Original Content podcast: On ‘Guava Island,’ Donald Glover mixes music and politics

It was hard to know what to expect from “Guava Island.”

Last year, Donald Glover and Rihanna filmed the mysterious project with director Hiro Murai (who’s also directed multiple episodes of “Atlanta” and the music video for “This is America”, then they said almost nothing about it until debuting the film at Coachella and releasing it on Amazon.

“Guava Island” turns out to be a 54-minute, fable-like story of a musician named Deni (Glover) and his girlfriend Kofi (Rihanna) on a fictional Caribbean island. Deni plans to throw a music festival for the community, but the island boss Red Cargo wants to stop him — if his employees stay out late to party, they might not show up for work the next day.

On this week’s episode of the Original Content podcast, we’re joined by Jon Shieber to discuss our reactions to the film.

It’s certainly filled with beautiful footage of Cuba, as well as wonderful musical moments — like a restaging of “This is America” that makes its anti-capitalist themes even more obvious. But the story as a whole feels underdeveloped, and it’s a bit mystifying that someone would cast Rihanna in musical, then fail to give her a single moment to sing.

We also discuss an obscure little show called “Game of Thrones,” which returned for its final season last week. We have thoughts on the season premiere, and on what’s coming for the next five episodes.

You can listen 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 send us feedback directly. (Or suggest shows and movies for us to review!)

3 fixes for Netflix’s “What to watch?” problem

Wasting time every night debating with yourself or your partner about what to watch on Netflix is a drag. It burns people’s time and good will, robs great creators of attention, and leaves Netflix vulnerable to competitors who can solve discovery. Netflix itself says the average user spends 18 minutes per day deciding.

To date, Netflix’s solution has been its state-of-the-art artificial intelligence that offers personalized recommendations. But that algorithm is ignorant of how we’re feeling in the moment, what we’ve already seen elsewhere, and if we’re factoring in what someone else with us wants to watch too.

Netflix is considering a Shuffle button. [Image Credit: AndroidPolice]

This week Netflix introduced one basic new approach to discovery: a shuffle button. Click on a show you like such as The Office, and it will queue up a random episode. But that only works if you already know what you want to watch, it’s not a movie, and it’s not a linear series you have to watch in order.

Here are three much more exciting, applicable, and lucrative ways for Netflix (or Hulu, Amazon Prime Video, or any of the major streaming services) to get us to stop browsing and start chilling:

Netflix Channels

For the history of broadcast television, people surfed their way to what to watch. They turned on the tube, flipped through a few favorite channels, and jumped in even if a show or movie had already started. They didn’t have to decide between infinite options, and they didn’t have to commit to starting from the beginning. We all have that guilty pleasure we’ll watch until the end whenever we stumble upon it.

Netflix could harness that laziness and repurpose the concept of channels so you could surf its on-demand catalog the same way. Imagine if Netflix created channels dedicated to cartoons, action, comedy, or history. It could curate non-stop streams of cherry-picked content, mixing classic episodes and films, new releases related to current events, thematically relevant seasonal video, and Netflix’s own Original titles it wants to promote.

For example, the comedy channel could run modern classic films like 40-Year Old Virgin and Van Wilder during the day, top episodes of Arrested Development and Parks And Recreation in the afternoon, a featured recent release film like The Lobster in primetime, and then off-kilter cult hits like Monty Python or its own show Big Mouth in the late night slots. Users who finish one video could get turned on to the next, and those who might not start a personal favorite film from the beginning might happily jump in at the climax.

Short-Film Bundles

There’s a rapidly expanding demographic of post-couple pre-children people desperately seeking after-work entertainment. They’re too old or settled to go out every night, but aren’t so busy with kids that they lack downtime.

But one big shortcoming of Netflix is that it can be tough to get a satisfying dose of entertainment in a limited amount of time before you have to go to bed. A 30-minute TV show is too short. A lot of TV nowadays is serialized so it’s incomprehensible or too cliffhanger-y to watch a single episode, but sometimes you can’t stay up to binge. And movies are too long so you end up exhausted if you manage to finish in one sitting.

Netflix could fill this gap by bundling three or so short films together into thematic collections that are approximately 45 minutes to an hour in total.

