Reddit is shutting down Dubsmash and integrating video tools into its own app

Reddit is shutting down Dubsmash, its short-form TikTok-like video platform, on February 22, 2022. The company says after February, Dubsmash will no longer be available for download in the Apple App Store or Google Play Store. Currently downloaded apps will stop functioning on the same date.

The company acquired Dubsmash in December 2020 and had said it would integrate its video creation tools into Reddit. Following the acquisition, Dubsmash’s leadership team joined Reddit. Now, nearly a year later, Reddit says the Dubsmash team has been accelerating the app’s video offerings and that parts of Reddit will feel familiar to Dubsmash users.

“Since joining, the Dubsmash team has been working to integrate their innovative video creation tools into Reddit — with a goal of empowering Reddit’s own creators to express themselves in original ways that are authentic to our communities,” Reddit said in a blog post. “Combining forces has been a perfect match. Reddit is where passionate communities come together for timely, interactive, and authentic exchanges about topics that matter to them, and video is increasingly core to how people want to connect.”

As part of the integration, Reddit has announced that it’s rolling out new video creation tools. New camera features include the ability to change recording speeds and the option to set a timer. Users can now also upload videos in landscape, portrait mode and fill, as well as adjust and trim multiple clips. The company is also adding a new editing screen that includes text Stickers, a drawing tool and filters. And users have the option to add voiceovers or adjust the volume directly on the editing screen.

Image Credits: Reddit

In August, Reddit rolled out a video feed feature for iOS users, which shows a stream of videos in a TikTok-like configuration. When presented with a video, users can upvote or downvote, comment, gift an award or share it. Similar to TikTok, users can swipe up to see another video, feeding content from subreddits the user is subscribed to, as well as related ones. The launch of the new video feed came as Instagram’s Reels feature and Snapchat’s Spotlight tool were gaining traction, as social media platforms were looking to compete with TikTok.

Reddit says video content is soaring on Reddit, as it has seen nearly 70% growth in overall hours watched. It notes that there has been a 30% increase in daily active video viewers growth. The app has also seen a 50% increase in quarter-over-quarter short video viewership, which it describes as less than than 2 seconds, in its new video player.

It’s worth noting that Reddit first launched its native video platform in 2017, which allows users to upload MP4 and MOV files to the site. Then, in August 2019, it launched RPAN (Reddit Public Access Network), which lets people livestream to selected subreddits.

Now that Reddit has completed its Dubsmash integration, it’s no surprise that it’s looking to garner more users with the launch of its new video creation tools as it aims to continue to compete with TikTok. However, apps like TikTok and Snapchat go beyond simple video creation, as they also leverage sounds and music on their platforms. It’s unknown if Reddit will take its video ambitions further by following suit in the future.

Reddit is shutting down Dubsmash and integrating video tools into its own app

Reddit is shutting down Dubsmash, its short-form TikTok-like video platform, on February 22, 2022. The company says after February, Dubsmash will no longer be available for download in the Apple App Store or Google Play Store. Currently downloaded apps will stop functioning on the same date.

The company acquired Dubsmash in December 2020 and had said it would integrate its video creation tools into Reddit. Following the acquisition, Dubsmash’s leadership team joined Reddit. Now, nearly a year later, Reddit says the Dubsmash team has been accelerating the app’s video offerings and that parts of Reddit will feel familiar to Dubsmash users.

“Since joining, the Dubsmash team has been working to integrate their innovative video creation tools into Reddit — with a goal of empowering Reddit’s own creators to express themselves in original ways that are authentic to our communities,” Reddit said in a blog post. “Combining forces has been a perfect match. Reddit is where passionate communities come together for timely, interactive, and authentic exchanges about topics that matter to them, and video is increasingly core to how people want to connect.”

As part of the integration, Reddit has announced that it’s rolling out new video creation tools. New camera features include the ability to change recording speeds and the option to set a timer. Users can now also upload videos in landscape, portrait mode and fill, as well as adjust and trim multiple clips. The company is also adding a new editing screen that includes text Stickers, a drawing tool and filters. And users have the option to add voiceovers or adjust the volume directly on the editing screen.

Image Credits: Reddit

In August, Reddit rolled out a video feed feature for iOS users, which shows a stream of videos in a TikTok-like configuration. When presented with a video, users can upvote or downvote, comment, gift an award or share it. Similar to TikTok, users can swipe up to see another video, feeding content from subreddits the user is subscribed to, as well as related ones. The launch of the new video feed came as Instagram’s Reels feature and Snapchat’s Spotlight tool were gaining traction, as social media platforms were looking to compete with TikTok.

Reddit says video content is soaring on Reddit, as it has seen nearly 70% growth in overall hours watched. It notes that there has been a 30% increase in daily active video viewers growth. The app has also seen a 50% increase in quarter-over-quarter short video viewership, which it describes as less than than 2 seconds, in its new video player.

It’s worth noting that Reddit first launched its native video platform in 2017, which allows users to upload MP4 and MOV files to the site. Then, in August 2019, it launched RPAN (Reddit Public Access Network), which lets people livestream to selected subreddits.

Now that Reddit has completed its Dubsmash integration, it’s no surprise that it’s looking to garner more users with the launch of its new video creation tools as it aims to continue to compete with TikTok. However, apps like TikTok and Snapchat go beyond simple video creation, as they also leverage sounds and music on their platforms. It’s unknown if Reddit will take its video ambitions further by following suit in the future.

