“When you’re skating on thin ice, you wonder about what it would take to push you through, and we’re on thin ice right now,” said Diane Swonk, the chief economist for KPMG.

Matthew Martin, 32, is paying more for the butter and eggs that go into the intricately decorated sugar cookies he sells as part of a home business. At the same time, his sales are falling.

“I guess people don’t have as much money to toss at cookies right now,” he said.

Mr. Martin, a single father of two, is trying to cut back on spending, but it isn’t easy. He has replaced trips to the movies with day hikes, but that means spending more on gas. He is hoping to sell his house and move into a less expensive place, but finding a house he can afford to buy has proved difficult, especially as mortgage rates have risen. He has thought about finding a conventional 9-to-5 job to pay the bills, but he would then need to pay for child care for his 4-year-old twins.

“Honestly, I’m not 100 percent sure what I’m going to do,” he said.

defines a recession as “a significant decline in economic activity that is spread across the economy and lasts more than a few months,” and it bases its decisions on a variety of indicators — usually only months after the fact.

Some forecasters believe a recession can be avoided, if inflation cools enough that the Fed can slow interest rate increases before they take too much of a toll on hiring and spending.

The economy still has important areas of strength. Job growth has remained robust, and, despite a recent uptick in filings for unemployment insurance, there is little sign of a broad increase in job losses.

Households, in the aggregate, are sitting on trillions of dollars in savings built up earlier in the pandemic, which could allow them to weather higher prices and interest rates.

“What drives the U.S. consumer is the healthy labor market, and we should really focus on job growth to capture the turning point in this business cycle,” said Blerina Uruci, an economist at T. Rowe Price. The Labor Department will release data on July’s hiring and unemployment next week.

The lingering effects of the pandemic are making the economy’s signals harder to interpret. Americans bought fewer cars, couches and other goods in the second quarter, but forecasters had long expected spending on goods to fall as consumers shifted back toward prepandemic spending patterns. Indeed, economists argue that a pullback in spending on goods is needed to relieve pressure on overstretched supply chains.

At the same time, spending on services accelerated. That could be a sign of consumers’ resilience in the face of soaring airfares and rental car rates. Or it could merely reflect a temporary willingness to put up with high prices, which will fade along with the summer sun.

“There is going to be this element of, ‘We haven’t had a summer vacation in three years, so we’re just going to take one, no matter how much it costs,’” said Aditya Bhave, a senior economist for Bank of America. “The question is what happens after the summer.”

Avital Ungar is trying to interpret the conflicting signals in real time. Ms. Ungar operates a small business running food tours for tourists and corporate groups in San Francisco, Los Angeles and New York.

When restaurants closed and travel stopped early in the pandemic, Ms. Ungar had no revenue. She made it through by offering virtual happy hours and online cooking classes. When in-person tours came back, business was uneven, shifting with each new coronavirus variant. Ms. Ungar said demand remained hard to predict as prices rise and the economy slows.

“We’re in two different types of uncertainty,” she said. “There was the pandemic uncertainty, and then there’s the economic uncertainty right now.”

In response, Ms. Ungar has shifted her focus to higher-end tours, which she believes will hold up better than those aimed at more price-sensitive customers. And she is trying to avoid long-term commitments that could be difficult to get out of if demand cools.

“Every annual plan I’ve done in the past three years has not happened that way,” she said. “It’s really important to recognize that what worked yesterday isn’t going to work tomorrow.”

Lydia DePillis contributed reporting.

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Why Big Tech Is Making a Big Play for Live Sports

LOS ANGELES — More than a decade after Apple disrupted the music industry and Amazon upended retail, the tech heavyweights have set their sights on a new arena ripe for change: live sports.

Emboldened by their deep pockets and eager to boost viewership of their streaming-subscription services, Apple and Amazon have thrust themselves into negotiations for media rights held by the National Football League, Major League Baseball, Formula One racing and college conferences.