Netflix could commission Originals and mix them with the plethora of untapped existing shorts that have never had a mainstream distribution channel. They’re often too long or prestigious to live on the web, but too short for TV, and it’s annoying to have to go hunting for a new one every 15 minutes. The whole point here is to reduce browsing. Netflix could create collections related to different seasons, holidays, or world news moments, and rebundle the separate shorts on the fly to fit viewership trends or try different curational angles.

Often artful and conclusive, they’d provide a sense of culture and closure that a TV episode doesn’t. If you get sleepy you could save the last short, and there’s a feeling of low commitment since you could skip any short that doesn’t grab you.

The Nightly Water Cooler Pick

One thing we’ve lost with the rise of on-demand video are some of those zeitgeist moments where everyone watches the same thing the same night and can then talk about it together the next day. We still get that with live sports, the occasional tent pole premier like Game Of Thrones, or when a series drops for binge-watching like Stranger Things. But Netflix has the ubiquity to manufacture those moments that stimulate conversation and a sense of unity.

Netflix could choose one piece of programming per night per region, perhaps a movie, short arc of TV episodes, or one of the short film bundles I suggested above and stick it prominently on the home page. This Netflix Zeitgeist choice would help override people’s picky preferences that get them stuck browsing by applying peer pressure like, “well, this is what everyone else will be watching.”

Netflix’s curators could pick content matched with an upcoming holiday like a Passover TV episode, show a film that’s reboot is about to debut like Dune or Clueless, pick a classic from an actor that’s just passed away like Luke Perry in the original Buffy movie, or show something tied to a big event like Netflix is currently doing with Beyonce’s Coachella concert film. Netflix could even let brands and or content studios pay to have their content promoted in the Zeitgeist slot.

As streaming service competition heats up and all the apps battle for the best back catalog, it’s not just exclusives but curation and discovery that will set them apart. These ideas could make Netflix the streaming app where you can just turn it on to find something great, be exposed to gorgeous shorts you’d have never known about, or get to participate in a shared societal experience. Entertainment shouldn’t have to be a chore.

Science fiction author Gene Wolfe has died

Gene Wolfe, author of “The Book of the New Sun” and other acclaimed works of science fiction and fantasy, died Sunday at the age of 87.

According to Locus, his death came after a long struggle with heart disease.

While Wolfe was never quite as famous as some of his peers, his writing was loved intensely by his fans. Ursula Le Guin, for example, called him “our Melville,” while Michael Swanwick described him as “the greatest writer in the English language alive today.”

That level of praise (and comparisons between his best-known work and James Joyce’s “Ulysses”) might seem hyperbolic — unless you’ve actually read his best novels and stories. To some, Wolfe’s writing represents science fiction’s strongest claim toward creating capital-L Literature.

The four-volume “Book of the New Sun,” published between 1980 and 1983, remains his best-known single work. It tells the story of Severian, a wandering torturer on Earth (“Urth”), billions of years in the future. The writing in “New Sun” is evocative and tricky, with an unreliable narrator obliquely explaining Wolfe’s far-future setting.

Wolfe’s reputation for density and difficulty may have scared some readers away, but it’s also encouraged careful rereading and enthusiastic exegesis from his most devoted readers. And this reputation undersells the pleasure of  Wolfe’s writing.

Decoding his best stories is fun, just as it’s fun to explore the vast city of Nessus in “The Shadow of the Torturer.” He could also use that talent for subtlety to craft an unsettling horror story like “The Tree Is My Hat,” or an equally unsettling character study like “The Death of Doctor Island.” (The reason why Wolfe wrote the latter story, and the similarly titled “The Doctor of Death Island” and “Death of the Island Doctor,” is one of my favorite bits of science fiction trivia.)

And then there’s “Forlesen,” a surreal afterlife fantasy that somehow compresses an entire lifetime of office drudgery into a single day. In the end, the titular character asks, “I want to know if it’s meant anything. If what I’ve suffered — if it’s been worth it.”

The answer? “No. Yes. No. Yes. Yes. No. Yes. Yes. Maybe.”

Hulu buys back AT&T’s minority stake in streaming service now valued at $15 billion

Hulu has paid $1.43 billion to buy AT&T’s minority stake in the streaming video company.

The companies announced Monday that the transaction valued Hulu at $15 billion. As a result, AT&T’s 9.5 percent stake in Hulu was worth $1.43 billion.

