Original Content podcast: Netflix’s ‘Mowgli’ offers a darker take on Kipling’s ‘Jungle Book’

At first, “Mowgli: Legend of the Jungle” might seem like an afterthought — or maybe a failed exercise in franchise-building.

This new take on the story of Rudyard Kipling’s “Jungle Book” comes just two years after Disney’s version made nearly a billion dollars at the worldwide box office. Plus, it seemed a little strange for director Andy Serkis to say he’d respect the “darkness” of the source material — this is, after all, a talking animal story. And Warner Bros’ last-minute decision to sell “Mowgli” to Netflix didn’t exactly suggest that it had much confidence in the film.

But as we argue in the latest episode of the Original Content podcast, “Mowgli” is actually a lot more interesting than the Disney film. It certainly has its flaws, including a rushed ending, but the increased darkness and maturity is surprisingly effective, giving real excitement and suspense to the action.

And thanks to Serkis’ background in performance capture (he played Gollum in Lord of the Rings and Caesar in the new Planet of the Apes films), the animals turn out to be the real highlight. Each of them seems to be animated by their actor’s personality — for example, Benedict Cumberbatch brings a sense of sly menace to the tiger Shere Khan — and the relationship between Mowgli (Rohan Chand) and Bagheera (Christian Bale) ends up being the heart of the movie.

Before our review, we also cover the latest streaming headlines, namely casting details for “The Mandalorian” and growth at Facebook Watch.

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

Apple is producing new content about Snoopy and other Peanuts characters

Apple has signed a deal with DHX Media that will see the Canadian broadcaster producing new shows, specials and short films about Snoopy, Charlie Brown and the rest of the Peanuts gang. That includes exclusive short-form content for Apple starring astronaut Snoopy, aimed at getting kids excited about STEM.

Peanuts was created by Charles Schulz, who wrote and illustrated the popular comic strip for five decades, starting in 1950. The characters moved to television in the 1960s with “A Charlie Brown Christmas,” which was followed by a long list of specials. And they recently returned to the big screen in the computer animated “Peanuts Movie,” which grossed $246 million worldwide.

DHX acquired a controlling stake in Peanuts last year (the remaining 20 percent stake is still held by the Schulz family).

Apple, meanwhile, has been lining up lots of new, family-friendly content for its upcoming streaming service. That includes also enlisting Sesame Workshop to create original programming (not Sesame Street, which recently moved to HBO).

By the way, if you only know Peanuts secondhand, through Snoopy dolls or other merchandise, it’s worth revisiting the early strips (restored to print by Fantagraphics), which are among the finest you’ll ever read. There, you can fully appreciate Schulz’s art, as well as his ability to craft unforgettable jokes from Charlie Brown’s bleak outlook and constant heartbreak.

Jennifer Garner and J.J. Abrams are making a limited series for Apple

More than a decade after the end of “Alias,” J.J. Abrams and Jennifer Garner are teaming up on a new limited series for Apple.

The show, titled “My Glory Was I Had Such Friends,” will be based on the Amy Silverstein memoir of the same name, about how Silverstein’s friends supported her as she waited for her second heart transplant.

As reported in Variety and elsewhere, the series will be produced by Abrams’ Bad Robot Productions in association with Warner Bros. Television. Karen Croner will write and executive produce (she previously wrote “The Tribes of Palos Verdes,” which Garner starred in last year), Garner will serve as both star and executive producer and Abrams will also be an executive producer.

“Alias” first aired in 2001 — Abrams created, wrote and directed, while Garner starred as double agent Sydney Bristow. The show helped make Garner a star, while also landing Abrams his first gig as a feature film director, “Mission Impossible III.”

Garner recently returned to television on the HBO series “Camping.” Abrams, meanwhile, has remained involved in TV despite his commitments to Star Wars, but usually just as an executive producer. Earlier this year, Apple was reportedly bidding for “Demimonde,” the first series that Abrams co-created since “Fringe,” but it lost out to HBO.

What China searched for in 2018: World Cup, trade war, Apple

Soon after Google unveiled the top trends in what people searched for in 2018, Baidu published what captivated the Chinese in a parallel online universe, where most of the West’s mainstream tech services including Google and Facebook are inaccessible.

China’s top search engine put together the report “based on trillions of trending queries” to present a “social collective memory” of internet users, said Baidu. 802 million people have come online in China as of August, and many of them use Baidu to look things up daily.