They are competing to replace DirecTV for the rights to N.F.L. Sunday Ticket, a package the league wants to sell for more than $2.5 billion annually, about $1 billion more than it currently costs, according to five people familiar with the process. Eager not to miss out, Google has also offered a bid from YouTube for the rights beginning in 2023, two people familiar with the offer said.

reported by the SportsBusiness Journal.

Fans will still be able to access all the games on Sunday, regardless of who wins the rights, but they will probably pay a premium to add the service to their Apple, Amazon, ESPN+ or YouTube service, some of the dozen people said. It is not yet clear if that premium would be more or less than the $294 that DirecTV charges for a year, they added.

Apple and Amazon are trying to position themselves for a future without cable. Since 2015, traditional pay television has lost a quarter of its subscribers — about 25 million homes — as people traded cable packages for apps like Netflix and Hulu, according to MoffettNathanson, an investment firm that tracks the industry.

But the price of live sports rights is only projected to increase. The biggest media companies, including Disney, Comcast, Paramount and Fox, are expected to spend a combined $24.2 billion for rights in 2024, according to data from MoffettNathanson, nearly double what they spent a decade earlier.

The fragmenting of a decades-old distribution model has created an opportunity for Apple and Amazon. The companies want to expand deeper into media by selling subscriptions to Apple TV+ and Amazon Prime. Besides containing their own exclusive shows and sports, those services double as portals selling additional streaming offerings like Starz and HBO Max, which pay Apple and Amazon 15 percent or more of each subscription sold.

Amazon generates more than $3 billion annually from third-party subscription sales, according to estimates by the investment bank BMO Capital Markets. To make the business model work, Apple and Amazon must attract more viewers, and sports are the most powerful draw in media. The companies may be willing to lose money on Sunday Ticket to expose new customers to other parts of their business, the same calculation that DirecTV historically made.

SportsBusiness Journal.

For all their disruptive potential, though, Apple and Amazon have yet to win a marquee rights package in the United States. That is reminiscent of 20 years ago, when sports leagues feared they would lose viewers by shifting games from network television to cable. But the change gradually became standard.

Traditional television companies are trying to stave off Apple and Amazon by starting their own streaming-subscription services. Last year Comcast, which owns NBCUniversal, shuttered NBC Sports Network to bolster its USA channel and to encourage people to pay for Peacock, where it exclusively aired some English Premier League soccer games. Similarly, ESPN struck a deal with the National Hockey League to televise some games on its ESPN+ service, and CBS has shown marquee soccer games on Paramount+.

But those services have a fraction of the more than 100 million cable subscribers the media companies once reached. As a result, the bulk of sports programming goes on traditional pay-TV channels where they can guarantee leagues and advertisers larger audiences.

The National Basketball Association will be the first major test of the new competitive landscape. Its agreements with ESPN and Turner run through the 2024-25 season. Most sports and media executives predict that the league will stick with traditional broadcasters for most of its games, while carving out some small portion of rights for a tech company.

“It hedges them for the future and exposes the product to new audiences,” said George Pyne, founder of the sports private equity firm, Bruin Capital, and the former chief operating officer of NASCAR. “They can still have a long-term relationship with network partners but dip their toe in with new media.”

Until then, the best opportunities for Apple and Amazon may be overseas — where Amazon has been active for years — because European soccer leagues resell their rights every two to three years. Amazon recently scooped up rights to Europe’s top tournament, the UEFA Champions League, in Britain, Germany and Italy. It also has rights to France’s Ligue 1, which it offers to Prime Video subscribers for annual fee of about $90, and the English Premier League.

Media companies will be pressured to expand geographically to compete, said Daniel Cohen, who leads global media rights consulting for Octagon, a sports agency. Television broadcasters could also team up to pool their financial firepower, or buy each other outright, to compete with tech giants willing to pay billions for rights like N.F.L. Sunday Ticket.

“It comes down to a Silicon Valley ego thing,” Mr. Cohen said of the high-dollar N.F.L. deal. “I don’t see a road to profitability. I see a road to victory.”

