required to publish a monthly compliance report to disclose the number of requests they received and what actions they took. They will also be required to offer a voluntary option to users who wish to verify their accounts.

The guidelines, which replace the law from 2011, go into effect for small firms effective immediately, but bigger services will be provided three months to comply, said Prasad.

New Delhi has put together these guidelines because citizens in India have long requested a “mechanism to address grievances,” said Prasad. India has been working on a law aimed at intermediaries since 2018. You can read the final version of the draft here, courtesy of New Delhi-based advocacy group Internet Freedom Foundation.

“India is the world’s largest open Internet society and the Government welcomes social media companies to operate in India, do business and also earn profits. However, they will have to be accountable to the Constitution and laws of India,” he said, adding that WhatsApp had amassed 530 million users, YouTube, 448 million users, Facebook’s marquee service 410 million users, Instagram 210 million users, and Twitter, 175 million users in the country.

Full guidelines for social media firms and other intermediaries. (Source: Indian government.)

For streaming platforms, the rules have outlined a three-tier structure for “observance and adherence to the code.” Until now, on-demand services such as Netflix, Disney+ Hotstar, and MX Player have operated in India with little to no censorship.

New Delhi last year said India’s broadcasting ministry, which regulates content on TV, will also be overseeing digital streaming platforms. 17 popular streaming firms including international giants had banded together to devise a self-regulation code. Prakash Javedkar, Minister of Information and Broadcasting, said in the conference that the proposed solution from the industry wasn’t adequate and there will be an oversight mechanism from the government to ensure full compliance with the code.

Streaming services will also have to attach a content ratings to their titles. “The OTT platforms, called as the publishers of online curated content in the rules, would self-classify the content into five age based categories- U (Universal), U/A 7+, U/A 13+, U/A 16+, and A (Adult). Platforms would be required to implement parental locks for content classified as U/A 13+ or higher, and reliable age verification mechanisms for content classified as “A”,” the Indian government said.

“The publisher of online curated content shall prominently display the classification rating specific to each content or programme together with a content descriptor informing the user about the nature of the content, and advising on viewer description (if applicable) at the beginning of every programme enabling the user to make an informed decision, prior to watching the programme.”

The new rules will also force digital news outlets to disclose the size of their reach and structure of their ownership.

Industry executives have expressed concerns over the new proposed regulation, saying New Delhi hasn’t consulted them for these changes. IAMAI, a powerful industry body that represents nearly all on-demand streaming services, said it was “dismayed” by the guidelines, and hoped to have a dialogue with the government.

Javedkar and Prasad were asked if there will be any consultation with the industry before these guidelines become law. The ministers said that they had already received enough inputs from the industry.

This is a developing story. Check back for more information…

#apps, #asia, #disney, #facebook, #google, #government, #hotstar, #iamai, #india, #instagram, #mx-player, #netflix, #social, #twitter, #whatsapp

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Loki and Star Wars: The Bad Batch get Disney+ premiere dates

Today is a red-letter day for Disney property announcements: release dates have been set for the Disney+ series Loki and Star Wars: The Bad Batch, and the new Spider-Man film has a new name.

We’ll start with Spider-Man. Following a marketing stunt in which three different stars of the movie shared three fake movie names alongside initial images from the film on Instagram, the actual title for the new Spider-Man movie has been revealed in a cheeky Twitter video and blog postSpider Man: No Way Home.

The fake names that had circulated previously included Spider-Man: Phone HomeSpider-Man: Home-Wrecker, and Spider-Man: Home Slice.

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#bad-batch, #disney, #gaming-culture, #loki, #marvel, #mcu, #no-way-home, #spider-man, #star-wars

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Meet Smash Ventures, the low-flying outfit that has quietly funded Epic Games among others

When in 2018, Smash Ventures showed up as an investor in a $1.25 billion round for Epic Games — reportedly the largest ever investment in a video game company at the time — it was the first time many had heard of the investing outfit.

When the brand showed up again last summer in an even bigger round for Epic —  last August, the games giant announced $1.78 billion in fresh funding at a post-money equity valuation of $17.3 billion — a diner near Epic’s Cary, North Carolina headquarters that sells “smash waffles” started getting calls from reporters, says Eric Garland, who used to lead venture and growth deals for The Walt Disney Company after selling his company, BigChampagne, to Live Nation in 2011.

“Some reporters really turned over rocks,” he says.

Garland knows this, he says, because he cofounded Smash Ventures with Evan Richter, a former member of Disney’s corporate strategy and business development team (and who, before that, was an investor at Insight Partners).

They pair say they weren’t trying to duck the press after striking out on their own a few years ago; they were mostly just trying to get their firm off the ground, which they’ve seemingly done and then some. First, there’s the newly closed $75 million debut fund from strategic partners and notable investors like Kevin Mayer, the former CEO of TikTok and the former Disney executive; Pixar cofounder Ed Catmull; and journalist Willow Bay, who is now dean of the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism. Yet it’s just small notable piece of what they have assembled.

Indeed, at a time when money is more of a commodity than ever and can be accessed easily by many founders, Smash has a few tricks up its sleeve, Richter and Garland suggest.

