Amazon Boxes, CEO Emails, Twitter Topics, On/Off Netflix, Drafthouse, and One Great Sony Patent

Gearing up to head out on summer vacation tomorrow. This will undoubtedly be the least vacation vacation I’ve ever been on as Megan and I will be taking our 10-month-old daughter to Europe. Which will be fun! But also undoubtedly a lot of work. Which is to say, this will be a “family trip”, not a vacation.

So, if you don’t hear from me here for a a couple weeks, now you know why. I’ll be back after Labor Day.

Amazon Pushes Brands to Be Less Boxy

This story by Annie Gasparro is framed in a fairly negative way — behold: the power Amazon has over its partners — but this sounds like a good thing:

Philips Norelco OneBlade, owned by Koninklijke Philips NV, said it cut the components in its razor packaging to nine from 13 and reduced the volume of packaging by 80% to meet the new standard. Hill’s Pet Nutrition Inc. said it decreased the packaging volume of its Science Diet premium dog food by 34% and the amount of wasted space, or air shipped, by 82%. Newell Brands Inc., the maker of Rubbermaid FreshWorks, said it cut the components used to ship its containers to two from seven.

To be clear, Amazon benefits from this as well — products that take up less volume and/or weigh less are obviously cheaper to ship. But It’s sort of amazing that companies like Norelco were able to cut volume by 80 percent — 80%! — yet they haven’t done so until now without being pushed.

That said, I still receive quite a few Amazon boxes that are close to half (sometimes more!) empty space packed with filling paper. So… everyone can do better.

On the other side of this equation: for as much as other companies copy what Apple does with regard to products, I wish they more closely copied their packaging. The products are always such a delight to unbox. And I feel like many other companies don’t realize the halo effect this has on the products themselves.

I Tried Emailing Like A CEO And Quite Frankly, It Made My Life Better

This post by Katie Notopoulos is actually from 2017, though it was surfaced to me in two ways recently, first by Dieter Bohn, then by John Gruber. I’m glad it was:

What trips me up most is my habit of scanning my inbox, often on my phone, opening an email, reading it, and thinking, “I’ll reply to that later when I’m at my computer and/or not in the middle of this other project and can give a full reply.” Then I leave it marked as “read” and forget about it. I check my inbox constantly, but I only actually deal with my emails in a deliberate way during a few dedicated chunks of my day.

Yes, this is also exactly what I do. When people talk about how they grow to hate their phones, part of me always wonders if this isn’t a pretty big part of it. Whereas we used to check email constantly when at our desks, now we’re checking it all the time, everywhere. And worse, doing nothing about it because we say we’ll get to it when we’re back at our desks. But it’s still there, lingering — both in the inbox and in our heads.

Look, I know: Having my takeaway about Hillary Clinton from the DNC email hack be “I’d like to emulate her email style” is supremely fucked up, but that’s where my priorities lie. I’m like a dumb dog who only cares about what’s in front of my face, and that isn’t who’s president. It’s what the red number on my mail app is.

Let’s call this “boss email.” It’s defined by nearly immediate — but short and terse — replies. The classic two-word email. For underlings, it can be inscrutable. Is that an angry “thanks” or a grateful “thanks”? Does “please update me” imply impatience with you? Boss email can be the workplace equivalent of getting a “k” text reply from a Tinder date.

While Notopoulos gives a few examples of executives who do this, I’ve found in my own personal experience, there are far more than just a few. There’s a pretty clear correlation between something and response time. I’m just still not sure if it’s success, power, money, simply being an executive as she hones in on, or some combination of all of those! Regardless, it’s hard to come up with a bad thing to fill in that blank…

And in all my years of trying to “hack” email to work for me, I have also found that this is the best, most fulfilling way to do it. But I’ve found that it is still much easier said than done. As with everything else, the best habits fall away over time. There are still far too many things you need to do when you get back to your desk that are related to those messages… Maybe unless you have personal assistants to route things too — aha!

Anyway, the point about brevity stands up. I still wish there was a way to respond to email without actually responding — just as you can leave an emoji on a Slack message. Or “thumbs up” an iMessage.

Twitter Tests Letting Users Follow Topics

Casey Newton:

Twitter will begin allowing users to follow interests, the company said today, letting users see tweets about topics of their choosing inside the timeline. When the feature goes live, you’ll be able to follow topics including sports teams, celebrities, and television shows, with a selection of tweets about them inserted alongside tweets in your home feed.

This strikes me as a bigger deal than it may seem like at first to many folks. The problem with Twitter (with regard to user growth) has been that it’s so binary: you’re either really into Twitter or you don’t get it at all. And a big part of that is obviously following the right accounts. Twitter has tried to make this less work since basically day one with the Suggested User List and the like — trying to get you to follow a bunch of accounts it thinks you might like — but this is probably a better approach.

