HBO cancels daily news show ‘Vice News Tonight’

Just ahead of the 2016 presidential election, HBO announced its plans to carry a nightly news show courtesy of Vice News, called “Vice News Tonight.” That show is now being canceled, which puts an end to HBO’s seven-year-long relationship with the new media brand Vice Media, according to a report from The Hollywood Reporter out on Monday.

HBO and Vice had expanded their relationship over the years, with a 2013 deal for a weekly news magazine, “Vice;” plus multiple documentary specials and, later, the launch of the nightly news program.

The goal with “Vice News Tonight” was to reach a younger audience who had grown “increasingly skeptical of daily broadcast news,” Vice had explained in its announcement at the time of launch.

The media company argued that the nightly news format hadn’t changed in roughly 60 years, but the way younger viewers consumed information has. They no longer watch nightly news out of obligation, but because the show has earned their time and attention, the company said.

The program grew to reach an audience of over 500,000 viewers per episode and won five Emmys, but still faced a ton of competition in the broader news market.

The show also meant to appeal to younger viewers who have cut ties with traditional pay TV. But today, these viewers have a number of ways to stream the news — including through live TV internet services like YouTube TV, Sling TV, or Hulu with Live TV, for example, as well as via the streaming platforms themselves, like within Roku’s The Roku Channel or dedicated apps for media players like Apple TV. They can also now get the news through other dedicated news streaming services, like CBSN, CBS All Access, NBC News Now, Cheddar, or even on social networks like Snapchat.

Today, news streamer NewsON announced it was coming to Amazon Fire TV, as another example.

In addition, THR points out that “Vice News Tonight” was more of a passion project of former HBO CEO Richard Plepler, who left earlier this year following AT&T’s acquisition of WarnerMedia.

Along with the cancellation of “Vice News Tonight,” Vice Media news chief Josh Tryrangiel will depart at the end of the month, a report from The Wrap notes. Meanwhile, former New York Post CEO and publisher Jesse Angelo will come on board as president of global news and entertainment.

“Jesse is a news pioneer and has built an incredible career by successfully expanding the world of publishing into wider forms of distribution through a multitude of platforms, including digital, social, audio and television,” Vice Media CEO Nancy Dubuc, in a statement. “With him joining our executive team, Vice’s strategic growth plan for news will begin and complement wider partnership opportunities already underway. We’ve had a great run with our friends at HBO and now we’re excited to launch our news products on new platforms, solidifying our place as one of the most trusted brands out there, drawing the youngest audience of anyone in hard news.”

The cancellation follows layoffs of 10% of Vice staff in February and the hiring of Katie Drummond, previously deputy editor at Medium, as SVP of Vice Digital in March.

Though “Vice News Tonight” may be over, it’s not the end of Vice’s streaming platform presence. The company is reportedly working on a new show for Hulu, a report a few months ago said. That deal hasn’t yet been announced. And Vice is shopping a daily news show to other networks and platforms, THR says.

“Vice News Tonight” will end in September when the contract is up.

AT&T’s WarnerMedia might be punting on its original streaming service plans

WarnerMedia’s plans for a three-tiered streaming service appear to be influx. The AT&T-owned company is reportedly scrapping that idea and opting instead to offer HBO, Cinemax and the library of Warner Bros. content in a single subscription service that would cost between $16 and $17 a month, Wall Street Journal reported citing unnamed sources.

The service would first be offered as a beta product later this year and could be offered broadly as early as next March.

TechCrunch will update the article if WarnerMedia responds to a request for comment.

This latest development follows a number of changes over at WarnerMedia, including the departure of HBO CEO Richard Pleper and Turner president David Levy.

Former NBC Entertainment chairman Bob Greenblatt has joined as chairman of WarnerMedia Entertainment and Direct-to-Consumer, putting him in charge of HBO, TBS, truTV and the WarnerMedia streaming service.

AT&T first opened up in November about its plans for its WarnerMedia streaming service. The company said at the time, that the service would have three tiers — an entry-level, movie-focused service; a premium tier with original programming and blockbusters as well as a bundle that includes them both.

