All posts in “Media”

Tapas Media aims to turn digital comics into the next big entertainment franchise

Tapas Media has its own platform for digital comics — but like a lot of publishers, CEO Chang Kim has ambitions beyond the comics world.

Comixology is the big name in digital comics. The company, which was acquired by Amazon in 2014, is focused on selling print comics from major publishers in web- and mobile-friendly formats. (It’s also working with publishers like Marvel to create exclusively digital content.)

That’s a very different approach from Tapas, which Kim compared to YouTube — it allows individual creators to publish their work and (hopefully) reach an audience. And unlike the superhero-dominated world of American comics, the most popular titles on Tapas seem to be more romance and fantasy themed, and are usually drawn in a style that’s closer to Japanese manga.

Tapas was founded in 2013, and it now says the platform has more than 32,000 creators who have created more than 48,000 titles. And it’s reaching an audience of 2.1 million monthly visitors.

The comics themselves are monetized through micropayments. Usually, the first few chapters of a title are free, then you have to pay to keep going.

Chang said his team is also working with some of the most popular creators on the platform to develop new intellectual property, which could be translated into movies or TV or other media. Eventually, he said he’s hoping that Tapas could launch the next Harry Potter.

Dungeon Construction Co game

That level of success is a long way off, but Tapas is already exploring ways to adapt its IP. For example, it’s announcing a partnership with Red Kraken Apps to develop a mobile puzzle game based on its Dungeon Construction Co. comic.

In addition, the company has partnered with Hachette Book Group and Ten Speed Press on titles, and it’s signed distribution deals with Tencent and Kakao.

Tapas announced earlier this month that it has raised $5 million in additional Series A funding. (The company has raised $10.8 million total.) Now it’s revealing more details about the round, which comes from ID Ventures, SBI Investment Korea, Medici Investment and EN Investment. Sean Park of ID Ventures is joining the board of directors.

“ID Ventures invested in Tapas Media because we believe in the impact their platform has on the digital and mobile publishing industries,” Park said in a statement. “Their remarkable extension into licensed content and co-development will see their continued dominance, as ID Ventures’ investment looks to help Tapas Media capitalize on their platform’s adoption and innovation as well.”

Delphia helps publishers create complex, AI-driven surveys

You’re probably familiar with quizzes from online publishers like BuzzFeed. But what if a quiz could actually help you sort through tough decisions and complex topics, not just which Sex and the City character or Disney princess you most closely resemble?

That’s basically what Y Combinator -backed startup called Delphia is promising. CEO Clifton van der Linden said the company works with publishers to create applications that help their readers make decisions.

Van der Linden is a Ph.D. candidate in the political science department at the University of Toronto, and he first built an application called Vote Compass, which tells users how their political views line up with election candidates. (In the United States, Vote Compass was released in partnership with Vox.)

Now, however, Delphia is working to bring a similar approach to non-political questions, like helping kids decide which college to attend, or helping adults figure out the workplace culture that would best fit them.

When I brought up the comparison to BuzzFeed quizzes, van der Linden didn’t exactly reject it. In fact, he admitted that they were one of his inspirations, but he added, “Let me qualify that heavily” — because he said Delphia’s applications use artificial intelligence and data science. Instead of just creating a basic decision tree (this set of answers leads to this quiz result), the company’s actually building out models that show how each question and answer is related to overall satisfaction.

Vote Compass

For example, in the case of the university-choosing application, van der Linden said, “We’ve gone out and surveyed tens of thousands of recent graduates of universities with a very long survey to train a model that will predict the right fit for people.” And the applications improve as more people participate: “Everyone who uses those tools, when they’re finished, they’re actually contributing to that learning model and making it smarter and smarter.”

That might seem like a lot of work to put into what amounts to a feature on a website, but van der Linden said it usually pays off for publishers (who either pay Delphia a licensing fee or split the advertising revenue): “It’s a great new form of personalized, innovative content for users.”