Overall, Chinese internet users were transfixed on a mix of sports events, natural disasters, politics, and entertainment, a pattern that also prevails in Google year-in-search. On Baidu, the most popular queries of the year are:

  1. World Cup: China shares its top search with the rest of the world. Despite China’s lackluster performance in the tournament, World Cup managed to capture a massive Chinese fan base who supported an array of foreign teams. People filled bars in big cities at night to watch the heart-thumping matches and many even trekked north to Russia to show their support.
  2. US-China trade war: The runner-up comes as a no surprise given the escalating conflict between the world’s two largest economies. A series of events have stoked more fears of the standoff, including the arrest of Huawei’s financial chief.

  3. Typhoon Mangkhut: The massive tropical cyclone swept across the Pacific Ocean in September, leaving the Philippines and South China in shambles. Shenzhen, the Chinese city dubbed the Silicon Valley for hardware, reportedly submitted more than $20.4 million in damage claims after the storm.

  4. Apple launch: The American smartphone giant is still getting a lot of attention in China even as local Android competitors like Huawei and Oppo chip away at its market share. Apple is also fighting a legal battle with chipmaker Qualcomm which wanted the former to stop selling certain smartphone models in China.

  5. The story of Yanxi Palace: The historical drama of backstabbing concubines drew record-breaking views for its streamer and producer iQiyi, China’s answer to Netflix that floated in the U.S. in February. The 70-episode show was watched not only in China but also across more than 70 countries around the world.

  6. Produce 101: The talent show in which 101 young women race to be the best performer is one of Tencent Video’s biggest hits of the year, but its reach has gone beyond its targeted young audience as it popularized a meme, which made it to No. 9 on this list.

  7. Skr: A buzzword courtesy to pop idol Kris Wu who extensively used it on a whim during iQiyi’s rap competition “Rap of China,” prompting his fans and internet users to bestow it with a myriad of interpretations.

  8. Li Yong passed away: The sudden death of the much-loved television host after he fought a 17-month battle with cancer stirred an outpouring of grief on social media.

  9. Koi: A colored variety of carps, the fish is associated with good luck in Chinese culture. Yang Chaoyue, a Produce 101 contestant who the audience believed to be below average surprisingly rose to fame and has since been compared to a koi.

  10. Esports: Professional gaming has emerged from the underground to become a source of national pride recently after a Chinese team championed the League of Legend finals, an event regarded as the Olympics for esports.

In addition to the overall ranking, Baidu also listed popular terms by category, with staple areas like domestic affairs alongside those with a local flavor such as events that inspire national pride or are tear-jerking.

This was also the first year that Baidu has added a category dedicated to AI-related keywords. The search giant, which itself has pivoted to go all in AI and has invested heavily in autonomous driving, said the technology “has not only become a nationwide buzzword but also a key engine in transforming lives across the globe.” In 2018, Chinese people were keen to learn about these AI terms:

Robots, chips, internet of things, smart speakers, autonomous driving, face recognition, quantum computing, unmanned vehicles, World Artificial Intelligence Conference, and quantum mechanics.

‘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.

China’s second-largest gaming company to sell comics assets to rival

China’s online youth entertainment platform Bilibili said it has agreed to buy major assets from the comics arm of gaming giant NetEase, which helped introduce Marvel’s first batch of Chinese superheroes in May.

The deal announced on Wednesday will see Bilibili acquire the copyrights of a large number of popular storylines from NetEase to beef up its content offering for a community of anime, comics and gaming users — or collectively known as ACG fans.

Nine-year-old Bilibili raised $483 million from a U.S. initial public offering in March.

“The addition of [NetEase Comics’] extensive library of well-known content deeply enriches our online comic offerings. It not only complements our core users’ growing appetite for premium licensed ACG content, but also solidifies our leading position in China’s ACG industry,” said Carly Lee, chief operating officer of Bilibili, in a statement.

Update: A NetEase spokesperson provided the following comment:

“We are positive about the deal between Bilibili and NetEase Comics. NetEase will continue its exploration in the ACG industry and operation of Marvel and other works from our licensing partners. In the future, we will further launch deep partnerships with Bilibili in the ACG field,” a NetEase spokesperson told TechCrunch.

The move comes as China’s game publishers struggle with a title approval freeze starting March that has hammered the stock prices of the market’s leader Tencent and second fiddle NetEase.

Like Tencent and NetEase, Bilibili generates a bulk of its income from games, which accounted for 69 percent of its total revenues during the third quarter.