Tidal is investing in direct artist payments, a step toward fair streaming payouts

Tidal and DistroKid, a popular independent music distributor, teamed up last week to introduce a direct artist payments system. This partnership foreshadows a larger pivot from Tidal toward experimenting with streaming payout models that are thought to distribute funds more equitably to musicians who don’t get millions of streams on any given day (AKA, people who aren’t Taylor Swift or Lil Nas X).

If you’re subscribed to Tidal’s HiFi Plus plan — which costs $19.99 per month — up to 10% (or about $2) of your monthly subscription fee will be distributed to your most-listened-to artist (so long as that artist uses DistroKid). That percentage shrinks if you’re paying for your subscription through a service that takes a cut, like the Apple or Google app stores. Tidal told TechCrunch that it also struck similar deals with independent distributors like CD Baby, Equity Distribution, Stem, Symphonic, Tunecore and Vydia.

This model is an example of a user-centric payment system (UCPS), which is generally favored by artists. As described by Deezer, a streaming service that uses UCPS, this system helps individual fans more directly and transparently support their favorite artists, since their subscription fee is distributed to the artists they listen to. So, let’s say you listen to a 10-track record one time on a platform that pays about one cent per stream, like Apple Music. Then, that artist will earn 10 cents (and that’s before distributors and publishers take their cut). But, on a UCPS platform like Deezer or SoundCloud, if you listen to 10 albums from 10 different artists in a month, then a portion of your monthly subscription fee is divided among those 10 artists, which means they’re probably getting more than 10 cents each. It’s similar to buying a CD — it’s not how often you listen to that CD, but rather, the fact that you bought it in the first place.

Tidal told TechCrunch that beyond its deals with independent distributors, a kind of UCPS will come to its HiFi Plus tier starting in January 2022. The platform says it teamed up with more than 100 labels — both major labels and independents — to develop what it calls its fan-centered royalties program.

Image Credits: Deezer

Currently, major streaming platforms like Apple Music and Spotify pay per stream. But the growth of music streaming services — an attempted answer to the crisis of music piracy — has been, on the whole, not great for musicians. Musicians’ primary source of revenue is now touring, so when the pandemic hit and canceled a slew of concerts, the inequity of streaming payouts became even clearer.

Last year, the Union of Musicians and Allied Workers (UMAW) launched a campaign called Justice at Spotify, which demands the streaming giant to adopt UCPS, increase transparency about payouts and pay at least $0.01 per stream. As it stands, the platform is estimated to pay an average of $0.0038 per stream, according to the UMAW, but Spotify itself doesn’t disclose this value, saying that pay per stream is not a meaningful value to analyze.

“We applaud Tidal’s move toward a more user-centric payment system, a shift we’ve been demanding since we launched our Justice at Spotify campaign in 2020, and one already adopted by Deezer and SoundCloud,” said Joey DeFrancesco in a statement to TechCrunch on behalf of UMAW. “User-centric is no silver bullet, and we still desperately need more fundamental changes in streaming royalties, but it is a step in the right direction.”

Comparatively, Apple Music pays $0.01 per stream on average, per an internal memo leaked earlier this year. Tidal is thought to pay about the same, though the company itself hasn’t confirmed these numbers. But Spotify, which has the most subscribers out of the three streaming leaders, pays the least.

Spotify points out that it appears to pay less per stream than competitors because, according to the company, Spotify users stream more music than users on competitor platforms. Also, unlike Apple Music or Tidal, Spotify offers a free tier, subsidized through ads, which the platform says might skew its pay-per-stream metrics.

Streaming payouts don’t directly reach the artist — first, payouts are divided among an artist’s record labels and publishers. The amount that an individual artist will get per stream depends on their contracts in the industry. But for now, according to the UMAW, an independent artist would need to amass 283,684 Spotify streams per month to pay a monthly rent of $1,078, the U.S. national median.

Spotify took a minority stake in DistroKid in 2018, but just weeks ago, Spotify’s quarterly SEC filing revealed that it sold two-thirds of its equity interest in the independent distributor for €144, or about $163 million. It’s interesting timing for DistroKid to immediately strike a deal with Tidal, a more musician-friendly service, to enact a version of the policies that the UMAW are demanding from Spotify.

But Spotify doubts how much user-centric payments would actually benefit artists. A study from the National Music Center in France found that yearly payouts would fluctuate by “at most a few euros” for artists outside the top 10,000 acts.

We are willing to make the switch to a user-centric model if that’s what artists, songwriters and rights holders want to do. However, Spotify cannot make this decision on its own — it requires broad industry alignment to implement this change,” says the platform’s website.

So, perhaps the model of Tidal’s deals with independent distributors — a variation of UCPS — could be more beneficial for artists. A $2 per month bonus per user for being their most-streamed artist could add up. But, industry-wide changes like these may require trial and error to determine how streaming platforms can run their businesses while also paying musicians fairly for access to their music.

Spotify debuts a ‘Netflix Hub’ featuring music and podcasts tied to Netflix shows and movies

Looking for the soundtrack from your favorite Netflix show? Now, it will be easier to find thanks to an expanded partnership between Netflix and Spotify. The streaming music service today introduced a new “Netflix Hub” on its app, which will offer a centralized place for finding the official soundtracks, playlists, and podcasts for top shows and movies on Netflix.

