Chinese mobile games are gaining ground in the US

Over the past year, the coronavirus crisis has spurred app usage in the United States as people stay indoors to limit contact with others. Mobile games particularly have enjoyed a boom, and among them, games from Chinese studios are gaining popularity.

Games released on the U.S. App Store and Google Play Store raked in a total of $5.8 billion in revenue during the fourth quarter, jumping 34.3% from a year before and accounting for over a quarter of the world’s mobile gaming revenues, according to a new report from market research firm Sensor Tower.

In the quarter, Chinese titles contributed as much as 20% of the mobile gaming revenues in the U.S. That effectively made China the largest importer of mobile games in the U.S., thanks to a few blockbuster titles. Chinese publishers claimed 21 spots among the 100 top-grossing games in the period and collectively generated $780 million in revenues in the U.S., the world’s largest mobile gaming market, more than triple the amount from two years before.

Occupying the top rank are familiar Chinese titles such as the first-person shooter game Call of Duty, a collaboration between Tencent and Activision, as well Tencent’s PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds. But smaller Chinese studios are also quickly infiltrating the U.S. market.

Mihoyo, a little-known studio outside China, has been turning heads in the domestic gaming industry with its hit game Genshin Impact, a role-playing action game featuring anime-style characters. It was the sixth-most highest-grossing mobile game in the U.S. during Q4, racking up over $100 million in revenues in the period.

Most notable is that Mihoyo has been an independent studio since its inception in 2011. Unlike many gaming startups that covet fundings from industry titans like Tencent, Mihoyo has so far raised only a modest amount from its early days. It also stirred up controversy for skipping major distributors like Tencent and phone vendors Huawei and Xiaomi, releasing Genshin Impact on Bilibili, a popular video site amongst Chinese youngsters, and games downloading platform Taptap.

Magic Tavern, the developer behind the puzzle game Project Makeover, one of the most installed mobile games in the U.S. since late last year, is another lesser-known studio. Founded by a team of Tsinghua graduates with offices around the world, Magic Tavern is celebrated as one of the first studios with roots in China to have gained ground in the American casual gaming market. KKR-backed gaming company AppLovin is a strategic investor in Magic Tavern.

Other popular games in the U.S. also have links to China, if not directly owned by a Chinese company. Shortcut Run and Roof Nails are works from the French casual game maker Voodoo, which received a minority investment from Tencent last year. Tencent is also a strategic investor in Roblox, the gaming platform oriented to young gamers and slated for an IPO in the coming weeks.

#asia, #china, #entertainment, #games, #gaming, #tc

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Original Content podcast: Apple’s ‘Ted Lasso’ is all about relentless optimism

Your enjoyment of “Ted Lasso” — a sports comedy that debuted on Apple TV+ last year — will probably depend on how you respond to the titular football coach played by Jason Sudeikis.

As we discuss on the latest episode of the Original Content podcast, the show’s setup is deliberately over-the-top and ridiculous with Rebecca Walton (Hannah Waddingham) taking ownership of the AFC Richmond football (a.k.a. soccer) team after an acrimonious divorce, then recruiting American football coach Ted Lasso as its new manager, despite his complete ignorance of the game.

Anthony and Jordan found Ted to be charming, and they enjoyed the show’s fish-out-water comedy. Anthony also appreciated some of the more emotional moments later in the season — he’s an easy crier, and “Ted Lasso” definitely made him a little teary-eyed.

Darrell, however, had considerably less patience for the character’s blithe naiveté, comparing it to the similar cluelessness of Netflix’s “Emily in Paris,” and he gave up on the show quickly.

In addition to reviewing the series, we discuss Martin Scorsese’s feelings about the word “content,” and we have some exciting news about the podcast: This will be our last episode on TechCrunch, as Original Content goes independent! So consider subscribing on your favorite podcast app if you’d like to continue listening. (If you’ve already subscribed, there’s no need to do anything.)

You can listen to our review in the player below, subscribe using Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Google Podcasts or your favorite podcast app. If you like the show, please let us know by leaving a review on Apple. You can also follow us on Twitter.

If you’d like to skip ahead, here’s how the episode breaks down:
0:00 Intro
0:26 Podcast news
5:12 “Content” and Martin Scorsese discussion
20:43 “Ted Lasso” review
47:40 “Ted Lasso” spoiler discussion

#apple, #apple-tv, #entertainment, #media, #original-content-podcast, #podcasts

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Let them fight! Mortal Kombat red-band trailer gives fans what they want

Warner Bros. has released the red-band trailer for its forthcoming Mortal Kombat reboot, which had long languished in development hell. A Russian-dubbed version of the trailer initially leaked on reddit, according to Eurogamer, before being pulled. It’s basically a nonstop, blood-soaked fighting fest, featuring all the fan favorites from the popular video game franchise.

(Some spoilers for the games and earlier films below.)

Midway Games released the first Mortal Kombat game in 1992, which proved hugely influential for many a teenager who frequented video arcades during that era. There have been 11 main games and multiple spinoffs in the franchise thus far, all set in a fictional universe of eight different realms. The greatest warriors from the various realms must compete in a series of Mortal Kombat tournaments to conquer other realms.

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#entertainment, #film, #film-trailers, #gaming-culture, #hbo-max, #mortal-kombat, #warner-bros

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TikTok’s China twin Douyin has 550 million search users, takes on Baidu

The advance of short videos is reshaping how information is created, disseminated and consumed online. Snappy 15-second videos aren’t just for entertainment. On Chinese short-video apps Douyin and Kuaishou, people can get their daily dose of news, learn to cook, practice English, hunt for jobs, and seek practically any type of information from the platforms’ quickly expanding content library.

While people are increasingly used to being fed by machine-recommended videos, many users still have the urge and need for active searching. Douyin understood that and incorporated a search function back in mid-2018. More than two years later, the feature reached 550 million monthly active users. There’s still room for Douyin’s search feature to grow, as the app last reported 600 million daily users in September, so its monthly user base should be above that.

Kelly Zhang, the young product manager credited for the rise of Douyin, TikTok’s Chinese version, disclosed Douyin’s search user figure for the first time this week on her microblogging account. Search is a territory that had long been dominated by Baidu in China. As of December, Baidu’s flagship app had 544 million monthly active users, so it’s safe to say as many people are searching on Douyin as on Baidu.

Zhang’s remark is telling of Douyin’s ambition in conquering the online video sector, and eventually how people receive information: “I have said this before: I hope Douyin could become the video encyclopedia for human civilization. Video search is, therefore, the index of the book, the gateway to finding answers and reaping new knowledge.”

She further added that Douyin’s search engine is hiring for research and development, product, and operational roles in the upcoming year (China has just observed the Lunar New Year) as the video app continues to ramp up investment in search capabilities.

Short video platforms are already the second-most popular method for Chinese users to search online, trailing only after general search engines like Baidu and coming ahead of social networks and e-commerce, data analytics firm Jiguang said in a report last December. Baidu’s command of search is increasingly limited by the walled gardens built up by Chinese tech titans who block one another from free access to its sites and data. The status quo harms user experience but bodes well for vertical search engines on apps like Douyin and Alibaba’s Taobao marketplace, and consequently revenues from ad sponsorships.

ByteDance cut its teeth on using machine learning algorithms to recommend content through services like Douyin, TikTok and news aggregator Toutiao. The model proved highly efficient and lucrative, prompting its predecessors from Baidu to Tencent to introduce similarly algorithm-powered content feeds. ByteDance’s move into search, a realm with a longer history, is an intriguing yet natural step. The firm is just completing the puzzle for its digital media empire, giving people another option to find information. Users can receive machine recommendations and subscribe to content creators if they want. They can as well put in a search keyword if they have one in mind, the good old way.

#asia, #entertainment, #media

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How I Podcast: Election Profit Makers’ David Rees

The beauty of podcasting is that anyone can do it. It’s a rare medium that’s nearly as easy to make as it is to consume. And as such, no two people do it exactly the same way. There are a wealth of hardware and software solutions open to potential podcasters, so setups run the gamut from NPR studios to USB Skype rigs (the latter of which has become a kind of default during the current pandemic).

We’ve asked some of our favorite podcast hosts and producers to highlight their workflows — the equipment and software they use to get the job done. The list so far includes:

Welcome to Your Fantasy’s Eleanor Kagan
Articles of Interest’s Avery Trufelman

First Draft and Track Changes’ Sarah Enni
RiYL remote podcasting edition
Family Ghosts’ Sam Dingman
I’m Listening’s Anita Flores
Broken Record’s Justin Richmond
Criminal/This Is Love’s Lauren Spohrer
Jeffrey Cranor of Welcome to Night Vale
Jesse Thorn of Bullseye
Ben Lindbergh of Effectively Wild
My own podcast, RiYL

Everyone knows that politics are like sports, only with, you know, real-world consequences that can directly impact the lives of millions. But why deal in abstractions when you can bet actual money? With Election Profit Makers, co-hosts David Rees, Starlee Kine and Jon Kimball put their money where their mouth is, betting on political outcomes with their hard-earned dollars.

Image Credits: David Rees

As a collector of audio gear (mostly effects pedals, old rim-drive tape machines and 1980s keyboards I’ve modified), I wish I could say my podcasting setup featured equipment that is extremely expensive and hard to come by. I would love to brag about using, say, hand-wired boutique preamps and a rare Soviet condenser microphone I bought at a military auction in Kazakhstan. Nothing would please me more than to share photographs of a massive reel-to-reel tape machine on which I record my ad reads (for “warmth”) before mixing them down on my laptop.

Alas, my podcasting setup is extremely normal. I have a Scarlett two-channel interface I bought at a chain store. I have a Rode microphone because I couldn’t afford a Shure SM7B. I record into GarageBand, which is the spiral-bound notebook of audio interfaces. The only slightly unusual thing about my podcasting setup is that on the rare occasion when I edit an episode I do so in Ableton Live, which I originally bought years ago when I was obsessed with making mashups.

Image Credits: David Rees

The only analog affectation I can claim is a shameful one: My laptop is so old the USB ports seem to be going slack — I’m surprised they don’t have hair growing out of them like old men’s ears — so I have to fix the line from my Scarlett into place using electrical tape.