One thing to know, for example, is that the two apparently have little spinning up side vehicles when they wedge their way into an interesting deal. While they got to know Epic Games through Disney (it made an investment in the company in 2017 when Epic took part in its accelerator program), when they persuaded founder Tim Sweeney to take a bigger check from Smash Ventures in 2018, they were able to package together “several hundred million dollars” from their LPs for a stake in the business.

The also “flexed up” with the help of its limited partners to put a separate $200 million into others of its handful of portfolio companies. These include DraftKings, before it went public through a blank-check company last year; the footwear, apparel and accessory brand Nobull; the men’s grooming company Manscaped; and India’s biggest e-learning startup, Byju’s.

Disney — one of the world’s most powerful brands —  is a common thread throughout. In addition to inviting Epic into its accelerator program, Disney began work on an education app with Byju back in 2018 and it owned 6% of DraftKings when it went public last year.

Mayer, the former Disney exec who more recently began launching special purpose acquisition vehicles, credits Richter and Garland with finding “a lot of really cool companies like Epic” while inside Disney, saying he has “been supporting them ever since, because I think they’re great.”

Underscoring the strength of that former Disney network — another apparent advantage here — Mayer says that in addition to being a limited partner, he will sometimes “try and talk to their CEOs, give strategic advice, and talk about exits and M&A with some of their portfolio companies.” (Catmull, who was the president of Walt Disney Animation Studios after Disney acquired Pixar in 2006, was also pulled in to help seal the Epic deal, says Garland.)

As for whether Smash’s dealings have irritated current execs at Disney — it isn’t hard to imagine the entertainment giant would have liked a bigger stake in Epic — Garland says no, adding that “Disney is not generally in the venture business.”

In the meantime, Smash also says it’s getting into deals by helping companies tell stories to their respective, captive audiences. As Richter explains it, “The leading consumer software and internet businesses are building massive, and dedicated, user bases, and media, whether it’s a Travis Scott experience within Epic Games, or an IP collaboration between Marvel or Disney [and Byju’s], or whether it’s doing something with the UFC [which last year partnered with Manscaped], can be an incredible way to keep and grow a user base.”

The firm certainly appears to spend a lot of time with its portfolio companies on these efforts. While Smash wrote its first check in 2018, it has just five portfolio companies to date, and it plans only to invest in 10 to 12 companies altogether with that $75 million pool of capital, writing checks as small as $5 million to $10 million, with the ability to write far larger checks when the opportunity arises and its LP network says yes to it.

Asked why the firm is suddenly going public with those efforts, Richter suggests it’s time to cast a wider net. Even still, Garland says that “we like to stay focused. We make a lot of noise for our portfolio companies,” he adds,” but we are ourselves very heads down.”

#byjus, #disney, #draftkings, #ed-catmull, #epic-games, #kevin-mayer, #smash-ventures, #tc, #venture-capital

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Disney redundancy: Fox CGI-animation studio behind Ice Age, Rio to shut down

Two rows of posters for animated films.

Enlarge / By the end of April, the dedicated Blue Sky Studios team behind the above films will be shuttered by its current owners at Disney. (credit: Blue Sky Studios)

After acquiring 21st Century Fox in 2018, Disney moved forward with content plans that, in some ways, celebrated and married the combined corporate-entertainment universes. But film cancellations and corporate redundancies soon followed, and today’s announcement is a huge one for CGI animation. Blue Sky Studios, the makers of the Ice Age and Rio film series, is shutting down.

Citing “the current economic realities,” a Disney spokesperson confirmed to Deadline that Blue Sky will be fully shut down by this April, affecting all 450+ employees in the Greenwich, Connecticut, studio. But Disney will keep all the rights to Blue Sky’s series and characters, and according to the same Deadline report, an unnamed animation team inside the Disney corporate machine is moving forward with an Ice Age series exclusively for Disney+.

Bad Nimona news

For years, CG animation at Disney had a severe split in quality between its outside partnership with Pixar and the company’s in-house Disney Animation Studios. That changed with the megaton budget and years of stops-and-restarts in the making of 2010’s Tangled, a critical and commercial success that paved the way to more internal-production successes like Frozen, Moana, and Wreck-It Ralph. At the same time, Pixar became a wholly owned Disney property in 2006 and continued to thrive with its own universe of existing IP and new series.

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#blue-sky-studios, #disney, #disney-plus, #gaming-culture, #pixar

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Original Content podcast: Pixar’s ‘Soul’ offers a lively visit to pre-pandemic New York

For the latest episode of the Original Content podcast, we looked back at “Soul,” which was released on Disney+ at the end of last year.

The new Pixar film tells the story of Joe Gardner, a high school music teacher and jazz musician voiced by Jamie Foxx. Joe seems to be on the verge of his big break when he accidentally falls down an open manhole, sending him to a distinctly Pixar-ish twist on the afterlife, and eventually on a metaphysical quest to return to his body before an important concert..

Anthony has been wanting to talk about “Soul” for a while — it was easily his favorite movie of 2020, but he watched it right after we recorded our discussion of the best streaming content of 2020.

