Amazon hires Disney SVP Kyle Laughlin as Director of Alexa Gadgets

Amazon has hired Disney SVP Kyle Laughlin to head its Alexa Gadgets division, TechCrunch has learned. Laughlin spent eight years at Disney, most recently as the SVP and General Manager of Games, Apps and Connected Experience at the entertainment giant’s Consumer Products and Interactive Media division.

According to his LinkedIn profile, the role found Laughlin overseeing apps, connected hardware and games for Disney and Lucasfilm. The gig also involved AI, IoT and AR/VR. Also, lots of Muppets.

Amazon has since confirmed the hire. A spokesperson for the company told TechCrunch, “I can confirm that Kyle Laughlin has joined Amazon as Director, Alexa Gadgets. We’re very excited to have him.”

The gig appears to revolve around the newly defined “Alexa Gadget” category, which the company describes as “fun and delightful accessories that pair to compatible Echo devices via Bluetooth.”

Doesn’t seem like much of a stretch after eight years at Disney. Examples of current Alexa Gadgets include the Echo Wall Clock and Gemmy Industries’ connected Big Mouth Billy Bass and Dancing Plush Animatronics.

In a few short years, the Echo has transformed from smart speaker to a category defining, industry driving project. Alexa has become a huge business for Amazon and left everyone else struggling to catch up. Alexa Gadgets is a big push from Amazon to grow the smart assistant’s ecosystem beyond the smart speaker, through a wide range of connected devices.

Disney’s Star Wars Land could open in June, says CEO Bob Iger

We know Disney’s Star Wars Land (or “Galaxy’s Edge,” if we’re being formal) is opening sometime in summer 2019. But that’s about as exact as anyone at Disney would get.

The rumors said June. Now, it seems, so does Disney CEO Bob Iger.

Iger casually dropped the June target in an interview with Barron’s (as spotted by the OC Register).

You can read the full interview here, but the key bit comes in a question about the strategic impact of Galaxy’s Edge.

When Star Wars opens in Anaheim in June and in Florida later in the year, that’s adding capacity. You’re adding 14 acres of land [each], more rides, and more things for people to do.

So while it’s not as official as a press release, it’s about the next best thing. Anaheim in June, Florida still “later in the year.”

A June target makes a ton of sense, of course. Disney wants to make the biggest possible splash right out of the gate, which means opening the doors when the greatest number of people can visit. While Disney won’t have any trouble getting people into Star Wars Land, they might as well clear the runway. June means summer vacation, and summer vacation means ticket sales. Combine that with an unusual uptick in season pass blackout dates for June of 2019, and it really seems like all the stars are aligned for June.

Coming in at roughly 14 acres, Galaxy’s Edge is one of Disney’s biggest endeavors in years. It’s got a Millennium Falcon! It’s got a cantina with blue milk (and booze!). It’s got a hotel where guests get their own friggin’ storylines! As with anything Star Wars, expectations are going to be ridiculously high — but after seeing what they’ve done with Cars Land or Pandora (the Avatar-themed land in Florida), I’m convinced they’ll pull it off.

‘The Mandalorian’ cast includes Pedro Pascal, Gina Carano … and Werner Herzog

Lucasfilm has released an initial cast list for “The Mandalorian,” the live-action Star Wars series that Jon Favreau is creating for the upcoming streaming service Disney+.

Pedro Pascal, who had a brief-but-glorious run on “Game of Thrones” as Oberyn Martell, will star in the title role — Lucasfilm describes his character as “a lone Mandalorian gunfighter in the outer reaches of the galaxy.” (In the Star Wars universe, the Mandalorians are a group of warriors that includes Jango and Boba Fett.)

Pedro PascalThe cast also includes Gina Carano, Giancarlo Esposito, Nick Nolte and legendary director Werner Herzog. Sadly, it appears that Herzog will only be acting in the series, not directing any episodes.

However, there will be some impressive names behind the camera, including Dave Filoni (the creative force behind the recent Star Wars animated series), Bryce Dallas Howard and Taika Waititi.

So far, “The Mandalorian” is looking like it will be the marquee title for Disney+ when it launches late next year — a New York Times report over the summer suggested that the series could cost $100 million for a 10-episode season. There will also be at least one other live-action Star Wars series about Cassian Andor (played by Diego Luna) from “Rogue One,” as well as a Marvel series with Tom Hiddleston returning to the role of Loki.