Vote Compass, for example, resulted in an average of eight to 10 minutes of engagement time for each participant. And the data from the applications can provide fuel for more content, like this Vox article showing that Trump’s supporters in the 2016 election were more liberal than he was on most issues.

So van der Linden also compared Delphia to survey companies like Gallup, but he said, “None of them ever paired it with machine learning.”

Beyond helping publishers create engaging content, van der Linden is hoping to answer “a really fundamental question in the information age: When we’re faced with so much data and information, how do people make rational decisions?”

“We want to help people navigate decisions in as many decision spaces as we can get into,” he added.

Delphia is a graduate of the Creative Destruction Lab and has also raised funding from Golden Venture Partners.

YouTube to add Wikipedia background info on conspiracy videos

YouTube is taking action on the proliferation of conspiracy videos found on its platform: YouTube CEO Susan Wojcicki told an SXSW panel Tuesday that the company would be introducing so-called “information cues” sourced from relevant Wikipedia articles on videos that talk about popular conspiracy theories.

These will appear as text boxes that can prevent alternative perspectives on subjects including chemtrails and the supposedly fake Moon landing, both of which were used as examples to show how this would work in practice during the panel. The info pop-up appears below the video but above the title and description, giving it a certain amount of prominence in the interface.

The YouTube CEO didn’t go into detail about how many conspiracy theories will be covered by the feature, but praised the format’s extensibility, suggesting that it could grow to expand as many as needed, and that it could also introduce alternate information sources in addition to Wikipedia.

Some critics are pointing out that this looks less like a solution to YouTube’s role perpetuating and legitimizing batshit crazy ideas, and more like a way for it to absolve itself of a responsibility of taking a more critical look at the problem. In fact, the examples YouTube itself provided on stage seem to back up this criticism, since the Moon landing video contained only a brief couple of sentences (one cut in half) visible on the video itself, the content of which doesn’t even necessarily counter the info shared by the conspiracist who posted the video.

The bottom line is that all social platforms relying on user-generated content will eventually become completely co-opted and unusable.

A+E exec Nancy Dubuc confirmed as Vice Media’s new CEO

Vice Media has announced that Nancy Dubuc is leaving her role as A+E Networks CEO and taking over as the digital media company’s chief executive. Co-founder and outgoing CEO Shane Smith will become executive chairman.

Variety first reported yesterday that Dubuc was in talks for the job, with Disney and Hearst (A+E’s parent companies) confirming her departure.

Dubuc already serves on Vice’s board of directors. At A+E, she was involved in the partnership that launched Vice’s cable channel Viceland.

In the announcement, Smith described Dubuc as “better than me at everything,” and said that his new role will allow him to “concentrate on the only things that I am good at – content and deals.”

“We are a modern day Bonnie and Clyde and we are going to take all your money,” he added.

Dubuc, meanwhile, said, “It’s an honor to join a brand with such tremendous opportunity and I look forward to growing the platform for decades to come.”

Vice says it saw record traffic and double-digit revenue growth last year, but it’s also announced multiple layoffs in the past year. And a recent New York Times report about allegations of sexual harassment at the company led to an apology for the “boy’s club” culture and the departure of at least one executive.

MoviePass CEO backpedals on location tracking and talks strategy to break even by 2019

In a rare moment of contrition, MoviePass CEO Mitch Lowe admitted misleading both consumers and advertising execs with statements last week that the company tracks the location of users before and after they go to the movies. “We don’t do the things I described,” he told TechCrunch. As for location, “We don’t record it, we don’t save it, we don’t follow it.”

Customers may find this total about-face since last week unconvincing, especially since the company issued an update to the app days after Lowe’s remarks that “removed unused app location capability.”

That too was inaccurate, Lowe told me. “The update didn’t change anything, only the menu options.” He later wrote to the same effect in a blog post on the company’s site.

The way I portrayed what we do is not accurate.

— MoviePass CEO Mitch Lowe

This series of “misstatements,” as Lowe called them, doesn’t inspire confidence in a company that has openly said that it intends to use exactly this kind of data to build a personalized evening out to its customers — courtesy of advertisers who would make offers based on that data, of course.