One example, if you’re a sports fan at all, you should probably be on Twitter. Basically all major news about every sport now gets broken there first. And there’s great commentary. Etc. Yet many sports fans probably go to Twitter after hearing it talked about non-stop on ESPN and have no idea where to begin. Following “Sports” — and eventually (presumably) “NBA” and then “Cleveland Cavaliers” — will be where to begin. And no one is just interested in one topic…

How Bad Will It Get for Netflix?

Holman W. Jenkins, Jr:

Netflix’s proposition to consumers used to be simple: “more content than you can possibly watch for the price of a movie ticket.” With the ease of switching and proliferation of alternatives, customers will start asking “which service has the most enticing lineup this month?” With its lack of sticky unrelated offerings, Netflix will be under constant pressure to roll out eye-catching new content. It will also be under pressure to cut deals with rivals allowing its content to be bundled with theirs. Is Netflix up to the creative challenge, especially when it lacks the safety net of, say, live news and sports that some rivals may have?

First of all, yes, I believe Netflix is up to the challenge. Mainly for the admittedly wishy-washy answer that they constantly seem one-step ahead of the competition (and critics). That said, make no mistake, it is up for its toughest challenge yet — with Disney in particular.

More interesting to me is the notion that customers could move in and out of these services on a monthly basis. Up until now, it has been a no-brainer to have Netflix renew each and every month, but does that change if and when you have 5 or 6 (or more!) of these services you’re subscribing to? Obviously, if that’s the case, some services are going to make it harder to cancel. Whether that’s with friction in the cancellation process shenanigans, or by enticing (the nice way to put it) people to sign — wait for it — longer-term contracts. What industry does that sound like?

Anyway, in the worst-case scenario above, Amazon is probably best positioned here since Prime Video is a part of the overall Prime offering. You’re not going to turn it off and on depending on the content in any given month.

Will the Alamo Drafthouse be the Last Stand for Movie Theaters?

Speaking of movie tickets, here’s Mark Olsen on the latest theater opening in LA and how they view the “war with streaming”:

“I feel like that’s the wrong competitor in the fight. I’ve never felt we’re at war with any streaming services,” said Tim League, founder and CEO of Alamo Drafthouse Cinema. “No matter what, everybody wants to get out of the house. So we’ve always considered ourselves to be in competition with restaurants, with roller skating, with going to see live music. The idea is to offer an experience based around movies that competes from a value proposition with all the other things that are in the out-of-home entertainment arena.

“I love what’s happening with streaming,” League added. “And I’m comfortable with the idea that cinema is alive and well and will continue to be alive and well provided that everybody in this industry focuses on making a great experience.”

This is exactly the right mentality to have. Along those lines:

Adding to the eclectic mix, Kids Camp screenings of “Paddington 2” and “The Iron Giant” will target families and allow for flexible $1, $3 and $5 ticket prices. The Care Package series spotlighting documentaries opens with “Skid Row Marathon,” set amidst downtown Los Angeles. And the Drafthouse will host a live recording of the popular podcast “Unspooled,” featuring Paul Scheer and Amy Nicholson.

“Aside from making everything an experience and a reason to get out of your house and go see something, I do think everything really does fit this Alamo brand,” said Walker. “Obviously there’s so many things on streaming and you can just plop something on. But having something as highly curated as everything is at the Drafthouse creates a sense of urgency for whatever that title is. Maybe you’ve always meant to see something — the time to see it is now, playing on the big screen. And so it’s curated discovery.”

Are you sensing a trend in the talking points? But again, that’s not a bad thing, as they’re the right talking points! Getting out of the house, special experiences (bonus points if that’s with kids too), and the notion of curation.

To that last point:

“The early days of Alamo, the theater was a reflection of me and I am who I am,” League said on how the company has moved forward. “But the idea of structuring the company to have individual, unique and diverse voices in every market, that reflect the tastes of that market is certainly willful. And we continue to do that across the country as we grow. I personally will never lose my love of weirdo genre movies, but we support a lot more than that.”

I really like this. It reminds of the way James Daunt has turned around Waterstones bookstores (and hopes to turn around Barnes & Noble next — from the last newsletter). Movie theaters have been having a hard time because most are crap. Alamo is not.

Here I am, watching a person shoot another person, point-blank on television. But this gets interrupted by a McDonald’s commercial. Which I can end if I stand up and shout the name of the brand. Then I get to go back to watching my death scene. This really may be the greatest patent of all time.

A Tumblr, Indeed

Daunting, By Facebook, Apple Card, Tracking Impossible, Once Upon a Deal

“Well below” $20 million. That was the initial price Dan Primack reported that WordPress parent Automattic paid to buy Tumblr from Verizon.

That was then updated to say that one source put the price below $10 million.

Actually, “less than $3 million,” is what Primack is saying now.

In order, that’s: “Wow”, “Whoa”, and “Holy Shit”.

