MoviePass temporarily suspends service to improve its mobile app

MoviePass is temporarily suspending its service, starting on July 4, in order to finish working on improvements to its mobile app, the company announced today. The hiatus comes after a difficult year for the cash-burning company, and as Regal, the second-largest movie theater chain in the United States, is reportedly preparing to launch its own ticket subscription service.

MoviePass’ announcement said the hiatus will start at 5 A.M. Eastern Time on July 4 and that subscribers will be automatically credited for the number of affected days once service resumes. It did not say when service would return, but replies to customers from its Twitter account say the company “estimate[s] this process will take several weeks.”

Screenshot from MoviePass' Twitter replies

This is an especially inopportune time for a hiatus because the July 4 holiday is when many major titles are released. In a press statement, MoviePass CEO Mitch Lowe said “There’s never a good time to have to do this. But to complete the improved version of our app, one that we believe will provide a much better experience for our subscribers, it has to be done.”

He added that “We have listened and we understand the frustrations of our subscribers. To provide the level of service you deserve and we can be proud of, we need to improve our mobile app. We plan to make this improvement by utilizing an enhanced technology platform, which is in the final stages of completion.”

MoviePass (owned by Helios and Matheson Analytics) and competitor Sinemia both offer subscription plans that give users access to multiple films in one month for a flat fee, but they have been locked in an expensive war of attrition as they compete for subscribers and box office sales. Both companies have also been hit with constant complaints about poor customer service. When Sinemia launched, it was able to capitalize on anti-MoviePass sentiment, but quickly began to rack up its own negative feedback about hidden fees, cancellations without refunds and poor app performance.

This makes room for new rivals to step in. For example, AMC’s A-List service reached 785,000 subscribers in May and if Regal’s version comes to fruition, it may also appeal to movie-goers who are willing to stick to one chain in exchange for consistent service.

Disney reports strong second-quarter, but takes $353 million write-down on Vice

Walt Disney Co. is writing down its investment in Vice Media for the second time in less than a year. In its otherwise upbeat second-quarter earnings report, the company said it was taking an impairment of $353 million for Vice.

This follows the $157 million write-down Disney disclosed during its fourth-quarter earnings report in November. Vice Media was valued at about $5.7 billion post-money in June 2017 and raised a total of $1.4 billion in funding, including $500 million from Disney in 2015. Last week, however, the Wall Street Journal reported that the media company had taken $250 million in debt financing from investors led by George Soros as it tries to find a way to reverse its slowed growth and stalling traffic.

Disney owns 21% of Vice, in addition to smaller stakes through 21st Century Fox, which it acquired in March, and A&E Networks, a joint venture between Heart Corporation and Disney-ABC Television, one of its subsidiaries.

The Vice write-down was a low point in an otherwise strong quarter for Disney. The company reported a 3% increase in revenue to $14.9 billion and earnings per share of $1.61, beating analysts’ expectations. It also announced three new “Star Wars” films will be released starting in December 2022, along with a roster of other upcoming titles that includes “Cruella” and the “Avatar” sequels.

TechCrunch has contacted Vice Media for comment.

In a statement to Business Insider, a Vice spokesperson said it is “on target to meet, if it not exceed, its financial targets for the third straight quarter,” adding that “our new executive team’s strategic plan is well underway and with the recent capital rise, we will continue investing in the long-term growth of our five global businesses—television, studio, digital, news and our advertising agency, Virtue.”

Apple hires A&E’s Molly Thompson as its head of Documentaries

In addition to a growing lineup of scripted fare, documentaries will be another key focus for Apple TV+, the company’s new streaming service set to launch in May. According to a new report today from Variety, Apple has hired A&E’s Molly Thompson as its head of Documentaries.

Thompson’s experience at A&E includes founding its documentary production arm, A&E IndieFilms, back in 2005. While there, several of its films earned Emmy nominations, including “Life, Animated,” “Cartel Land,” “Jesus Camp” and “Murderball.”

Cartel Land,” “Life, Animated” and “The Tillman Story,” combined, went on to win more than a half-dozen Emmys, along with other industry awards.