During an earnings call a few months later,  AT&T CEO Randall Stephenson expounded on the service and said it would have a “two-sided business model.” The idea was to include subscription-based, commercial-free programming on the high-end as well as an entry-level portion of the service will be ad-supported, according to the Stephenson’s comments at the time..

Whatever the structure ultimately ends up being, the aim is to leverage the entertainment properties AT&T gained by way of its Time Warner acquisition last year.

‘Game of Thrones’ season finale sets record as HBO’s most-viewed episode ever

Despite disappointing many longtime fans of the show, the “Game of Thrones” series finale set a new record for HBO as the most viewed episode in the network’s history. According to the Hollywood Reporter, the episode reached 13.6 million viewers during its initial airing on Sunday night, which rose to 19.3 million once replays and early streaming was included. The record was previously held for a short time by the season’s penultimate episode, which drew in 12.48 million viewers when first aired and a total of 18.4 million during its first night.

The eighth and last season of “Game of Thrones,” which premiered in 2011, averaged 44.2 million viewers through Sunday after streaming, on-demand, DVRs and replays were added in, or 10 million more than the season 7 average, said HBO .

The previous HBO series finale with the most viewers was “The Sopranos” with 11.9 million viewers, though that was in 2007, before streaming and other digital services took off.

 

Game of Thrones petition reaches 1M signatures ahead of finale

Life is short, difficult and, most likely, ultimately meaningless. In this age of immediate fan service, it’s important to remember that you can’t always get what you want. That goes double when it comes to the final season of a beloved television series (I’m looking at you, The Wire). TV, like life, rarely has a satisfying ending.

But perhaps the internet — the cause of and solution to all of life’s problems — can fix that. Irritated Games of Thrones fans have taken to that bastion the bastion of fan annoyance (no, not that one) Change.org in a futile hope of getting a remake of the show’s eighth and final series to end thing they way they want.

As the petition has cruised past one million signatures, its creators have penned a prediction and spoiler note to let signers know where things stand. Tempering expectations for the possibility of a reshoot, it notes that the state of the world demands escapism via sci-fi and fantasy like GoT and Star Wars.

“I didn’t make this petition to be an entitled, whiny fan,” the petition’s creator writes. “I made it because I was immensely disappointed and needed to vent. Do I have a solution? I’ve got plenty of ideas, but no, I’m not a Hollywood writer. But you don’t need to be a mechanic to know your car is broken.”

Who knows, maybe tonight’s final episode will make everything right. Perhaps it will be so good that the world’s corporations and governments will join forces to end war, obliterate poverty and create a diet soda that doesn’t taste like a liquified pencil eraser. Or maybe we’ll all go back to work to work on Monday knowing that it, like all of us could have been better. And maybe, just maybe true change starts with us, beginning with canceling that HBO account.

Or maybe not. Barry is still pretty great.

Winter is coming for HBO NOW subscriber growth

Fan reaction to Game of Thrones‘ final season may be mixed, but the show has been undeniably good for HBO’s network — and for its over-the-top streaming service, HBO NOW. The Season 8 premiere drew in 11.8 million live viewers and 17.4 million viewers across all platforms on the day of airing, as well as a record number of sign-ups to HBO NOW, which in March was reported to have 8 million subscribers. But the show’s finale airs this Sunday, and HBO is set to see a huge exodus of streaming subscribers, as result.

According to new research from Mintel released this week, HBO NOW users are twice as likely as those from any other streaming service to cancel their subscription when a specific show ends.

The only service that performed worse on this front was YouTube Premium. And that’s not exactly an apples-to-apples comparison, given that its subscriber base also includes YouTube viewers who want to go ad-free —  not just those who are there for its original content.

The new findings are telling in terms of how heavily HBO has been relying on Game of Thrones to grow its streaming platform over the years. In addition, the metrics indicate potential struggles ahead for HBO parent company WarnerMedia’s forthcoming streaming service. Due to launch into beta later this year, the service will be led by HBO content. But without new episodes of Game of Thrones, it will have to rely on other popular shows, like Westworld, to pull in viewers.

However, even though Westworld is HBO’s second most-watched show, Game of Thrones has triple the number of viewers.  