It is just a truly remarkable destruction of value for an entity that was purchased for $1.1 billion just six years ago. It’s hard to think of anything comparable — even companies that fully go under tend not to have hundreds of millions of users that are essentially valued at nothing. And how on Earth are any patents Tumblr has valued so low? (Does Verizon keep them?) Was all the value wiped out by Automattic taking on any liabilities? Server costs? How on Earth did founder David Karp not buy this back at this price?! Even if just for a nostalgic domain? Any number of SEO players? Porn power players? (Presumably, Verizon wanted to find a good home for the service?) There are so many questions!

Still, as a long-time Tumblr user (and one-time investor!), I’m glad the service has found a home under the guidance of Matt Mullenweg. My first request is to stop the same generic awful ad from showing up every two-to-three posts in the feed. My second is to make it fun again. At this price, what is there to lose?

Can Britain’s Top Bookseller Save Barnes & Noble?

Speaking of a brand in need of a savior, here’s David Segal profiling James Daunt, the man being brought in to sake Barnes & Noble:

There are other ways that Mr. Daunt distinguishes Waterstones from what he calls “our friends in Seattle.” In January, during a speech before a group of booksellers in Venice, he likened Amazon to the boy-devouring lion in “Jim,” a poem by Hilaire Belloc.

“Nothing happens quickly, but it happens remorselessly,” he told the audience, in the methodical tone of a man telling a ghost story. “It never stops. It gets worse and it gets worse, and if you’re not careful, you end up being entirely eaten.”

He paused, allowed a small grin and added, “But we haven’t been entirely eaten.”

Waterstones — the largest bookstore chain in the UK, which Daunt has run for the past 8 years, is a remarkable turnaround story itself. And obviously speaks very well to what Daunt will try to do here. Here’s the simple high level of how he’ll likely do it:

But the company has largely persisted by selling the pleasure of bookstores first and books second. Because if a store is charming and addictive enough, goes Mr. Daunt’s theory, buying a book there isn’t just more pleasant. The book itself is better than the same book bought online.

“It just is,” he said. “You’ll enjoy it more. You’ll read it quicker. You chose it with your own eyes, your hands, your ears. Now it’s all about anticipation. If you buy a book from Amazon, there’s a little anticipation as you rip the tag off the envelope. But it’s generally slightly flat and disappointing.”

I’m a sucker for these type of intangibles… Not to mention, the details:

Publishers are now in constant dialogue with Mr. Daunt and his buyers about upcoming books, often nine months before publication, relying on the strength of what is between the covers. Actually, the covers matter, too. Waterstones executives — and this is true of large chains around the world — will often suggest alterations, some large, others tiny. They recommended that the serpent on the cover of “The Essex Serpent” be changed from green to blue for the winter months when it was the chain’s book of the year. (“Sharper, colder, less fusty,” Mr. Daunt said.) It went back to green when spring arrived.

Anyway, I have faith in Daunt not just because of Waterstones, but more so because he created my favorite bookstore chain — the small one that bears his name in London (pictured above, which we lived a block away from for a time). Before Amazon even existed, he realized that it was just as much about selling an experience.

Facebook to Add Its Name to Instagram, WhatsApp

Alex Heath on a shocking — and yet not at all shocking — change coming to Facebook’s family of apps:

Employees for the apps were recently notified about the changes, which come as antitrust regulators are examining Facebook’s acquisitions of both apps. The app rebranding is a major departure for Facebook, which until recently had allowed the apps to operate and be branded independently. The distance has helped both apps avoid being tarnished by the privacy scandals that have hurt Facebook. The move to add Facebook’s name to the apps has been met with surprise and confusion internally, reflecting the autonomy that the units have operated under.

The first thing that jumps to mind: Facebook is dead. Long live Facebook!

This is pretty clearly a way to cheat death (eventually). Or, at the very least, to hedge against it. It’s a lot harder to have a narrative around the “decline of Facebook” when Instagram by Facebook and WhatsApp by Facebook are thriving. (Not to mention that it would seem to be an attempt to solidify the “they can’t be broken apart” narrative…)

But there is a very real downside risk here. As the article notes, many people don’t know that Instagram is owned by Facebook. If and when they now know, does that change their usage at all? Even I — obviously very aware who Instagram is owned by — find myself questioning if this will or should change my usage. I mean, it’s just a name change! But it’s also a clear signal of the way forward...

Apple Rolls Out Apple Card Preview

Matthew Panzarino:

The cash rewards are delivered daily, and made available to you very quickly on your Apple Cash card balance. Usually in less than a day. You can then do an instant transfer to your bank for a maximum $10 fee or a 1-3 day transfer for free. This cashout is faster than just about any other cash back program out there and certainly way faster cash reward tallying than anyone else. And Apple makes no effort to funnel you into a pure statement credit version of cash back, like many other cards do. The cash becomes cash pretty instantly.

I could easily see the bar Apple sets here — daily rewards tallies and instant cashouts — becoming industry standard.