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Putin Aims to Shape a New Generation of Supporters, Through Schools

Starting in first grade, students across Russia will soon sit through weekly classes featuring war movies and virtual tours through Crimea. They will be given a steady dose of lectures on topics like “the geopolitical situation” and “traditional values.” In addition to a regular flag-raising ceremony, they will be introduced to lessons celebrating Russia’s “rebirth” under President Vladimir V. Putin.

And, according to legislation signed into law by Mr. Putin on Thursday, all Russian children will be encouraged to join a new patriotic youth movement in the likeness of the Soviet Union’s red-cravatted “Pioneers” — presided over by the president himself.

Ever since the fall of the Soviet Union, the Russian government’s attempts at imparting a state ideology to schoolchildren have proven unsuccessful, a senior Kremlin bureaucrat, Sergei Novikov, recently told thousands of Russian schoolteachers in an online workshop. But now, amid the war in Ukraine, Mr. Putin has made it clear that this needed to change, he said.

end 30 years of openness to the West.

even a hockey player with suspect loyalties.

But nowhere are these ambitions clearer than in the Kremlin’s race to overhaul how children are taught at Russia’s 40,000 public schools.

militarize Russian society, building on officials’ ad hoc efforts after the invasion to convince young people that the war was justified.

“Patriotism should be the dominant value of our people,” another senior Kremlin official, Aleksandr Kharichev, said at last month’s workshop for teachers, which was hosted by the education ministry.

His presentation defined patriotism bluntly: “Readiness to give one’s life for the Motherland.”

Mr. Novikov, the head of the Kremlin’s “public projects” directorate, said that with the invasion of Ukraine in February, teachers faced “a rather urgent task”: to “carry out explanatory work” and answer students’ “difficult questions.”

“While everything is more or less controllable with the younger ones, the older students receive information through a wide variety of channels,” he said, acknowledging the government’s fears about the internet swaying young people’s views. A poll last month by the independent Levada Center found that 36 percent of Russians aged 18 to 24 opposed the war in Ukraine, compared with just 20 percent of all adults.

published by the education ministry last month shows that Mr. Putin’s two decades in power are set to be enshrined in the standard curriculum as a historical turning point, while the teaching of history itself will become more doctrinal.

The decree says that Russian history classes will be required to include several new topics like “the rebirth of Russia as a great power in the 21st century,” “reunification with Crimea,” and “the special military operation in Ukraine.”

And while Russia’s existing educational standard says students should be able to evaluate “various versions of history,” the new proposal says they should learn to “defend historical truth” and “uncover falsifications in the Fatherland’s history.”

As government employees, teachers generally have little choice but to comply with the new demands — though there are signs of grass-roots resistance. Mr. Ken says the Alliance of Teachers, his union, has provided legal guidance to dozens of teachers who have refused to teach this spring’s propaganda classes, noting that political agitation in schools is technically illegal under Russian law. In some cases, he says, principals have simply canceled the classes, knowing they were unpopular.

“You just need to find the moral strength not to facilitate evil,” Sergei Chernyshov, who runs a private high school in the Siberian city of Novosibirsk and has resisted promoting government propaganda, said in a phone interview. “If you can’t protest against it, at least don’t help it.”

Come September, such resistance could become more difficult, with schools directed to add an hour of class every Monday promoting the Kremlin’s version of patriotism. Virtual guest speakers in those classes will include Ramzan Kadyrov, the brutal strongman leader of the Chechnya region, and Patriarch Kirill I, the leader of the Russian Orthodox Church who has called the invasion a righteous fight, according to a presentation at last month’s workshop.

schedule of the weekly classes posted by the education ministry. In October, fifth graders and up will have a session apparently meant to discourage emigration; its title: “Happiness is being happy at home.”

Also beginning in September is the Kremlin’s new youth movement, an idea endorsed by Mr. Putin in a televised meeting in April and enshrined in legislation he signed on Thursday.

A co-sponsor of the legislation, the lawmaker Artyom Metelev, said the creation of a new youth movement had long been in the works, but that the West’s online “information war” targeting young people amid the fighting in Ukraine made that measure more urgent.