Jam City is setting up a Toronto shop by buying Bingo Pop from Uken Games

The Los Angeles game development studio Jam City is setting up a shop in Toronto with the acquisition of Bingo Pop from Uken Games.

Terms of the deal weren’t disclosed.

The deal is part of a broader effort to expand the Jam City portfolio of games and geographic footprint. In recent months the company has inked agreements with Disney — taking over development duties on some of the company’s games like Disney Emoji Blitz and signing on to develop new ones — and launching new games in conjunction with other famous franchises like Harry Potter.

The Bingo Pop acquisition will bring a gambling game into the casual game developer’s stable of titles that pulled in roughly $700,000 in revenue through October, according to data from SensorTower.

“We are so proud to be continuing Jam City’s rapid global expansion with the acquisition of one of the most popular bingo titles, and its highly talented team,” said Chris DeWolfe, co-founder and CEO of Jam City, in a statement. “This acquisition provides Jam City with access to leading creative talent in one of the fastest growing and most exciting tech markets in the world. We look forward to working with the talented Jam City team in Toronto as we supercharge the live operations of Bingo Pop and develop innovative new titles and mobile entertainment experiences.”

Founded in Los Angeles in 2009 by DeWolfe, who previously helped create and launch MySpace, and 20th Century Fox exec Josh Yguado, Jam City rose to prominence on the back of its Cookie Jame and Panda Pop games. Now, the company has expanded through licensing deals with Harry Potter, Family Guy, Marvel, and now Disney. Jam City has offices in Los Angeles, San Francisco, San Diego, Bogota, and Buenos Aires.

 

Disney to invest in more original content for Hulu, expand service internationally

In addition to plans to launch its own Netflix rival, Disney+, next year, the company says it also plans to increase investment in its other streaming service, Hulu. Thanks its buyout of 21st Century Fox, Disney now own 60 percent of the TV streaming service, which it gives it “considerable say” in how Hulu is run, noted Disney chairman-CEO Bob Iger on this week’s earnings call with investors. He said the plan now is to invest in more original content for Hulu and expand the service internationally.

Disney would also be open to acquiring more of a stake in Hulu, the CEO later said.

Disney sees the value in both Hulu’s IP and talent, particularly on the television and movies side, Iger told investors. And it plans to use the television production capabilities of the now combined company to “fuel Hulu with a lot more original programming,” he added. This, Disney believes, will help make Hulu more competitive in the marketplace.

“Given the success of Hulu so far in terms of subscriber growth and the relative brand strength and other things too like demographics, we think there’s an opportunity to increase investment in Hulu notably on the programming side,” Iger said.

Currently, Hulu has had only a handful of breakout original hits – most notably, the timely dystopian spectacle that was  “The Handmaid’s Tale.” But its originals output has paled in comparison with Netflix, which projected it would spend $8 billion on content this year, with plans to increase that in 2019. Hulu has spent considerably less – around $2.5 billion, per analyst estimates.

With Fox, however, Disney gains access to the Fox studio and FX, and more, which will help it fuel Hulu with more original content. Iger declined to say if that content would be exclusive to Hulu in the future, but did confirm the studios are part of Disney’s plans for Hulu.

Iger also spoke of other changes ahead for Hulu, including possible adjustments to Hulu’s pricing, and its plan to bring Hulu to more international markets.

“After the deal closes and after we have the 60 percent ownership, we’ll meet with the Hulu management team and the board, and discuss what the opportunities are in terms of both global growth and investing more in content. But that’s something that we have to do after the deal closes,” Iger added.

The acquisition is expected to close in 2019.

In a follow-up interview with CNBC, Iger also said that Disney would be interested in acquiring more shares of Hulu, if the opportunity arose.

“It is premature really except to say that if Comcast is interested in divesting, or if Time Warner or AT&T Time Warner is interested in divesting, we certainly would be interested in buying their stake. But with 60%, which is what we will own, we’ll have enough control to manage Hulu in a way that is consistent with – the strategy of the company is deploying,” he said.

