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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Image Credits: ILM

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Image Credits: App Annie

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

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

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

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

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

Image Credits: App Annie

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

Image Credits: App Annie

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

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

Image Credits: App Annie

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

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

Image Credits: App Annie

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Netflix to release 41 original Indian shows and movies this year

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

India announces sweeping guidelines for social media, on-demand streaming firms, and digital news outlets

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

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

These firms will also be required to appoint a chief compliance officer, a nodal contact officer, who shall be reachable round the clock, and a resident grievance officer. The firms will also be required to have an office in the country.

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

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

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

New Delhi has put together these guidelines because citizens in India have long requested a “mechanism to address grievances,” said Prasad. India has been working on a law aimed at intermediaries since 2018. This is the first time New Delhi has publicly shared an update on the specifics of the guidelines.

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

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

For streaming platforms, the draft, which will be legally enforceable when it becomes a law, has outlined a three-tier structure for “observance and adherence to the code.” Until now, on-demand services such as Netflix, Disney+ Hotstar, and MX Player have operated in India with little to no censorship.

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

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

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

Digital news outlets will be required to disclose the size of their reach and structure of their ownership.

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

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

This is a developing story. More to follow…

India announces sweeping guidelines for social media, on-demand streaming firms, and digital news outlets

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

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

These firms will also be required to appoint a chief compliance officer, a nodal contact officer, who shall be reachable round the clock, and a resident grievance officer. The firms will also be required to have an office in the country.

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

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

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

New Delhi has put together these guidelines because citizens in India have long requested a “mechanism to address grievances,” said Prasad. India has been working on a law aimed at intermediaries since 2018. This is the first time New Delhi has publicly shared an update on the specifics of the guidelines.

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

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

For streaming platforms, the draft, which will be legally enforceable when it becomes a law, has outlined a three-tier structure for “observance and adherence to the code.” Until now, on-demand services such as Netflix, Disney+ Hotstar, and MX Player have operated in India with little to no censorship.

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

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

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

Digital news outlets will be required to disclose the size of their reach and structure of their ownership.

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

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

This is a developing story. More to follow…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It’s because the firm is on the hunt now for that next big thing that Smash is suddenly going public with its efforts, Richter suggests. Not that a lot of public speaking is in the partners’ future, seemingly. “We like to stay focused,” Garland says. “We make a lot of noise for our portfolio companies, but we are ourselves very heads down.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Top Stories

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

logos for AWS (Amazon Web Services) and Parler

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

@livbedumb♬ drivers license – Olivia Rodrigo

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

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

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

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

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

@charlidamelio♬ drivers license – Olivia Rodrigo

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

Weekly News

Platforms: Apple

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

Platforms: Google

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

Gaming

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

Augmented Reality

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

Entertainment

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

E-commerce

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

Fintech

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

Social

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

Health & Fitness

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

Government & Policy

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

Productivity

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

Trends

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

Funding and M&A

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

Downloads

Bodyguard

Image Credits: Bodyguard

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

Beeper

Image Credits: Beeper

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