“This would have also all appeared without the military operation,” Mr. Metelev, who is 28 and a member of Mr. Putin’s United Russia party, said in a phone interview. “It’s just that the military operation and those, let’s say, actions being carried out in relation to our country have accelerated it.”

Moscow’s propaganda infrastructure aimed at children remains far more limited than it was during the Soviet era — a time when young people actively sought out underground cultural exports smuggled in from the West. Mr. Chernyshov, the Novosibirsk school director, believes that the Kremlin’s attempts to sell its militarism to children will now also eventually run up against the young mind’s common sense.

“A 10-year-old child is much more of a humanist than the typical Russian citizen,” he said. “It’s simply impossible to explain to a child in plain language why, right now, some people are killing others.”

Alina Lobzina contributed reporting.

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Netflix Says It’s Business as Usual. Is That Good Enough?

While being honored at the Banff Film Festival in Canada in early June, Bela Bajaria, Netflix’s head of global television, surprised some with what she didn’t say. Despite the recent turmoil at the streaming giant — including a loss of subscribers, hundreds of job cuts and a precipitous stock drop — she said Netflix was charging ahead, with no significant plans to change its programming efforts.

“For me, looking at it, the business works,” Ms. Bajaria said from the stage. “We are not doing some radical shift in our business. We’re not merging. We’re not having a big transitional phase.”

Two weeks later, after Netflix had laid off another 300 people, Reed Hastings, the company’s co-chief executive, doubled down on Ms. Bajaria’s message, reassuring the remaining employees that the future would, in fact, be bright and that in the next 18 months the company would hire 1,500 people.

“Spiderhead” and the series “God’s Favorite Idiot” have been critically derided.) A producer who works with Netflix said the word “quality” was being bandied about much more often in development meetings.

Emily Feingold, a Netflix spokeswoman, disputed the idea that focusing on a show’s quality was somehow a change in strategy, referring to such disparate content as “Squid Game,” the reality television show “Too Hot to Handle,” and movies like “Red Notice” and “The Adam Project.”

“Consumers have very different, diverse tastes,” Ms. Feingold said. “It’s why we invest in such a broad range of stories, always aspiring to make the best version of that title irrespective of the genre. Variety and quality are key to our ongoing success.”

The producer Todd Black said that the process for getting a project into development at Netflix had slowed down but that otherwise it was business as usual.

“They are looking at everything, which I get,” said Mr. Black, who last worked with Netflix when he produced “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” in 2020. “They are trying to course correct. We have to be patient and let them do that. But they are open for business. They are buying things.”

Indeed, the company still intends to spend some $17 billion on content this year. It paid $50 million last month for a thriller starring Emily Blunt and directed by David Yates (“Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows”). And it plans to make “The Electric State,” a $200 million film directed by Joe and Anthony Russo (“Avengers: Endgame” and “The Gray Man”) and starring Millie Bobby Brown and Chris Pratt, after Universal Pictures balked at the price tag. The company also just announced a development deal for a television adaptation of “East of Eden” starring Florence Pugh.

On Tuesday, Whip Media, a research firm, said Netflix had fallen from second to fourth place in the firm’s annual streaming customer satisfaction survey, behind HBO Max, Disney+ and Hulu.

The most significant change coming for Netflix is its advertising tier, which, as it has told employees, it wants to roll out by the end of the year. Netflix’s foray into advertising stoked excitement among media buyers at the industry’s annual conference in Cannes last week.

“It was pretty intense,” said Dave Morgan, who is the chief executive of Simulmedia, a company that works with advertisers, and who attended the conference. “It was one of the top two or three issues everyone was talking about.”

Mr. Hastings said Netflix would work with an outside company to help get its nascent advertising business underway. The Wall Street Journal reported that Google and Comcast were the front-runners to be that partner. Still, advertising executives believe that building out the business at Netflix could take time, and that the company might be able to introduce the new tier only in a handful of international markets by the end of the year.

It could take even longer for advertising to become a significant revenue stream for the company.

“You have a lot of media companies duking it out, and it’ll take quite a while to compete with those companies,” Mr. Morgan said. “I could imagine it will take three or four years to even be a top 10 video ad company.”