To me, nothing about the Apple Card seems revolutionary except for the user experience. Simple set up. Place names (and logos) instead of gibberish in your statement. Virtual cards (and numbers). And this is, of course, what Apple is best at. None of the concepts may be new, but Apple is able to push them — and, as a result, entire industries — forward, at a scale not possible beforehand.

So yeah, I’m fairly bullish here.

Where Can I Buy The Impossible Burger? A Real Time Tracker

This. This is why technology and the internet exists, people.

(I should note that GV, where I’m a partner, is an investor in Impossible Foods, makers of said burger. But I should also note that I legitimately love said burger.)

Tarantino Scored Rare Ownership Deal With 'Once Upon a Time'

Tatiana Siegel and Borys Kit:

Sources say Quentin Tarantino's deal for Once Upon a Time gives him full ownership of the underlying copyright after 30 years in a complex schedule that shifts ownership from studio to filmmaker over that period. (Several sources say the timetable is a much shorter 20 years, with one source saying it's 10 years.) That puts the Oscar winner among a tiny pool of directors who have negotiated ownership stakes in their films, including George Lucas, Mel Gibson, Peter Jackson, and Richard Linklater.

Hard to overstate how big of a deal this actually is. It’s apparently literally the way Sony beat out Warner to distribute the film. It’s the type of deal that made George Lucas, George Lucas. And while Once Upon a Time is unlikely to have the product tie-ins (though there are some!) let alone sequels, it’s an interesting precedent for a major studio (Tarantino reportedly secured these rights when under Miramax as well) in an interesting time…

While Netflix plays hardball in this regard, relying on upfront payments to eliminate backend deals and any sorts of rights questions, do the other up-and-coming streamers — not to mention the traditional studios — try to end-run-around by giving up such rights after an initial run? You could see this shift quickly…

[via Jason Kilar]

Once Upon a Time in a Cinema

Speaking of… here are some initial thoughts on the aforementioned film. Which I finally got to a theater — a real life movie theater (not this oneor this one) — to see.

Brilliant idea. That is really happening.

Once Upon a Time...

Netflix's Blockbusters, RIP Sprint, Tardigrades, Blockbuster's Netflix, Mirror Worlds

Finally saw Once Upon a Time in Hollywood last night — thanks Megan! — and I have thoughts. Two posts worth, actually. Which I’m working on now. But quickly: I thought it was great. And yet watching it was also a bit bittersweet, as I found myself realizing we’re unlikely to see many movies like it in theaters anymore. See: below!

Netflix Splurges on Big-Budget Movies

R.T. Watson and Ben Fritz:

Netflix bought the rights to “The Irishman” after major studios passed because of concerns that it was too expensive for a drama, a genre that has struggled at the box office in recent years. The producers were in the midst of raising independent funds to make the film when Netflix entered. “Without Netflix, ‘Irishman’ would not have been made,” said one of the people close to the movie. “I just don’t see [other] studios wanting to dive into these projects any more. I think they are staying away from the riskier, more mature films, especially dramas.”

This is the natural extension of something discussed in the last newsletter: as the studios veer more towards superheroes/sequels/remakes on one end, and cheap prestige/horror flicks on the other, the “middle” fare (even when directed by Martin Scorsese!) is going to need to find a new home. And that new home is going to be the streaming services. And the “middle” is getting fatter:

Earlier this month, Netflix agreed to spend nearly $200 million to make the Dwayne Johnson action movie “Red Notice,” which will be filmed next year at exotic locations and also stars Ryan Reynolds and Gal Gadot, the people said.

Big action films such as “Red Notice” more frequently succeed at the box office. Comcast Corp. ’s Universal Pictures was originally set to make the movie for $150 million, but after production costs rose higher than originally planned, the studio allowed the project’s producers to shop it elsewhere, a person with knowledge of the sale process said.

Netflix is also going to release a new $150 million Michael Bay movie. So it’s not even enough to be a big-budget action movie to get into theaters. Again, it basically has to be a franchise or a remake — more of a “sure thing” to get Hollywood to take the risk.

Movies typically cost Netflix more to make than Hollywood studios, because it pays A-list actors and filmmakers more up front to compensate for the fact that it doesn’t offer a share of revenue from box-office and DVD sales, which aren’t relevant to Netflix’s business model. Those extra costs, called buyouts, totaled $14 million on “The Irishman” and $40 million on “Red Notice,” according to the people close to the pictures.

Netflix’s approach to compensation means A-list actors and directors are guaranteed more up front than at a studio, but earn less than they would have if the movie were a box-office smash. Those in Hollywood have debated whether Netflix movies make as much of a cultural impact as those released in theaters or are often lost in the shuffle on the service’s home screen.

Such economic changes will have fascinating ramifications, I imagine. Extrapolating this out: Netflix and the like become the place to go for the guaranteed payday, while the studios are the gamble on the blockbuster hit — you only get paid when they do. As a result, actors increasingly do a mixture to diversify their earning potential. A sort of new take on the one-for-them, one-for us idea (something I wondered about in the context of Netflix four years ago).