Election Profit Makers is a podcast about betting on political events using the web site PredictIt.org. (My co-host Jon Kimball made enough money on the 2020 election to buy a new car; I made enough to buy a new tremolo pedal.) The only time we’ve done field recordings was last spring, when Jon and I went on a nerd / comedy cruise in the Caribbean the week COVID hit. We recorded daily dispatches at sea using a Zoom H4N, then wandered around Santo Domingo until we found a university library whose Wi-Fi we could use to upload the files to our co-host and editor Starlee. My phone tells me I walked 24,000 steps that day.

Image Credits: David Rees

Because my podcasting setup is so boring, I have spiced up the photos by including some of my other audio gear in the shots! When the world is ready for cassette-based podcasts saturated in analog delay, I will be more than happy to oblige!

#david-rees, #election-profit-makers, #entertainment, #how-i-podcast, #podcasts

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Travel startup GetYourGuide secures $97M revolving credit facility

Many countries hit hard by Covid-19 are beginning to see a glimmer of optimism from the arrival of vaccinations. Now, a promising travel startup that saw its growth arrested by the arrival and persistence of the pandemic is announcing a $97 million financing facility to help it stay the course until it can finally resume normal business.

GetYourGuide, the Berlin startup that curates, organizes and lets travelers and others book tours and other experiences, has secured a revolving credit facility of €80 million ($97 million at current rates). The financing is being led by UniCredit, with CitiGroup, Silicon Valley Bank, Deutsche Bank and KfW also participating.

CFO Nils Chrestin said in an interview that the funding will let GetYourGuide come “sprinting out of the gates” when consumers are in a better position to enjoy travel experiences again.

The capital could be used potentially for normal business expenses, for acquisitions or investments, or other strategic initiatives, such as more investment into the company’s in-house Originals tour operations or new services to book last-minute experiences, he added.

And even if a lot of tourism has really slowed down, there are still people taking short-distance trips or buying activities in the cities where they live (and are not leaving). While some metro areas like London are essentially only open for booking well in advance (when the hope is lockdown restrictions might be eased), other cities like Rome or Amsterdam have activities available for booking today.

GetYourGuide’s latest financing news underscores how some startups — specifically those whose business models have not lended themselves well to pandemic living — are getting more creative with their approaches to staying afloat.

GetYourGuide has raised more than $600 million in equity capital since 2009, with its Series E of $484 million in 2019 (before the pandemic) valuing it at well over $1 billion.

But more recently, the startup backed by the likes of SoftBank, Temasek, Lakestar, and others has been shoring up its position with alternative forms of finance.

In October, GetYourGuide closed a convertible note of $133 million. While it has yet to raise the equity round that would covert that note — it could be up to 18 months before another equity round is closed, CEO and co-founder Johannes Reck told me at the time — this latest revolving debt facility is giving the startup another efficient route to accessing money.

Unlike equity rounds (or notes that can convert into equity), revolving debt facilities are non-dilutive, flexible lines of credit, where companies can quickly draw down funds as needed up to the full value of the facility. After repaying with interest, they can re-draw up to the same limit again.

In that regard, revolving debt facilities are not unlike credit cards for consumers, and similarly, they are a sign of how banks rate GetYourGuide, and perhaps the travel industry more generally, as strong candidates for paying back, and eventually bouncing back.

“We are very happy to help GetYourGuide continue its growth trajectory during this extraordinary situation that we find ourselves in”, says Jan Kupfer, head of corporate and investment banking, Germany, at UniCredit, in a statement. “The successful financing also shows once again our unique tech advisory approach, where we combine our deep tech expertise with the broad product range of a pan-European commercial bank.”

“Extraordinary situation” is perhaps an understatement for the rough year that travel businesses have had.

There do remain parts of the industry that have yet to make the leap to digital platforms — experiences, the focus of GetYourGuide, is very much one of them — and that makes for very interesting and potentially big businesses.

But between government-imposed travel restrictions, and people reluctant to venture far, or mix and mingle with others, startups like GetYourGuide have essentially found themselves treading water until things get moving again.

Last October, GetYourGuide said it had passed 45 million ticket sales in aggregate on its platform, but that figure was only up by 5 million in 10 months. As we pointed out at the time, that speaks both to a major slowdown in growth and to the struggles that companies like it are facing, and it is very likely far from the projections the startup had originally made for its expansion before the pandemic hit.

It’s not the only one: air travel, hotels, and other sectors that fall into the travel and tourism industries have largely been stagnating or in freefall or decline this year. Many believe that those who will be left standing after all of this will have to collectively brace themselves for potentially years of financial turmoil to come back from it.

Interestingly, Airbnb presents an alternative reality, at least for the moment. It appears to have captured investors’ attention and since going public in December has been on a steady upswing.

Analysts may say that there hasn’t been a lot of news coming out about the company to merit that rise, but one explanation has been that the optimism has more to do with its longer-term potential and for how tech-savvy routes to filling travel needs will indeed be the services that people will use before the rest.

That could be part of the pitch for GetYouGuide, too. Chrestin said that the company believes that travel in the U.S. market, a key region for the startup, is looking like it might rebound in Q2 or Q3. Yet even if it doesn’t, the company has the runway to wait longer.

Chrestin noted that GetYourGuide has “reinvented internal processes” and is operating much more efficiently now. “If it weren’t for the global hardship this crisis is causing, we would look back and say it was quite transformational,” he said.

“The company is very well capitalized and fully funded to profitability. Even if the current travel volume stayed like this for three years, we would not run out of capital,” he continued. “We have sufficient capital even for that scenario, but we don’t think that will happen.”

#entertainment, #europe, #experiences, #finance, #getyourguide, #tc, #tourism, #travel

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Jared Leto’s Joker is back in new trailer for Zack Snyder’s Justice League

Happy Valentine’s Day, DCEU fans: HBO Max dropped a new trailer for Zack Snyder’s Justice League.

Disappointed DC Extended Universe fans were clamoring for a “Snyder cut” soon after the release of 2017’s Justice League, and Warner Bros. eventually obliged them, announcing it would release the full director’s cut on HBO Max. For Valentine’s Day, the studio dropped a full two-minute-plus trailer for Zack Snyder’s Justice League to further reward the fandom’s patience. Count me among the skeptics on the question of whether we really needed a “Snyder cut,” but I must admit, based on the full trailer, Snyder’s version does seem markedly different from the theatrical release. Among other changes, the trailer includes a brief glimpse of Jared Leto’s Joker, who didn’t appear at all in the original.

As we’ve reported previously, the original Justice League was the third film in a trilogy that included Man of Steel (2013) and Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016). It brought together Ben Affleck’s Batman and Henry Cavill’s Superman with Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot), Aquaman (Jason Momoa), The Flash (Ezra Miller), and Cyborg (Ray Fisher). They are on a mission to save the world from arch-villain Steppenwolf (Ciarán Hinds), a “New God” in search of three “Mother Boxes” that will enable him to terraform the Earth into something more hospitable to him and his army of Parademons.

Snyder completed all the principal photography and was well into post-production, but he stepped down as director in May 2017 following the tragic suicide of his daughter, and the studio turned to Joss Whedon (The Avengers) to complete the film. Whedon rewrote the script, adding some 80 pages, and did extensive reshoots, bringing more humor and a brighter tone into the mix. He also cut more than 90 minutes of Snyder’s original footage to accommodate the studio’s requested 120-minute runtime, although Whedon’s version retained the basic story outline. The result was what some critics called a “Frankenstein” film, struggling to incorporate the very different visions of two directors. Reviews were mixed, and while Justice League wound up grossing $657 million, the purported break-even point was around $750 million.

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#dceu, #entertainment, #film-trailers, #gaming-culture, #hbo-max, #snyder-cut, #zack-snyder, #zack-snyders-justice-league

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Original Content podcast: Netflix’s ‘Lupin’ is a twisty delight

The new Netflix series “Lupin” is a loose adaptation of the Arséne Lupin stories by Maurice Leblanc, but it’s set in the present day, with a hero who’s inspired by the exploits of Leblanc’s fictional “gentleman thief.”

Through flashbacks, we meet Assane Diop (played by Omar Sy) as a young Senegalese immigrant who has recently arrived in Paris with his father. As an adult, he’s transformed himself into an impossible-to-catch thief and master of disguise.

While some of Assane’s schemes have a satisfying clockwork intricacy, others rely more on his willingness to walk into any room and act as if he belongs there. As the series’ five episodes continue (with more to come), Assane is pulled into a mystery around the crime that put his father in prison.

As we explain on the latest episode of the Original Content podcast, enjoying “Lupin” requires some suspension of disbelief — Assane’s success depends on both an astonishingly incompetent police force and his ability to disappear in a way that’s hard to imagine in contemporary society. But if you can go that far, the show is a joy to watch, thanks in large part to Sy’s charismatic performance, as well as the character’s delightful confidence and ingenuity.

We open the episode by discussing a very different show with the same setting, “Emily in Paris,” which was recently (and controversially) nominated for two Golden Globes.

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 Lupin review
0:34 Golden Globe discussion
18:08 Lupin review
34:57 Lupin spoiler discussion

#entertainment, #lupin, #media, #netflix, #original-content-podcast, #podcasts

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Review: The Stand starts out strong and then whiffs the landing

James Marsden, Alexander Skarsgård, Whoopi Goldberg, and Amber Heard are among the ensemble cast of a new miniseries adaptation of Stephen King's sprawling 1978 novel, <em>The Stand</em>.

Enlarge / James Marsden, Alexander Skarsgård, Whoopi Goldberg, and Amber Heard are among the ensemble cast of a new miniseries adaptation of Stephen King’s sprawling 1978 novel, The Stand. (credit: CBS All Access)

A deadly virus wipes out most of the human population, and the survivors find themselves caught in an apocalyptic battle between good and evil in The Stand, the latest miniseries adaptation of Stephen King’s sprawling 1978 novel. But despite a strong start, terrific performances from the all-star ensemble cast, and impressive production values, as a story, The Stand starts unraveling midway through, culminating in a meandering, seemingly pointless finale.

(Spoilers for the book below; a few major spoilers for the new miniseries below the gallery. We’ll give you a heads-up when we get there.)

As we reported previouslyThe Stand is widely considered to be among King’s best work, with a sprawling cast of characters and multiple storylines. It’s also his longest, with the 1990 Complete and Uncut Edition surpassing even It in page count. King has said he wanted to write an epic dark fantasy akin to The Lord of the Rings, only with a contemporary American setting. “Instead of a hobbit, my hero was a Texan named Stu Redman, and instead of a Dark Lord, my villain was a ruthless drifter and supernatural madman named Randall Flagg,” King wrote in his 1981 nonfiction book, Danse Macabre. “The land of Mordor (‘where the shadows lie,’ according to Tolkien) was played by Las Vegas.”