In an analyst report this month, Wells Fargo threw cold water on the notion that subscriber growth for an ad-supported tier would be quick. Wells Fargo analysts cautioned that the ad model would offer “modest” financial gains in the next two years because of a natural cannibalization from the higher-paying subscriber base. They predicted that by the end of 2025 nearly a third of the subscriber base would pay for the cheaper ad-supported model, roughly 100 million users.

Bank of America went further last week. “Ad-tiering could serve as a way for consumers across all income brackets to extend their streaming budget by trading down to subscribe to an additional service, benefiting Netflix’s competitors much more than Netflix itself,” it said in an analyst letter.

Netflix has also reached out to the studios that it buys TV shows and movies from in recent weeks, seeking permission to show advertising on licensed content. In negotiations with Paramount Global, Netflix has mentioned paying money on top of its existing licensing fee rather than cutting the company in on revenue from future ad sales, said a person familiar with the matter who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss active talks.

This mirrors the approach Netflix took with studios when it introduced its “download for you” feature, which allowed users to save movies and TV shows to their devices to watch offline. When Netflix added that feature, executives at the streaming service agreed to pay studios a fee in addition to their licensing agreement.

In the end, though, Netflix’s success will most likely come down to how well it spends its $17 billion content budget.

“Netflix, dollar for dollar, needs to do better, and that falls on Ted Sarandos and his whole team,” Mr. Greenfield said, referring to the company’s co-chief executive. “They haven’t done a good enough job. Yet, they are still, by far, the leader.”

Benjamin Mullin contributed reporting.

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Why a Rhodes Scholar’s Ambition Led Her to a Job at Starbucks

Most weekend mornings, Jaz Brisack gets up around 5, wills her semiconscious body into a Toyota Prius and winds her way through Buffalo, to the Starbucks on Elmwood Avenue. After a supervisor unlocks the door, she clocks in, checks herself for Covid symptoms and helps get the store ready for customers.

“I’m almost always on bar if I open,” said Ms. Brisack, who has a thrift-store aesthetic and long reddish-brown hair that she parts down the middle. “I like steaming milk, pouring lattes.”

The Starbucks door is not the only one that has been opened for her. As a University of Mississippi senior in 2018, Ms. Brisack was one of 32 Americans who won Rhodes scholarships, which fund study in Oxford, England.

in public support for unions, which last year reached its highest point since the mid-1960s, and a growing consensus among center-left experts that rising union membership could move millions of workers into the middle class.

white-collar workers has coincided with a broader enthusiasm for the labor movement.

In talking with Ms. Brisack and her fellow Rhodes scholars, it became clear that the change had even reached that rarefied group. The American Rhodes scholars I encountered from a generation earlier typically said that, while at Oxford, they had been middle-of-the-road types who believed in a modest role for government. They did not spend much time thinking about unions as students, and what they did think was likely to be skeptical.

“I was a child of the 1980s and 1990s, steeped in the centrist politics of the era,” wrote Jake Sullivan, a 1998 Rhodes scholar who is President Biden’s national security adviser and was a top aide to Hillary Clinton.

By contrast, many of Ms. Brisack’s Rhodes classmates express reservations about the market-oriented policies of the ’80s and ’90s and strong support for unions. Several told me that they were enthusiastic about Senators Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, who made reviving the labor movement a priority of their 2020 presidential campaigns.

Even more so than other indicators, such a shift could foretell a comeback for unions, whose membership in the United States stands at its lowest percentage in roughly a century. That’s because the kinds of people who win prestigious scholarships are the kinds who later hold positions of power — who make decisions about whether to fight unions or negotiate with them, about whether the law should make it easier or harder for workers to organize.

As the recent union campaigns at companies like Starbucks, Amazon and Apple show, the terms of the fight are still largely set by corporate leaders. If these people are increasingly sympathetic to labor, then some of the key obstacles to unions may be dissolving.

suggested in April. The company has identified Ms. Brisack as one of these interlopers, noting that she draws a salary from Workers United. (Mr. Bonadonna said she was the only Starbucks employee on the union’s payroll.)

point out flaws — understaffing, insufficient training, low seniority pay, all of which they want to improve — they embrace Starbucks and its distinctive culture.