It’s Time We Say “So Long” to Sprint

Eli Blumenthal & Roger Cheng:

Most of the telecom companies you see today trace their roots back to the original Ma Bell, AT&T. But Sprint sprung from Southern Pacific Company, a railroad company that owned telegraph lines. Sprint was the catchy acronym for Southern Pacific Railroad Internal Networking Telephony. It served as Southern Pacific's entry into the long-distance calling business in 1972.

I did not realize the railway history. More importantly, a fascinating look back at failure after failure. Bad mergers, bad almost-mergers, the iPhone miss, the Palm Pre miss, WiMAX, etc, etc, etc. Almost a comedy of corporate errors. So long, Sprint.

A Crashed Spacecraft Spilled Tardigrades on the Moon

A couple newsletters ago, I also linked to a post wondering if life may not have started on Earth, but instead was spread here. You know, like this:

The lunar library on the Beresheet lander consisted of 25 layers of nickel, each only a few microns thick. The first four layers contain roughly 30,000 high-resolution images of book pages, which include language primers, textbooks, and keys to decoding the other 21 layers. Those layers hold nearly all of the English Wikipedia, thousands of classic books, and even the secrets to David Copperfield’s magic tricks.

Spivack had planned to send DNA samples to the moon in future versions of the lunar library, not on this mission. But a few weeks before Spivack had to deliver the lunar library to the Israelis, however, he decided to include some DNA in the payload anyway. Ha and an engineer on Spivack’s team added a thin layer of epoxy resin between each layer of nickel, a synthetic equivalent of the fossilized tree resin that preserves ancient insects. Into the resin they tucked hair follicles and blood samples from Spivack and 24 others that he says represent a diverse genetic cross-section of human ancestry, in addition to some dehydrated tardigrades and samples from major holy sites, like the Bodhi tree in India. A few thousand extra dehydrated tardigrades were sprinkled onto tape that was attached to the lunar library.

This craft then crashed into the moon in April. But:

The promising thing about the tardigrades, says Spivack, is that they could hypothetically be revived in the future. Tardigrades are known to enter dormant states in which all metabolic processes stop and the water in their cells is replaced by a protein that effectively turns the cells into glass. Scientists have revived tardigrades that have spent up to 10 years in this dehydrated state, although in some cases they may be able to survive much longer without water. Although the lunar library is designed to last for millions of years, scientists are just beginning to understand how tardigrades manage to survive in so many unforgiving environments. It’s conceivable that as we learn more about tardigrades, we’ll discover ways to rehydrate them after much longer periods of dormancy.

This all sounds a bit reckless. Then again, maybe such recklessness is why we’re here… It also sounds a bit terrifying. I mean, just look at those tardigrades…

Aside: how did Daniel Oberhaus miss using the title: The Moon is in Tardigrade?!

At Almost Every Decision Point, Netflix Went for Broke

A Twitter thread — based off passages from the book Netflixed — that’s worth a read. In hindsight, we look back at Blockbuster as a Goliath which blundered their way into losing to David (Netflix). And they did, but it’s not as cut-and-dry as it may seem. Blockbuster Online — which I had back in the day — was working, for one thing. And in a way that Netflix could not match with Total Access.

But then Carl Icahn started meddling

Scientists are Searching for a Mirror Universe. It Could be Sitting Right in Front of You.

In other space news, here’s Corey S. Powell:

A decade ago, Anatoli Serebrov of Petersburg Nuclear Physics Institute in Russia introduced the idea that ordinary neutrons sometimes cross over into the mirror world and transform into mirror neutrons. At that point, we could no longer detect them — it would be as if some of the neutrons simply vanished. “That would make the neutron lifetime look wrong,” Broussard explains, because some of the neutrons would have been disappearing from the test equipment while the researchers were studying them.

Connect the dots, and you reach a far-out conclusion: The neutron experiments might look screwy because physicists unwittingly opened a portal to the mirror world.

Cool, cool. And with that, we seemingly just unified the Netflix links with the science links above. (This is actually fascinating work — or a compelling thought experiment, if nothing else.) 🤯

Odd Streaming Schedules

Franchise "Fatigue", A Startup Postmortem, A Giant Moon, Next in Social, Seltzer

One thing I don’t like about our new streaming (TV) era is the unpredictability of release schedules. Here, I don’t mean weekly — I mean yearly. I’ve run into this a number of times recently where I recalled that we liked previous seasons of a show, go to check if a new season is coming soon, and just cannot find that info. Netflix and Amazon are basically silent until right before a show is coming back and we may get a “new season coming soon” note. Googling it usually has some guesses, but just as many spammy SEO sites on the topic. Searching on social media is generally no help since we’re all in the dark.