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#cbs-all-access, #entertainment, #gaming-culture, #stephen-king, #streaming-television, #television, #the-stand

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How I Podcast: Welcome to Your Fantasy’s Eleanor Kagan

The beauty of podcasting is that anyone can do it. It’s a rare medium that’s nearly as easy to make as it is to consume. And as such, no two people do it exactly the same way. There are a wealth of hardware and software solutions open to potential podcasters, so setups run the gamut from NPR studios to USB Skype rigs (the latter of which has become a kind of default during the current pandemic).

We’ve asked some of our favorite podcast hosts and producers to highlight their workflows — the equipment and software they use to get the job done. The list so far includes:

Articles of Interest’s Avery Trufelman
First Draft and Track Changes’ Sarah Enni
RiYL remote podcasting edition
Family Ghosts’ Sam Dingman
I’m Listening’s Anita Flores
Broken Record’s Justin Richmond
Criminal/This Is Love’s Lauren Spohrer
Jeffrey Cranor of Welcome to Night Vale
Jesse Thorn of Bullseye
Ben Lindbergh of Effectively Wild
My own podcast, RiYL

Eleanor Kagan, Senior Producer, “Welcome to Your Fantasy,” Pineapple Street Studios. Image Credits: Eleanor Kagan

Launching today from Spotify and Pineapple Street Studios (in association with Gimlet), “Welcome to Your Fantasy” explores the true crime tale behind the Chippendales phenomenon of the 1980s. Historians and “Past/Present” hosts Natalia Petrzela, Nicole Hemmer and Neil J. Young will unravel the tale over the course of an eight-episode series. The show took 18 months to create, bolstered by considerable resources from Spotify. Pineapple Street Senior Producer Eleanor Kagan (Another Round, See Something Say Something and Thirst Aid Kit) runs us through the gear the team used to create the series both in-person and remotely, once the pandemic hit. 

Dancer Scott Layne walks host Natalia through one of his routines during an interview. Image Credits: Eleanor Kagan

For in-person interviews not recorded in Pineapple’s Brooklyn studio, my basic reporting kit includes a Zoom H5, which has two XLR channels and allows me to give one Rode NTG-2 shotgun mic to the host Natalia and the other to the interviewee. (On mic stands, of course — the mic itself is prone to handling noise.) I’ve got a Rode pistol grip for when we, say, knock on doors in the neighborhood of the former Chippendales club in LA, looking for people who had been around when the party scene at the club was supposedly causing wars between the owners, neighbors and the police. (Luckily, we found Naomi, 94, who had been there since 1972 and had stories for days. She’s in the podcast.) Christine showed me how she brilliantly uses a cross-body camera strap attached to her recorder so she can hang it comfortably around her. For gear bags I used to swear by the Lowepro Passport Sling, but now that I’m older (lol), one-strapping isn’t comfortable for a long day in the field, so I use a regular backpack. My kit also includes Sony MDR-7506 headphones, an assortment of three- and six-foot XLR cables (always have backups), a deadcat, extra SD cards, an Electro Voice RE50/B mic, pens, snacks, release forms and batteries. So many batteries.

Producer Christine records historian Neil describing the LA neighborhood where the original Chippendales club opened. Image Credits: Eleanor Kagan

Then the pandemic hit. We all went on lockdown. We had done most of our interviews but there were a few we still needed, plus all the host tracking for the series. So we shipped Natalia a kit: a Zoom H6, a Shure SM7B cardioid dynamic announcer microphone, a CloudLifter CL-1 Microphone Activator, a broadcast arm, XLR cables and a windscreen. Natalia set up shop in her closet, surrounded by clothes, a fleece blanket on the floor, and as many cushions as she was willing to pull off her couches and chairs. (Sound bounces off of hard surfaces. The soft materials absorb it so the recordings won’t sound echoey or “roomy.”) We sent our amazing engineer Hannis Brown mic tests so he could diagnose the set-up from afar and suggest tweaks. And Natalia, bless her, was incredibly game to essentially become her own recording engineer ON TOP OF hosting an entire show. We quickly got accustomed to doing everything remotely and over Zoom, as all of us everywhere did.

Natalia’s closet studio. Image Credits: Eleanor Kagan

When it came to remote interviewing, we would connect over Zoom, and both Natalia and our interviewee would record themselves. (We always recorded the Zoom as a backup too.) It was up to us producers to talk our interviewees through self-syncing. Experience and teamwork was of the utmost importance here. Interviewees only had so much time, and explaining how to set up a recording on a smartphone (or iPod!, yes, really) and transfer a test recording quickly, and then troubleshooting any audio problems in their location was important to getting a high-quality interview without taxing anyone’s patience. There are several useful guides and graphics out there that walk through the set-up. There’s something a little bit lost, of course, when we don’t get to walk into people’s homes for interviews, or even when former Chippendales dancers can’t produce their original costume in the middle of the interview — as one guy did. But everyone was incredibly kind and patient and willing to do this for us, for which we are very, very grateful.

In the end, we interviewed about 70 people for this series. We wrote 26 drafts of our first episode. We reviewed 100+ hours of archival footage. And I believe there are still more stories to be told when it comes to Chippendales.

Thankfully, no matter where in the world anyone is, we have the tools to do it.

#apps, #entertainment, #gimlet, #how-i-podcast, #podcasts, #spotify

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Nigeria’s IROKO plans to go public on the London Stock Exchange AIM in 2022

IROKO, a Nigerian-based media company, could file to go public in the next 12 months on the London Stock Exchange (LSE) Alternative Investment Market.

Founded by Jason Njoku and Bastian Gotter in 2011, IROKO boasts the largest online catalog of Nollywood film content globally.

According to this report, the media company will raise between $20 million and $30 million valuing the company at $80 million to $100 million

In October 2019, Njoku hinted that the company was going public either on the London Stock Exchange or a local exchange on the continent. However, the CEO kept mute about the whole process the following year due to how tumultuous it was for the company.

In 2020, the company had plans to increase its average revenue per user (ARPU) in Africa for its video-on-demand service, iROKOtv, from $7-8 to $20-25. Through the first four months of the year, it seemed IROKO was set to achieve that. But amid pandemic-induced lockdown fears, consumer discretionary spending reduced in Nigeria and other African markets. What followed was a 70% drop in subscription numbers, and in May, 28% of the company’s staff went on unpaid leave. But unlike the numbers iROKOtv local markets put up, its international subscribers grew 200% during the lockdown, hitting a $25-30 ARPU range.

However, more bad news came in August when the CEO announced that the company was laying off 150 people. Njoku cited the naira devaluation, regulatory onslaught by the country’s broadcast regulator, and a reduced outbound marketing team as reasons behind this decision.

With the company spending $300,000 or more every month on growth, it decided to halt any scaling efforts on the continent. IROKO instead focused on its international market, primarily the U.S and the U.K where it has been able to execute a 150% price increase from $25 per year to $60 per year. Njoku said to this decision set the company straight leaving it in a stronger cash position than it had been for years.

“The costs of pursuing Africa growth is what was really resized dramatically. We were so focused on defending Africa and basically ended up doing nothing. Zero marketing or anything to drive that,” he told TechCrunch. “We pulled back to focus on where our economics actually makes sense. Our international business organically grew double-digit in 2020 and we expect it to continue this way for the foreseeable future.”

IROKO isn’t entirely giving up on the African market, instead, think of it in stealth mode. Due to its dominance over the past eight years as one of the strongest independent SVOD companies in Africa, it is hard not to see the company in pole position to benefit from any improvements made on the continent.

That said, IROKO makes 80% of its revenue outside Africa and listing on a foreign exchange will help consolidate its efforts. For Njoku, the Nigerian Stock Exchange or other local exchanges do not have a history of listing early-stage tech companies; therefore, the London Stock Exchange makes more sense in the short term.

IROKO is also seeking a market cap of about $100 million, which is small for the primary market. This is why the media company is choosing to list on the Alternative Investment Market (AIM) of the LSE. A sub-market of the LSE, the AIM is built specifically for small-cap companies. Still, there are plans in the future for IROKO to progress to the main market as its valuation grows — something U.K sports betting company, GVC and online fashion retailer, ASOS have done in the past.

Most companies when going public, tend to raise more money than their private equity days. But it’s quite different with IROKO. The company which secured around $30 million in total with its last priced round (Series E) in January 2016, plans to raise less or a similar amount when going public in 2022. In what seems like a down round, I asked Njoku why the company isn’t planning to raise more?

“We don’t need more. To be honest, $10 million to $15 million will be for corporate development; the rest will be secondaries for shareholders. As a private company, IROKO’s valuation was never priced above $70 million so anything in our target range wouldn’t be a down round at all,” he said. “Especially if you consider in that time we exited ROK for close to the total amount of capital we raised for IROKO; we have returned $11 million to early investors and shareholders already. We still have material capital left from the ROK-Canal+ acquisition coming in every 6 months until 2023.”

When IROKO sold ROK Studios to Vivendi-owned Canal+ in July 2019, the terms of the deal remained undisclosed. But from the CEO’s statement, an estimate of the acquisition could be around $30 million. What’s particularly impressive is that the proceeds from the deal likely sustained the company through a rough patch in 2020 and might well do so after its IPO in 2022

Joining IROKO in plans to go public within the next two years is Interswitch, a Nigerian-based payments company valued at $1 billion. But unlike Interswitch, which was founded in 2002, IROKO has been operating for just 10 years. Within that time, the only internet company to have gone public is Jumia, and it did so after seven years. IROKO is expected to achieve this feat in its 11th year of operation and Njoku, who holds an 18% stake in the company, believes it’s enough time to take the next step.

“What we can achieve in private, we can equally achieve as a public company. We will likely open up the IPO to our loyal members too so they can capture the value too, which I am super excited about. One thing about IROKO is that we have always been pioneers and we’re okay being super experimental. I plan to open-source the entire process so any other African company coming behind — if we’re successful — will benefit from our experience,” he said of the journey ahead. 