Burgerbot startup Creator hires inventor of Boston Dynamics’ Big Dog

Disney Imagineering animatronics wizard Dr. Martin Buehler is a legend in the robotics world. His work leading development of the galloping Big Dog quadruped at Boston Dynamics both inspired and terrified a new generation of makers. But after playing in the worlds of fantasy and science fiction that consumers can’t buy, Buehler has been poached to work on something much more tangible. In fact, it’s edible. He’s joining burger-making robot startup Creator as VP of engineering.

“It was a great experience working on experimental validation [at Boston Dynamics]” Buehler tells me, “But one of the things I really value at Creator is the immediacy of real impact to real people. With burgers being such a big segment of the food market, we have the potential to touch millions of people.” Creator opened its first restaurant to the public in September, selling San Franciscans gourmet hamburgers at a surprisingly low $6 price tag by replacing a kitchen full of cooks with a massive, transparent robot.

Formerly known as Momentum Machines, Creator has raised over $24 million according to SEC filings. It hopes to make fast-food healthier, tastier, and cheaper by saving money on labor to replace preserved ingredients with premium, freshly cut beef, cheese, and veggies. Patrons can choose from several burger styles, and then get to watch their bun sliced and toasted as a conveyor belt slides it beneath dispensers for other fixins. Instead of cooking, the restaurant staff serves a concierge to customers while keeping the robot stocked.

With Buehler’s help, Creator could make the robot more efficient, flexible enough to handle more custom orders, and more delightful to watch…and Instagram. The whole restaurant industry is trying to become more shareable on social media with kitschy decor and plating. But the robot gives Creator natural virality by making the cooking process itself entertainment — like some futuristic Benihana.

Creator’s new VP of Engineering Dr. Martin Buehler

“At Disney I was in charge of robotics at Imagineering. We used advanced robotics and AI to bring walking and talking Disney characters to life so our guests who meet the characters on the silver screen first can meet and interact with them physically in the parks. What I really learned was to position technology as second fiddle to the guest experience” he tells me.

Buehler calls Creator “a stunning symphony of motion —  the visual experience supports the central culinary experience. The downfall of a lot of robotics companies is that they fall in love with the technology and they lose track of what it takes to deliver value to the customer.” Creator’s approach is working so far. The company claims to be hitting its revenue targets and have a higher net promoter score than fast-food favorite Chick-Fil-A.

But the success of the company will depend on its ability to scale. Creator co-founder and CEO Alex Vardakostas reveals that “the next announcement is going to be more burger stores.” That means the Creator contraption can’t be a one-off art piece. “Right now “Right now the task at hand is to make the current robot scalalable — make it cost less and more reliable — so we can provide robots to many more restaurants” Buehler says.

The concern, though, is that Creator could be the tip of the spear of automation decimating employment as food service workers are replaced by bots. Vardakostas grew up flipping burgers himself at his parents’ restaurant, and he believes machines can take care of the dirty and dangerous work that perhaps humans shouldn’t be doing in the first place. The company already pays its service workers $16 and hour, and offers ‘five percent time’ where they can take time to read or learn about the culinary arts. Eventually it hopes to retrain former fast-food cooks in robot maintenance to offer them a path get paid more.

“The basic mission of the founders is to build a company culture focused on learning and personal development. I like the aspect of the service of giving back” Buehler says. “All the team members get coaching to help them grow, not just technically but personally.

Disney’s new streaming service will be called Disney+

We knew Disney was building its own on-demand streaming service, à la Netflix or HBO GO, but we didn’t know the name.

Now we do. Disney’s new streaming service will be called Disney+.

While there’s been a few rumored names (it was misreported, at one point, to be “Disney Play”), word of this name comes straight from the Mouse House:

Disney+ will launch in “late” 2019 — which makes sense, as that’s right around the time Disney’s remaining contractual ties with Netflix come to an end.

Disney also dropped news about two new series:

  • An as-of-yet unnamed live action Star Wars series about Rogue One’s Cassian Andor, with Diego Luna returning for the role. It is set to take place prior to Rogue One. This, of course, is in addition to The Mandalorian, the series Jon Favreau is making for the service.
  • An unnamed live-action Marvel universe series focusing on Loki. Tom Hiddleston will return to the role.

Should cash-strapped Snapchat sell out? To Netflix?