And if you’re worried that this is nothing more than 40 minutes of praise, well … you’re not entirely wrong. Both of us liked it a lot, appreciating both its vibrant (and in retrospect, melancholy) portrayal of New York City life before pandemic lockdowns and social distancing, as well as its inventive portrayal of the worlds our souls go to before we’re born and after we die. (It was so inventive that Jordan had to wonder whether any unusual substances may have been involved in its genesis.)

Still, we did acknowledge some of the criticism of “Soul,” particularly certain viewers’ disappointment that even though it’s the first Pixar film with a Black protagonist, Joe actually spends a large portion of the film as a disembodied blue spirit — entertaining from a story perspective, but not quite an unambiguous victory for representation.

You can listen to our review in the player below, subscribe using Apple Podcasts or find us in your podcast player of choice. If you like the show, please let us know by leaving a review on Apple. You can also follow us on Twitter or send us feedback directly. (Or suggest shows and movies for us to review!)

If you’d like to skip ahead, here’s how the episode breaks down:
0:00 Intro
0:20 “Soul” review
18:35 “Soul” spoiler discussion

#disney, #entertainment, #media, #original-content-podcast, #pixar, #podcasts, #soul

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This Week in Apps: TikTok viral hit breaks Spotify records, inauguration boosts news app installs, judge rules against Parler

Welcome back to This Week in Apps, the weekly TechCrunch series that recaps the latest in mobile OS news, mobile applications and the overall app economy.

The app industry is as hot as ever, with a record 218 billion downloads and $143 billion in global consumer spend in 2020.

Consumers last year also spent 3.5 trillion minutes using apps on Android devices alone. And in the U.S., app usage surged ahead of the time spent watching live TV. Currently, the average American watches 3.7 hours of live TV per day, but now spends four hours per day on their mobile devices.

Apps aren’t just a way to pass idle hours — they’re also a big business. In 2019, mobile-first companies had a combined $544 billion valuation, 6.5x higher than those without a mobile focus. In 2020, investors poured $73 billion in capital into mobile companies — a figure that’s up 27% year-over-year.

This week, we’re looking into how President Biden’s inauguration impacted news apps, the latest in the Parler lawsuit, and how TikTok’s app continues to shape culture, among other things.

Top Stories

Judge says Amazon doesn’t have to host Parler on AWS

logos for AWS (Amazon Web Services) and Parler

Logos for AWS (Amazon Web Services) and Parler. Image Credits: TechCrunch

U.S. District Judge Barbara Rothstein in Seattle this week ruled that Amazon won’t be required to restore access to web services to Parler. As you may recall, Parler sued Amazon for booting it from AWS’ infrastructure, effectively forcing it offline. Like Apple and Google before it, Amazon had decided that the calls for violence that were being spread on Parler violated its terms of service. It also said that Parler showed an “unwillingness and inability” to remove dangerous posts that called for the rape, torture and assassination of politicians, tech executives and many others, the AP reported.

Amazon’s decision shouldn’t have been a surprise for Parler. Amazon had reported 98 examples of Parler posts that incited violence over the past several weeks before its decision. It told Parler these were clear violations of the terms of service.

Parler’s lawsuit against Amazon, however, went on to claim breach of contract and even made antitrust allegations.

The judge shot down Parler’s claims that Amazon and Twitter were colluding over the decision to kick the app off AWS. Parler’s claims over breach of contract were denied, too, as the contract had never said Amazon had to give Parler 30 days to fix things. (Not to mention the fact that Parler breached the contract on its side, too.) It also said Parler had fallen short in demonstrating the need for an injunction to restore access to Amazon’s web services.

The ruling only blocks Parler from forcing Amazon to again host it as the lawsuit proceeds, but is not the final ruling in the overall case, which is continuing.

TikTok drives another pop song to No. 1 on Billboard charts, breaks Spotify’s record

@livbedumb♬ drivers license – Olivia Rodrigo

We already knew TikTok was playing a large role in influencing music charts and listening behavior. For example, Billboard last year noted how TikTok drove hits from Sony artists like Doja Cat (“Say So”) and 24kGoldn (“Mood”), and helped Sony discover new talent. Columbia also signed viral TikTok artists like Lil Nas X, Powfu, StaySolidRocky, Jawsh 685, Arizona Zervas and 24kGoldn. Meanwhile, Nielsen has said that no other app had helped break more songs in 2020 than TikTok.

This month, we’ve witnessed yet another example of this phenomenon. Olivia Rodrigo, the 17-year-old star of Disney+’s “High School Musical: The Musical: the Series” released her latest song, “Drivers License” on January 8. The pop ballad and breakup anthem is believed to be referencing the actress’ relationship with co-star Joshua Bassett, which gave the song even more appeal to fans.

Upon its release the song was heavily streamed by TikTok users, which helped make it an overnight sensation of sorts. According to a report by The WSJ, Billboard counted 76.1 million streams and 38,000 downloads in the U.S. during the week of its release. It also made a historic debut at No. 1 on the Hot 100, becoming the first smash hit of 2021.