#entertainment, #exit, #fundings-exits, #interswitch, #iroko, #jumia, #nigeria, #tc

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A couple clings to shared past amid a memory-wiping pandemic in Little Fish

Olivia Cooke and Jack O’Connell star as a young couple struggling to stay together as a memory-wiping virus spreads unchecked in Little Fish.

A young couple fights to hold its relationship together in the midst of pandemic, where a memory loss virus is robbing everyone of their memories in Little Fish, a new science fiction romantic drama from IFC Films. Directed by Chad Hartigan, this thoughtful, genuinely moving film explores themes of memory, self, and the power of shared experiences to forge strong bonds between us, all through the lens of an otherwise average, ordinary Everycouple.

(Some spoilers below.)

The film is loosely based on a short story by Aja Gabel, about a young couple dealing with the man losing his memories in a fictional pandemic, although screenwriter Mattson Tomlin (Project Power) substantially rewrote and fleshed out this core idea. This was well before the current pandemic, but even in the Before Times of 2018, Hartigan was struck by the concept of the world metaphorically crumbling around two people who clung to optimism for the future—and each other. “We never could have imagined or predicted that this would be the case,” Hartigan told Ars. “It always felt to me like an emotional story with a science fiction backdrop.”

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#entertainment, #film, #gaming-culture, #ifc-films, #little-fish, #science-fiction

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Marvel drops action-packed two-minute Falcon and the Winter Soldier trailer

Anthony Mackie and Sebastian Stan reprise their roles as Sam Wilson and Bucky Barnes in Marvel’s The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, coming to Disney+ in March.

Marvel Studios did the Super Bowl right by releasing a lengthy two-minute trailer for its upcoming new series, The Falcon and the Winter Soldier.  Anthony Mackie and Sebastian Stan reprise their roles as Sam Wilson (the Falcon) and Bucky Barnes (the Winter Soldier) for the Disney+ show, which is set after the events of Avengers: Endgame. The pair will “team up on a global adventure that tests their abilities—and their patience.”

(Some spoilers for prior MCU films below.)

You may recall that after the Avengers and their many allies finally defeated Thanos in Endgame, Steve Rogers/Captain America (Chris Evans) handed over his shield to Sam so he could take on the mantle. But will Sam accept it? That’s part of what The Falcon and the Winter Soldier will explore over the course of its six episodes, and showrunner Malcolm Spellman has said the tone will be similar to Captain America: Winter Soldier. Marvel is purportedly spending in the range of $25 million per episode to ensure a cinematic quality for the series.

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#disney-plus, #entertainment, #falcon-and-the-winter-soldier, #film, #film-trailers, #gaming-culture, #marvel-cinematic-universe, #marvel-studios, #mcu-phase-four, #trailers

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Review: The Dig brings a famous archaeological find to vivid life

Carey Mulligan and Ralph Fiennes star in the new Netflix film The Dig.

Just before the outbreak of World War II, a widow and a local archaeologist team up to excavate large burial mounds in Suffolk, England, and discover priceless treasure, in the new Netflix film, The Dig.  It’s based on the 2007 novel of the same name by John Preston, and brings to vivid life the famous 1939 excavation at Sutton Hoo. It’s a quiet, thoughtful film with gorgeous cinematography and fine performances from the cast, although ultimately it feels rather lacking in depth and emotional heft.

(Some spoilers below.)

Sutton Hoo is the site of two early medieval cemeteries, incorporating a group of 20 or so earthen mounds. In 1937, a British widow named Edith Pretty inherited the land from her late husband, and hired a local archaeologist named Basil Brown to excavate the mounds, paying him 30 shillings a week. She was particularly interested in Mound 1. But after conferring with colleagues at the Ipswich Museum, Brown opted to excavate three smaller mounds (designated 2, 3, and 4) first, over the summer of 1938.

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#archaeology, #entertainment, #film, #gaming-culture, #netflix, #science, #sutton-hoo, #the-dig

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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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Black Panther director Ryan Coogler developing Wakanda series for Disney+

Promotional image for Black Panther.

Enlarge / We’ll be getting more Wakanda-centric stories thanks to a new development deal between Black Panther director Ryan Coogler and The Walt Disney Company. (credit: Marvel/Disney)

Following on the success of The Mandalorian and WandaVision on Disney+, The Walt Disney Company has tapped Black Panther director Ryan Coogler to develop an as-yet-untitled new series for the streamer focusing on the fictional nation of Wakanda. Deadline Hollywood reports that the planned series is part of an exclusive five-year deal between Coogler’s Proximity Media production company and the Mouse House to develop the new TV series, including shows for other divisions of the company.

“Ryan Coogler is a singular storyteller whose vision and range have made him one of the standout filmmakers of his generation,” said Bob Iger, executive chairman of The Walt Disney Company, in a statement. “With Black Panther, Ryan brought a groundbreaking story and iconic characters to life in a real, meaningful and memorable way, creating a watershed cultural moment. We’re thrilled to strengthen our relationship and look forward to telling more great stories with Ryan and his team.”

Coogler earned praise for his films Fruitvale Station and Creed before helming Black Panther. The film grossed a whopping $1.3 billion worldwide—the highest-grossing film by a Black director and the ninth-highest-grossing film of all time—and became the first MCU movie to win multiple Oscars (Best Costume Design, Best Original Score, and Best Production Design). It was nominated for Best Picture, although it didn’t win.

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#disney-plus, #entertainment, #gaming-culture, #ryan-coogler, #streaming-television, #wakanda

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Multi-layered Outside the Wire is part action thriller, part intimate drama

Anthony Mackie and Damson Idris must foil a a warlord's plan to launch a network of dormant nuclear weapons in <em>Outside the Wire.</em>

Enlarge / Anthony Mackie and Damson Idris must foil a a warlord’s plan to launch a network of dormant nuclear weapons in Outside the Wire. (credit: Netflix )

To say that Netflix is leaning into its recent forays into feature film-making is an understatement. The streaming giant announced earlier this month that it will be releasing a new feature film on its platform every week in 2021. Among the streamer’s January releases was Outside the Wire, in which Anthony Mackie (Sam Wilson/Falcon in the MCU, Synchronic) stars as an android military officer who teams up with a disgraced drone pilot to ward off a nuclear attack.

(Some spoilers below, but no major reveals.)

Director Mikael Håfström is a Swedish director best known for the Oscar-nominated 2003 film Evil, and 1408, a solidly spooky, haunted hotel/psychological horror film starring John Cusack and based on a short story by Stephen King. So Outside the Wire is something of a departure for him: partly a military action thriller, and partly a psychological study of its two central characters. It’s the latter aspect that most strongly bears the hallmark of Håfström’s artistic sensibility. Per the official synopsis:

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#anthony-mackie, #entertainment, #film, #gaming-culture, #netflix

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Original Content podcast: Netflix’s ‘White Tiger’ tells a bloody capitalist fable

The new Netflix film “The White Tiger” tells the story of Balram, who is born to a poor family in the Indian village of Laxmangarh and escapes by using his intelligence and determination, ultimately becoming a successful entrepreneur in Bangalore.

The viewers knows this from the start, as Balram (played by Adarsh Gourav) narrates his life story in an email, apparently written to explain his success to China’s visiting head of state. That narration is one of the best things about the movie, providing plenty of black comedy while also allowing Balram to justify his choices in what — by his own admission — is an increasingly disturbing story.

As we explain in the latest episode of the Original Content podcast, “The White Tiger” makes a convincing case for the ruthlessness needed to escape from poverty, while also painting a damning portrait of Balram’s employers, the American-educated Ashok (Rajkummar Rao) and Pinky (Priyanka Chopra Jonas), whose ostensible warmth and compassion only go so far.

If “The White Tiger” falls short at all, it’s in comparison to “Parasite,” a film that deals with similar themes in even more ambitious and virtuosic ways. But a movie can fail to reach the heights of “Parasite” while still being quite good.

In addition to our review, we also discuss The Mother Box, a $130 meal kit tied to the March release of Zack Snyder’s cut of “Justice League” on HBO Max.

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
0:27 Snyder Cut discussion
9:16 “The White Tiger” review
29:20 “The White Tiger” spoiler discussion

#entertainment, #media, #netflix, #original-content-podcast, #podcasts

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GoT alums among announced cast for Netflix Sandman adaptation

Tom Sturridge has snagged the coveted role of Dream, aka Morpheus, in the Netflix adaptation of <em>The Sandman</em>.

Enlarge / Tom Sturridge has snagged the coveted role of Dream, aka Morpheus, in the Netflix adaptation of The Sandman. (credit: DC Comics)

At long last, Netflix has announced several cast members for its hotly anticipated adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s award-winning graphic novel series Sandman. As Deadline Hollywood reports, Tom Sturridge (Being Julia, Pirate Radio) snagged the coveted role of Morpheus, Lord of the Dreaming, while Game of Thrones alums Gwendoline Christie and Charles Dance will play a gender-swapped Lucifer and the charlatan magician Roderick Burgess, respectively.

(Mild spoilers for the graphic novel series below.)

As we’ve reported previously, the titular “sandman” is Dream, aka Morpheus, among other names. He is one of seven entities known as the Endless, and he is seeking to set right his past mistakes. The other Endless are Destiny, Destruction, Despair, Desire, Delirium, and Death, portrayed as a perky punk/goth young woman. They became almost as popular as Dream himself (especially Death) and were featured in several spinoff comics. The series opens when Morpheus, the King of Dreams, escapes from a 70-year imprisonment by an occultist (who actually wanted to capture Dream’s sibling Death but trapped the Sandman by mistake).

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#entertainment, #gaming-culture, #neil-gaiman, #netflix, #sandman, #streaming-television, #television

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Flowhaven raises $16M to evolve brand licensing management beyond emails and spreadsheets

The media licensing business is a massive market, but much of the work involved is still handled manually through emails and spreadsheets. A startup called Flowhaven is working to change that. The company, which has now closed on $16 million in Series A funding, helps brands to manage their licensing partnerships, including the account management aspects, the individual product information, the financial information, and more.

The new round was led by Sapphire Sport, the part of Sapphire Ventures that specializes in sports, media and lifestyle brands. Existing investors Global Founders Capital and Icebreaker.vc also returned, bringing Flowhaven’s total raise to date to $21.5 million.

Flowhaven software

Image Credits: Flowhaven

The idea to modernize the media licensing business comes from a founder who had direct experience in the industry.