Snapchat needs a sugar daddy. Its cash reserves dwindling from giant quarterly losses. Poor morale from a battered share price and cost-cutting measures sap momentum. And intense competition from Facebook is preventing rapid growth. With just $1.4 billion in assets remaining at the end of a brutal Q3 2018 and analysts estimating it will lose $1.5 billion in 2019 alone, Snapchat could run out of money well before it’s projected to break even in 2020 or 2021.

So what are Snap’s options?

A long and lonely road

Snap’s big hope is to show a business turnaround story like Twitter, which saw its stock jump 14 percent this week despite losing monthly active users by deepening daily user engagement and producing profits. But without some change that massively increases daily time spent while reducing costs, it could take years for Snap to reach profitability. The company has already laid off 120 employees in March, or 7 percent of its workforce. And 40 percent of the remaining 3,000 employees plan to leave — up 11 percentage points from Q1 2018 according to internal survey data attained by Cheddar’s Alex Heath.

Snapchat is relying on the Project Mushroom engineering overhaul of its Android app to speed up performance, and thereby accelerate user growth and retention. Snap neglected the developing world’s Android market for years as it focused on iPhone-toting US teens. Given Snapchat is all about quick videos, slow load times made it nearly unusable, especially in markets with slower network connections and older phones.

Looking at the competitive landscape, WhatsApp’s Snapchat Stories clone Status has grown to 450 million daily users while Instagram Stories has reached 400 million dailies — much of that coming in the developing world, thereby blocking Snap’s growth abroad as I predicted when Insta Stories launched. Snap actually lost 3 million daily users in Q2 2018. Snap Map hasn’t become ubiquitous, Snap’s Original Shows still aren’t premium enough to drag in tons of new users, Discover is a clickbait-overloaded mess, and Instagram has already copied the best parts of its ephemeral messaging.

SAN FRANCISCO, CA – SEPTEMBER 09: Evan Spiegel of Snapchat attends TechCruch Disrupt SF 2013 at San Francisco Design Center on September 9, 2013 in San Francisco, California. (Photo by Steve Jennings/Getty Images for TechCrunch)

As BTIG’s Rich Greenfield points out, CEO Evan Spiegel claims Snapchat is the fastest way to communicate, but it’s not for text messaging, and the default that chats disappear makes it unreliable of utilitarian chat. And if WhatsApp were to add an ephemeral messaging feature of its own, growth for Snapchat could get even tougher. Snap will have to hope it can hold on to its existing users and squeeze more cash out of them to keep reducing losses.

All those product missteps and and market neglect have metastasized into a serious growth problem for Snapchat. It lost another 2 million users this quarter, and expects to sink further in Q4. Even with the Android rebuild, Spiegel’s assurances for renewed user growth in 2019 seem spurious. That means it’s highly unlikely that Snapchat will achieve Speigel’s goal of hitting profitability in 2019. It needs either an investor or acquirer to come to its aid.

A bailout check

Snap could sell more equity to raise money. $500 million to $1 billion would probably give it the runway necessary to get into the black. But from where? With all the scrutiny on Saudi Arabia, Snap might avoid taking money from the kingdom. Saudi’s Prince Al-Waleed Talal already invested $250 million to buy 2.5 percent of Snap on the open market.

Snap’s best bet might be to take more money from Chinese internet giant Tencent. The massive corporation already spent around $2 billion to buy a 12 percent stake in Snap from the open market. The WeChat owner has plenty of synergies with Snapchat, especially since it runs a massive gaming business and Snap is planning to launch a third-party developer gaming platform.

Tencent could still be a potential acquirer for Snap, but given President Trump’s trade war with China, he might push regulators to block a sale. The state of American social networks like Twitter and Facebook that are under siege by foreign election interference, trolls, and hackers might make the US government understandably concerned about a Chinese giant owning one of the top teen apps.

Regardless of who would invest, they’d likely demand real voting rights — something Snap has denied investors through a governance structure. Spiegel and his co-founder Bobby Murphy both get 10 votes per share. That’s estimated to amount to 89 percent of the voting rights. Shares issued in the IPO came with zero voting rights.