The network is clearly aware of the negative impacts to its streaming platform the end of Thrones will bring. It already greenlit plans for a Game of Thrones prequel, which is now filming. And it has other spinoffs in the works, too.

The prequel may not attract the same fervor as the original, but it could help bring viewers back. In the meantime, however, HBO NOW is set to see a significant number of subscribers cancelling after Sunday night.

Mintel also found that HBO NOW doesn’t have any significant traction beyond consumers who already subscribe to four or more over-the-top streaming services. These users pay for Netflix, Amazon Prime Video, and Hulu, then threw HBO into the mix in order to gain access to Game of Thrones. They’re not necessarily loyal to the network itself or interested in its other programming. And at $14.99 per month, HBO NOW is a fairly expensive addition.

With new steaming services from Apple and Disney poised to launch in the months ahead, a number of consumers will likely shift their HBO NOW dollars over to the newcomers instead, or simply pocket their savings.

The researchers also believe that smaller, lesser known streaming services could benefit by positioning their offerings as a more affordable alternative to HBO NOW.

This is especially true because the study found that consumers’ ideal price point for a “perfect” streaming package — one that had everything they want to watch — would be around $20 per month. Today, that number affords them to purchase maybe two or, at the most, three services. A fourth service, like HBO NOW, has been more of a luxury expense — a must-have while Game of Thrones aired, perhaps, but not one consumers will feel comfortable paying for when the show ends.

The new report stops short of making a firm prediction on the number of cancellations HBO NOW will soon see, though.

“I’m hesitant to put a direct number on subscriptions or cancellations,” says Mintel analyst analyst Buddy Lo. “We know from the research that nearly 20 percent of HBO NOW consumers say they would cancel service over a specific program, but we didn’t definitively ask if it was specifically Game of Thrones that they will cancel over,” he tells TechCrunch.

Of course, it’s hard to imagine what other program HBO NOW subscribers would have had in mind when responding.

Mintel isn’t the only firm to dive into the potential impacts to HBO NOW subscriber growth resulting from the end of its flagship series. Last month, Second Measure pointed to historical trends that help to forecast the big subscriber drop ahead.

For example, HBO NOW subscribers jumped by 91 percent in the U.S. during Season 7’s airing, but steadily declined over the six months after it ended. Only 26 percent of HBO NOW subscribers who made their first payment during Game of Thrones season 7 were still subscribers six months later, the report said.

It also found that HBO NOW subscribers were far less loyal than those on other streaming services including, in order, Netflix, Hulu, and even CBS All Access — the latter thanks to the Star Trek: Discovery fan base.

And neither HBO NOW nor CBS All Access came anywhere close to the retention numbers for Netflix and Hulu, which have 6-month retention figures of 74 percent and 60 percent, respectively.

Second Measure also found Netflix and Hulu had far more exclusivity than rivals — meaning, a larger share of subscribers who only paid for their service and no others.

For Netflix, this figure was 78 percent. HBO NOW, by comparison, only had a 27 percent share of subscribers who were exclusive to its platform.

The firm predicts loyalty to a single service will continue to decline in the years ahead as consumer demand for streaming content grows.

The increased competition will make it even harder for HBO to fare well on its own. That’s why it makes sense WarnerMedia is tapping into its other properties to instead create an HBO-led “bundle” that feels more compelling than HBO alone.

Watch the teaser trailer for HBO’s ‘Watchmen’ TV show

HBO has been releasing little glimpses of its adaptation of the classic graphic novel “Watchmen,” but now we’ve got a full teaser trailer.

“Watchmen” has already been turned into a big-budget film by director Zack Snyder. While the movie was neither a disaster nor a big success, the results were still disappointing, since the original graphic novel (written by Alan Moore and drawn by Dave Gibbons) routinely appears on lists of the greatest comics of all time.

One of the main problems with the movie, at least in my view, is that Moore and Gibbons’ story is so perfectly suited to the comics format that any is going to feel like a step down. Perhaps “Watchmen” TV creator Damon Lindelof felt something similar, since he said last year that the comics  “will not be retread nor recreated nor reproduced nor rebooted” on the show.