Flowhaven CEO Kalle Törmä previously worked on licensing for the Angry Birds mobile game franchise while at Rovio, starting back in 2012. While there, he created the global blueprint for managing the merchandising side of the business, which later expanded to include partnerships for the Angry Birds Star Wars and Angry Birds Transformers games.

“It was evident that the workflows were very broken — from managing the commerce, or the agreements, the product approvals, and financials. The information was very siloed. Also, there were a lot of things that fell through the cracks,” explains Törmä.

In addition, it was time consuming and difficult to pull together data that would allow management to understand how the business was doing.

The challenges Törmä faced at Rovio led him to understand what would be needed to create a solution like Flowhaven — particularly, the difficulty of managing tricky licensing workflows and timetables through manual methods.

He left Rovio in 2016 and founded Flowhaven, where he’s joined by university pal and CCO Timo Olkkola, whose background is in sales.

Flowhaven software

Image Credits: Flowhaven

Today, the Flowhaven licensing management platform automates the brand licensing workflow process, including the planning and strategy, account and agreement management, content distribution, design approvals, royalty reporting, and more.

It also helps to keep teams on schedules that can often be tight in the media and entertainment businesses.

“There’s always a timeframe that they follow — whether it’s a film release or game release,” Törmä says. “There are lot of moving pieces in closing all the agreements and then moving the products through the approvals [so when], let’s say, a film comes out, a couple of months prior, the merchandise hits the retail shelves,” he says.

“If you don’t have the products approved and ready, then you didn’t really seize the momentum,” Törmä adds.

Flowhaven software

Image Credits: Flowhaven

Flowhaven pitches that its software isn’t just saving time, it also saves money. The company estimates that licensing professionals waste 50 hours per month at $70 per hour on work that could be automated. This equals approximately $42,000 per year wasted for a single professional.

As of its new funding, Flowhaven’s software-as-a-service platform has been adopted by close to 100 companies, ranging from smaller business to Fortune 100 companies in markets like media, entertainment, sports, fashion, and by corporate and consumer brands Though some customer names can’t be shared, Flowhaven says it’s working with Nintendo, LAIKA, Games Workshop, Acamar Films, and Crunchyroll.

Its pricing is based on how many users will be on the platform. This doesn’t include those with guest access outside the organization, who are always free of charge.

The company also reports 400% year-over-year growth and says it’s expecting that trend to continue, but declines to share its current revenue figures.

The additional funding will help Flowhaven fuel its growth, expand its product and platform, and aid in hiring, Törmä says. Today, the company’s staff is split between offices in Helsinki, London and L.A. but says it’s seeing the most growth in the latter two.

In terms of the product itself, the plan is to further develop Flowhaven’s analytics and speed up the process of exchanging information between the brand owners and their licensees.

Already in 2021, Flowhaven is growing. It began the year with a team of 30 and is now 43 people. Throughout the year, Törmä says the team will grow to nearly 100.

#brands, #entertainment, #funding, #licensing, #media, #sapphire-ventures, #software, #startups

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Warrior princess fights to save humanity in Raya and the Last Dragon trailer

Kelly Marie Tran and Awkwafina star in Disney’s new animated feature Raya and the Last Dragon.

Disney has released the official full trailer for its upcoming animated film, Raya and the Last Dragon, with Kelly Marie Tran and Awkwafina voicing the titular characters. It has the distinction of being the first Disney animated feature to be remotely developed in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, working with home equipment and mostly communicating via Zoom. The pandemic also caused the film’s release date to be shifted multiple times. It’s now slated for a March 5 release, both in theaters and on Disney+ with premier access.

Disney first announced the film during its 2019 D23 Expo and presented co-directors Don Hall (Big Hero 6, Moana) and Carlos Lopez Estrada (Frozen II, Blindspotting) at D23 the following year. The fictional fantasy land of Kumandra was inspired by several different Southeast Asian cultures—Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia, Myanmar, Malaysia, Laos, and the Philippines—and the production team traveled extensively to most of those countries to research the film. A Lao visual anthropologist also reviewed the final designs.

Per the official synopsis:

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#disney-animation, #disney-plus, #entertainment, #film-trailers, #gaming-culture, #raya-and-the-last-dragon, #trailers

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Forget winning, can Amazon survive in India?

During a visit to India in 2014, Amazon chief executive Jeff Bezos made a splashy announcement: His firm was investing $2 billion in the South Asian nation, just a year after beginning operations in the country.

Amazon’s announcement underscored how far India had come to open up to foreign firms. The nation, which had largely kept doors shut to international giants between its independence in 1947 to liberalization in 1991, has slowly transformed itself into the world’s largest open market.

In a televised interview in 2014, Bezos said that there was a perception about India not being an easy place to do business. But Amazon’s growth in the country, he said, was proof that this belief is not accurate.

“Are there obstacles? There are always obstacles. Anywhere you go, every country has its own regulations and rules,” he said.

Six years, and more than $4.5 billion of additional investments later, Amazon today appears to be facing more obstacles than ever in India, the second-largest internet market with more than 600 million users.

Long-standing laws in India have constrained Amazon, which has yet to turn a profit in the country, and other e-commerce firms to not hold inventory or sell items directly to consumers. To bypass this, firms have operated through a maze of joint ventures with local companies that operate as inventory-holding firms.

India got around to fixing this loophole in late 2018 in a move that was widely seen as the biggest blowback to the American firm in the country at the time. Amazon and Walmart-owned Flipkart scrambled to delist hundreds of thousands of items from their stores and made their investments in affiliated firms way more indirect.

Now the nation is set to further toughen this approach. Reuters reported last week that New Delhi is considering making adjustments to some provisions that would prevent affiliated firms to hold even an indirect stake in a seller through their parent.

The Confederation of All India Traders, an Indian trade body that claims to represent over 80 million businesses, told the publication that Indian Commerce Minister Piyush Goyal has assured the organization that it is working to shortly address concerns about alleged violations of current rules.

The forthcoming policy change is only one of the many headaches for the world’s largest e-commerce firm in India.

Offline retailers in India have long expressed concerns about what they allege to be unfair practices employed by Amazon in India. Last year, during Bezos’ visit to the country, they held several protests. (Photo by SAJJAD HUSSAIN/AFP via Getty Images)

Amazon is aggressively fighting a battle to block a deal between its estranged partner Future Group and Reliance Retail, the two largest retail chains in India.

Last year, Future Group announced that it would sell its retail, wholesale, logistics and warehousing businesses to Reliance Retail for $3.4 billion. Amazon, which in 2019 bought stakes in one of Future Group’s unlisted firms, says that the Indian firm has breached its contract (which would have given Amazon the right to first refusal) and engaged in insider trading.

Despite technology giants and investors ploughing more than $20 billion to create an e-commerce market in India in the past decade, online retail still accounts for only a single-digit pie of all retail in the country.

In recent years, Amazon, Walmart and scores of other startups have embraced this realization and sought to work with neighborhood stores that dot tens of thousands of cities, towns and villages in India.

With Reliance Retail and telecom giant Jio Platforms, two subsidiaries of one of India’s largest corporates (Mukesh Ambani’s Reliance Industries) entering the e-commerce market, and receiving the backing of global giants including Facebook and Google last year, cornering a big stake in Future Group is one of the few ways Amazon can accelerate its growth in India.

The American e-commerce firm has had little luck so far in overturning the deal between the Indian firms. Last year, Amazon reached out to Indian antitrust body Competition Commission of India, and market regulator SEBI to block this transaction. Both the bodies have ruled in favor of Future Group and Reliance Retail.

Amazon must have foreseen this outcome because it initiated the legal proceedings at an arbitration court in Singapore. It’s no surprise that the firm chose to also pursue its legal argument outside of India.

Most cases that reach the Singapore International Arbitration Court have come from India in recent years. Vodafone, which has invested more than $20 billion in India, and has been dealt with billions of dollars in unpaid taxes by the country, is another high-profile name to have knocked on the door in Singapore. After losing in India, it emerged victorious in the Singapore arbitration court last year.

Amazon on Monday filed a new petition in Delhi High Court in which it is seeking to enforce SIAC’s ruling (which ordered last year that the deal should be temporarily halted) and prevent the Indian firm from going ahead with the deal based on CCI and SEBI’s judgements.

The company alleges that Future Group “deliberately and maliciously” disobeyed the international arbitration ruling from SIAC. In its petition, Amazon is also seeking detention of Kishore Biyani, the founder and chairman of Future Group.

“Vocal for Local”

As India grappled with containing the spread of the coronavirus last year, India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi urged the 1.3 billion citizens to make the country “self-reliant” and “be vocal for local.”

The move to turn inwards contrasts with his major promise in the first few years of assuming power in 2014 when he pledged to make India more welcoming to foreign firms than before. In recent years, India has proposed or enforced several regulations that hurt American firms, though none appear to suffer as much as Amazon.

Last year, New Delhi started to enforce a 2% tax on all foreign billings for digital services provided in the country. The U.S. Trade Representative said earlier this month that India was taxing numerous categories of digital services that are “not leviable under other digital services taxes adopted around the world.”

The aggregate tax bill for U.S. companies could exceed $30 million per year in India, USTR’s investigation found. In conclusion, it found India’s digital tax move to be inconsistent with international tax principles, unreasonable and burdening or restricting U.S. commerce.

Modi’s new way of life for India will be music to the ears of Mukesh Ambani, the chairman of Reliance Industries, an ally of the prime minister and India’s richest man.

Before selling stakes worth over $20 billion in Jio Platforms and more than $6 billion in Reliance Retail to marquee foreign investors, Ambani famously made a speech in 2019 in which he urged the need to protect Indians’ data in patriotic terms.

“We have to collectively launch a new movement against data colonization. For India to succeed in this data-driven revolution, we will have to migrate the control and ownership of Indian data back to India — in other words, Indian wealth back to every Indian,” he said.

Why so many international firms have invested in one of Reliance’s properties remains a big question. A senior executive at an American firm told TechCrunch on the condition of anonymity (out of fear of retribution) that the investments in Jio Platforms, which is India’s largest telecom network with nearly 410 million subscribers, and Reliance Retail is a déjà vu moment for the nation, where a few decades ago one of the only ways to do business in the nation was to partner with a local firm with massive political clout.

In a series of tweets, Raman Chima, a former policy executive at Google and who now works at nonprofit digital advocacy group Access Now, alleged that the Android-maker had weighed in 2011-12 partnering and investing in a firm like Reliance to “turn-the-page on Indian political risks.”