Evan Spiegel and Bobby Murphy, developers of Snapchat (Photo by J. Emilio Flores/Corbis via Getty Images)

But that surely wouldn’t sit well with any investor willing to pour hundreds of millions of dollars into the beleaguered company. Spiegel has taken responsibility for pushing the disastrous redesign early this year that coincided with a significant drop in its download rank. It also inspired a tweet from mega-celebrity Kylie Jenner bashing the app that shaved $1.3 billion off the company’s market cap.

Between the redesign flop, stagnant product innovation, and Spiegel laughing off Facebook’s competition only to be crushed by it, the CEO no longer has the sterling reputation that allowed him to secure total voting control for the co-founders. That means investors will want assurance that if they inject a ton of cash, they’ll have some recourse if Spiegel mismanages it. He may need to swallow his pride, issue voting shares, and commit to milestones he’s required to hit to retain his role as chief executive.

A Soft Landing Somewhere Else

Snap could alternatively surrender as an independent company and be acquired by a deep-pocketed tech giant. Without having to worry about finances or short-term goals, Snap could invest in improving its features and app performance for the long-term. Social networks are tough to kill entirely, so despite competition, Snap could become lucrative if aided through this rough spot.

Combine that with the $637 million bonus Spiegel got for taking Snap public, and he has little financial incentive or shareholder pressure compelling him to sell. Even if the company was bleeding out much worse than it is already, Spiegel could ride it into the ground.

Again, the biggest barrier to this path is Spiegel. Combine totalitarian voting control with the $637 million bonus Spiegel got for taking Snap public, and he has little financial incentive or shareholder pressure compelling him to sell. Even if the company was bleeding out much worse than it is already, Spiegel could ride it into the ground. The only way to get a deal done might be to make Spiegel perceive it as a win.

Selling to Disney could be spun as a such. It hasn’t really figured out mobile amidst distraction from super heroes and Star Wars. Its core tween audience are addicted to YouTube and Snap even if they shouldn’t be on them. They’re both LA companies. And Disney already ponied up $350 million to buy kids desktop social networking game Club Penguin. Becoming head of mobile or something like that for the most iconic entertainment company ever could a vaulted-enough position to entice Spiegel. I could see him being a Disney CEO candidate one day.

What about walking in the footsteps of Steve Jobs? Apple isn’t social. It failed so badly with efforts like its Ping music listeners network that it’s basically abdicated the whole market. iMessage and its cutesy Animoji are its only stakes. Meanwhile, it’s getting tougher and tougher to differentiate with mobile hardware. Each new iPhone seems closer to the last. Apple has resorted to questionable decisions like ditching the oft-missed headphone jack and reliable TouchID to keep the industrial design in flux.

Increasingly, Apple must rely on its iOS software to compete for customers with Android headsets. But you know who’s great at making interesting software? Snapchat. You know who has a great relationship with the next generation of phone owners? Snapchat. And do you know whose CEO could probably smile earnestly beside Tim Cook announcing a brighter future for social media unlocked by two privacy-focused companies joining forces? Snapchat. Plus, think of all the fun Snapple jokes?

There’s a chance to take revenge on Facebook if Snapchat wanted to team up with Mark Zuckerberg’s old arch nemesis Google . After Zuck declared “Carthage must be destroyed”, Google+ flopped and its messaging apps became a fragmented mess. Alphabet has since leaned away from social networking. Of course it still has the juggernaut that is YouTube — a perennial teen favorite alongside Snapchat and Instagram. And it’s got the perfect complement to Snap’s ephemerality in the form of Google Photos, the best-in-class permanent photo archiving tool. With the consume side of Google+ shutting down after accidentally exposing user data, Google still lacks a traditional social network where being a friend comes before being a fan.

What Google does have is a reputation for delivering the future. From Waymo’s self-driving cars to Calico’s plan to make you live forever, Google is an inventive place where big ideas come to fruition. Spiegel could frame Google as aligned with its philosophy of creating new ways to organize and consume information that adapt to human behavior. He surely wouldn’t mind being lumped in with Internet visionaries like Larry Page and Sergei Brin. Google’s Android expertise could reinvigorate Snap in emerging markets. And together they could take a stronger swing at Facebook.