On January 11, “Drivers License” broke Spotify’s record for most streams per day (for a non-holiday song) with 15.17 million global streams. On TikTok, meanwhile, the number of videos featuring the song and the views they received doubled every day, The WSJ said.

Charli D’Amelio’s dance to it on the app has now generated 5 million “Likes” across nearly 33 million views, as of the time of writing.

@charlidamelio♬ drivers license – Olivia Rodrigo

Of course, other TikTok hits have broken out in the past, too — even reaching No. 1 like “Blinding Lights” (The Weeknd) and “Mood” (24kGoldn). But the success of “Drivers License” may be in part due to the way it focuses on a subject that’s more relevant to TikTok’s young, teenage user base. It talks about first loves and being dumped for the other girl. And its title and opening refer to a time many adults have forgotten: the momentous day when you get your driver’s license. It’s highly relatable to the TikTok crowd who fully embraced it and made it a hit.

Weekly News

Platforms: Apple

  • Apple stops signing iOS 12.5, making iOS 12.5.1 the only versions of iOS available to older devices.
  • A report claims Apple’s iOS 15 update will cut support for devices with an A9 chip, like the iPhone 6, iPhone 6s Plus and the original iPhone SE.
  • New analysis estimates Apple’s upcoming iOS privacy changes will cause a roughly 7% revenue hit for Facebook in Q2. The revenue hit will continue in following quarters and will be “material.”

Platforms: Google

  • Google adds “trending” icons to the Play Store. New arrow icons appeared in the Top Charts tab, which indicate whether an app’s downloads are trending up or down, in terms of popularity. This could provide an early signal about those that may still be rising in the charts or beginning to fall out of favor, despite their current high position.
  • Google appears to be working on a Restricted Networking mode for Android 12. The mode, discovered by XDA Developers digging in the Android Open Source Project, would disable network access for all third-party apps.

Gaming

  • Goama (or Go Games) introduced a way for developers to integrate social games into their apps, which was showcased at CES. The company focuses on Asia and Latin America and has more than 15 partners, including GCash and Rappi, for digital payments and communications.
  • Fortnite maker Epic Games is getting into movies. The animated feature film Gilgamesh will use Epic’s Unreal Engine technology to tell the story of the king-turned-deity. The movie is not an in-house project, but rather is financed through Epic’s $100M MegaGrants fund.

Augmented Reality

  • Patents around Apple’s AR and VR efforts describe how a system could be identified in a way that’s similar to FaceID, then either permitted or denied the ability to change their appearance in the game.
  • Pinterest launches AR try-on for eyeshadow in its mobile app using Lens technology and ModiFace data. The app already offered AR try-on for lipsticks.

Entertainment

  • The CW app became the No. 1 app on the App Store this week, topping TikTok, Instagram and YouTube, thanks to CW’s season premieres of Batwoman, All American, Riverdale and Nancy Drew.
  • Users of podcasting app Anchor, owned by Spotify, say the app isn’t bringing them any sponsorship opportunities, as promised, beyond those from Spotify and Anchor itself.
  • YouTube launches hashtag landing pages on the web and in its mobile app. The pages are accessible when you click hashtags on YouTube, not via search, and weirdly rank the “best” videos through some inscrutable algorithm.
  • Apple’s Podcasts app adds a new editorial feature, Apple Podcasts Spotlight, meant to increase podcast listening by showcasing the best podcasts as selected by Apple editors.

E-commerce

  • WeChat facilitated 1.6 trillion yuan (close to $250 billion) in annual transactions through its “mini programs” in 2020. The figure is more than double that of 2019.

Fintech

  • Douyin, the Chinese version of TikTok, launched an e-wallet, Douyin Pay. The wallet will supplement the existing payment options, Alipay and WeChat Pay, and will help to support the Douyin app’s growing e-commerce business.
  • Neobank Monzo founder Tom Blomfield left the startup, saying he struggled during the pandemic. “I think [for] a lot of people in the world…going through a pandemic, going through lockdown and the isolation involved in that has an impact on people’s mental health,” he told TechCrunch.
  • New estimates indicate about 50% of the iPhone user base (or 507 million users) now use Apple Pay. 
  • Samsung’s newest phones drop support for MST, which emulates a mag stripe at terminals that don’t support NFC.

Social

  • Indian messaging app, StickerChat, owned by Hike, is shutting down. Founder Kavin Bharti Mittal said India will never have a homegrown messenger unless it bars Western companies from its market. Hike pivoted this month to virtual social apps, Vibe and Rush, which it believes have more potential.
  • Instagram head Adam Mosseri, in a Verge podcast, said he’s not happy with Reels so far, and how he feels most people probably don’t understand the difference between Instagram video and IGTV. He says the social network needs to simplify and consolidate ideas.
  • Facebook and Instagram improve their accessibility features. The apps’ AI-generated image captions now offer far more details about who or what is in the photos, thanks to improvements in image recognition systems.
  • TikTok launches a Q&A feature that lets creators respond to fan questions using text or videos. The feature, rolled out to select creators with more than 10,000 followers, makes it easier to see all the questions in one place.