Instead, he suggested that the series would treat the comics as “our Old Testament” and tell new stories about what comes after.

While the teaser mostly sticks to cryptic, ominous imagery, that does seem to be approach here — depicting a world where costumed vigilantes have been shaping American history for decades, and where the catastrophic events that ended “Watchmen” are receding into the past.

By the way, Lindelof’s involvement is what makes me excited for the show. While he’s best-known for co-creating “Lost,” his most recent project was “The Leftovers,” which I’d argue is itself a contender for greatest television show of all time. So even though I’m not convinced the world really needed another version of “Watchmen,” I’m very interested to see what Lindelof does with the characters.

Original Content podcast: The battle of opinions over ‘Game of Thrones’ and the Battle of Winterfell

This post and podcast contain spoilers for “Game of Thrones” and  “Avengers: Endgame.”

“The Long Night,” the much-anticipated “Game of Thrones” episode where the living and the dead meet in a desperate, epic battle, wasn’t entirely embraced by the show’s fans. Instead, many have complained about the episode’s (literal) darkness, while others were disappointed by the apparent disappearance of the show’s old ruthlessness.

But your hosts at the Original Content podcast (joined this week by our original co-host Darrell Etherington) were pretty happy with the episode, as revealed in an appropriately super-sized discussion.

Yes, the darkness was an issue, but the creative team used that darkness to eerily beautiful effect. On the right screen, everything in the episode was a grand and terrifying spectacle. And while we quibbled with some of the storytelling choices, we also screamed with surprise at the episode’s ending.

The other big question is what the death of the Night King means for the final three episodes of the show. Time will tell, but for now we’re hoping for a return to the initial focus on political scheming and moral compromise.

As if that wasn’t enough for one podcast, we also review the other big pop cultural event of the past week “Avengers: Endgame” — and in doing so, we capture the exact moment when Jordan realized that “Endgame” won’t be the last Marvel movie.

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!)

Dear Hollywood: Here are five female founders to showcase instead of Elizabeth Holmes

There’s a seemingly insatiable demand for Theranos content. John Carrerou’s best-selling book, Bad Blood has already inspired an HBO documentary, The Inventor, an ABC podcast called The Dropout, a prestige limited series starring SNL’s Kate McKinnon was just announced, and Jennifer Lawrence is reportedly going to star in the feature film version of this tawdry “true crime meets tech” tale. That’s before getting started on the various and sundry cover stories and think pieces about her fraud.

I think it’s fair to say the Theranos story has been sufficiently well-documented and I’m worried that this negative perception may be reinforced now that UBiome founder Jessica Richman has been placed on administrative leave. While it’s hard to pass on a chance to stoke startup schadenfreude, perhaps we could focus less on these rare, unrepresentative, and dispiriting examples? Instead, Hollywood could put the spotlight on women who pioneered the bleeding edge of tech and actually produced billion-dollar successes. Here are a few candidates ready for their close-ups:

Judith Faulkner, founder and chief executive officer, Epic Systems

Judith Faulkner – Founder/CEO, Epic Systems

In the late 1970s, the picture of a working woman in Wisconsin was likely Laverne or Shirley. Little did anyone know that in the basement of a Victorian manse in Madison, the future of healthcare was being coded by Judith Faulkner, the founder and CEO of what would become Epic Systems. Epic is arguably the most impactful startup in the history of health software, and Faulkner was building medical scheduling software before most people could even picture a PC. Her efforts established the Electronic Medical Records market as we know it and today, her company manages records for over 200 million people, employs nearly 10,000, and generates around $2.7B per year in revenue — not bad for a math graduate who never raised any venture capital.

One might argue that the origins of medical software are too tepid to make for exciting TV, but something tells me the kind of CEO who hires Disney alums to design her corporate campus and dresses up like a wizard to address her employees might make for a compelling subject.

SANTA BARBARA, CA – FEBRUARY 09: Lynda Weinman speaks onstage (Photo by Rebecca Sapp/Getty Images for SBIFF)

Lynda Weinman – Founder/CEO, Lynda.com

Lynda Weinman might have the most esoteric path to becoming a billion-dollar entrepreneur in history. After getting a humanities degree from Evergreen College, where she was classmates with Simpsons creator Matt Groenig, Lynda opened up a pair of punk rock fashion boutiques on LA’s Sunset Strip.