The valuation is two-thirds higher than last November when Disney reported in a regulatory filing that the streaming video company was worth $9.26 billion. Hulu is owned by Hulu LLC, a joint venture of Disney and Comcast. Disney now has a 67 percent ownership of Hulu, which it gained, in part, through its $71 billion acquisition of 21st Century Fox. Comcast has a 33 percent stake in Hulu.

AT&T, which has been hinting about selling its minority stake in Hulu since November, will use proceeds from this transaction, along with additional planned sales of non-core assets, to reduce its debt.

“We thank AT&T for their support and investment over the past two years and look forward to collaboration in the future. WarnerMedia will remain a valued partner to Hulu for years to come as we offer customers the best of TV, live and on demand, all in one place,” Hulu CEO Randy Freer said in statement.

AT&T acquired the 9.5 percent percent stake in the service by way of WarnerMedia, as a result of its Time Warner acquisition.

AT&T and Hulu were increasingly looking like competitors, not partners. AT&T has its own streaming services, including cord cutter-friendly live TV service DirecTV Now, more lightweight WatchTV and another upcoming direct-to-consumer service that will launch later this year that leverages its WarnerMedia properties.

This new AT&T streaming service, which will work across devices, will launch into beta in Q4 2019, AT&T has said. The service is expected to expand over time to include third-party content through partnerships.

Vimeo has acquired short-form video creation platform Magisto

Vimeo, the IAC -owned platform for hosting, sharing and monetizing streamed video, has made an acquisition to expand into providing more creation and editing tools. The company has acquired Magisto, a startup founded in Israel that currently has over 100 million users that focuses on providing tools to create and edit short-form videos, providing not just editing but sourcing of music, stock photos and other elements as part of the mix.

Vimeo — which itself has 90 million members in over 150 countries — says that the two will work together “to develop entirely new short-form video creation capabilities for the Vimeo platform, with the goal of helping any individual or business tell their stories with professionalism and ease.”

Terms of the deal were not disclosed — but we are trying to find out. Magisto had raised around $23 million since 2010 from a mix of financial and strategic investors. The list includes Magma Venture Parnters, Horizons Ventures, Kreos Capital, Qualcomm, SanDisk and the Mail.Ru Group. Notably, it hadn’t raised any funding since 2014, according to Pitchbook data. The deal is set to close in Q2 of this year.

Magisto has around 75 employees in California and Israel, all of which are coming over with the deal.

The deal underscore’s Vimeo’s strategy to position itself as a one-stop shop for companies or individuals that publish videos online — either as part of publicity campaigns or as the basis of a bigger project. The idea is that this will help Vimeo get bigger margins per customer by providing more services.

In an age some of the most popular services online are streaming media sites like YouTube, broadband connectivity is ubiquitous, and people are always on the go, video has become one of the primary ways that people express themselves, and get the word out.

“Social media has sparked an insatiable demand for video – audiences today expect high-quality video content from every business, regardless of size or budget. But we’ve found that most small businesses don’t have the tools, resources or expertise to meet this increased demand,” said Anjali Sud, CEO of Vimeo, in a statement. “Magisto’s proprietary technology enables cutting edge mobile apps and AI-powered editing tools which, combined with Vimeo’s scale and unmatched creator community, will empower more people to tell compelling stories through video.”

In addition to developing new tools, Vimeo said that Magisto will be getting a Vimeo integration in order to publish and monetize videos that they create on Magisto currently. 

The two already have a lot of synergy as they both tap the same customer base: smaller customers that are turning to video and online tools to create it to get the word out about themselves, without the big budgets and other pricey resources that larger businesses might have.

“Magisto guides entrepreneurs and small business owners through the video storytelling process, helping them use video effectively to grow their business and engage with audiences,” said Oren Boiman, founder and CEO of Magisto. “We level the playing field so that any business can move fast and compete in today’s video-first world. We’re thrilled to join Vimeo’s industry-leading platform, and to power their vision to make professional quality video creation accessible to all.”

 

 

Vimeo has acquired short-form video creation platform Magisto

Vimeo, the IAC -owned platform for hosting, sharing and monetizing streamed video, has made an acquisition to expand into providing more creation and editing tools. The company has acquired Magisto, a startup founded in Israel that currently has over 100 million users that focuses on providing tools to create and edit short-form videos, providing not just editing but sourcing of music, stock photos and other elements as part of the mix.