Health & Fitness

  • Health and fitness app spending jumped 70% last year in Europe to record $544 million, a Sensor Tower report says. The year-over-year increase is far larger than 2019, when growth was just 37.2%. COVID-19 played a large role in this shift as people turned to fitness apps instead of gyms to stay in shape.

Government & Policy

  • Biden’s inauguration boosted installs of U.S. news apps up to 170%, Sensor Tower reported. CNN was the biggest mover, climbing 530 positions to reach No. 41 on the App Store, and up 170% in terms of downloads. News Break was the second highest, climbing 13 positions to No. 65. Right-wing outlet Newsmax climbed 43 spots to reach No. 108. In 2020, the top news apps were: News Break (23.7 million installs); SmartNews (9 million); CNN (5 million); and Fox News (4 million). This month, however, News Break saw 1.2 million installs, followed by Newsmax with about 863,000 installs, the report said.
  • Ireland’s Data Protection Commission (DPC) sent a draft decision to fellow EU Data Protection Authorities over the WhatsApp-Facebook data sharing policy. This means a decision on the matter is coming closer to a resolution in terms of what standards of transparency is required by WhatsApp.
  • German app developer Florian Mueller of FOSS Patents filed a complaint with the EU, U.S. DOJ and other antitrust watchdogs around the world over Apple and Google’s rejection of his COVID-related mobile game. Both stores had policies to only approve official COVID-19 apps from health authorities. Mueller renamed the game Viral Days and removed references to the novel coronavirus to get the app approved. However, he still feels the stores’ rules are holding back innovation.

Productivity

  • Basecamp’s Hey, which famously fought back against Apple’s App Store rules over IAP last year, has launched a business-focused platform, Hey for Work, expected to be public in Q1. The app has more App Store ratings than rival Superhuman, a report found. Currently, Hey has a 4.7-star rating across 3.3K reviews; Superhuman has 3.9 rating across only 274 reviews.

Trends

  • Baby boomers are increasingly using apps. Baby boomers/Gen Xers in the U.S. spent 30% more time year-over-year in their most used apps, App Annie reports. That’s a larger increase than either Millennials or Gen Z, at 18% and 16%, respectively.

Funding and M&A

  • Curtsy, a clothing resale app for Gen Z women, raised an $11 million Series A led by Index Ventures. The app tackles some of the problems with online resale by sending shipping supplies and labels to sellers, and by making the marketplace accessible to new and casual sellers.
  • Storytelling platform Wattpad acquired by South Korea’s Naver for $600 million. The reading apps whose stories have turned into book and Netflix hits will be incorporated into Naver’s publishing platform Webtoon.
  • On-demand delivery app Glovo partnered with Swiss-based real estate firm, Stoneweg, which is investing €100 million in building and refurbishing real estate in key markets to build out Glovo’s network of “dark stores.”
  • Pocket Casts app is up for sale. The podcast app was acquired nearly three years ago by a public radio consortium of top podcast producers (NPR, WNYC Studios, WBEZ Chicago and This American Life). The owners have now agreed to sell the app, which posted a net loss in 2020. (NPR’s share of the loss was over $800,000.)
  • Travel app Maps.me raised $50 million in a round led by Alameda Research. The funding will go toward the launch of a multi-currency wallet. Cryptocurrency lender Genesis Capital and institutional cryptocurrency firm CMS Holdings also participated in the round, Coindesk reported.
  • Bangalore-based hyperlocal delivery app Dunzo raised $40 million in a round that included investment from Google, Lightbox, Evolvence, Hana Financial Investment, LGT Lightstone Aspada and Alteria.
  • London-based food delivery app Deliveroo raised $180 million in new funding from existing investors, led by Durable Capital Partners and Fidelity Management, valuing the business at more than $7 billion.
  • Dating Group acquired Swiss startup Once, a dating app that sends one match per day, for $18 million.

Downloads

Bodyguard

Image Credits: Bodyguard

A French content moderation app called Bodyguard, detailed here by TechCrunch, has brought its service to the English-speaking market. The app allows you to choose the level of content moderation you want to see on top social networks, like Twitter, YouTube, Instagram and Twitch. You can choose to hide toxic content across a range of categories, like insults, body shaming, moral harassment, sexual harassment, racism and homophobia and indicate whether the content is a low or high priority to block.

Beeper

Image Credits: Beeper

Pebble’s founder and current YC Partner Eric Migicovsky has launched a new app, Beeper, that aims to centralize in one interface 15 different chat apps, including iMessage. The app relies on an open-source federated, encrypted messaging protocol called Matrix that uses “bridges” to connect to the various networks to move the messages. However, iMessage support is more wonky, as the company actually ships you an old iPhone to make the connection to the network. But this system allows you to access Beeper on non-Apple devices, the company says. The app is slowly onboarding new users due to initial demand. The app works across MacOS, Windows, Linux‍, iOS and Android and charges $10/mo for the service.

 

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Amazon launches mobile-only Prime Video subscription in India

Amazon is doubling down on one of the biggest strengths of Prime Video streaming service: Aggressive pricing.