At launch, the Netflix Hub offers soundtracks and playlists from Stranger Things, La Casa De Papel, Narcos: Mexico, Outer Banks, Squid Game, tick, tick…Boom! Bridgerton, Cowboy Bebop, Virgin RiverOn My Block, and others.

It will also include Netflix-tied podcasts, like Okay, Now Listen, Netflix Is A Daily Joke,10/10 Would Recommend, You Can’t Make This Up, and those that delve into popular shows, like The Crown: The Official Podcast or Behind the Scenes: Shadow and Bone, and more.

Other music and fan experiences will be a part of the new destination as well, including an enhanced album for the Netflix Western film, “The Harder They Fall,” which offers fans a behind-the-scenes look at the creation of the soundtrack led by Jay-Z. In addition, there’s a content destination for “La Casa De Papel (Money Heist),” Part 5 Volume 2, and a character matching experience where fans get to play a game to find out which “La Casa De Papel” character they are –which feels a bit like a playing a BuzzFeed quiz.

Image Credits: Spotify/Netflix

The hub builds on Spotify and Netflix’s existing partnership, Spotify tells TechCrunch. The two companies have worked together on many official playlists, including most recently, the enhanced album for “The Harder They Fall,” which had been available before the Hub’s debut. They also had worked on the “Money Heist” content experience and the character-matching game ahead of today’s news.

Netflix didn’t purchase access to have a hub on Spotify’s app. In other words, it’s not an ad product, nor did any money exchange hands here. Instead, both companies see the potential in working together to serve their respective fan bases, where there’s naturally a lot of overlap.

Netflix is not the only major company to debut a thematic “hub” on Spotify’s app. Recently, Spotify and Peleton announced a similar partnership that introduced a “Curated by Peloton” Workout Hub featuring playlists from Peloton instructors. And outside its app, Spotify earlier this year partnered with GIPHY to introduce users to music via artists’ GIFs.

Making some of this Netflix content exclusive to Spotify may make sense for the streamer as the other large music and podcast provider on the market, Apple (via Apple Music and Apple Podcasts), is also now a Netflix competitor through its Apple TV+ streaming service. Spotify, at least as of yet, hasn’t expanded into Netflix’s core market, which makes them better suited as partners.

Spotify says that it plans to roll out more exclusive content to the Netflix Hub in the months ahead.

The Netflix Hub will available to all users, both Free and Premium, in the U.S., Canada, Australia, New Zealand, the U.K., Ireland, and India.

 

Netflix to acquire German visual effects studio behind ‘Stranger Things’ and more

Netflix is acquiring Munich-based visual effects studio Scanline VFX for an undisclosed amount. The company expects the deal to close in the first quarter of 2022, subject to regulatory approvals and closing conditions. Scanline has done work on several Netflix originals, including “Stranger Things” and “Cowboy Bebop.” The studio has also provided special effects for many Marvel and DC titles.

Founded in 1989, Scanline has offices in Vancouver, Montreal, Los Angeles, London, Munich, Stuttgart, and Seoul. For Netflix, Scanline has worked on “Stranger Things 4,” “Blood Red Sky,” “Slumberland,” “The Gray Man,” “The Adam Project” and ” Don’t Look Up.” Outside of Netflix, the studio has provided special effects for “Game of Thrones,” “Black Widow,” “Black Panther,” “Captain Marvel,” “Iron Man 3,” “Captain America: The Winter Soldier,” “Zack Snyder’s Justice League,” “Joker” and more.

In terms of upcoming projects, Scanline is working on “The Batman,” “The Flash,” “Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom,” “Black Adam” and “Moonfall.” Netflix says that going forward, Scanline will continue to operate as a standalone business and work with its current clients.

Netflix’s vice-president of studio operations, Amy Reinhard, says Scanline is known for its complex, photorealistic effects and expertise in virtual production. In a blog post, Reinhard outlined that Netflix plans to invest in Scanline’s pipeline, infrastructure and workforce and “continue to support the  work that Scanline’s Eyeline Studios is doing in virtual production to push the boundaries of what is visibly possible.”

“We’ll also continue to rely on many other studios around the world for our VFX needs so we can continue to ensure that our creators have access to the world’s most innovative tech, and continue to bring the most compelling and cutting-edge storytelling to our members,” Reinhard stated.

Netflix’s acquisition of Scanline comes amid the streaming giant’s push towards in-house production. In 2018, Netflix acquired Albuquerque Studios and announced last year that it planned to invest $1 billion in production spending to expand the studio and include an additional 300 acres to make it home to one of the largest studios. The proposed expansion and $150 million in capital expenditures will add 10 new stages, post-production services, mills, backlots and training facilities, wardrobe suites, a commissary and more.

The streaming giant’s latest acquisition comes as it recently purchased its first games studio, Night School Studio, in September for an undisclosed amount. The independent game developer is known for its narrative-driven titles like “Oxenfree” and was founded in 2014 by Sean Krankel, a former senior game designer at Disney Interactive, and Adam Hines, who was a lead writer at Telltale Games.