Thompson also has exec produced: “The Clinton Affair,” Charles Ferguson’s “Watergate” docu-series, “Studio 54,” “City of Ghosts,” “The Imposter,” “Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead: The Story of the National Lampoon,” “The Unknown Known: The Life and Times of Donald Rumsfeld,” “No Place on Earth,” “Cave of Forgotten Dreams” and “Being Evel” — some of which were under A&E’s History Films banner.

For Lifetime Films, she exec produced two narrative features: “Lila & Eve,” which starred Viola Davis and Jennifer Lopez and premiered at the 2016 Toronto International Film Festival; plus Eleanor Coppola’s “Paris Can Wait,” with Diane Lane and Alec Baldwin.

Thompson’s hiring indicates Apple’s interest in bringing content that will appeal to those who don’t regularly watch traditional TV, but instead like to stream more educational fare — like documentary films and docu-series, biographies, shows with a historical focus and other non-fiction. Plus, documentaries would give Apple a way to compete early on for Emmy attention, even if its scripted series fail to gain critical praise.

Documentaries also represent another means of competing directly with Netflix, where the format has become a huge draw for subscribers — even zeitgeist-y, at times. Netflix today has a range of documentaries that nearly everyone has seen, or has at least heard of, like “Making a Murderer,” “Wild Wild Country,” “13th,” “Amanda Knox,” “Fyre,” “Amy” and many more. This month it will have another hit in this genre, with Beyoncé’s Coachella documentary, out on April 17th.

Apple has already announced a few of its documentary efforts for Apple TV+, including Oprah’s docu-series, one of which is co-produced with Prince Harry; as well as a docu-series about extraordinary homes; and Victoria Stone and Mark Deeble’s documentary about an elephant matriarch, “The Elephant Queen.” The latter, which Apple picked up at the Toronto International Film Festival, was one of its first feature film buys.

Image credit: IMDb

Wattpad’s latest deal will turn its stories into TV shows and movies in Korea

Wattpad’s ambitions to grow beyond a storytelling community for young adults took another leap forward today with the announcement of a new partnership that will help expand its reach in Asia. The company has teamed up with Huayi Brothers in Korea, who will now be Wattpad’s exclusive entertainment partner in the region. The two companies will co-produce content sourced from Wattpad’s community, as it’s adapted for film, TV and other digital media projects in the country.

Development deals like this are not new to Wattpad at this point.

In the U.S., the storytelling app made headlines for bringing the teen hit “The Kissing Booth” to Netflix, which shot up to become the No. 4 movie on IMDb for a time.

Wattpad also recently announced a 2nd season for “Light as a Feather,” which it produces with AwesomenessTV and Grammnet for Hulu.

It additionally works with eOne, Sony, SYFY, Universal Cable Productions (a division of NBCUniversal), and Germany’s Bavaria Fiction.

Outside the U.S., Wattpad has 26 films in development with iflix in Indonesia.

And WattPad’s feature film “After,” based on Anna Todd’s novel, will arrive in theaters on April 12.

Key to these deals is Wattpad’s ability to source the best content from the 565 million some stories on its platform. Do to so, it uses something it calls its “Story DNA Machine Learning technology,” which helps to deconstruct stories by analyzing things like sentence structure, word use, grammar and more in order to help identify the next big hits using more than just readership numbers alone.

The stories it identifies as promising are then sent over to content specialists (aka human editors) for further review.

This same combination of tech and human curation has been used in the past to help source its writing award winners and is now being used to find the next stories to be turned into novels for its new U.S. publishing arm, Wattpad Books.

In addition to its hit-finding technology, studios working with Wattpad also have a way to reach younger users who today are often out of touch with traditional media, as much of youth culture has shifted online.

These days, teens and young adults are more likely to know YouTube stars than Hollywood actors. They’re consuming content online in communities like Reddit, TikTok, Instagram, YouTube, Twitter, and elsewhere. And when it comes to reading, they’re doing more of that online, too – whether that’s through chat fiction apps like Hooked or by reading Wattpad’s longer stories.

Wattpad says it now has 70 million uses worldwide, who now spend 22 billion combined minutes per month engaged with its website and app.

With the Korean deal, Wattpad is further growing its international footprint after several other moves focused on its international expansions.

