Plex partners with Lionsgate to expand its ad-supported video library

Plex has added a new content partner for its soon-to-launch ad-supported video service. The company announced this morning its service will now also include movies from Lionsgate, which will join Plex’s existing partner Warner Bros. Domestic Television Distribution, in helping to fill out the forthcoming video-on-demand library.

However, unlike with Warner Bros., whose videos will be limited to U.S. viewers, the deal with Lionsgate is for worldwide streaming. (There may be a few titles with geo-restrictions, Plex noted.)

“Lionsgate is one of the biggest names in the business and we know our millions of users will enjoy free access to their library of movies,” said Keith Valory, CEO of Plex, in a statement. “Plex caters to the most passionate and discerning media lovers all over the world, so it is important for us to be able to bring great content like this together in one beautiful app for all of our users across the globe.”

TechCrunch first reported on Plex’s plans to enter the ad-supported movies market back in January. The company described a strategy that is similar to Roku’s — that is, instead of just facilitating streaming through its platform, it will actually broker deals that bring a selection of free content directly to its users. It can then tap into the ad revenue that’s generated to boost its bottom line as Roku does with The Roku Channel.

Though Plex began as a media organizer, it has, in recent years, expanded to focus on becoming a one-stop-shop for all your media needs. This includes streaming and recording from live TV, streaming music by way of a TIDAL partnership, plus access to podcastsnews and web series.

Plex now has 20 million users, and while it doesn’t detail its subscriber numbers, it has achieved profitability.

That said, the one media organization challenge it hasn’t yet solved is helping users search for, discover, and track the shows and movies they want to watch outside of live TV or its ad-supported streams. Plex did once say it’s looking into paid subscriptions further down the road, as it’s a natural next step beyond the ad-supported streaming deals.

Plex says its video-on-demand library will launch later this year.

Google’s new feature will help you find something to watch

Google Search can now help you find your next binge. The company this morning announced a new feature which will make personalized recommendations of what to watch, including both TV shows and movies, and point you to services where the content is available.

The feature is an expansion of Google’s existing efforts in pointing web searchers to informative content about TV shows and films.

Already, a Google search for a TV show or movie title will include a “Knowledge Panel” box a the the top of the search results where you can read the overview, see the ratings and reviews, check out the cast, and as of spring 2017 find services where the show or movie can be streamed or purchased.

The new recommendations feature will instead appear to searchers who don’t have a particular title in mind, but are rather typing in queries like “what to watch” or “good shows to watch,” for example. From here, you can tap a Start button in the “Top picks for you” carousel to rate your favorite TV shows and movies in order to help Google better understand your tastes.

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You can also select which subscriptions you have access to, in order to customize your recommendations further. This includes subscriptions services like Netflix, Hulu, HBO GO and HBO NOW, Prime Video, Showtime, and Showtime Anytime, CBS All Access, and Starz.

You can also indicate if you have a cable TV or satellite subscription. And it will list shows and movies available for rent, purchase or free streaming from online marketplaces like iTunes, Prime Video, Google Play Movies & TV, and Vudu, plus network apps like ABC, Freeform, Lifetime, CBS, Comedy Central, A&E, and History.

To get started, you’ll use a Tinder-like swiping mechanism to rate titles. Right swipes indicate a “like” and left swipes indicate a “dislike.” You can also “skip” titles you don’t know or have an opinion on.

After giving Google some starter data about your interests, future searches for things to watch will offer recommendations tailored to you.

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The company notes that you can even get specific with your requests, by asking for things like “horror movies from the 80’s” or “adventure documentaries about climbing.” (This will help, too, when you can’t remember a movie’s title but do know what it’s about.)

Google’s search results will return a list of suggestions and when you pick one you want to watch, the service will — as before — let you know where it’s available.

The company already has a good understanding of consumer interest in movies and TV thanks to its data on popular searches. Now it aims to have a good understanding of what individual users may want to watch, as well.

The new recommendations feature is live today on mobile for users in the U.S.

 

Netflix officially launches a ‘Latest’ section with built-in reminders

Last month, Netflix was spotted testing a new section in its TV app called “Latest,” which would connect viewers with a personalized list of upcoming content due to be released over the course of the current week and the next. Today, Netflix is formally announcing the launch of the feature with a focus on its ability to remind you of shows and movies you want to watch.