After those folded in the early 1980s, she taught herself enough computer graphics to become a freelance animator on movies like Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure, which in turn led to her becoming a teacher at the prestigious Art Center College of Design. Her academic pedigree provided the launching pad to write an influential textbook, that in turn gave her the star power to strike out on her own as one of the first web celebrities.

Keep in mind; this dramatic arc only covers the time before she started the eponymous Lynda.com, and bootstrapped it to a $1.5B exit in EdTech — an industry most VCs and entrepreneurs fear to tread. In terms of material for a memoir, Hannah Horvath has nothing on Lynda Weinman.

 

FRAMINGHAM, MA – MAY 30: Shira Goodman, former chief executive at Staples, poses for a portrait in Framingham, MA on May 30, 2017. (Photo by Suzanne Kreiter/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)

Shira Goodman – CEO, Staples.com

Shira Goodman has arguably done more for online shopping in the US than anyone not named Bezos. She didn’t found Staples, but she did start and scale its “delivery business,” as she humbly calls it, to the point where it became the 4th largest ecommerce company in the US.

At a time when more nimble startups were disrupting big-box retailers, Shira did what few of her contemporaries could do — rapidly shifted a multi-billion dollar legacy company in an ancient industry into the future, and eventually became CEO of the entire enterprise. She did this while also raising three children and supporting her husband when he decided to change careers and go to Rabbinical school. Sitcoms have been premised on less, and since two versions of The Office have captivated audiences, perhaps it’s time to provide the perspective from the CEO of Dunder-Mifflin HQ?

Helen Greiner, co-founder, iRobot

Helen Greiner – Co-founder, iRobot

From C. A. Rotwang in Metropolis to Tony Stark in the Marvel movies, there have been plenty of cinematic explorations of robot builders, but the story of iRobot co-founder Helen Greiner might be more interesting than anything yet committed to celluloid. As a recent grad from MIT, Greiner spent a substantial chunk of the 1990s applying her mechanical genius to everything from a mechatronic dinosaur for Disney to a store cleaning robot with the potential for mass destruction for SC Johnson.

Far from an ivory tower academic, Grenier helped the government deploy search and rescue efforts at Ground Zero after 9/11, cave-clearing ‘bots in Afghanistan, and the bomb-disposing Packbot she developed has saved the lives of thousands of service members. Grenier, at age 38, took her company public and made the Jetson’s vision of a robot housekeeper a reality in the form of the Roomba.

CAMBRIDGE, MA – MARCH 15: Kelsey Wirth, who has a grassroots organization called Mothers Out Front: Mobilizing For A Livable Climate (Photo by Essdras M Suarez/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)

Kelsey Wirth – Co-founder, Align Technologies

While the original startup bros were inflating the tech bubble in the late 1990s, Kelsey Wirth was pioneering 3-D printing, which at the time was as fantastical as anything Theranos promised. Wirth’s story as the co-founder of Align Technology is especially compelling in the way it shares some surface similarities with Holmes’ narrative. Prominent skeptics of Invisalign cast doubts on the company in its early days, noting that the startup’s PR had outstripped its clinical validation. Wirth had to solve seemingly intractable technical challenges including scanning misaligned incisors, developing algorithms to overcome underbites, pioneering new manufacturing process, convincing the FDA to clear the product, and then selling it across the country — armed only with an English lit degree and an MBA. Despite the long odds of curing crossbites with software, Wirth started what has become a publicly-traded business that is currently worth over 20 billion dollars.


Most of these founders faced setbacks, including external obstacles and those of their own making. There were layoffs, bad deals, and few of these stories had perfectly happy endings. Still, while a contemporary startup can earn plaudits for simply repackaging CBD and pushing it on Facebook, these entrepreneurs demonstrated a level of ambition rarely seen among modern upstarts.