For example, today’s news follows Wattpad’s raise of $51 million in funding from Tencent; its appointment of its first Head of Asia for Wattpad Studios, Dexter Ong, last year; and its hiring of its first GM of India, Devashish Sharma, who is working with local partners to turn its stories into movies, TV, digital and print in the region.

Huayi Brothers Korea hasn’t announced any specific projects from the Wattpad deal at this point, but those will follow.

“Wattpad’s model is the future of entertainment, using technology to find great storytellers and bring them to an international audience,” said, Jay Ji, CEO, Huayi Brothers Korea, in a statement. “In an era of entertainment abundance, working with Wattpad means access to the most important things in the industry: a data-backed approach to development, and powerful, proven stories that audiences have already fall in love with,” he said.

Cloud movie locker UltraViolet is finally closing

UltraViolet, an older “cloud movie locker” service, is shutting down. The service, which allowed consumers to unlock a digital copy of their DVDs and Blu-Rays, was something of a transitional step between the age of physical media and today’s streaming video landscape. Over time, it’s become less necessary for consumers, as movie marketplaces and subscription services now offer extensive libraries of movies for streaming, rental and purchase – all in digital formats.

The shutdown was first reported by Variety.

Today, UltraViolet claims to have over 30 million users, who are able to stream more than 300 million movies and shows from their cloud libraries. But arguably, “UltraViolet” never became a household name.

The service was not well-received at launch. When the Hollywood and tech execs first came up with the idea, many people at the time thought it was just another “form of DRM” to keep people from sharing their movies – the way that was possible with physical disks.

After a few years, however, UltraViolet loosened its grip a bit. Walmart’s Vudu began offering a way for people to selectively share their UltraViolet movies with friends back in 2014, for example..

But that may have already been too little, too late. People were increasingly more interested streaming Netflix on their Roku – not buying DVDs, converting them to digital, then loaning them out. (Besides, if you really wanted your friend to watch one of your Vudu movies, it was just easier to share your login.)

UltraViolet’s other issue was Disney. While UltraViolet was backed by all the major Hollywood studios, it didn’t have Disney on board. And Disney later decided to launch its own cloud locker, Disney Movies Anywhere. With its launch, several studios left UltraViolet for Disney’s service, Variety’s report also noted. And last year, 20th Century Fox, Universal Pictures, and Lionsgate stopped distributing new release movies on Ultraviolet.

Disney’s service – now just called Movies Anywhere and operated with studio partners including Universal, WB, Sony Pictures and 20th Century Fox – is more popular. Within one app, all the movies you purchased across retailers are centralized.

This, combined with a shift to streaming and subscription video, didn’t bode well for UltraViolet’s future.

The service will shut down on July 31, 2019.

Users are advised to link their UltraViolet accounts to at least one retailer before that date. They should not actually cancel or unlink their UltraViolet accounts before then, as they’d lose their entire movie collection, in that case.

Free streaming service Tubi plans to invest $100M+ on content in 2019, expand internationally

Free TV and movie streaming service Tubi is preparing to double down on content acquisitions this year, the company announced this morning. The service today offers over 12,000 movies and TV series, totalling 40,000 hours of content. All of this can be streamed for free as the content is paid for not via customer subscriptions, but rather by advertising. Now the company is preparing to invest over $100 million to expand its library this year, after hitting profitability in Q4 2018, and tackle new markets.

Founded in 2014, Tubi has benefitted from the trend towards cord cutting, as well as the increasing number of younger consumers who never opt to pay for cable or satellite TV in the first place – sometimes called the “cord nevers.”

The company claims that its viewership increased by over 4.3 times from December 2017 to December 2018, which allowed it to hit the profitability milestone. In the fourth quarter alone, it saw more revenue than in all of 2017 combined, it also noted. And it grew revenues by 180 percent-plus in 2018.

On the advertising front, the company says it ran campaigns from over 1,000 advertisers in 2018, including those from the majority of the top CPG and automotive companies.

However, several aspects of Tubi’s business aren’t being disclosed alongside today’s news – only the highlights. What the company won’t say is how many monthly active users it has, how many hours they watch, or how many ad impressions take place across its platform. These sorts of metrics are critical to measuring success in ad-supported video.