Netflix had confirmed in August that the Latest section would be available on its streaming app for TVs, including Fire TV, Apple TV, Roku, and others. But it also had a similar feature available on Android and is testing the feature on iOS, it said at the time.

Today, the company confirms the new tab will now be available on many game consoles and Roku, with smart TVs and other devices getting the upgrade in the next couple of months.

The tab itself will feature content from across categories, like drama, comedy, horror, docs, foreign, original, licensed and kids, the company notes. These recommendations will be organized into three sections: New this Week, Coming this Week, and Coming Next Week.

When you see something of interest, you can click “Remind Me” to receive a notification when the title is available to stream.

Netflix says the new feature was inspired by its popular “Now on Netflix” newsletters which help subscribers keep up with the ever-changing content slate.

The feature’s launch is significant for a few reasons.

For starters, it’s a rare addition to Netflix’s top-level navigation in its app which before was limited to Home, Search, TV, Movies, and My List. The Latest section will now get a prominent position, just beneath the Home button.

It will also be an important tool that Netflix will use to keep viewers engaged with its content so they’ll continue to pay for the subscription service. This is now more of a concern for Netflix, which recently posted a disappointing quarter, where it lost U.S. subscribers for the first time since 2011. It’s also poised to face serious competition from newcomers to the streaming market including, most notably, Disney whose soon-to-launch Disney+ will cost less than Netflix and can be bundled with Hulu and ESPN for the same price as a standard Netflix subscription.

The new addition will help to address another challenge, as well — helping subscribers figure out what to watch. Unlike traditional linear TV, Netflix doesn’t just drop you into live TV — you have to make a decision. This often leads to people scrolling for several minutes to find a show to stream, getting frustrated or overwhelmed by the choices, then just launching an old standby, like “The Office.” With reminders and notifications, Netflix can gently nudge viewers towards titles they already want to watch, which could mean less timing browsing and more time streaming.

 

Media software Plex launches a new desktop app for Mac and Windows

Plex today is launching a new desktop application for Mac and Windows, with the goal of eventually replacing Plex Media Player as the company’s only desktop solution. The app’s arrival also signals a change in direction for the company, which will also now remove its existing Windows Store application and end support for the traditional home theater PC setup — the latter which involves a desktop computer connected to a TV or home theater.

The company explains this decision was made after examining how people were using Plex today, and found that most would have an equal or even better experience with a streaming device and its new players.

“It marks the end of an era for us, and we’d be lying if we said it wasn’t a little bittersweet,” the company wrote in a blog post about the change.

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Home theater PC-style configurations are today a bit of a holdover from an earlier era where there were fewer resources to stream personal media from your PC to your TV. Today, however, Plex’s apps for streaming devices are fairly capable, and a heck of a lot simpler to set up and use by mainstream consumers.

The company also noted that the new Apple TV and Android players support nearly all the same formats and that Plex’s app for streaming devices has come a long way in recent years.

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“Modern streaming devices don’t need as much care and feeding as desktop computers. They don’t need to sleep (much), they use a tiny amount of electricity…and they don’t require nearly as much effort to get up and running. They have remotes that work wonderfully out of the box (no more fiddly custom key mappings!) In short, they’re designed for the environment in which you’re using them, and it shows,” the company explained, in hopes of fending off any backlash.

Meanwhile, the new Plex desktop app includes all the capabilities of Plex Media Player along with support for offline access. Previously called “Sync,” this feature has been renamed to “Downloads,” and lets you take your media with you. Similar support for offline media will come to Plex’s mobile apps, too, at a later date, the company said.

To use the Downloads feature, you’ll need a Plex Pass subscription. But otherwise, the new desktop app is free.

Though the desktop app is meant to replace Plex Media Player, the company says it will continue to update the software until January 2020, to allow time for everyone to make the transition.

Plex’s overall business has been changing, in recent years, to become more than just a home media organizer. Today, Plex is a DIY streaming solution that allows users to watch not just their own media across platforms, but also stream podcastsnews, web series, music from TIDAL, as well as capture and record live TV from a digital antenna.

This change has led to other closures, including Plex’s decision last year to Plugins, Cloud Sync and its “Watch Later” bookmarking feature, in addition to the technically challenging Plex Cloud.

It’s unclear how successful Plex’s changes have been as the company doesn’t disclose its number of paying subscribers. However, last year, Plex said it has 15 million registered users — meaning both free and paid. In January 2019, it upped that number to 20 million and noted it had “millions” of people using Plex on a monthly basis.

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.”

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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.