I don’t miss the old Fall TV lineup schedules, and I like rolling releases, but I’d like a little more consistency between shows. There’s a very real downside for Netflix and the like too: out of sight, out of mind. If a show is gone for too long, with no new season in direct line of sight, will people still care when it comes back? Certainly if it’s Game of Thrones with a two-year hiatus. And I guess if it’s Curb Your Enthusiasm with its random releases. But what about, say, The World’s Most Extraordinary Homes?

The Absurdities of 'Franchise Fatigue' & 'Sequelitis'

It’s hard to pick one thing to quote in this post from Matthew Ball, so I’ll pick many — still just a taste, the whole thing is well worth the read:

Nearly all the decline in theatrical consumption has instead come from a reduction in the frequency of attendance by the most intense moviegoers. This reiterates the idea of secular decline; those who loved the product most, love it less each year.


Indeed, virtually all of the drop in moviegoing over the past 20 years has been from the long, predominantly indie tail of the box office. The top 25 titles, which represent roughly 50% of annual grosses, sell the same number of tickets per capita as they used to.

As to why…

Over the past 40 years, viewers have added more high-quality screens and sound systems in their homes, the quality of television content has improved, the ability to access this content (e.g. ad free and on demand) has improved, and bigger (and more social) alternative entertainment experiences have emerged, such as Call of Duty and Fortnite. This is similar to the first secular decline of theatrical attendance. Before household TVs emerged, audiences attended the theater 40-70 times per year – after all, it was the only way to watch video news (attendance peaked during World War II). As families added more TVs to their homes (thus allowing family members to individually watch), consumption dropped.

Today, movies earn their keep by displaying content that is best able to defeat at-home consumption and alternatives – to persuade audiences to turn off Netflix, get in their cars, drive to a movie theater with convenient showtimes and available seats, park, buy $10 tickets, sit through 10 minutes of commercials and 20 minutes of trailers as the adjacent seats fill up with strangers, watch the film for 150 minutes while holding off the restroom, then drive home. The only way studios can reliably do this is by offering a spectacle that simply needs to be seen on a big screen (Avengers: Endgame) or has such cultural relevance you can’t wait until the home video release to catch up (Us, or again, Avengers: Endgame). It doesn’t seem to matter if a film like Booksmart is terrific (it is), widely available and evangelized.

And so what has Hollywood done to combat this?

Why spend $50MM on a film that, at best, might return $25MM when you could spend $200MM and, if it works, build a franchise that might generate $100MM twice a year from spinoffs, derisk the launch of future sequels, and produce more ancillary profits with merchandise? It no longer matters if audiences don’t want a given franchise – they’re going to get it. And if they’ve already rejected it once, they’ll get it again. What should studios make instead? Non-franchise movies that are wanted even less?

That’s why the talk that there’s “sequel fatigue” is silly. In fact, it’s the opposite. Sequels (and remakes, reboots, etc) are increasingly all anyone is going to, and also all Hollywood is making. Sure, there are underperforming ones here and there. But really only so much as there are always going to be underperforming movies. It may not be a zero-sum game, but it’s close to one, and getting closer with all Ball lists above. The biggest and best blockbusters have eaten the smaller, non-blockbuster films, and increasingly they’re now eating the smaller blockbuster films too!

Now, to toot my own horn for a moment, this is nearly exactly what I expected to happen (it wasn’t that hard to see, as it was already starting to happen) when I wrote this post nearly five years ago. We’re in the… wait for it… endgame of this trend now. The next phase is for content to start out on the streaming platforms and if it proves popular enough, it then “graduates” to a theatrical release. This is why Disney, which will soon launch Disney+ with the MCU fully — both theatrical and streaming-exclusive content — in tow, is and will remain the king.

The “Prefer” Postmortem

Good post, with lots of insightful lessons in hindsight, from Scott Belsky, about a professional network he started which didn’t work out.

A Prince’s $500 Billion Desert Dream

If you haven’t had a chance to read yet, this report by Justin Scheck, Rory Jones, and Summer Said about a futuristic city Saudi Arabia has been trying to build, is really something. The core list of what was to be included:

1. Flying Taxis: Scientists might take a flying taxi to work. “Driving is just for fun, no longer for transportation (e.g. driving Ferrari next to the coast with a nice view),” planning documents show.

2. Cloud Seeding: The desert won’t always feel like the desert. “Cloud seeding” could make it rain.

3. Robot Maids: Don’t worry about household chores. While scientists are at work, their homes would be cleaned by robot maids.

4. State-of-the-Art Medical Facilities: Scientists would work on a project to modify the human genome to make people stronger.

5. World Class Restaurants: There would be fine dining galore in a city with the “highest rate of Michelin-starred restaurants per inhabitant.”

6. Dinosaur Robots: Residents could visit a Jurassic Park-style island of robot reptiles.

7. Glow-in-the-Dark Sand: The crown prince wants a beach that glows in the dark, like the face of a watch.

8. Alcohol: Alcohol is banned in the rest of Saudi Arabia. But it likely won’t be here, say people familiar with the plan.