They talk up their sense of camaraderie and community — many count regular customers among their friends — and delight in their coffee expertise. On mornings when Ms. Brisack’s store isn’t busy, employees often hold tastings.

A Starbucks spokesman said that Mr. Schultz believes employees don’t need a union if they have faith in him and his motives, and the company has said that seniority-based pay increases will take effect this summer.

onetime auto plant. The National Labor Relations Board was counting ballots for an election at a Starbucks in Mesa, Ariz. — the first real test of whether the campaign was taking root nationally, and not just in a union stronghold like New York. The room was tense as the first results trickled in.

“Can you feel my heart beating?” Ms. Moore asked her colleagues.

win in a rout — the final count was 25 to 3. Everyone turned slightly punchy, as if they had all suddenly entered a dream world where unions were far more popular than they had ever imagined. One of the lawyers let out an expletive before musing, “Whoever organized down there …”

union campaign he was involved with at a nearby Nissan plant. It did not go well. The union accused the company of running a racially divisive campaign, and Ms. Brisack was disillusioned by the loss.

“Nissan never paid a consequence for what it did,” she said. (In response to charges of “scare tactics,” the company said at the time that it had sought to provide information to workers and clear up misperceptions.)

Mr. Dolan noticed that she was becoming jaded about mainstream politics. “There were times between her sophomore and junior year when I’d steer her toward something and she’d say, ‘Oh, they’re way too conservative.’ I’d send her a New York Times article and she’d say, ‘Neoliberalism is dead.’”

In England, where she arrived during the fall of 2019 at age 22, Ms. Brisack was a regular at a “solidarity” film club that screened movies about labor struggles worldwide, and wore a sweatshirt that featured a head shot of Karl Marx. She liberally reinterpreted the term “black tie” at an annual Rhodes dinner, wearing a black dress-coat over a black antifa T-shirt.

climate technology start-up, lamented that workers had too little leverage. “Labor unions may be the most effective way of implementing change going forward for a lot of people, including myself,” he told me. “I might find myself in labor organizing work.”

This is not what talking to Rhodes scholars used to sound like. At least not in my experience.

I was a Rhodes scholar in 1998, when centrist politicians like Bill Clinton and Tony Blair were ascendant, and before “neoliberalism” became such a dirty word. Though we were dimly aware of a time, decades earlier, when radicalism and pro-labor views were more common among American elites — and when, not coincidentally, the U.S. labor movement was much more powerful — those views were far less in evidence by the time I got to Oxford.

Some of my classmates were interested in issues like race and poverty, as they reminded me in interviews for this article. A few had nuanced views of labor — they had worked a blue-collar job, or had parents who belonged to a union, or had studied their Marx. Still, most of my classmates would have regarded people who talked at length about unions and class the way they would have regarded religious fundamentalists: probably earnest but slightly preachy, and clearly stuck in the past.

Kris Abrams, one of the few U.S. Rhodes Scholars in our cohort who thought a lot about the working class and labor organizing, told me recently that she felt isolated at Oxford, at least among other Americans. “Honestly, I didn’t feel like there was much room for discussion,” Ms. Abrams said.

typically minor and long in coming.

has issued complaints finding merit in such accusations. Yet the union continues to win elections — over 80 percent of the more than 175 votes in which the board has declared a winner. (Starbucks denies that it has broken the law, and a federal judge recently rejected a request to reinstate pro-union workers whom the labor board said Starbucks had forced out illegally.)

Twitter was: “We appreciate TIME magazine’s coverage of our union campaign. TIME should make sure they’re giving the same union rights and protections that we’re fighting for to the amazing journalists, photographers, and staff who make this coverage possible!”