The sensational focus on Elizabeth Holmes’ misdeeds steal focus from a group of landmark female entrepreneurs and waste a tremendous opportunity to inspire the next generation with heroic tales instead of fables of fabrication. None of these accounts have the black and white morality of the Theranos debacle, but these founders cleared hurdles both scientific and social. They flipped the script and made history, surely Hollywood can find some drama in that.

Thanks to Parul Singh, Elizabeth Condon, and Alyssa Rosenzweig for reviewing drafts of this post.

HBO’s mobile apps to gain a million new downloads courtesy of ‘Game of Thrones’ premiere

In addition to exciting its loyal legion of fans, HBO’s “Game of Thrones” premiere was also once again great news for installs of the network’s app for cord cutters, HBO NOW, which shot to the top of the App Store this weekend. The app this weekend saw a combined 300,000-plus new mobile subscribers in the U.S. across both Apple’s App Store and Google Play, according to preliminary estimates from Sensor Tower.

This is the highest the app has ranked on the U.S. iPhone App Store in three years, Sensor Tower notes, with its previous highest ranking on April 24, 2016 for the Season 6 “Game of Thrones” premiere. At that time, the app had seen 160,000 downloads on just the one day.

Sensor Tower expects to have more precise estimates of the premiere’s impact in the near future, as it wants to incorporate numbers from the fans who are getting a late start and downloading the app today.

Currently, the app is holding its No. 1 position on Apple’s App Store. If that continues, it could easily add another couple hundred thousand over the course of today (Monday, April 15, 2019), Sensor Tower estimates. That could see the app surpassing 500,000 new downloads across the three-day period.

To be clear, these numbers refer to users who have never before installed the app on their phone – not re-downloads.

Of course, this isn’t necessarily a 1:1 correlation with new HBO NOW subscribers. Many fans watch the series on their TV’s big screen through an HBO app for devices like Roku, Apple TV, Fire TV, and others. Or they may tune in to watch on the web, via their laptop. Still, it’s a notable number – especially considering how late it is in the series for the show to be gaining new fans.

HBO’s app for cable and satellite TV customers, HBO Go, also did well this weekend. It’s on track to exceed 400,000 installs over the same three-day period (the weekend of the Season 8 premiere, plus Monday). This is highest the app has ranked since the Season 7 premiere in July 2017, when it added 350,000 first-time users across both stores worldwide.

Combined, the two apps — HBO Go and HBO NOW — are poised to exceed over 1 million new installs in this three-day period, Sensor Tower forecasts.

However, fans’ interest in the long-awaited new season may have caused HBO’s apps to struggle some.

There have been reports from Down Detector and Business Insider of users who had issues streaming from the HBO apps, as well as Hulu. But these were nowhere on the scale of crashes we’ve seen in years past — as with the Season 4 “Game of Thrones” premiere, which had HBO issuing a public apology due to the size of the outage. (HBO has not responded to our requests for comment about the unconfirmed reports detailing last night’s issues. So the issues could be chalked up to users’ broadband connections, or other factors.)

Other TV apps had a few glitches, too, thanks to the premiere. For example, the TV-tracking social app TV Time temporarily struggled to load, shortly after the premiere’s airing last night. On its app, “Game of Thrones” is one of the most-tracked shows, where it has 4.3 million followers who post comments, photos, memes and more to the show’s in-app community. Today, there are some 6,200 comments in the show’s forum, from fans discussing the show.

The team behind Baidu’s first smart speaker is now using AI to make films

The HBO sci-fi blockbuster Westworld has been an inspiring look into what humanlike robots can do for us in the meatspace. While current technologies are not quite advanced enough to make Westworld a reality, startups are attempting to replicate the sort of human-robot interaction it presents in virtual space.

Rct studio, which just graduated from Y Combinator and ranked among TechCrunch’s nine favorite picks from the batch, is one of them. The “Westworld” in the TV series, a far-future theme park staffed by highly convincing androids, lets visitors live out their heroic and sadistic fantasies free of consequences.

There are a few reasons why rct studio, which is keeping mum about the meaning of its deliberately lower-cased name for later revelation, is going for the computer-generated world. Besides the technical challenge, playing a fictional universe out virtually does away the geographic constraint. The Westworld experience, in contrast, happens within a confined, meticulously built park.