The idea prompted concerns about Google’s values, he claimed. “More than one executive involved in those discussions flagged concerns around Reliance’s reputation, particularly around problematic approaches towards gaining influence with policymaking civil servants and politicians, money, ethics in govt-business relationships.”

Amazon itself was rumored to be interested in getting a multi-billion-dollar stake in Reliance Retail last year, but it appears the two firms have stopped engaging on any matter.

BJP MLA Ram Kadam and his party workers protest against the Amazon Prime web series Tandav outside Bandra-Kurla Police station, on January 18, 2021 in Mumbai, India. (Photo by Pratik Chorge/Hindustan Times via Getty Images)

While Amazon sorts out these issues, last week delivered another blow to the firm. A senior executive with the firm as well as Indian makers of a mini-series for Amazon Prime Video are under threat of criminal prosecution in the country after Modi’s ruling party deemed the show offensive to the country’s Hindu majority.

A Hindu nationalist group, politicians with the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party, and a BJP group representing members of India’s lower castes, were among those who had filed police reports against the nine-part mini-series “Tandav” and Amazon. The company bowed to the pressure and edited out some scenes.

“The true reason for the complaints against ‘Tandav’ may be that the show holds up a mirror uncomfortably close to Indian society and some of the problems blamed on Mr. Modi’s administration. In the opening episode, the show features protesting students and disgruntled farmers, echoing events that have taken place in recent months,” The New York Times wrote.

“Mirzapur,” another show of Amazon, also attracted a criminal complaint in India last week for hurting religious and regional sentiments and defaming the Indian town. The Indian Supreme Court has issued notices to the makers of “Mirzapur” and has sought responses.

In the aforementioned interview, Bezos said Amazon’s job was to follow all the unique rules various countries require it to comply with and “adapt our business practice to those rules.”

In India, the company is increasingly being asked how far it is willing to adapt its business practice. How far is it willing to bend that it’s no longer the Amazon people cared for.

#amazon, #amazon-india, #amazon-prime-video, #apps, #asia, #ecommerce, #entertainment, #flipkart, #government, #india, #jio-platforms, #reliance-industries, #reliance-jio, #reliance-retail, #walmart

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Review: Lupin updates classic French gentleman thief for the 21st century

Omar Sy stars as Assane Diop, looking every bit the contemporary version of Arsène Lupin, famed French fictional gentleman thief.

Enlarge / Omar Sy stars as Assane Diop, looking every bit the contemporary version of Arsène Lupin, famed French fictional gentleman thief. (credit: Netflix)

Netflix has kicked off 2021 with a bang, thanks to its new series, Lupin, starring French actor and comedian Omar Sy. This delightful contemporary reimagining of a classic character in French detective fiction, Arsène Lupin—a gentleman thief and master of disguise who was essentially the French equivalent of Sherlock Holmes—is a massive hit. According to Deadline Hollywood, Lupin is on track to top 70 million households in its first 28 days of release, beating out two other recent Netflix smash hits, Bridgerton (63 million households) and The Queen’s Gambit (62 million households).

(Some spoilers below, but no major reveals.)

As I’ve written previously, Arsène Lupin is the creation of Maurice Leblanc, who based the character partly on a French burglar/anarchist. Leblanc was also familiar with the gentleman thief featured in the work of Octave Mirbeau as well as E.W. Hornung’s famed gentleman thief, A.J. Raffles, and he also knew about Rocambole, a character whose adventures were recounted in a series of stories published between 1857 and 1870 by Pierre Alexis Ponson du Terrail.

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#entertainment, #gaming-culture, #lupin, #netflix, #tv-review

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Original Content podcast: ‘Bridgerton’ is an addictive reimagining of Jane Austen-style romance

“Bridgerton,” the Shondaland drama that launched last month on Netflix, offers a few key updates to the standard formula of Regency-era  romance.

For one thing, there’s a racially diverse cast, with Black actors taking on the role of early 19th-century English nobility and royalty. (At one point, one of the characters offers an unconvincing explanation for why this is the case, but we — and the show — mostly ignored it.) For another, there’s a healthy dose of sex; “Bridgerton” emphatically does not shy away from showing viewers what its unbelievably attractive cast gets up to in the bedroom.

On the latest episode of the Original Content podcast, we have our quibbles — some of the character motivations can be a bit frustrating, and while we enjoyed the whole season, the first few episodes were by far the most addictive and compelling.

Overall, though, we loved it, comparing “Bridgerton” to seemingly dissimilar shows like “Emily in Paris” and “You” — all offering clever revamps of familiar soap opera and romance formulas. The show also benefits from breathless plotting, with each of its eight episodes packed with twists. And did we mention that the cast is insanely good-looking?

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 “Bridgerton” review
22:49 “Bridgerton” spoiler discussion

#entertainment, #media, #netflix, #original-content-podcast, #podcasts, #shondaland

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End-to-end operators are the next generation of consumer business

At Battery, a central part of our consumer investing practice involves tracking the evolution of where and how consumers find and purchase goods and services. From our annual Battery Marketplace Index, we’ve seen seismic shifts in how consumer purchasing behavior has changed over the years, starting with the move to the web and, more recently, to mobile and on-demand via smartphones.

The evolution looks like this in a nutshell: In the early days, listing sites like Craigslist, Angie’s List* and Yelp effectively put the Yellow Pages online — you could find a new restaurant or plumber on the web, but the process of contacting them was largely still offline. As consumers grew more comfortable with the web, marketplaces like eBay, Etsy, Expedia and Wayfair* emerged, enabling historically offline transactions to occur online.

More recently, and spurred in large part by mobile, on-demand use cases, managed marketplaces like Uber, DoorDash, Instacart and StockX* have taken online consumer purchasing a step further. They play a greater role in the operations of the marketplace, from automatically matching demand with supply, to verifying the supply side for quality, to dynamic pricing.

The key purpose of being end-to-end is to deliver an even better value proposition to consumers relative to incumbent alternatives.

Each stage of this evolution unlocked billions of dollars in value, and many of the names listed above remain the largest consumer internet companies today.

At their core, these companies are facilitators, matching consumer demand with existing supply of a product or service. While there is no doubt these companies play a hugely valuable role in our lives, we increasingly believe that simply facilitating a transaction or service isn’t enough. Particularly in industries where supply is scarce, or in old-guard industries where innovation in the underlying product or service is slow, a digitized marketplace — even when managed — can produce underwhelming experiences for consumers.

In these instances, starting from the ground up is what is really required to deliver an optimal consumer experience. Back in 2014, Chris Dixon wrote a bit about this phenomenon in his post on “Full stack startups.” Fast forward several years, and more startups than ever are “full stack” or as we call it, “end-to-end operators.”

These businesses are fundamentally reimagining their product experience by owning the entire value chain, from end to end, thereby creating a step-functionally better experience for consumers. Owning more in the stack of operations gives these companies better control over quality, customer service, delivery, pricing and more — which gives consumers a better, faster and cheaper experience.

It’s worth noting that these end-to-end models typically require more capital to reach scale, as greater upfront investment is necessary to get them off the ground than other, more narrowly focused marketplacesBut in our experience, the additional capital required is often outweighed by the value captured from owning the entire experience.

End-to-end operators span many verticals

Many of these businesses have reached meaningful scale across industries:

All of these companies have recognized they can deliver more value to consumers by “owning” every aspect of the underlying product or service — from the bike to the workout content in Peloton’s case, or the bank account to the credit card in Chime’s case. They have reinvented and reimagined the entire consumer experience, from end to end.

What does success for end-to-end operator businesses look like?

As investors, we’ve had the privilege of meeting with many of these next-generation end-to-end operators over the years and found that those with the greatest success tend to exhibit the five key elements below:

1. Going after very large markets

The end-to-end approach makes the most sense when disrupting very large markets. In the graphic above, notice that most of these companies play in the largest, but notoriously archaic industries like banking, insurance, real estate, healthcare, etc. Incumbents in these industries are very large and entrenched, but they are legacy players, making them slow to adopt new technology. For the most part, they have failed to meet the needs of our digital-native, mobile-savvy generation and their experiences lag behind consumer expectations of today (evidenced by low, or sometimes even negative, NPS scores). Rebuilding the experience from the ground up is sometimes the only way to satisfy today’s consumers in these massive markets.

2. Step-functionally better consumer experience versus the status quo

#automotive, #column, #consumer-internet, #ec-market-map, #ecommerce, #entertainment, #exit, #finance, #health, #marketing, #real-estate, #supply-chain-management, #tc, #transportation

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Wattpad, the storytelling platform, is selling to South Korea’s Naver for $600 million

Wattpad, the 14-year-old, Toronto-based, venture-backed storytelling platform with reach into a number of verticals, is being acquired by Naver, the South Korean conglomerate, in a $600 million cash-and-stock deal.

Naver plans to incorporate at least part of the business into another of its holdings, the publishing platform Webtoon, which Naver launched in 2004, brought to the U.S. in 2014, and that features thousands of comic strips created by its users. It also has a huge audience. According to Naver, Webtoons was averaging more than 67 million monthly users as of last August.

On its face, the deal appears to make sense. According to Korea’s Pulse News, some of  Korea’s webtoons are finding a broader audience and crossing over into film. (Below is a trailer for one popular series called “The Secret of Angel.”)

Similarly, Wattpad, which originally launched as an e-reading app, has evolved into a highly popular platform where users publish their original work and more than 90 million people visit monthly to read them.

Indeed, according to a story published last week in the Verge, Wattpad has published more than a billion stories over the years,  and it claims its users spend a collective 22 billion minutes per month reading these.

Like Webtoon, Wattpad has been more focused on streaming media, given the many platforms now needing fresh content, from Netflix to Apple to farther flung outfits, like GoJek’s GoPlay, launched by the Indonesian ride-hailing giant in 2019. (In addition to Wattpad Studios, Wattpad also launched a book publishing division in 2019.)

CEO Jun Koo Kim of Webtoon said in a press release about the new tie-up that it represents a “big step towards us becoming a leading global multimedia entertainment company.”

Meanwhile, CEO Seong-Sook Han of Naver — whose properties include the popular Tokyo-based messaging app Line — said in a separate release that Wattpad co-founders Allen Lau and Ivan Yuen will continue to lead the company following its acquisition.