The e-commerce giant on Wednesday announced Prime Video Mobile Edition, an even more affordable tier of the on-demand video streaming service — now also bundling additional perks.

Prime Video Mobile Edition, for which Amazon has partnered with Indian telecom network Airtel, will feature 28-day mobile-only, single-user, standard definition (SD) access to customers in India for Rs 89 ($1.22). This tier will also include 6GB of mobile data that customers can consume during the subscription period. To anyone who subscribes to Prime Video Mobile Edition, Amazon says it will pick the tab for the first month.

Amazon Prime subscription costs $1.7 a month in India and includes access to Prime Video and Prime Music.

The new Prime Video plan is currently only available in India. Its launch comes two years after Netflix unveiled a similar plan in India.

“India is one of our fastest growing territories in the world with very high engagement rates. Buoyed by this response, we want to double-down by offering our much-loved entertainment content to an even larger base of Indian customers. Given high mobile broadband penetration in the country, the mobile phone has become one of the most widely used streaming devices,” said Jay Marine, Vice President, Amazon Prime Video Worldwide, in a statement.

Airtel is the first roll-out partner for Prime Video Mobile Edition, and it suggested that it may tie up with other telecom giants as it looks forward to “expanding the reach of our service to the entire pre-paid customer base in India,” said Sameer Batra, Director, Mobile Business Development at Amazon. No word on when or whether Amazon plans to extend Prime Video Mobile Edition outside of India.

More to follow…

#amazon, #amazon-prime-video, #apps, #asia, #disney, #hotstar, #media, #mobile, #netflix, #prime-video

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Nielsen says ‘The Office’ was the most popular streaming series of 2020

Because streaming services only release viewership numbers selectively, and because each one uses its own methodology, it can be hard to compare the popularity of different streaming shows and movies.

So Nielsen, which provides the standard ratings for traditional TV (and is working to combine those ratings with streaming data), is offering some apples-to-apples comparison today at CES by releasing its own lists of the most popular streaming content in 2020, across Netflix, Amazon Prime, Disney+ and Hulu.

These lists are limited to U.S. viewership. And unlike Nielsen’s linear ratings, they don’t just reflect the total number of people watching, but focus instead on the total number of minutes watched. That also makes for a striking contrast with the ratings that Netflix releases, which count the number of households who watched at least two minutes of a program, but don’t distinguish between someone who watches two minutes versus two hours versus 20 hours.

Still, the TV series lists are absolutely dominated by Netflix, while Disney+ puts in a good showing on the movies list. The other services don’t crack any of the three Top 10 lists.

On the original series side, the surprising winner (at least, surprising to me) was Netflix’s “Ozark,” with 30.5 billion minutes streamed, followed by “Lucifer” (19.0 billion minutes) and “The Crown” (16.3 billion minutes). “Tiger King,” which seems like one of the defining hits of the pandemic, came in at number four, with 15.7 billion minutes streamed — though Nielsen’s methodology puts it at a disadvantage, since it only has eight episodes. The same could probably be said for “The Mandalorian,” the first non-Netflix series on the list, with 14.5 billion minutes streamed.

Nielsen 2020 list

Image Credits: Nielsen

The numbers were even bigger for acquired series — all of them streaming on Netflix last year, although the number one show, “The Office” (57.1 billion minutes streamed) just moved to Peacock. The other shows in the top five are “Grey’s Anatomy” (39.4 billon minutes), “Criminal Minds” (35.4 billion minutes), “NCIS” (28.1 billion minutes) and “Schitt’s Creek” (23.8 billion minutes).

On the movie side, the biggest title was “Frozen II,” which came early to Disney+ and was streamed for 14.9 billion minutes, followed by “Moana” (Disney+, 10.5 billion minutes), “The Secret Life of Pets 2” (Netflix, 9.1 billion minutes), “Onward” (Disney+, 8.4 billion minutes) and “Dr. Seuss’ The Grinch” (6.2 billion minutes). This seems to be a category where family films have advantage, perhaps because kids are more likely to watch them multiple times.

Beyond releasing these lists, Nielsen is announcing a new product designed to measure viewership of theatrical video on-demand, a.k.a. movies that are released for rent or purchase online. While studios should already have access to basic purchase data for these titles, Nielsen says it can provide “the entire media food chain” with more detailed information about things like the age, gender, ethnicity and geographic territory of who’s watching.

In a statement, Nielsen’s general manager of audience measurement Scott N. Brown said:

As this unprecedented pandemic continues to influence consumer behavior, perhaps even through a prolonged state of recovery waves, being able to measure and help clients appropriately monetize new revenue streams has never been more crucial. A bigger question might be what will audiences do following any recovery, how the behavior adopted during stay-at-home orders might influence habits when consumers have the ability to go back to theaters to enjoy that experience and how content creators will leverage data to make the best decisions regarding distribution platforms in the future.

 

#disney, #hulu, #media, #netflix, #nielsen, #the-walt-disney-company

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Disney brings back the Lucasfilm Games brand for future Star Wars titles

Logo for Lucasfilm Games.