“Westworld is built in a physical world. I think in this age and time, that’s not what we want to get into,” Xinjie Ma, who heads up marketing for rct, told TechCrunch. “Doing it in the physical environment is too hard, but we can build a virtual world that’s completely under control.”

rct studio

Rct studio wants to build the Westworld experience in virtual worlds. / Image: rct studio

The startup appears suitable to undertake the task. The eight-people team is led by Cheng Lyu, the 29-year-old entrepreneur who goes by Jesse and helped Baidu build up its smart speaker unit from scratch after the Chinese search giant acquired his voice startup Raven in 2017. Along with several of Raven’s core members, Lyu left Baidu in 2018 to start rct.

“We appreciate a lot the support and opportunities given by Baidu and during the years we have grown up dramatically,” said Ma, who previously oversaw marketing at Raven.

Let AI write the script

Immersive films, or games, depending on how one wants to classify the emerging field, are already available with pre-written scripts for users to pick from. Rct wants to take the experience to the next level by recruiting artificial intelligence for screenwriting.

At the center of the project is the company’s proprietary engine, Morpheus. Rct feeds it mountains of data based on human-written storylines so the characters it powers know how to adapt to situations in real time. When the codes are sophisticated enough, rct hopes the engine can self-learn and formulate its own ideas.

“It takes an enormous amount of time and effort for humans to come up with a story logic. With machines, we can quickly produce an infinite number of narrative choices,” said Ma.

To venture through rct’s immersive worlds, users wear a virtual reality headset and control their simulated self via voice. The choice of audio came as a natural step given the team’s experience with natural language processing, but the startup also welcomes the chance to develop new devices for more lifelike journeys.

“It’s sort of like how the film Ready Player One built its own gadgets for the virtual world. Or Apple, which designs its own devices to carry out superior software experience,” explained Ma.

On the creative front, rct believes Morpheus could be a productivity tool for filmmakers as it can take a story arc and dissect it into a decision-making tree within seconds. The engine can also render text to 3D images, so when a filmmaker inputs the text “the man throws the cup to the desk behind the sofa,” the computer can instantly produce the corresponding animation.

Path to monetization

Investors are buying into rct’s offering. The startup is about to close its Series A funding round just months after banking seed money from Y Combinator and Chinese venture capital firm Skysaga, the startup told TechCrunch.

The company has a few imminent tasks before achieving its Westworld dream. For one, it needs a lot of technical talent to train Morpheus with screenplay data. No one on the team had experience in filmmaking, so it’s on the lookout for a creative head who appreciates AI’s application in films.

rct studio

Rct studio’s software takes a story arc and dissects it into a decision-making tree within seconds. / Image: rct studio

“Not all filmmakers we approach like what we do, which is understandable because it’s a very mature industry, while others get excited about tech’s possibility,” said Ma.

The startup’s entry into the fictional world was less about a passion for films than an imperative to shake up a traditional space with AI. Smart speakers were its first foray, but making changes to tangible objects that people are already accustomed to proved challenging. There has been some interest in voice-controlled speakers, but they are far from achieving ubiquity. Then movies crossed the team’s mind.

“There are two main routes to make use of AI. One is to target a vertical sector, like cars and speakers, but these things have physical constraints. The other application, like Alpha Go, largely exists in the lab. We wanted something that’s both free of physical limitation and holds commercial potential.”

The Beijing and Los Angeles-based startup isn’t content with just making the software. Eventually, it wants to release its own films. The company has inked a long-term partnership with Future Affairs Administration, a Chinese sci-fi publisher representing about 200 writers, including the Hugo award-winning Cixin Liu. The pair is expected to start co-producing interactive films within a year.

Rct’s path is reminiscent of a giant that precedes it: Pixar Animation Studios . The Chinese company didn’t exactly look to the California-based studio for inspiration, but the analog was a useful shortcut to pitch to investors.

“A confident company doesn’t really draw parallels with others, but we do share similarities to Pixar, which also started as a tech company, publishes its own films, and has built its own engine,” said Ma. “A lot of studios are asking how much we price our engine at, but we are targeting the consumer market. Making our own films carry so many more possibilities than simply selling a piece of software.”