Vimeo — which itself has 90 million members in over 150 countries — says that the two will work together “to develop entirely new short-form video creation capabilities for the Vimeo platform, with the goal of helping any individual or business tell their stories with professionalism and ease.”

Terms of the deal were not disclosed — but we are trying to find out. Magisto had raised around $23 million since 2010 from a mix of financial and strategic investors. The list includes Magma Venture Parnters, Horizons Ventures, Kreos Capital, Qualcomm, SanDisk and the Mail.Ru Group. Notably, it hadn’t raised any funding since 2014, according to Pitchbook data. The deal is set to close in Q2 of this year.

Magisto has around 75 employees in California and Israel, all of which are coming over with the deal.

The deal underscore’s Vimeo’s strategy to position itself as a one-stop shop for companies or individuals that publish videos online — either as part of publicity campaigns or as the basis of a bigger project. The idea is that this will help Vimeo get bigger margins per customer by providing more services.

In an age some of the most popular services online are streaming media sites like YouTube, broadband connectivity is ubiquitous, and people are always on the go, video has become one of the primary ways that people express themselves, and get the word out.

“Social media has sparked an insatiable demand for video – audiences today expect high-quality video content from every business, regardless of size or budget. But we’ve found that most small businesses don’t have the tools, resources or expertise to meet this increased demand,” said Anjali Sud, CEO of Vimeo, in a statement. “Magisto’s proprietary technology enables cutting edge mobile apps and AI-powered editing tools which, combined with Vimeo’s scale and unmatched creator community, will empower more people to tell compelling stories through video.”

In addition to developing new tools, Vimeo said that Magisto will be getting a Vimeo integration in order to publish and monetize videos that they create on Magisto currently. 

The two already have a lot of synergy as they both tap the same customer base: smaller customers that are turning to video and online tools to create it to get the word out about themselves, without the big budgets and other pricey resources that larger businesses might have.

“Magisto guides entrepreneurs and small business owners through the video storytelling process, helping them use video effectively to grow their business and engage with audiences,” said Oren Boiman, founder and CEO of Magisto. “We level the playing field so that any business can move fast and compete in today’s video-first world. We’re thrilled to join Vimeo’s industry-leading platform, and to power their vision to make professional quality video creation accessible to all.”

 

 

Original Content podcast: Making sense of the surreal terrors in Jordan Peele’s ‘Us’

Jordan Peele fans who go to his latest film “Us” hoping to find another “Get Out” may be disappointed: Where Peele’s directorial debut lent itself to straightforward political allegory, the follow-up feels murkier and stranger.

“Us” is a nightmarish journey into a world invaded by sinister doppelgangers. The film does, eventually, offer a rationale for what’s happening, but the surreal imagery (and the unsettling work by the cast, led by Lupita Nyong’o) will stick with you in a way that the explanations do not.

On this week’s episode of the Original Content podcast, we’re joined by Megan Rose Dickey to review the film. Now that it’s been a few weeks since “Us” hit theaters, it feels like the right time to argue about what actually happened, dig into the film’s symbolism and see which fan theories resonate.

We also talk about our expectations after watching the first trailer for the next Star Wars film, “The Rise of Skywalker,” which is meant to wrap up the whole nine-episode story.

You can listen 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 send us feedback directly. (Or suggest shows and movies for us to review!)

Watch the first trailer for ‘Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker’

Hot on the heels of announcing the details of the upcoming Disney+ streaming service (which will feature plenty of Star Wars content), Disney and Lucasfilm just released the first trailer for “Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker.”

The unveiling came at the end of a panel at this year’s Star Wars Celebration event in Chicago, where the title of the movie (previously only known as “Star Wars Episode IX”) was finally revealed.

While on-stage, director J.J. Abrams and Lucasfilm President Kathleen Kennedy talked about filming after the death of Carrie Fisher. They’d already announced that they will not be using CGI to try to bring Fisher’s character Leia Organa back to life — but she will be a part of “The Rise of Skywalker,” using previously unseen footage from “The Force Awakens.”

“The craziest part is how not crazy it feels,” Abrams said. “Princess Leia lives in this film in a way that is kind of mind-blowing to me.”