Nigerian fintech Abeg faces its biggest test yet after blitzscaling to millions of users

On October 3, Big Brother Naija,” a reality show sponsored by Nigerian social payments company Abeg, came to a rapturous close after 72 days on air.

The show, which commenced on July 24, is the most popular and most-watched reality show in Africa, raking in impressive numbers in terms of money and viewership.

The “Big Brother” franchise, started in the Netherlands, has been duplicated worldwide, including Nigeria, where pay-TV company MultiChoice Nigeria organizes it.

It features a group of people who live together in a huge house, detached from the outside world but watched via television cameras.

The recent season of “Big Brother Naija” was the sixth since launching in 2006. In its fifth season, the show’s organizers claimed that viewers cast a whopping 900 million votes.

With millions of eyeballs tuned in to watch the show daily, it is only fitting that companies looking to appear before viewers have to pay a premium. According to some sources, it costs $2 million to become a headline sponsor of the drama show, and Abeg, the latest one, is the newest beneficiary of the kind of blitzscaling growth “BBN” provides.

A new generation fintech app with some drama

Abeg was founded in 2020 by Dare Adekoya, Muheez Akanni, Patricia Adoga and Eniola Ajayi-Bembe. Its name is a wordplay on popular Nigerian slang abeg, which means to ask or beg for something.

The platform launched in September of that year with a Cash App-esque play: By leveraging a wallet-based system, Abeg allows users to request and send money to each other with tags.

But what started as a couple of Gen Zs trying out cool stuff outside Nigeria’s traditional payments space quickly turned into a company looking to scale after gaining 5,000 users in its first few weeks with zero marketing.

And for the next few weeks, Abeg won more users. However, coming into 2021, the hype around the app — especially on Twitter, where it gained fame — died down. To many, it seemed like the app was marching toward a slow death.

So, it came as a surprise when in April, MultiChoice announced the startup as the show’s headline sponsor before the sixth season began months later.

How did the six-month-old startup, which at the time had not disclosed any fundraising and seemed to be struggling, manage to sponsor a show that cost $2 million? That was the question on the lips of many observers. And they came up with many theories.

However, TechCrunch got some answers in a call with the startup’s founders. “Before the Big Brother show, we had already raised a pre-seed round from local investors,” CEO Adekoya said on the call. He said the team used a portion of the undisclosed pre-seed round to sponsor the show.

Prior to this revelation, the answer appeared to be in the fine print of MultiChoice’s announcement back in April, which identified Abeg as “a product of leading financial technological company Piggytech Global Limited.”

Piggytech is the parent company of PiggyVest, Nigeria’s most popular savings app and one of the country’s most valued fintech startups. Multichoice’s announcement suggests that Abeg was acquired by Piggytech even before the show started (according to people familiar with the matter, this happened in late 2020), and some sources say Piggytech paid the “BBN” sponsorship money for Abeg.

Though Abeg CEO dismissed this report, it seems like a more logical assertion because rarely would you see a pre-seed stage startup with a few thousand users raise money and earmark a marketing budget of $2 million only to spend it at one go.

Abeg

Abeg founders.

Abeg’s acquisition by its parent company has been shrouded in secrecy. But it has also been glaring for months to many people — particularly Nigerian tech Twitter where the handles of Abeg and PiggyVest regularly exchange banter on the social media app.

Despite this, Piggytech and its subsidiaries have neither publicly refuted nor confirmed their relationship until now. “We [Abeg and PiggyVest] are more or less under the same parent company; so, like sister companies and subsidiaries of Piggytech,” CTO Akanni said in the call.

The relationship has also produced some drama. In August, Nigerian tech Twitter was abuzz about a young startup that regrettably relinquished most of its ownership to a big company. It didn’t take long to know the companies involved. There was more speculation on how this contributed to the ousting of Michael “Trojan” Okoh, the ex-CTO Abeg brought on to build out the app’s first version late last year.

Some sources told me that Okoh left because of ownership dynamics in which Piggytech allegedly bullied its way into acquiring Abeg. TechCrunch reached out to Piggytech and Okoh, but they declined to comment.

On the call with Abeg founders, though, Akanni denied the reports saying, “You can see it as how someone would leave the company usually and unusually. It wasn’t because of a ‘PiggyTech takeover’ — it was because of other reasons we won’t like to disclose.”

Since both camps moved past this drama, Okoh has launched Thepeer, a Nigeria fintech company where he is chief technology officer, while Abeg numbers have boomed courtesy of “BBN.”

The Big Brother impact and what next?

Abeg isn’t the first tech startup to sponsor the reality TV show; other tech companies have done so in the past. They include now-defunct e-commerce company PayPorte; betting companies Betway and Bet9ja; and fintechs Kuda, Patricia and unicorn Flutterwave.

Each of them reported astronomical growth following the season finale. Digital bank Kuda, for instance, said it doubled its users to a little over 650,000 after sponsoring the show.

It was the perfect blueprint for Abeg to copy. And it did, masterfully. Entering into the show with a new design, a relaunched app and over 20,000 users, Abeg claims it now has almost 2 million users.

“‘Big Brother’ is like a large billboard in Africa where brands can … advertise and promote their products. And as Abeg, we are trying to infuse culture, lifestyle into the app, because payments is part of people’s lives,” COO Adoga said.