As for whether the sale is a win for Wattpad’s investors, it appears to be a moderate one. (It’s hard to discern much without knowing the terms under which each outfit invested.)

Wattpaid had raised $117.8 million from investors in Asia, the United States, and Canada over the years and closed its most recent round with $51 million from Tencent Holdings, BDC, Globe Telecom’s Kickstart Ventures, Peterson Group, Canso, and Raine Ventures.

That last deal, announced in 2018, assigned the company a post-money valuation of $398 million according to Pitchbook.

#entertainment, #ma, #tc

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Lunar war brews and NASA gets militarized in For All Mankind S2 trailer

The space race in an alternate timeline continues in the second season of For All Mankind, returning to Apple TV+ in February.

Apple TV+ has dropped the trailer for the second season of For All Mankind, its science fiction drama about an alternate history where the space race never ended. The series was the linchpin of the Apple TV+ launch in 2019, and proved popular enough with viewers to warrant a second season.

(Some spoilers for the first season below.)

Series creator Ronald D. Moore (Battlestar Galactica) has made a point of trying to keep the show reasonably close to reality, despite the science fiction concept, often consulting the original NASA plans for guidance, and incorporating archival footage throughout the season. Moore said the following during a 2019 panel Q&A after an IMAX screening of the first two S1 episodes at the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, DC:

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#apple-tv-plus, #entertainment, #for-all-mankind, #gaming-culture, #streaming-television, #trailers

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Review: Chilling Adventures of Sabrina ends run with disappointing finale

Our favorite half-human/half witch teenager took on eight timeless menacing entities to avert the apocalypse (again) in the final season of The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina. I’ve championed this weirdly captivating supernatural horror show from the beginning, and for three seasons the strengths have always outshone the occasional weakness. Unfortunately, S4 turned out to be the weakest of all, despite including one of the best episodes of the entire Netflix series, and what should have been a strong unifying narrative arc. It’s still pretty entertaining, but there was just a little too much pointless fan service and sloppy plotting this time around for S4 to really work.

(Spoilers for prior seasons below. Major spoilers for the series finale are below the second gallery. We’ll give you a heads up before we get there.)

As we’ve reported previously, the show was originally intended as a companion series to the CW’s Riverdale—a gleefully Gothic take on the original Archie comic books—but Sabrina ended up on Netflix instead. The show retains some of the primetime soap opera elements of Riverdale, but it incorporates more full-blown horror without bowing to the niceties imposed by network television. As I wrote last year, “Ultimately, the best thing about The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina is how gleefully and unapologetically the show leans into its melting pot of the macabre. It’s quite the high-wire act, exploring serious themes while never, ever taking itself too seriously—and never descending into outright camp.”

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#chilling-adventures-of-sabrina, #entertainment, #gaming-culture, #netflix, #tv-review

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Original Content podcast: Martin Scorsese and Fran Lebowitz have a good time in ‘Pretend It’s A City’

The concept behind the new Netflix documentary series “Pretend It’s A City” is pretty straightforward: Author Fran Lebowitz talks, while Martin Scorsese (who’s both director and an on-camera presence) listens and laughs.

Lebowitz’s musings across seven episodes are organized by loose themes, such as “Metropolitan Transit” and “Library Services,” with the more recent footage interspersed with clips from older interviews. That’s pretty much it as far as structure goes; while Lebowitz shares a number of amusing anecdotes, there’s no attempt to explore the broader arc of her career or explain why we’re watching a show about her.

And yet, as we discuss on the latest episode of the Original Content podcast, we both enjoyed watching the entire show.

Darrell describes Lebowitz as the consummate party guest, full of aphorisms and provocative opinions on everything from technology to sports to the New York York City subway. And there’s something delightful about watching an accomplished director like Scorsese just relaxing and having a good time.

On the other hand, it would be a little exasperating when we didn’t find Lebowitz’s as remarks quite as hilarious as Scorsese did, and watching one episode after another meant that she eventually wore out her welcome. So it’s probably best to enjoy the series an at a time, rather than binging the whole thing at once.

In addition to reviewing “Pretend It’s A City,” we also discussed Nielsen’s rankings of the most popular streaming services of 2020.

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
0:34 Listener email
5:46 Nielsen streaming data discussion
14:03 “Pretend It’s a City” review

#entertainment, #media, #netflix, #original-content-podcast, #podcasts, #streaming

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Apple is extending Apple TV+ trials again

If you’ve got an Apple TV+ trial that’s set to expire sometime between now and June, good news: you’re getting some free bonus time.

Apple TV+ first launched in November of 2019, alongside a one-year free trial for anyone buying a new iPhone, iPad, iPod touch, Apple TV or Mac. As those initial trials approached their end, Apple voluntarily extended them out to February of 2021. Now they’re extending them once again.

As first reported by 9to5Mac, any trial that previously would’ve expired from February to June of 2021 will now expire in July instead. We have confirmed these plans with Apple.

Users should expect to get an email about the extension in the coming weeks. If you’re already paying for AppleTV+ or have it as part of an Apple One bundle, meanwhile, you’ll be getting a $4.99 per month credit until the end of June.

If you haven’t already, take this as an opportunity to blast through Ted Lasso, which is probably the most charming thing anyone has made for TV in a decade. Central Park is also great, though it has yet to hook me in quite the same way as Loren Bouchard’s other series (Bob’s Burgers, Home Movies).

#apple, #apple-tv-plus, #entertainment, #tc

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Owen Wilson must choose between real and fantasy worlds in Bliss trailer

Owen Wilson and Salma Hayek star in the forthcoming science fiction film Bliss.

Owen Wilson (Shanghai Noon, Zoolander) plays a man who finds himself flitting between two worlds, one of which is supposedly a simulation, in Bliss, a new science fiction film coming to Amazon Prime next month that co-stars Salma Hayek (Desperado, Frida). Sure, the basic concept sounds a bit like a ripoff of The Matrix with a dash of Solaris, but Mike Cahill is the director, which bodes well for Bliss being a fresher take on a familiar premise.

Cahill, you see, also directed the 2011 indie sci-fi film, Another Earth—his first feature—which received a standing ovation at its premiere and won the Alfred P. Sloan Prize at the 2011 Sundance Film Festival. It was also among the top 10 indie films of the year selected by the National Board of Review Awards. Cahill’s 2014 followup feature, I Origins, also snagged the Sloan Prize; Cahill is the only director to have twice won the award. In short, he’s got some serious indie sci-fi film street cred.

Whoa.

The plot of Another Earth centered on the discovery of a mirror Earth planet, where everyone has a doppelgänger. Clearly, Cahill is interested in exploring themes of duality, because he’s returned to that rich vein for Bliss (not to be confused with the 2019 Fantastic Fest selection of the same name.) Per the official premise: “An unfulfilled man (Wilson) and a mysterious woman (Hayek) believe they are living in a simulated reality, but when their newfound ‘Bliss’ world begins to bleed into the ‘ugly’ world, they must decide what’s real and where they truly belong.”

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#amazon-prime, #bliss, #entertainment, #film, #gaming-culture, #mike-cahill, #owen-wilson, #science-fiction

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Review: Heartbreaking His Dark Materials S2 finale sets the stage for war

The second season of <em>His Dark Materials</em>, starring Dafne Keen as Lyra Belacqua, concluded just before the new year.

Enlarge / The second season of His Dark Materials, starring Dafne Keen as Lyra Belacqua, concluded just before the new year. (credit: BBC/HBO)

The first season of His Dark Materials, the BBC/HBO adaptation of Philip Pullman’s classic fantasy trilogy, had its share of critics, particularly with regard to its sometimes sluggish pacing. Fortunately, those shortcomings have been successfully addressed in the riveting second season. Freed from the creative burden of establishing an elaborate fictional world for viewers unfamiliar with the books, S2 was a briskly paced, yet still emotionally resonant experience, despite being one episode short because of pandemic-related production difficulties. Ruth Wilson’s fiercely feral portrayal of the complicated Mrs. Coulter remains a highlight, and the heartbreaking season finale perfectly set the stage for the final showdown of S3, which has already been green-lit by the studios.

(S1 spoilers below; also some S2 spoilers below the gallery, especially for audiences who haven’t read the books.)

As we’ve written previously, the three books in Pullman’s series are The Golden Compass (published as Northern Lights in the UK), The Subtle Knife, and The Amber Spyglass. They follow the adventures of a 12-year-old girl named Lyra, who lives in a fictional version of Oxford, England, circa the Victorian era. Everyone has a companion daemon in the form of an animal—part of their spirit that resides outside the body—and Lyra’s is named Pantalaimon. Lyra uncovers a sinister plot that sends her on a journey to find her father in hopes of foiling said plot. That journey takes her to different dimensions (the fictional world is a multiverse) and ultimately to her own coming of age.

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#bbc, #entertainment, #gaming-culture, #hbo-max, #his-dark-materials, #philip-pullman, #television, #tv-review

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Original Content podcast: Despite some odd choices, ‘The Undoing’ lays out a satisfying mystery

The HBO miniseries “The Undoing” wrapped up back in November, but the hosts of the Original Content podcast took advantage of the holidays to get caught up.

Based on a novel by Jean Hanff Korelitz, “The Undoing” tells the story of Grace Fraser (played by Nicole Kidman), a Manhattan psychologist whose husband Jonathan (Hugh Grant) is accused of a brutal murder. As the trial turns into a media spectacle, Grace tries to navigate how she feels about her husband and to discover who else might be guilty of the crime.

While Jordan had already watched the show as it aired, Anthony and Darrell were inspired to binge it thanks to an email from listener Michael Benedosso, who shared some amusing thoughts on Kidman’s wavering attempts at a New York accent — resulting in what he called “a world tour expressed via spoken word.”

We agreed that Kidman’s accent left a lot to be desired, and that her performance often felt a bit oblique (the latter, at least, was probably intentional).

We had other quibbles. For one thing, although the cast is relatively diverse, the story spends most of its time on the wealthy white family at its center, as their wealthy white friends. And there were perhaps a few too many red herrings that didn’t lead anywhere interesting.

Still, we were pretty satisfied in the end. With only six episodes and plenty of plot twists, there was really no time to get bored, and we were particularly impressed by Grant’s performance as Jonathan, as well as Noah Jupe as the Frasers’ adolescent son Henry and Noma Dumezweni as Jonathan’s steely lawyer Haley.