Until recently, Bilibili’s services to its mainly young user base centered around videos, live streaming, and mobile games. In November, the company launched a comics-specific mobile app that would demand heavy content investment to net new users. A lineup of rivals await Bilibili as it plugs itself into the online comics market. Leading the race is Kuaikan Manhua with smaller players including Tencent Comics and NetEase Comics trailing behind, according to an app ranking by market research firm Analysys.

Tencent’s comics app topped 120 million monthly active users last December, said Zou Zhengyu, general manager of Tencent Comics and Animation, at a company event.

Bilibili has also leaned on partnerships to grow its reservoir of gaming titles. In October, it struck a deal that would allow it to run more Tencent games on its own platform. The tie-up followed a $318 million investment from Tencent in Bilibili that lifted Tencent’s ownership to around 12 percent of Bilibili’s total issued shares.

Tencent Music sued by investor ahead of $1.2 billion US IPO

China’s largest music streaming service has had a whirlwind year. With 800 million monthly users across multiple apps and a profitable business, Tencent Music Entertainment is gearing up for one of this year’s most anticipated initial public offerings in the US. But the firm has landed in hot water in the months leading up to its first-time shares sale.

Last week, Chinese investor Hanwei Guo accused TME’s co-president of using misinformation, threats and intimidation to compel him to sell his equity stakes in Ocean Music, which eventually became part of TME after Tencent’s QQ Music and China Music Corporation merged in 2016.

Han has filed a motion for discovery in the US seeking information from Deutsche Bank AG, JPMorgan Chase & Co., Bank of America Corp. and other underwriters for TME’s IPO that the investor plans to use in an arbitration underway in China. The investor is requesting TME co-president Guomin Xie Guo and other parties involved to return percentages of his equity stakes in the music vehicle and compensate him for economic losses.

Han claims that he invested an equivalent of $26 million in Ocean Music in 2012 after Xie’s repeated invitation. Xie first touted Ocean Music on the promise that the music company would turn a profit the following year and go public in three years, but he later informed Guo that the business was failing and threatened him to sell his shares, according to a statement from Guo’s legal advisor. The investor eventually sold his shares “under duress.”

The fraud allegation arrived two months after TME reportedly delayed its IPO due to weakening stock markets around the world. The music giant has resumed the process and filled with the US Securities and Exchange Commission on December 3. According to its prospectus, TME plans to raise up to $1.23 billion with a listed price between $13 to $15 per share.

TME is now in a quiet period where federal rules limit what the company can say in public ahead of its IPO, which Bloomberg reported is set to begin taking orders on December 12.

A spun-out subsidiary of Tencent, TME operates three music streaming apps — QQ Music and what the CMC merger brought over, Kuwo Music and Kugou Music. The entertainment group also runs China’s top karaoke app WeSing, on which users can record and upload their work.

Unlike its money-losing western counterparts Spotify, TME is profitable thanks to a flourishing social business. For example, WeSing users can send virtual gifts to reward content creators, from which TME takes a commission. On the other hand, only 3.6 percent of TME’s users are paying subscribers as of the second quarter, part of a result of China’s rampant online piracy issue. The rate is much lower compared to other music services around the world but TME says in the prospectus that it expects revenue from paid subscriptions to increase over time.

Alibaba Group takes majority control of loss-making movie unit Alibaba Pictures with $160M share purchase

Alibaba Group announced today that it will increase its stake in Alibaba Pictures from 49% to 50.92%, making it the loss-making movie production company’s controlling shareholder. Under the agreement, Alibaba Pictures will issue one billion new shares, priced at HKD $1.25 each share for a total of HKD $1.25 billion (about $160 million), to Alibaba Group.

The announcement of Alibaba Group’s new share purchases comes the week after Alibaba Pictures chairman and chief executive officer Fan Luyuan took charge of Youku, Alibaba Group’s video streaming unit, after its former president Yang Weidong stepped down. Yang is currently under investigation as part of a police anti-corruption probe.

Now that it has majority control over the movie company, Alibaba Group said there will be more integration between Alibaba Pictures and its services, including Youku. In a press release, Fan said “Alibaba Pictures is excited to become a subsidiary of Alibaba Group. As an internet film and TV company, we can leverage the Group’s edge in big data technology and e-commerce and enhance cooperation with other Alibaba’s digital media and entertainment businesses such as Youku, Damai and Alibaba Literature.”

In his statement about the deal, Alibaba CEO Daniel Zhang said “the proposed share purchases is a vote of confidence in Alibaba Pictures, and we will continue to invest resources and take full advantage of our ecosystem to help Alibaba Pictures tap into the promising growth prospects of China’s film industry.”