“So it’s pretty much worked for us because we’re trying to … promote and introduce the brand to the market and [tell] people what we’re about and what Abeg is supposed to be.”

When Abeg launched last year, its best use case for social payments was to let users run giveaway campaigns. Giveaways on the app became more prominent during the Big Brother show as celebrities and influencers (sponsored by Abeg) used the app to send money to their fans.

Relying on such a model is unsustainable. Users enjoyed using the app for giveaways on version 1.0, but it surely wasn’t enough for user retention. Now that Abeg has acquired more users and grown 100x, retention will become more critical than ever in version 2.0.

The Abeg team knows this and is exploring more specific use cases with Piggytech’s backing.

“We went the giveaway route basically to attract a lot of signups, which worked, and for people to reserve their usernames and get around with the app,” Adekoya said. “Moving forward, Abeg will be your go-to payment app for anything you want to pay for.”

That’s why Patronize, also known as “Abeg for businesses” was launched. The platform, another Piggytech subsidiary as confirmed by the company to TechCrunch, is a Square-esque product for Nigerian small and medium businesses to accept payments from customers using the Abeg app.

Like Square, Patronize provides tools to help businesses grow, manage and reward their customers. Unlike Square, however, Patronize is void of cards.

With its own smart point-of-sale devices, Abeg is trying to disrupt POS machines in retail shops and stores and bank transfers.

Granted, these are two tough propositions, but Abeg is right to think there’s opportunity. While fund transfers in Nigeria are instant with the help of the Nigeria Interbank Settlement System (NIBSS) as the infrastructure behind it, failed transactions and downtimes are still common occurrences.

Abeg, with its wallet system, provides a unique channel to make payments which, according to the company, has a 99.9% uptime. Abeg is banking that customers will see it as an alternative when they feel dissatisfied with traditional payments and become the go-to platform to pay for a movie, food, event or drugs from pharmacies.

Will all these be enough to retain users? It’s not entirely certain because one would still need to use the bank transfers to fund an Abeg wallet. And some users I have spoken with about the product don’t see why they should make transfers into their Abeg wallets every time to make payments when they could also transfer money to the recipient’s bank.

These are issues Abeg needs to address to retain its millions of users. One way it plans to do this is via direct integration with PiggyVest so users from the savings app can fund their Abeg wallets.

What’s the play here? So PiggyVest reportedly paid out ₦250 billion (~$500 million) into its users’ bank accounts so far at their last email to them this month. That’s a lot of money. And since an Abeg wallet can perform some functions of a traditional bank account like transfers, bill payments or buying tickets, PiggyVest is telling its users, “why don’t we use your Abeg wallets as your default withdrawal vault instead of your bank accounts.”

Some users will likely find this inconvenient. And sources tell me that Abeg might begin to allow users to earn interest on money sitting in their wallets in a bid to appease them.

With these features, Abeg’s strategy is to leverage the pull and success of its “sister company” to achieve stickiness and, at the same time, bring into fruition the financial ecosystem Piggytech is building to retain float.

Outside that, Abeg is going big on social gatherings, sponsoring entertainment events and musical shows of Grammy-award winning artists such as Wizkid and Burna Boy to acquire more users this upcoming holiday season.

Despite the influx of venture capital into the Nigerian fintech space, the market is crowded with platforms housing comparable features such as buying airtime, paying utility bills, making transfers and savings.

Abeg claims to be different because its users won’t experience slow payments and high transaction costs which exist on other platforms.

Though this pitch remains lost on some people, Piggytech believes Patronize will do the trick in changing their opinions. The business-focused platform is also on a user acquisition spree, onboarding tens and hundreds of merchants with smart POS devices to cater to the millions of users acquired by Abeg.

Sudowrite’s powerful tools puts writer’s block on notice once and for all

The skyline of the city is a mass of brightly lit office buildings, industrial factories and skyscrapers, the endless hash of lights and shadows making the night seem as if it is teeming with life. Within that urban jungle, we find Amit Gupta, our dastardly hero. He smelled of fresh laundry, hair gel and a faint aroma of peppermint. His suit was a silken blend of powerful cologne and a soft, warm scent of leather and musk. His woolly hat was of a bright hue of burnt ochre. His necktie was of a darker hue of pink. The startup founder’s skin is soft and warm like a newborn baby. He has a strong handshake and a gentle demeanor. His conviction runs deep. The company? Sudowrite. The co-founder? James Yu, who also founded Parse and later sold it to Facebook. The investors? An impressive list of angels. The dollar amount? $3 million.

In the midst of the urban cacophony and an immense symphony of sounds, the sounds of traffic, the sounds of kids playing, the sounds of televisions, of radio, of fire alarms, of police sirens, of mumbling drunks, he received a piece of blood-curdling news. Amit was diagnosed with leukemia, and his life was utterly upended. It was time to take stock, and really examine what was important for him. He took a breath — was he on borrowed time, or was this merely a wake-up call?

Asking Sudowrite to describe what a startup is had me laughing so hard I was gasping for air. Truly, a magical experience. Screenshots: Sudowrite

Gone was the dream of running his existing startup, Photojojo, which was known for its drone rentals, strange photography accessories and creative photo-mounting ideas. He sold it, and ended up spending some time trying to figure out what to do next. The money he got from the sale of his company was no thicker than a thin black leaf, curled like the wings of the devil, thin as paper, thin as smoke, thin as silk; it felt like spider webs.