Along with its plans to grow its library, Tubi is preparing to expand outside the U.S. and Canada, with the first market launching this quarter.

To help fund its growth and content acquisitions, Tubi closed on $25 million in debt financing from Silicon Valley Bank in December.

These plans come at a time when Tubi’s business model has been seeing increased competition.

For example, Roku entered ad-supported programming with its own The Roku Channel launch in fall 2017, and said earlier this month it now has 27 million user accounts. Of course, Roku doesn’t break that down by how many use its platform for other services, versus those who specifically launch Roku’s own free content – but that is its ad-supported channel’s potential reach.

In addition to Roku, Tubi competes against Walmart’s ad-supported video on Vudu; Amazon-owned IMDb’s new service FreediveViacom’s latest acquisition, Pluto TV; Sinclair’s local broadcaster-focused service Stirr; and soon, Plex. Comcast will also launch a free streaming service for its pay TV customers in 2020.

Tubi, like many of these services, believes in its potential as consumers tire of being nickeled and dimed for video subscriptions.

“In 2018 we at Tubi saw tremendous growth as consumers, fatigued by SVOD subscriptions and services, sought alternative entertainment choices,” said Farhad Massoudi, CEO of Tubi, in a statement. “We will continue to use profits to make bigger bets on content, enhance the viewing experience, and continue to press ahead into new grounds in what is our core advantage: technology and data,” he added.

In reality, however, Tubi competes for attention among a growing streaming market, which includes those paid subscription video offerings. Today’s consumers are building out customized bundles that make sense for them – a little Netflix and HBO perhaps, fleshed out with some free content through services like Tubi, for example.

Tubi’s advantage, of course, is that it doesn’t have to spend the billions on content and originals that subscription video services like Netflix do to win users. Instead, it relies on titles that have mainstream appeal, but may not be winning any awards – like older movies, kids shows, B-flicks, horror films, and reality TV.

At the end of the day, however, Tubi won’t necessarily gain from people tiring of subscription video, but from the growing influx of cord cutters who are searching for older or niche content not included in subscription libraries -or who just want to watch a free movie.

 

Apple is bringing iTunes content to Samsung’s Smart TVs

Ahead of Apple’s plans to introduce its own streaming service this year, the company has partnered with Samsung to allow iTunes content to be accessible on Samsung Smart TVs. Samsung announced this morning that it will offer access to iTunes Movies and TV shows through a new “iTunes Movies and TV” app on its Smart TVs across 100 countries, and it will offer AirPlay 2 support on its Smart TVs in 190 countries worldwide.

Samsung is the first TV maker to have direct access to iTunes content though this new “iTunes Movies and TV” app, but this is not the first time that iTunes content has been accessible outside of Apple’s own ecosystem.

iTunes content is already accessible today through the third-party Movies Anywhere application, alongside purchases from Prime Video, Google Play, Microsoft Movies & TV, Vudu, and others. That app currently works on a number of streaming media devices, like Roku, Fire TV, Apple TV and others, but not yet on Samsung Smart TVs. In addition, Apple Music can today be streamed on Android devices and iTunes is available on Windows PCs. 

According to Samsung, Apple’s new “iTunes Movies and TV Shows” app will allow Samsung Smart TV owners to browse their existing iTunes library and the iTunes store, where they can purchase and rent hundreds of thousands of movies and TV episodes, including a large selection of 4K HDR titles. The movies and TV shows will also work with Samsung Smart TV features, like the Universal Guide, the new Bixby, and Search.

Meanwhile, Samsung is making AirPlay 2 support available on a range of Smart TVs, including QLED 4K and 8K TVs, The Frame and Serif lifestyle TVs, as well as other Samsung UHD and HD models. This will allow TV owners to play videos, photos, music, podcasts, and more on their TV.

“We look forward to bringing the iTunes and AirPlay 2 experience to even more customers around the world through Samsung Smart TVs, so iPhone, iPad and Mac users have yet another way to enjoy all their favorite content on the biggest screen in their home,” said Eddy Cue, senior vice president of Internet Software and Services at Apple, in a statement about the launch.

Given Apple’s plans to launch its own streaming service in 2019 – presumably through its existing iTunes app – it makes sense that Apple would make that app available on more devices in the living room, where it doesn’t have as much of a presence thanks to Apple TV’s small footprint.