Abrams and Kennedy were joined by new and old cast members on-stage, including Billy Dee Williams, who is (finally!) returning as Lando Calrissan. Williams said it was a “highlight” of his career to be in the new film — and to work with the 52-year-old Abrams, who he described “a beautiful young man.”

Abrams emphasized the idea that while “The Rise of Skywalker” is the final installment on the Skywalker Saga and the culmination of a nine-film story, it also has to work as its own film, and he said, “This movie, it’s about this new energy and what they’ve inherited, the light and the dark.”

He added that these characters will be facing “the greatest evil,” becoming cagey once Colbert asked him who or what that evil is. But the trailer ends with the familiar laugh of Emperor Palpatine (villain of the original films), and as soon as the lights went up, Palpatine actor Ian McDiarmid was on stage, declaring, “Roll it again.”

“Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker” will be released on December 20, 2019.

Disney shows off its upcoming Disney+ streaming service

Disney’s direct-to-consumer streaming strategy took center stage today at the company’s investor day. That strategy includes Hulu (where the recently-closed Fox acquisition has given Disney a contyrolling stake), ESPN+ and the Indian streaming service Hotstar, but executives spent most of their time hyping the upcoming launch of Disney+.

For one thing, they confirmed that unlike Hulu and ESPN+, Disney+ will be entire ad-free, making all its money from subscriptions. Kevin Mayer, Disney’s direct-to-consumer chairman also said the company will is also “likely” to offer a bundle of Hulu, ESPN+ and Disney+ at a discounted product.

Mayer and other Disney executives also offered the first look at what they said is a “working prototype” of the Disney+ service. To a large extent, it looked like any other streaming app, but they made it clear that all the content will be available to download for offline viewing.

The service will also emphasize Disney’s portfolio of entertainment brands — there will be separate sections for Disney animation, Pixar, Star Wars, Marvel and National Geographic. In each case, the speakers emphasized the existing library of films. Not all of those films will be available at launch, but many will be, with more added over the first couple years of operation (presumably as they’re freed up from deals with third parties like Netflix).

Disney+ rollout

Disney+ rollout

For example, Disney said that at launch, the service will include the entirety of the animation studio’s 13-film Signature collection, plus the first two Star Wars trilogies and “The Force Awakens,” plus “Captain Marvel” and other Marvel films.

In addition, Disney is creating a number of original shows for the service (much of it highlighted in clips and sizzle reals that were not included on the webcast). Those include a whole lineup of Marvel shows that Marvel President Kevin Feige said would be closely tied to the studio’s films, plus the Star Wars series “The Mandalorian” and a show about the “Rogue One” characters Cassian Andor and K-2SO.

As for when viewers will actually get to watch all this content, Disney Streaming President Michael Paull said the plan is to roll out across North America, Europe, Asia-Pacific and Latin America throughout 2021.

Original Content podcast: Director Theo Love explains ‘The Legend of Cocaine Island’

Most documentary filmmakers want to convince you that the story they’re telling is important. But Theo Love, director of the new Netflix documentary “The Legend of Cocaine Island,” said he was attracted to his subject matter for the opposite reason.

“A lot of the documentary subject matter that we had been considering and that we saw out there was pretty dark and very, very painfully important,” Love told me. “I wanted to make something that wasn’t important at all. I wanted to make something that was kind of just a silly story and that was just for entertainment.”

As Love explains in the latest episode of the Original Content podcast, “Cocaine Island” tells the story of Rodney Hyden, a middle-aged man with no drug-trafficking experience who learns about millions of dollars worth of cocaine that is supposedly buried on a Caribbean island.

Hyden actually plays himself in the film — not just as an interview subject, but in reenactments of key moments in the story. Love explained that choice as “a combination of necessity meets inspiration.”

“Look, this is an indie film, and we didn’t have a huge budget to get Jack Black or John Goodman to do the recreations,” he said. “But when we met Rodney, it was pretty clear from the get-go that he could do [them]. He just had that type of charisma, that you wanted to watch him.”

And while the film was made independently before being picked up by Netflix (which also gave the documentary its current name), Love said he was thinking about the streaming service from the start.

“I mean, documentaries really changed because of Netflix,” he said. “And the audience that documentaries are getting has changed drastically over the last decade because of Netflix. They’ve brought documentaries to the masses.”

You can listen 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 send us feedback directly. (Or suggest shows and movies for us to review!)