Before reviewing he show, we also discussed the recent launch of the Discovery+ streaming service.

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!)

f you’d like to skip ahead, here’s how the episode breaks down:
0:00 Intro
0:30 Discovery+ discussion
6:41 “The Undoing” review
20:40 “The Undoing” spoiler discussion

#entertainment, #hbo, #media, #nicole-kidman, #podcasts

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Roku acquires Quibi’s content

Quibi is dead, but its shows will live on.

The Wall Street Journal reported last week that Roku was in talks to acquire the short-form video service’s content. And this morning, Roku announced that it has indeed reached a deal for the exclusive distribution rights to all of Quibi’s programs.

Roku said it will make this content available for free with ads on The Roku Channel. That doesn’t just include the shows that were previously available on Quibi, but also “more than a dozen” programs making “their exclusive debut on The Roku Channel” — in other words, they were created for the service but unreleased due to the app’s shutdown.

“Today’s announcement marks a rare opportunity to acquire compelling original content that features some of the biggest names in entertainment,” said Roku’s vice president of programming Rob Holmes in a statement. “We’re excited to make this content available to our users in The Roku Channel through an ad-supported model. We are also thrilled to welcome the incredible studios and talented individuals who brought these stories to life and showcase them to our tens of millions of users.”

While Roku is best known for its streaming TV devices and software, advertising is a growing part of its business. And it says The Roku Channel (which offers both free content and subscription channels) reached 61.8 million U.S. viewers in the fourth quarter of last year.

Quibi, meanwhile, announced its shutdown in October, just six months after its splashy launch. The service was focused on creating video episodes that lasted 10 minutes or less and were designed for viewing on-the-go — a poor fit for a period of pandemic and lockdowns.

In their farewell note, executives Jeffrey Katzenberg and Meg Whitman suggested that the service failed due to a combination of bad timing and the fact that “the idea itself wasn’t strong enough to justify a standalone streaming service.”

“The most creative and imaginative minds in Hollywood created groundbreaking content for Quibi that exceeded our expectations,” Katzenberg said in today’s announcement. “We are thrilled that these stories, from the surreal to the sublime, have found a new home on The Roku Channel.”

It’s also worth noting that the service was initially focused entirely on mobile viewing, with no way to watch the shows on smart TVs. That eventually changed, starting with the addition AirPlay support. Now, with the Roku acquisition, it seems that shows designed to be watched on your smartphone will instead be viewed primarily on your TV.

#entertainment, #jeffrey-katzenberg, #media, #mobile, #quibi, #roku, #startups, #streaming-television

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Anthony Mackie plays an android supersoldier in Outside the Wire trailer

Anthony Mackie stars as an android drone pilot in the near future who must track down a doomsday device in Outside the Wire.

A drone pilot is sent into a deadly militarized zone where he finds himself working for an android officer tasked with averting a doomsday scenario in Outside the Wire, the latest high-profile feature film from Netflix. This one stars Anthony Mackie as the android protagonist, fresh off his stunning performance in the sci-fi indie film Synchronic (included in our roundup last month of the best films released in 2020). That, and Netflix’s solid track record with its feature films, are reason enough to be intrigued.

Per the official synopsis:

In 2036, America serves as a peacekeeping force and human troops on both sides are supported by robot combatants called Gumps and drone pilots monitoring skirmishes from thousands of miles away. But after headstrong drone pilot Lieutenant Harp (Damson Idris) disobeys a direct order to intervene in a conflict, the Army deploys him to a military outpost to confront the human costs of his button-pushing.

Harp’s expectations of guarding a fence are upended when his new commanding officer Captain Leo (Anthony Mackie) announces plans to infiltrate the demilitarized zone and apprehend Viktor Koval (Pilou Asbæk), a warlord who intends to launch a network of dormant nuclear weapons. Soon, Harp learns that his theoretical experience as a drone pilot means little out on the battlefield under enemy attack—especially after discovering that Leo is an A.I.-enhanced supersoldier whose strength, speed and demand for results promise to turn his real-world education into a trial by fire.

That pretty much sums it up. The trailer opens with Harp arrives for his reassignment, apparently because he has trouble following the rules—or, as Leo (the classified prototype supersoldier) prefers to think of it, an ability to “think outside the box.” A bit of a buddy-cop vibe separates the two, with Leo teasing his subordinate about the mushy inscription on the back of Harp’s girlfriend’s photo (“Awwww… ‘my gummi bear…. ‘”). We learn that Leo is capable of human emotion despite his extensive combat training (or, er, programming), and he has a neat trick of temporarily removing his tracker when he wants to go off the grid (“Sometimes you got to get dirty to see any real change”). Then the fisticuffs, property damage, and explosions kick in.

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#anthony-mackie, #entertainment, #film, #film-trailers, #gaming-culture, #netflix, #outside-the-wire, #trailers

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Alibaba shuts down 12-year-old music streaming app Xiami

Using Xiami was once synonymous with having good music taste in China. The music app, which debuted around 2008 and was acquired by Alibaba in 2013, is discontinuing its streaming service today, Xiami said in a notice to users.

Xiami, which means “smalll shrimp” in Chinese, was once known for its smart discovery, elegant design, social features and support for indie musicians which helped attract a loyal following among China’s artsy, hipster types. The beginning of its decline coincided with the battle for music rights in China. A digital music behemoth was formed in 2016 when Tencent bought a majority stake in China Music Group, which brought to Tencent a reservoir of exclusive music deals. By 2017, Tencent’s music apps controlled as much as 75% of China’s music streaming market.

Xiami, on the other hand, lost large quantities of music rights and consequently users who converted to more resource-rich platforms, albeit grudgingly.

Alibaba did have a shot at online music. In 2015, the e-commerce giant appointed two renowned industry veterans — a songwriter and a music company executive — to steer its newly minted music group. Neither was necessarily seen as having the experience for running an internet music business. Instead of growing Xiami, they poured resources into a platform called Alibaba Planet to build artist-fan relationships. The idea didn’t take off.

In the meantime, newcomers like NetEase Music are holding out in their battle against Tencent’s music empire, of which dominance has endured to this day.

While users will lose access to the app and all their data, Xiami is not totally dead. Its copyrights-focused segment Yin Luo (音螺 or Conch Music) will continue to operate, according to the notice. But the dream of Xiami’s utopian founders, “earn music & money” (hence the app’s original name “EMUMO”), a vision they laid out inside a cafe on a snowy day in Hangzhou, is surely gone.

#alibaba, #asia, #entertainment, #music-streaming, #xiami

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Discovery+ launches in the US today

The new year is kicking off with the launch of a new streaming service — Discovery+, which offers programming from Discovery’s networks including HGTV, Food Network, TLC, ID, OWN, Travel Channel, Discovery Channel and Animal Planet.

Discovery+ actually launched in the United Kingdom and Ireland last fall through a deal with Sky, but the company is treating today as the big launch, as the service becomes available in the United States.

Despite the crowded field of competing streaming services (including the similarly named Disney+, ESPN+, Apple TV+ and upcoming Paramount+), Discovery+ is aiming to stand out with a focus on documentary and reality content — it bills itself as “the definitive non-fiction, real-life subscription streaming service.”

Plus, it’s priced at just $4.99 per month, or $6.99 if you want to go ad-free. And it will be free to some Verizon and Vodafone subscribers. (Verizon owns TechCrunch.)

At launch, original shows available on Discovery+ include several “90 Day Fiancé” spinoffs, “Amy Schumer Learns to Cook: Uncensored,” “Bobby and Giada in Italy” with Bobby Flay, “House Hunters: Comedians on Couches Unfiltered” (in which comedians watch classic episodes of “house Hunters”), the nature documentary “Mysterious Planet,” “Judi Dench’s Wild Borneo Adventure and a whole lineup of preview episodes for the upcoming Magnolia Network.

Discovery says the service includes more than 55,000 total episodes, with plans to launch 1,000 hours of original in the first year. And the content goes beyond Discovery-owned brands, with nature documentaries from the BBC and programming from A&E, The History Channel and Lifetime.

Discovery+ is available on Amazon Fire TV devices, iOS devices, Google TV/Android TV/Chromecast devices, Microsoft Xbox One and Series S/X, Roku and Samsung smart TVs (2017 and later models). The plan is to launch in 25 markets this year, including the Nordics, Italy, the Netherlands and Spain, as well as parts of Latin America and Asia.

“As we go live with discovery+ today in the U.S., we are thrilled to be working with best-in-class partners to make it available everywhere our fans are,” said Discovery President and CEO David Zaslav in a statement. “Our ambition is simple: bring consumers the definitive and most complete destination for real life entertainment at a price point that makes this the perfect companion for every household’s streaming and TV portfolio. There is nothing like it in the market today.”

#discovery, #entertainment, #media, #verizon

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Original Content podcast: ‘Wonder Woman 1984’ might be a beautiful mess, or maybe just a mess

“Wonder Woman 1984” was released on HBO Max on Christmas Day, where it quickly divided the hosts of the Original Content podcast.

Perhaps it was predictable that Anthony — a fan of clunky-but-ambitious superhero sequels like “The Dark Knight Rises” and “Avengers: Age of Ultron” — enjoyed the film. Darrell, meanwhile, took the side of most critics, who found the movie exasperating and even, at times, mystifyingly bad.

The biggest surprise was Jordan, who disliked the first “Wonder Woman” and actually preferred the sequel, thanks in large part to Kristen Wiig’s portrayal of the villainous Cheetah.

Everyone agreed that there were plenty of problems, including some slipshod and confusing plotting, as well as a portrayal of Wonder Woman that’s defined entirely by her longing for Steve Trevor, the Chris Pine character who died at the end of the first film but returns here under mysterious circumstances.

But where Anthony found the overall arc of the film — rewriting the melancholy love story of “Superman II” as a parable about capitalism and climate change — and its big emotional moments to be surprisingly affecting, Darrell thought the entire final act was ludicrous, with some of the worst CGI ever seen in a big-budget film.

In addition to debating the merits of “Wonder Woman 1984,” we also discuss our top streaming picks from the past year.

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 Introduction
0:35 Best of the year discussion
16:23 “Wonder Woman 1984” review
30:05 “Wonder Woman 1984” spoiler discussion

#entertainment, #hbo, #hbo-max, #media, #original-content-podcast, #podcasts, #tc, #wonder-woman-1984

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