Enlarge / Very, very recently, in a game industry not very far away… (credit: Lucasfilm)

Star Wars games will now be gathered together under the revitalized Lucasfilm Games banner. An announcement today on StarWars.com highlights the new Lucasfilm Games logo, which will appear in all future titles surrounding the Star Wars franchise. A new sizzle reel highlights some of those existing licensed titles, ranging from Star Wars Battlefront II to Sims 4: Journey to Batuu.

Gamers of a certain age may remember the Lucasfilm Games brand from the ’70s and ’80s, when it was used for original, internally developed games ranging from Rescue on Fractalus! to Maniac Mansion. The Games Group got folded into the newly formed LucasArts in 1990, a brand that became known for dozens of games, including many classic PC adventure titles.

By the time Disney purchased Lucasfilm for $4 billion in 2012, downsizing at LucasArts was already well underway, with the company mostly handling licensing for Star Wars games developed at other companies. Disney’s then-CEO Bob Iger noted that the company was “likely to focus more on social and mobile than we are on console” for games going forward, which wasn’t seen as a great sign for LucasArts or its Star Wars 1313 action-adventure game project.

Read 3 remaining paragraphs | Comments

#disney, #ea, #gaming-culture, #lucasfilm, #star-wars

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Original Content podcast: ‘The Mandalorian’ season two goes deep into Star Wars mythology

“The Mandalorian” just wrapped up its second season on Disney+, with an action-packed and surprise-filled finale.

In many ways, it feels like a seamless continuation of the first season’s storylines, with the titular bounty hunter searching for a Jedi who can take responsibility for the alien moppet known to the internet as Baby Yoda, while the pair is pursued by the sinister Moff Gideon.

But as we explain on the latest episode of the Original Content podcast, where the first season of “The Mandalorian” felt accessible to anyone, regardless of their level of Star Wars fandom, season two deepens its ties to the rest of the fictional universe.

That includes bringing in live action versions of characters from the animated “Clone Wars” series, as well as setting up the many other Star Wars shows that are in the works for Disney+. This approach prompted very different responses from your podcast hosts — Darrell was delighted since he understood all the Ester Eggs, Jordan was exhausted trying to keep up and Anthony was happy to let many of the references go over his head.

At least the show’s other virtues remain intact, with enjoyably grungy and tactile space opera settings, spectacular big budget battles and an adorable baby Jedi.

In addition to reviewing “The Mandalorian,” we also discuss HBO Max’s arrival on Roku (which somehow prompts Anthony to explain his disappointment in the new Christopher Nolan movie “Tenet”), and Darrell and Jordan offer their latest thoughts on “The Bachelorette.”

You can listen to our review in the player below, subscribe using Apple Podcasts or find us in your podcast player of choice. If you like the show, please let us know by leaving a review on Apple. You can also follow us on Twitter or send us feedback directly. (Or suggest shows and movies for us to review!)

And if you’d like to skip ahead, here’s how the episode breaks down:
0:00 Intro
4:14 HBO Max/”Tenet” discussion
13:35 “The Bachelorette” discussion
28:42 “The Mandalorian” Season 2 review
50:40 “The Mandalorian” spoiler discussion

#disney, #entertainment, #media, #original-content-podcast, #podcasts, #the-mandalorian, #the-walt-disney-company

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Disney+ has plans for 10 Marvel shows and 10 Star Wars shows in the next few years

Disney just wrapped up the first segment of an investor day in which it laid out its plans for its direct-to-consumer streaming business, including Disney+, Hulu, ESPN+ and Hotstar/Star.

The company kicked off the presentation with some new subscriber numbers — 86.8 million for Disney+ (roughly 30% of those are subscribers to Disney+ Hotstar, which leveraged an existing streaming service in India), 38.8 million for Hulu and 11.5 million for ESPN+, adding up to more than 137 million subscribers across the company’s streaming business.

The rest of the event is expected to focus on content announcements and previews, but Chairman of Media and Entertainment Distribution Kareem Daniels has already hinted at big plans for the next “few years.”

While high-profile Disney+’s originals have largely been limited to “The Mandalorian” and “Hamilton” in year one, Daniels said the company has plans to launch 10 Marvel series, 10 Star Wars series, 15 Disney Animation/Disney live action/Pixar series and 15 Disney Animation/Disney live action/Pixar feature films exclusively on Disney+.

At the same time, Daniels said that Disney remains committed to a variety of distribution strategies, particularly “theatrical exhibition’s ability to establish major franchises.”

He also announced that the Disney Animation film “Raya and the Dragon” will follow the same distribution strategy as “Mulan” this fall, with the film launching simultaneously in theaters and on Disney+ as a Premier Access release that subscribers will need to pay extra to see.

The presentation also made it clear that the Hotstar/Star brand will be key to Disney’s international growth plans. In Latin America, the company plans to launch a standalone Star+ service, while a new Star section in the Disney+ app will become the home to “general entertainment” content (basically, the kinds of content that U.S. viewers will find on Hulu) in other markets like Europe.