If the first couple of paragraphs of this article seem weird, that’s because I used the Sudowrite tool to write a bunch of descriptions. It’s hilarious — but also an incredibly powerful tool. Do they make sense? Not always, but that’s not the point — the tool isn’t meant to replace writers completely, but to help summarize or expand, or to spark the creative juices that sometimes are lacking in the writing process. With that in mind — as you can read from the completely bonkers beginnings of this article — it works fantastically well.

“I sold Photojojo in 2014 after being sick and kind of going through some soul searching. I left Silicon Valley completely and did some travel. I did all these things on my bucket list. At some point, it was five years out from the transplant, which meant that like I probably wasn’t going to die of leukemia,” Amit Gupta, founder and CEO of Sudowrite told me. “And then I was like — well, what do I do with my life? I was coaching for a while. And then I ended up writing science fiction for the past several years and getting really into that. It was really fun, and something very new for me, starting all the way at the bottom and clawing my way up.”

In his journey as a science fiction writer, Gupta ran into an issue many writers experience: Writer’s block. It shouldn’t be this hard to write, should it?

“I think Sudowrite solves multiple problems, and I think the specifics are different for every writer. One of the problems I discovered with writing was that it is very solitary. Coming from the startup world where everything is very collaborative. It felt very lonely to be sitting at the keyboard, hitting my head against the desk whenever I got stuck in having no outlet except for my once-a-week reading group which may or may not be able to help. I think our first impulse was, can we create something that acts like a creative partner sitting next to you, so that when you’re stuck you can turn to them and say, ‘I can’t figure this out? This isn’t working, like give me ideas.’ That was the original impulse,” Gupta explains.

The founders, Amit Gupta and James Yu, are found on the peak of a mountain. They have been known to grow to a size just a little larger than a typical house cat. A hodgepodge of human skeletons lay huddled together in the dirt, their eye sockets staring blankly at the sky, nestled in a pile that looks more like a rubbish heap than a grave. The founders gather their wits, shaking the muck from their clogs and steeling themselves for battle. They can hear the dragon breathing down on them. Photo – and image caption – by Sudowrite. We did not fact-check the caption for accuracy.

“We wanted to give you someone who’s almost as good as a human reading partner, to bounce ideas off of. Beyond that, I think as we talked to users, especially people in the entertainment industry such as screenwriters, we discovered there was a specific need. They have a lot of rote tasks that they don’t like doing: they might have a screenplay they’ve written and they might need to generate a one-page treatment, a three-page treatment, etc. It’s all very specific industry stuff, but it’s pretty easy for an AI to do. It’s not very creative work, and a tool like Sudowrite saves them hours and hours of the worst kind of work that they have to do. I think there’s a lot of opportunities like that, but the core product is really about inspiration provocation, helping you stay in flow.”

Inviting Sudowrite to get creative with one of the lines in this article shows how an AI can take a simple sentence and wrestle it into a few different shapes — more description, more inner conflict, or (my least favorite of all time), brevity. Screenshots from the Sudowrite app.

Gupta was trying to fight off the loneliness of writers with a Sci-Fi writing group, where he met his co-founder, ex-Parse founder James Yu. Together they built an early version of the app built on GPT-3, started getting some paid customers, and decided to raise some funds.

“We started thinking we’d raise about $1 million just to get this off the ground. We ended up raising $3 million, almost entirely from individual investors. That was by design: We wanted to have people who were willing to allow us to experiment at our own pace and try some like weird stuff, without the pressure of doing the startup / VC treadmill,” explains Gupta.

The company’s list of angel investors is incredibly impressive, and includes Medium and Twitter founder Ev Williams, Gumroad founder Sahil Lavingia, Parse founder Kevin Lacker, WordPress founder Matt Mullenweg and Rotten Tomatoes founder Patrick Lee. The cap table also includes an impressive who-is-who from the entertainment world, including Big Fish and Aladdin screenwriter John August, Bourne Ultimatum and Oceans Twelve writer/director George Nolfi, and many more.

The company currently has between 300 and 400 users, paying around $20 per month for the platform. The fundraising round enabled the founding team to extend the team a little.

“The primary thing this fundraise unlocks for us is to be able to hire. We hired our first machine learning person, our first developer and a lead designer. Those are the first three roles we just closed, and we’ll probably keep the team at that size for a while as we hit our stride,” explains Gupta. “Our users all came from word of mouth, and cover a wide range. We have people who are writing novels or screenplays. Some of our users are creating Substack newsletters. We have users who write for their occupation. But we have some unusual use cases too: A rabbi who uses Sudowrite to make parables, and someone who uses the tool to write meditations. We also have users who create roleplaying games. We have a very broad appeal,”

Sudowrite is currently in a closed beta. You can join the waitlist on its website. Below, I’m embedding a video demo Gupta recorded. It’s a few months old, but it gives a bit more of an idea what the tool is and how it works.