9. Robot Martial Arts: Robots would do more than just clean your house. They also could spar head to head in a “robo-cage fight,” one of many sports on offer.

10. Security: Cameras, drones and facial-recognition technology are planned to track everyone at all times.

11. Moon: A giant artificial moon would light up each night. One proposal suggests it could live-stream images from outer space, acting as an iconic landmark.

I mean, just when you think you can’t top robot maids you get robot dinosaurs! And then, boom: robot martial arts! Glow-in-the-dark sand! A fake moon! A giant one! How can you not love consultants? As noted on Twitter, this list reminds me of one thing:

Social Summer ‘19

Lots of good thoughts and ideas from Danny Trinh about “what’s next” in social. Danny’s entire career thus far has basically been dancing around and with the next big trends: Digg (a social news curation service — which probably needs to exist again), Path (a more private social network — which definitely needs to exist again), and Free (a social network to see which of your friends want to hang out, and where — which will at some point exist again). Timing is everything. (Interesting use of Notion too.)

The Seltzer Bubble

Sheila Marikar:

The American fixation with fizzy water dates back to the 18th century, when Joseph Priestley, an English-born chemist and theologian, happened on a way to infuse water with carbon dioxide by suspending a bowl of water above a vat of beer. Johann Jacob Schweppe, the founder of Schweppes, developed a method for manufacturing and bottling carbonated mineral water based on Priestley’s discovery, and the stuff came to be called soda water after the English chemist Richard Bewley noticed that adding sodium carbonate to water made it much more able to absorb carbon dioxide.

Modern carbonated water is made by injecting pressurized carbon dioxide into water, a phenomenon familiar to anyone who has toyed with a SodaStream.

I had no idea about the connection between beer and sparkling water! Science!

I’ll also take this opportunity to note that even though I work in tech, I have never been a fan of LaCroix. Blasphemy, I know. But I think basically all the flavors taste awful. It’s always a matter of finding the least awful one (which is simply Lemon, for the record). And so I’m happy that other brands, like Spindrift, are seemingly overtaking it. (Though the branding history remains fascinating.)

A Couple Recent 500ish Posts

Tennis’ Torch

Some thoughts following the epic Wimbledon final between Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer — and how that ties into Pete Sampras.

The Pirates Strike Back

There are so many streaming services now. With many more coming this fall and next year. Don’t be shocked if piracy picks up again as a result. And that may just push the powers-that-be to work together for a more unified experience…

(h/t Robert Stephens)

Political Civility

Apple/Intel, The Blue App, Graydon Carter, Famous Birthday, Life on Mars

Hello again from 36k feet. This time, I’m flying back to San Francisco after my quick trip to thunderstormy New York City. One thing I’d like to call out is the nice email I got from reader Matthew Bates, who had some gentle pushback on the Boris Johnson link in the last newsletter. He made fair points as to why Johnson should not be grouped in with Trump — I’m actually not sure anyone should? — and did so in a very civil manner, versus what you might see in, say, internet comments. I appreciate that, and definitely find it one of the better things about this particular medium.

Why Apple Had to Buy Intel’s Modem Business

I thought this was a smart, informed take by Mark Sullivan:

One well-placed source told me that one of the reasons Apple engaged with Intel in the first place was to eventually co-develop a modem that could be integrated with an Apple system-on-a-chip (SOC). Regardless, with the purchase of the Intel modem business, Apple will have the intellectual property and people it needs to pursue that ambition on its own.

And Apple, in one way or another, was always going to need to develop its own modem. The company has designed its own processors for the iPhone and iPad from the start, allowing it to optimize them for its own devices and reaping a performance edge over Android devices, which most often use Qualcomm chips.

Everyone has been focused on “Tim Cook’s Law” — in short: don’t be beholden to anyone for anything with regard to your products, if at all possible — but to me, this goes far beyond iPhones. Yes, there will be cost and efficiency gains for that device, but making your own modem seems vital for future devices, all of which will be built with the expectation of always-on connectivity.

Think: future Apple Watches. But also: future AirPods. AR Glasses? Etc.

And yes, this is also a huge point of leverage over Qualcomm. At the very least, Apple will now be able to negotiate better deals with their currently most-hated rival. Whereas Apple had to settle because Intel couldn’t get its shit together, they will no longer have to settle. And will have patents galore…

Facebook Secret Research Warned of ‘Tipping Point’ Threat to Core App

Alex Heath with a look into an internal report/assessment Facebook did last fall:

At the time, Facebook noticed that users of the app—known internally as the “blue app” because of the color of its icon—were increasingly sharing on Instagram and WhatsApp, which are also owned by Facebook. In confidential research Mr. Cunningham prepared for Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, parts of which were obtained by The Information, he warned that if enough users started posting on Instagram or WhatsApp instead of Facebook, the blue app could enter a self-sustaining decline in usage that would be difficult to undo. Although such “tipping points” are difficult to predict, he wrote, they should be Facebook’s biggest concern.