Founded in 2014 to capitalize on China’s burgeoning movie market, expected to be the largest in the world soon, Alibaba Pictures has turned out to be a costly, money-burning venture. Despite doubling its revenue and posting its first profit in 2017, Alibaba Pictures’ losses also grew to $165 million in the same period. It’s misfortunes continued this year when its big-budget fantasy picture “Asura” became “the most expensive flop in Chinese history,” according to Variety.

Spotify’s 2018 Wrapped feature is now live and ready to take you down memory lane

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As we approach the new year, it’s time to be reminded how many times we all listened to “thank U, next” in 2018. How? With Spotify’s Wrapped, which is now live on the music streaming app.

For the last few years, Spotify has made it very easy to re-experience all the great music and podcasts its users have enjoyed — using Wrapped, its annual feature that gives listeners insights into what they streamed on the platform over the past 12 months.

Spotify will tell you the number of new artists you discovered, your most-played songs and artists, top genres and, of course, help you share these fun facts to Instagram, Twitter and Facebook, giving them some nice free advertising in the process. On top of that, this year Spotify will be sharing some of its listeners Wrapped data in prominent places around the world, like in Times Square or London’s Piccadilly Circus.

Spotify has a special page for artists, too, where they can learn which of their songs were most popular by month, total hours of music streamed by fans and more. Plus, a playlist of 2018’s top hits, which, unfortunately, includes seven Post Malone songs.

Alibaba replaces video streaming boss amid anti-corruption probe

A top-level reshuffle is sending shockwaves across one of China’s biggest online video businesses. Yang Weidong has stepped down as the president of Alibaba’s video streaming unit Youku, the ecommerce operator confirmed to TechCrunch on Tuesday.

Yang is understood to be assisting the police with an investigation into “an alleged case of seeking economic benefits,” said a company spokesperson.

Taking over Yang’s helm is Fan Luyuan, chairman and chief executive officer of Alibaba Pictures, the giant’s film division that scooped up a minority share in Steven Spielberg’s Amblin Partners to set foot in Hollywood. Fan remains in his roles with the film group following the additional appointment.

Yang, who formerly held executive positions at Nokia Greater China and Chinese computer maker Lenovo, joined Youku in 2013. He had since risen through the ranks at the online video service, which Alibaba fully acquired in 2015.

This is not the first time that Youku has grappled with the fallout of executive misconducts. In 2016, Chinese authorities detained the video site’s former vice president Lu Fanxi after a corporate audit revealed “serious suspicions surrounding certain production projects” that Lu oversaw, according to an internal email obtained by multiple Chinese news outlets.

While more details are emerging about Yang’s case, industry veterans suggest that corruption has become an unspoken rule in China’s online video sector, which has seen players race to capture users with topnotch content and talents.

“This can include bribes for actors as well as yin-yang contracts between studios and the actors,” a Shenzhen-based venture capitalist who invests in digital media told TechCrunch, asking not to be named due to the sensitivity of the topic. Yin-yang contracts refer to those that present one compensation arrangement to tax bureaus while secretly pursuing another more lucrative more.

An ongoing crackdown on this unscrupulous practice is underway in China. In October, regulators fined top-earning actress Fan Bingbing nearly $70 million over tax evasion and warned others in the booming film and television industry to come clean or face similar charges.

Yang’s fall is also hot on the heels of an anti-graft probe at Meituan Dianping. On Monday, the Hong Kong-listed neighborhood services titan announced sacking the director of its food delivery segment–the firm’s main source of revenues–for corruption.

The past few years have seen Alibaba, Baidu, Tencent, and a host of other tech heavyweights commit to voluntary anti-corruption purge, likely an answer to President Xi Jinping’s call to end cheats across all facets of society.

Soaring content expenses have jacked up losses for Alibaba’s digital media and entertainment arm, which includes Alibaba Pictures, Youku, and Ali Music Group. Operating losses for the division during the third quarter grew to 4.8 billion yuan or $700 million, up 150 million yuan year-over-year.

Baidu’s video unit iQiyi has also shown signs of stress after it announced issuing a sizable convertible note to raise more capital for content investment.

Youku is in a fierce race with iQiyi and Tencent’s video streaming site. All have shelled out big bucks to churn out TV dramas and variety shows. While iQiyi and Tencent claim to have crossed the 80 million subscriber mark, Youku has been keeping mum about its size in recent quarters.