 

Hulu launches its own online shop, with ugly holiday sweaters and other merch

This summer, Netflix launched its own shopping site that allowed fans to purchase apparel, accessories and other lifestyle products from their favorite shows, like “Stranger Things.” Now, Hulu is doing the same thing. The Disney-owned streamer announced the launch of Shop Hulu, which will feature limited-edition collections of apparel and lifestyle products from Hulu Originals and other titles in the company’s on-demand library, as well as Hulu-branded swag. The site will also make Hulu’s annual release of its “Ugly Holiday Sweaters” available for purchase for the first time.

Hulu began giving away its ugly sweaters to random fans as a promotional perk in 2019. The giveaway was popular enough that Hulu turned it into a sweepstakes event last year, giving everyone a chance to win one of the sweaters, which had then featured Hulu shows like “Little Fires Everywhere,” “Shrill,” “The Handmaid’s Tale,” and others.

Its 2021 selection of holiday sweaters will be available for purchase starting on Tuesday, November 30.

This year, the lineup includes “Love, Victor,” “Solar Opposites,” “The Great,” “The Handmaid’s Tale,” and “Wu-Tang: An American Saga,” many of which had proved popular in previous years. However, unlike Netflix — which invested in its online store as a new arm of its broader retail business — Hulu’s leading product line is designed to raise funds for charity. Through December 31, 100% of the purchase price from the sale of the Ugly Holiday Sweater collection, minus taxes and shipping fees, is being donated to Feeding America, says Hulu.

In the fine print, the company notes it’s capping its donation at 1,000 sweaters, which is $54,950.

Image Credits: Hulu

Hulu’s shop will continue to feature other products throughout the year, outside its charitable fundraising initiative for the holidays.

Fans of “Solar Opposites” will be able to shop apparel, glassware, stickers, and more as the show’s holiday special premieres on November 22. The collection was designed in collaboration with Executive Producers Mike McMahan, Justin Roiland, and Josh Bycel, the company says.

Also available are household items and apparel from shows like “The Orville,” “Wu-Tang: An American Saga” (select items from the capsule collection from Mitchell & Ness are available), and themed merchandise from acquired shows like “Grey’s Anatomy,” “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia,” “American Horror Story,” and “What We Do In The Shadows,” among others.

Hulu will offer shoppers a discount for signing up for its newsletter and plans to make special offers available throughout the year, starting with Black Friday and Cyber Monday.

Why MoviePass’ co-founder bought back the brand

News broke yesterday that MoviePass co-founder Stacy Spikes purchased ownership of the beleaguered brand for an undisclosed sum. The transaction follows one of the more spectacular tech flameouts in recent memory. The service was plagued by ever-changing price tiers, blowback from the country’s biggest theater chain and major issues with its app.

Spikes tells TechCrunch that he was fired from the service he helped launch in 2018, after voicing concern over the price of its $10/month subscription service. It was one of a number of factors under the leadership of Helios and Matheson that ultimately led to the company’s protracted undoing.

This April, Spikes announced the launch of PreShow Interactive, which we described as, “a new way [for gamers to] earn in-game currency in exchange for watching ads.” In a conversation with TechCrunch, Spikes says that PreShow may live on in a different form, as part of a revamped MoviePass set to launch at some point next year.

All of this still sounds very much up in the air. First up on the company’s checklist is getting access to the defunct service’s code and other assets. Spikes also plans to test the waters and determine whether there is enough demand to warrant MoviePass’s return. With an industry struggling to bring back audiences after a seemingly endless global pandemic, is it possible that this is the right moment for a more thoughtful return of movie ticket subscriptions?

TC: You had experience in the music industry that may have prepped you for the changes the movie industry has undergone over the past several years. It was a canary in the coal mine for a major part of the entertainment industry essentially imploding.

SS: With subscription, you saw Napster, Pandora, Spotify, Rhapsody — all of this stuff on the horizon. You’re absolutely right, the music industry went first. Netflix was on the back end of a lot of those music subscription plays getting up and on their feet and making its digital transition out of DVDs and into digital. That was where digital really took hold first, and you saw it transforming the landscape.

When you had the idea for MoviePass, was there a sense that someone needed to disrupt theaters the way these services disrupted music?

Being one of the few executives of color, I started Urban World Film Festival, to try and help filmmakers of color have a place. Ava DuVernay came out of that festival, Malcolm Lee, Tim Story, Lee Daniels. All this talent came up out of Urban World. Our initial thought was, their films were having a tough time getting into mainstream theaters and getting traction.

What I was going to do is create a circuit that they would play 10 markets, we had a subscriber group, we would four-wall the theaters, and it would make the circuit. We were trying to figure out what technology we would use. Who’s a member? How do you get to the theater? How do you just walk in? As we were building that someone said, “well, why don’t you just use it to help all independent movies?” And then it kept bubbling up from there.

How different was your view of what MoviePass would be from the model that Helios and Matheson ultimately put in place?

At the end of the day, when I was CEO, we price tested $15 up to $90. We were A-B testing these things all day long. What you are trying to do is find the vector point between what’s a profitable business price and what’s too expensive for people and you cut out the ability to grow, and what’s too cheap that you never, you’re never going to make money. We knew going below a certain point, financially, you couldn’t float the boat. There was no way. I think the big difference was we already knew that. When they came in with the idea that they know better, they fired me. They said, “you don’t agree with our view of the world.” Within four or five months of the deal, I was let go and kicked off the board.

What are the primary reasons MoviePass failed?

At the end of the day as a business, that price wasn’t sustainable. That’s a simple truth. It doesn’t get more complicated.