The new app and AirPlay 2 will be offered on 2019 Samsung Smart TV models this spring. Samsung says. 2018 Samsung Smart TVs will receive a firmware update to enable access.

 

 

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.

YouTube quietly added free, ad-supported movies to its site

YouTube quietly added around 100 ad-supported Hollywood movies to its site, beginning last month, according to a new report from AdAge. The titles include a mix of classics like “Rocky” and “The Terminator,” as well as other family fare like “Zookeeper,” “Agent Cody Banks,” and “Legally Blonde,” among others.

Before, YouTube had only offered consumers the ability to purchase movies and TV shows, similar to how you can rent or buy content from Apple’s iTunes or Amazon Video.

Currently, YouTube is serving ads on these free movies, but the report said the company is open to working out other deals with advertisers – like sponsorships or exclusive screenings.

YouTube’s advantage in this space, compared with some others, is its sizable user base of 1.9 million monthly active users and its ability to target ads using data from Google .

The addition of a an ad-supported movies marketplace on YouTube follows Roku’s entry into this market, which began last year with the launch of its free collection of movies, called The Roku Channel.

This year, Roku has been expanding the type of content on that channel to also include things like live news from ABC News, Cheddar, Newsmax, Newsy, People TV, Yahoo and The Young Turks, and – more recently – entertainment and live sports. 

Walmart also offers its own free movies collection through Vudu, and recently teamed up with MGM on original content for the service. Tubi operates a streaming service with free, ad-supported content, too. And Amazon is rumored to be working on something similar.

 

 

AMC’s MoviePass competitor hits 380K users in 3 months, will increase U.S. attendance

As MoviePass flounders and runs out of cash, AMC’s competitive offering, AMC Stubs A-List, is scaling up quickly. The theater chain announced this morning the service is growing faster than anticipated, and has already signed up over 380,000 users in the three months since its late July launch.

The growth is notable also because much of it occurred during the traditional slow time for theaters – the back-to-school season in late August and September, when summer blockbusters come to an end, and families are tied up with other obligations.

Despite this, AMC says it added 120,000 A-List members during the last six weeks, and its members watched over 363 different movie titles to date.

In addition, AMC is projecting that it will see increased U.S. attendance for the first time since 2015, excluding the bump it got by acquiring Carmike Cinemas.

Its movie subscription service, which launched July 26, offers theater goers the ability to watch up to 3 movies per week in any of AMC’s U.S. locations for $19.95 per month, plus tax. This includes speciality theaters, like IMAX, RealD 3D, and others, and it works with AMC’s tickets reservations system both online and in its mobile app.

AMC also took a swing at MoviePass today by reminding potential customers that its service offers a 12-month protection guarantee against changes to the program that could impact its pricing or benefits. That’s remarkably different from MoviePass, which continues to fiddle with pricing plans and is constantly limiting what the service includes.

For example, MoviePass recently began limiting access to specific films and showtimes, as well as the number of visits it supports. It also said it would raise pricing in July to $15 per month, up from $9.99, as its cash flow concerns became a critical issue – especially in the face of new threats like AMC’s service and Sinemia. But it later backtracked on those plans, causing a lot of subscriber confusion.

AMC’s service is effectively promising that it won’t screw around with pricing or plans for at least a year, so you know what you’re getting. That clearly appeals to some portion of the market, given the number of sign-ups A-List has now seen in a short time.

AMC has been a thorn in MoviePass’s side for some time, having previously threatened legal action, which it said devalued the movie-going experience. It also went on record to state that it had “absolutely no intention” of sharing any of its admissions or concessions revenues with MoviePass. Eventually, MoviePass pulled out of some AMC theaters.

“With 380,000 members enrolled in just three months, AMC Stubs A-List is demonstrating that it encourages moviegoers of all ages, locations and backgrounds to come to movie theatres more often, and they’re bringing family and friends along with them,” said Adam Aron, AMC CEO and President, in a statement today about the milestone news. “The early success of this program is evident as AMC is projecting an attendance increase at our U.S. theatres for the first time in three years. This is very good for AMC, and very good for our guests and movie studio partners,” he added.