Adding a Star section will mean introducing mature content to Disney+, which was previously limited to family-friendly content. So Disney also offered a quick demonstration of new parental controls that will allow subscribers to turn access to more mature content on and off — that should also introduce new content to other parts of Disney+, for example bringing the R-rated film “Logan” to the Marvel section.

You can also expect to see more integrations between different Disney streaming services. For example, Star+ will include content from ESPN, while Hulu will introduce the ability to subscribe and watch ESPN+ content directly in the app.

And if you’re a subscriber to the Disney bundle, which combines Disney+, Hulu and ESPN+ for $12.99 per month, the company plans to add a new tier in January that offers ad-free Hulu for an extra $6 per month.

#disney, #entertainment, #espn, #hulu, #media, #the-walt-disney-company

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Disney will fuel international growth with Star brand and Star+ app

Disney+, the on-demand streaming service that launched a year ago and has already courted over 86 million subscribers, is ready to expand to more international markets.

At its annual investor day Thursday, the American entertainment giant announced a new streaming brand called “Star” that will feature content from ABC, FX, and 20th Century Studios.

In some markets, such as Europe, Canada, Singapore, Australia, and New Zealand, Star will be unveiled to customers as a new hub within Disney+ app beginning February 20 next year, the company said. It will expand Star to more markets next year, though it did not identify those markets.

But it will come at a price: The company said it will be increasing the monthly subscription price of Disney+ from £5.99 to £8.99 in Europe. In other markets where Star will be included within Disney+, the tariff will be adjusted accordingly, the company said.

In Latin America, Star will be a standalone streaming service and offered under the brand name “Star+.” Star+ will launch in Latin America in June 2021, and will feature general entertainment movies and television shows as well as a lineup of live sports including soccer and tennis.

Today’s announcement appears to be an admission that Hulu, a streaming service also owned by Disney that has amassed about 39 million subscribers, will never go international.

Disney also hinted that it plans to expand Disney+ Hotstar, an on-demand streaming service it currently offers in India and Indonesia, to more markets, but it did not name those markets. The company said today that Disney+ Hotstar account for roughly 30% of Disney+’s subscriber base, which roughly translates to 26 million. Disney+ Hotstar had about 18 million subscribers at the end of September, Disney revealed last month.

Until now, Disney has largely relied on its existing regional properties and industry collaborations to expand to several international markets. In France, for instance, the service is available as Canal+. In Spain, as Moviestar+.

More to follow…

#apps, #asia, #disney, #entertainment

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Flexible expressions could lift 3D-generated faces out of the uncanny valley

3D-rendered faces are a big part of any major movie or game now, but the task of capturing and animated them in a natural way can be a tough one. Disney Research is working on ways to smooth out this process, among them a machine learning tool that makes it much easier to generate and manipulate 3D faces without dipping into the uncanny valley.

Of course this technology has come a long way from the wooden expressions and limited details of earlier days. High resolution, convincing 3D faces can be animated quickly and well, but the subtleties of human expression are not just limitless in variety, they’re very easy to get wrong.

Think of how someone’s entire face changes when they smile — it’s different for everyone, but there are enough similarities that we fancy we can tell when someone is “really” smiling or just faking it. How can you achieve that level of detail in an artificial face?

Existing “linear” models simplify the subtlety of expression, making “happiness” or “anger” minutely adjustable, but at the cost of accuracy — they can’t express every possible face, but can easily result in impossible faces. Newer neural models learn complexity from watching the interconnectedness of expressions, but like other such models their workings are obscure and difficult to control, and perhaps not generalizable beyond the faces they learned from. They don’t enable the level of control an artist working on a movie or game needs, or result in faces that (humans are remarkably good at detecting this) are just off somehow.

A team at Disney Research proposes a new model with the best of both worlds — what it calls a “semantic deep face model.” Without getting into the exact technical execution, the basic improvement is that it’s a neural model that learns how a facial expression affects the whole face, but is not specific to a single face — and moreover is nonlinear, allowing flexibility in how expressions interact with a face’s geometry and each other.

Think of it this way: A linear model lets you take an expression (a smile, or kiss, say) from 0-100 on any 3D face, but the results may be unrealistic. A neural model lets you take a learned expression from 0-100 realistically, but only on the face it learned it from. This model can take an expression from 0-100 smoothly on any 3D face. That’s something of an over-simplification, but you get the idea.

Computer generated faces all assume similar expressions in a row.

Image Credits: Disney Research

The results are powerful: You could generate a thousand faces with different shapes and tones, and then animate all of them with the same expressions without any extra work. Think how that could result in diverse CG crowds you can summon with a couple clicks, or characters in games that have realistic facial expressions regardless of whether they were hand-crafted or not.

It’s not a silver bullet, and it’s only part of a huge set of improvements artists and engineers are making in the various industries where this technology is employed — markerless face tracking, better skin deformation, realistic eye movements, and dozens more areas of interest are also important parts of this process.

The Disney Research paper was presented at the International Conference on 3D Vision; you can read the full thing here.

#artificial-intelligence, #disney, #disney-research, #science

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