There was the technical aspect of it, too. Shutdowns and other things were extremely frustrating for users.

That wasn’t technical, because it was intentional. When I was CEO, the MoviePass app worked great. It functioned. Peopled loved the ease of service. I can go wherever I want, I can walk up to any theater. We had a larger footprint than Fandango and Movie Tickets combined. In any theater, probably except for drive-ins or cash-only, you could use MoviePass. So that ease of use and simplicity was perfect. We worked a lot of years to get that that right. Everything that transpired after that was intentional. Those weren’t technical issues. Them deciding to pull AMC Theaters, or your app not working fully were not technical issues.

[Editor’s note: As noted in this piece, the FTC accused MoviePass of going to, “great lengths to deny consumers access to the service they paid for while also failing to secure their personal information.” MoviePass settled with the FTC last month.]

You mentioned AMC. Do you think you will try to court some of these larger theater chains?

My goal is to help Hollywood return, help movie-going return. I think there is a place in the universe for “only sign up to one exhibitor,” and that’s the only one you go to. That’s your subscription plan, you only go there. I think there’s a place in the universe for people who want to go be able to go multiple places, and they may pay a little more for that. I think there’s room in the ecosystem for that, and I and our team have always only been driven to help drive movie going. We think that subscription can be a really big benefit for the industry.

Do you feel there’s enough goodwill left in the name MoviePass? Is it smart to return under that banner?

I guess the question is, is the consensus that the buying company was MoviePass, or the five years of the brand leading up to that was MoviePass? My experience, and I’m seeing, is people who signed up prior to 2017 know the difference. I think that there was a brand there. They knew what we were trying to do. We were the underdog. And we were trying to build something unique in our space.

Why does it make sense specifically to return to the brand versus starting from scratch?

When I look at Apple after Steve Jobs left, and I look at Dell computers after Michael Dell left. And you know, when founders get forced out of companies, there’s a lot of cases where those founders came back. And they fought for that thing that they work years to give birth to. I started working on MoviePass in 2005. And so it’s 16 years. And so I think there’s an affinity to when you build something that you just believe in. And so do we do a name change? I don’t know. I mean, we’ll find out. I think there’s going to be a listening tour. We’re going to hear people, get feedback, but that’s what I’m here to do. But I think there’s something there that we want to try for.

Some of the records referred to third or fourth fiscal quarter 2022 as a relaunch time frame. Does that sound right?

There’s a lot of things that have to come together. When I was asked, I said we’re going to explore. I think if the industry is not going to support it, I think if consumers don’t like the idea of it, I think if studios aren’t interested in it, as well, you know, I would probably go “okay, I paid a little bit for this, we talked to a lot of people, everybody thinks movie subscription is a dumb idea. We just all need to keep paying more prices, and people need to keep going to the theaters less, let’s just let this ship keep going where it’s going.” If you get that overwhelming sense, then we’ll just kind of keep moving. But if there is a sense that the stakeholders do want to lean into something that can help the industry overall, how do we get out of our ivory towers that are built, that are only designed for that circuit?

The PreShow site lists the service as launching summer 2021. We’re in autumn right now. What’s the time frame there?

The thought was, there’s a possibility of combining. I think PreShow needs a home, it needs a place to launch from. The thought was, is there a way to pull in some of what PreShow was trying to build. Maybe there’s a way to reduce the cost inside of MoviePass, to offset some of that. I don’t know is that a freemium model? I don’t know is that at a supplementary model? I don’t know if that’s a select as you go, your own choice. I think those things would have to get tested and figured out.

So PreShow won’t exist in the form it was initially envisioned.

It’s possible that some of that could subsidize the cost of movie tickets.

It could be. Or it might be something that reduces a person’s monthly charge that they pay, versus completely subsidizing.

Amazon Prime Video app introduces a new clip-sharing feature

Amazon is rolling out a new Prime Video feature that lets users share video clips from TV shows and movies on the platform. The clips can be shared on social media or via direct message. The feature is currently only available on iOS and for users in the U.S. For the initial rollout, users can only share clips from a limited number of shows, including season one of “The Boys,” “The Wilds,” “Invincible” and “Fairfax.”

When you’re watching one of these four titles, you can click on the new “Share a clip” button to create a 30-second clip. Once you click the button, the streaming service will pause the show to open up a screen where you can clip and edit the video. The app will then create a clip of what you just watched, allowing you to move the clip forward or backward to exactly where you want it. You’ll also be able to preview the clip before sharing it with others. When you’re ready to share the clip, you can select the “Share” icon and either upload it or share it via Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, iMessage, Messenger and WhatsApp.

Image Credits: Amazon

Amazon says it plans to let users share clips from more of its original movies and series in the future. The company’s decision to allow users to share its content marks a change from other streaming services, which currently don’t offer ways to share video clips from their shows and movies. Netflix, Disney+ and Hulu all go as far as preventing users from capturing screenshots of content on their services and instead black out images when users try to do so.

Amazon’s latest feature for Prime Video indicates that it’s thinking differently about its content being shared and viewed on other platforms. It’s worth noting that Amazon may also be hoping to attract more users to Prime Video by encouraging its users to share clips of its original content with their friends and followers and hopefully get them interested enough to check it out themselves.