I’ve long been on the record saying that I felt like Instagram would one day surpass Facebook itself in terms of usage — something which seemed crazy a few years ago, but seems almost inevitable now. What’s surprises me is just how much Facebook is fighting against this, internally.

I mean, on one hand, you get it. Facebook — the Blue App — remains the cash cow. You don’t slaughter the cash cow, you optimize for milking it as much as possible. But all cows die eventually, and Facebook happened to realize that not only do people prefer goat’s milk right now — they also happen to own the goat farm! So let those cows go out to pasture, no?

(How far can I take this analogy?)

Well, but you see, the cows grew up on Facebook’s farm. The goats were bought and brought in later. So… screw the goats, seems to be Facebook’s mantra. The people shall have cow’s milk and they will enjoy cow’s milk. Moooo.

Meanwhile, the folks that raised the goats, unsurprisingly, seem increasingly unhappy on the farm. And they leave. I think Facebook has pretty badly screwed up this part of farm management — which is so jarring because they were so good at it to begin with. Sure, they have the livestock they wanted, and neutralized the threat that goat’s milk would overtake cow’s milk and someone else would be the supplier to the masses. But the problem now is trying to buy the next big thing in milk. Now they’re the milk meddlers. The annoying farmhands with major milk opinions.

(Though all that may be mooooot now in the current environment as there’s certainly no way they’re going to be allowed to buy the next animal that produces milk — certainly not without a looooonnnnnggg fight.)

“There’s Always Another Room”

David Marchese sat down with former Vanity Fair editor Graydon Carter, who just launched his new publication — a paid newsletter! — to talk about, among other things, the way magazine reporting used to work:

…the thing that piqued my interest was that you had a researcher there with you at lunch who was taking notes for you. Was that common?

Yeah, somebody would be handling it for me. Time in those days was luxurious. They brought dinner trolleys around the office on Thursdays and on Friday nights with china and wine. There was a bar set up at the end of every corridor. They sent you home in a car service. A bunch of us rented houses out in Sag Harbor, and at 2 o’clock on a Saturday morning you would see all these yellow Checker cabs going over the hills heading towards Sag Harbor or Sagaponack. I remember there was one writer who was going up to the Berkshires. The cab driver said: “Look, it’s going to take us forever to get there. Do you like flying?” So they go out to a private airport on Long Island and the driver’s got a little Cessna, and they get in the Cessna and he turns it over and the battery’s dead. So he wheels the Checker cab up and uses it to boost the Cessna. The expenses were just incredible.

Those were the days.

Indeed. I also enjoyed this bit:

I read about this speech you used to give people about the seven rooms of status in New York. What are the seven rooms exactly?

I don’t know because I’m probably only at room three. But a version of that is how at some parties there’s a roped-off area where the better people are — when you think you’ve made it, there’s always something else. At Spy, I thought we knew everything. But by the end of Spy, I realized I didn’t. There’s always another room.

Actually a pretty hardball interview too with Marchese not holding back on the Jeffrey Epstein questions (the stories that Carter spiked reporting that would have uncovered Epstein’s alleged behavior and criminal activity far earlier).

A Wikipedia for Generation Z

Taylor Lorenz looks at the site Famous Birthdays:

Charles Porch, the head of global creative partnerships at Instagram, says that Famous Birthdays is like the younger generation’s Tiger Beat. “You might know about Famous Birthdays if you’re a parent,” Porch says. “But you definitely know about it if you’re a kid, and you definitely know about it if you’re a creator. Is it adult mainstream yet? No, but that doesn’t matter.” The site has 20 million unique visitors a month—more than a million more than Entertainment Weekly, and four times as many as Teen Vogue.

I vividly remember going to convenient stores and seeing Teen Beat and Tiger Beat all over the newsstands. (I was shopping for Mad Magazine, for the record — well, trying to get my parents to buy it for me, or at the very least, Cracked.) It only makes sense that this need still needs to be filled in our largely post-magazine world. And maybe even more so now given just how big some of these teen/child stars have become on YouTube, Instagram, Snapchat, Twitch, and the like. The birthday angle is just a smart entry point to a whole new world.

What If Life Did Not Originate on Earth?

Isaac Chotiner sat down with biologist and genetics professor Gary Ruvkun:

I think viewing life as having started here is a little bit presumptuous. It seems we’re very, very, very special and it all happened here. I find the idea aesthetically appealing that life as we know it is universal across the Milky Way. It just seems like, once it evolves, it spreads. And one way to argue this is running the clock forward instead of running it in reverse. If we’re really talking about colonizing Mars, step one is to send bacteria to Mars to generate an atmosphere. So if you run the clock forward a million years, presumably, we will be sending bacteria to planets a million light years from us.

The whole thing is pretty thought-provoking.

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