But there are problems with all of these options. Buying Snap would be a massive bet for Disney, and Snap’s lingering bad rap as a sexting app might dissuade Mickey Mouse’s overlords. Apple rarely buys such late-stage public companies. CEO Tim Cook has been able to take the moral high ground because Apple makes its money from hardware rather than off of  personal info through ad targeting. If Apple owned Snap, it’d be in the data exploitation business just like everyone else.

And Google’s existing dominance in software might draw the attention of regulators. The prevailing sentiment is that it was a massive mistake to let Facebook acquire Instagram and WhatsApp, as it centralized power and created a social empire. With Google already owning YouTube, the government might see problems with it buying one of the other most popular teen apps.

That’s why I think Netflix could be a great acquirer for Snap. They’re both video entertainment companies at the vanguard of cultural relevance, yet have no overlap in products. Netflix already showed its appreciation for Snapchat’s innovation by adopting a Stories-like vertical video clip format for discovering and previewing what you could watch. The two could partner to promote Netflix Originals and subscriptions inside of Snapchat. Netflix could teach Snap how to win at exclusive content while gaining a place to distribute video that’s under 20 minutes long.

With a $130 billion market cap, Netflix could certainly afford it. Though since Netflix already has $6 billion in debt from financing Originals, it would have to either sell more debt or issue Netflix shares to Snapchat’s owners. But given Netflix’s high-flying performance, massive market share, and cultural primacy, the big question is whether Snap would drag it down.

So how much would it potentially cost? Snap’s market cap is hovering around $8.8 billion with a $6.28 share price. That’s around its all-time low and just over a quarter of its IPO pop share price high. Acquiring Snap would surely require paying a premium above the market cap. Remember, Google already reportedly offered to acquire Snap for $30 billion prior to its final funding round and IPO. But that was before Snap’s growth rate sunk and it started losing the Stories War to Facebook. A much smaller offer could look a lot prettier now.

Social networks are hard to kill. If Snap can cut costs, fix its product, improve revenue per users, and score some outside investment, it could survive and slowly climb. If Twitter is any indication, aging social networks can reflower into lucrative businesses given enough time and product care. But if Snapchat wants to play in the big leagues and continue having a major influence on the mobile future, it may have to snap out of the idea that it can win on its own.

Comcast outbids Fox in $40B battle for Sky

Comcast has outbid Twenty-First Century Fox for the UK’s Sky, a final step in what’s been a years-long takeover battle between the two media conglomerates.

Comcast’s final offer gives Sky a roughly $39 billion price tag.

The acquisition of Sky, which has 23 million subscribers in the UK, Ireland, Germany, Austria and Italy, will give Comcast a much stronger foothold in the international market and much-needed ammo to compete with Amazon and Netflix in the streaming wars.

Both companies upped their offers for Sky at the settlement auction Saturday, with Comcast offering £17.28 per Sky ordinary share and Fox offering £15.67 per share. Comcast initially priced Sky’s shares at £14.75 apiece. Fox’s original offer was £14 per share.

Both companies will reveal their revised bids on Monday. Sky’s board will make its official recommendation by October 11.

Sky operates several brands including Sky News, Sky Sports and Sky Cinema.

‘Disney Play’ is the company’s Netflix competitor

It’s been a full year since Disney first made public its intentions to go head to head with Netflix. In the intervening months, the media giant has started the process of pulling content from the streaming service, bit by bit.

And while Disney isn’t planning to launch the product until some time next year, at least we’ve finally got a name. CEO Bob Iger is calling the video service “Disney Play,” according to a new report from Variety.

That little tidbit is buried in a larger piece of about Netflix competitors. In it, the chief executive notes that the services is Disney’s “biggest priority of the company during calendar [year] 2019.” That’s some big talk from a company with the reach and resources of a Disney.

From the sound of things, however, it’s going all in on its plan to beat Netflix and its ilk at their own game. Along with an extremely strong slate of existing films, the company’s got some big titles just over the horizon.

There’s Marvel’s Captain Marvel, the final installment of the Star Wars sequel trilogy and surefire sequels like Frozen 2 and Toy Story 4.  And then there’s the original content, led by a live action Star Wars series helmed by Iron Man director, Jon Favreau (who’s also directing Disney’s upcoming Lion King remake).

The exact date and pricing for the service are still TBD, but Iger has promised to undercut Netflix’s monthly fee.