But Lowe explained that he was the victim of his own excitement. Talking to a crowd of data mongers at the Entertainment Finance Forum, in a talk specifically about monetizing the data MoviePass collects, he claims to simply have gotten ahead of himself and talked about plans as if they were reality.

“Sometimes I get all excited about our future vision of a night at the movies and building an ecosystem around it,” he said. “I need to correct what I said. The way I portrayed what we do is not accurate. I implied we know where you are when you’re on the way to the movies, and that’s not what we do.”

Specifically, he said that the app checks location when the user has the app open in order to find theaters near them, in case they want to look up movie times or the like. Then there’s another location check when the user checks in, to make sure they’re at the theater their ticket is for.

“We only know where they are at that instant. Once they go out of the app, we don’t know where they are. We don’t know where they go afterwards, we don’t record it. That’s all we do, that’s all we’ve ever done.”

I had pointed out earlier that tracking like he had said they did would be a flagrant violation of their own privacy policy, which would put them at risk of lawsuits or even FTC action. Lowe specifically said that they do comply with it; although technically checking in the background for nearby places isn’t listed there (only “a single request for your location” when you check in is), the nearby theaters feature is hardly the kind of invasive data collection about which one would actually complain.

MoviePass Premium?

If the company decides to launch a more comprehensive “night at the movies” service, complete with pre- and post-movie tracking, “we’ll comply by all the rules and acceptable terms by first sending an opt-in or opt-out, explaining in plain English what we are doing with that information.”

As for other changes to the product, Lowe said to expect some new offerings soon.

“There’ll be new stuff in the near future,” he said. “We’ll come out with a premium package, a bring a friend package, a couples package, a family package.”

I’d lay money on some kind of “red carpet” branding. He didn’t detail what these packages would comprise exactly, but he did say that you can expect the original monthly system will be in place for the foreseeable future.

“Most people assume the number of movies our subscribers go to is much higher than it is,” he said, which is consistent with the early adopter pattern of squeezing every last drop of value out of an all-you-can-eat service. He declined to quote actual averages, but said “you’d be shocked at how low it is.”

He said, for instance, many users go from seeing on the order 4 or 5 movies a year to 10 a year — not 10 a month as some believe is the case. The value, he speculated, was in “de-risking” seeing a bad or small movie — which also can increase ticket sales for those films.

Filling the money pit

That said, Lowe pleaded guilty in response to the most frequent and obvious criticism of the service, which is simply that it is losing money at a phenomenal rate and only survives by frequent cash infusions.

“In the old days it was raise a ton of money and then grow a business. Today what you do is you raise enough money month by month to fund essentially that negative cash flow,” he explained — which really is just a nicer way of phrasing the problem. But Lowe compared MoviePass to the likes of Netflix and Spotify, which have taken on huge debt to position themselves to grow and monetize their user base.

Whether the comparison is apt or aspirational depends on MoviePass’s success over the next year; Lowe said “We are 100 percent confident that we have the committed funding… to get to the cash flow break even point, which we believe will be early next year.”

The steps in that plan:

  • Get users to an average of 1.1 movies per month
  • Get average monthly cost of goods (i.e. what MoviePass provides the user) down to $9
  • Generate $6 per user in revenue from advertising and data plays

“Obviously we’re not there yet,” he concluded. But he pointed out that “the cash required is coming down dramatically from what it was even a few months ago.” He later specified in an email that this is from “a combination of revenue from studios and brand partnerships, lower costs of tickets, lower member churn and lower usage.” However, the road to getting a share of concessions — famously the most profitable part of the business — will be a bumpy one, especially given the antagonistic stance MoviePass has taken with industry leaders like AMC.

For now it at least seems safe for consumers to use the app without fear that they are being surreptitiously tracked — any more than they are the rest of their time online, at any rate. 2018 will be the year MoviePass either becomes a major force in the industry or collapses, its expended millions a sad examplar of peak subscription economy.

Featured Image: Bryce Durbin / TechCrunch