The tweet reminded me of a story that Mr. Dolan, her scholarship adviser, had told about a reception that the University of Mississippi held in her honor in 2018. Ms. Brisack had just won a Truman scholarship, another prestigious award. She took the opportunity to urge the university’s chancellor to remove a Confederate monument from campus. The chancellor looked pained, according to several attendees.

“My boss was like, ‘Wow, you couldn’t have talked her out of doing that?’” Mr. Dolan said. “I was like, ‘That’s what made her win. If she wasn’t that person, you all wouldn’t have a Truman now.’”

(Mr. Dolan’s boss at the time did not recall this conversation, and the former chancellor did not recall any drama at the event.)

The challenge for Ms. Brisack and her colleagues is that while younger people, even younger elites, are increasingly pro-union, the shift has not yet reached many of the country’s most powerful leaders. Or, more to the point, the shift has not yet reached Mr. Schultz, the 68-year-old now in his third tour as Starbucks’s chief executive.

She recently spoke at an Aspen Institute panel on workers’ rights. She has even mused about using her Rhodes connections to make a personal appeal to Mr. Schultz, something that Mr. Bensinger has pooh-poohed but that other organizers believe she just may pull off.

“Richard has been making fun of me for thinking of asking one of the Rhodes people to broker a meeting with Howard Schultz,” Ms. Brisack said in February.

“I’m sure if you met Howard Schultz, he’d be like, ‘She’s so nice,’” responded Ms. Moore, her co-worker. “He’d be like, ‘I get it. I would want to be in a union with you, too.’”

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Disney, Built on Fairy Tales and Fantasy, Confronts the Real World

Since its founding in 1923, Disney has stood alone in Hollywood in one fundamental way: Its family-friendly movies, television shows and theme park rides, at least in theory, have always been aimed at everybody, with potential political and cultural pitfalls zealously avoided.

The Disney brand is about wishing on stars and finding true love and living happily ever after. In case the fairy tale castles are too subtle, Disney theme parks outright promise an escape from reality with welcome signs that read, “Here you leave today and enter the world of yesterday, tomorrow and fantasy.”

Lately, however, real world ugliness has been creeping into the Magic Kingdom. In this hyperpartisan moment, both sides of the political divide have been pounding on Disney, endangering one of the world’s best-known brands — one that, for many, symbolizes America itself — as it tries to navigate a rapidly changing entertainment industry.

In some cases, Disney has willingly waded into cultural issues. Last summer, to applause from progressives and snarls from the far right, Disney decided to make loudspeaker announcements at its theme parks gender neutral, removing “ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls” in favor of “dreamers of all ages.” But the entertainment giant has also found itself dragged into the fray, as with the recent imbroglio over a new Florida law that among many things restricts classroom instruction through third grade on sexual orientation and gender identity and has been labeled by opponents as “Don’t Say Gay.”

Disney then aggressively denounced the bill — only to find itself in the cross hairs of Fox News hosts and Florida’s governor, Ron DeSantis, who sent a fund-raising email to supporters saying that “Woke Disney” had “lost any moral authority to tell you what to do.” Florida lawmakers began threatening to revoke a 55-year-old law that enables Walt Disney World to essentially function as its own municipal government. (Disney had already been at odds with the governor on pandemic issues like a vaccine mandate for employees.)

In trying to offend no one, Disney had seemingly lost everyone.

Candlelight Processional events, Bible verses and all.

It took the company until 2009 to introduce a Black princess.

But in recent years, there has been a noticeable change. Robert A. Iger, who served as chief executive from 2005 to 2020, pushed the world’s largest entertainment company to emphasize diverse casting and storytelling. As he said at Disney’s 2017 shareholder meeting, referring to inclusion and equality: “We can take those values, which we deem important societally, and actually change people’s behavior — get people to be more accepting of the multiple differences and cultures and races and all other facets of our lives and our people.”

powerful Afrocentric story line. Under his tenure, Disney refocused the “Star Wars” franchise around female characters. A parade of animated movies (“Moana,” “Coco,” “Raya and the Last Dragon,” “Soul,” “Encanto”) showcased a wide variety of races, cultures and ethnicities.

The result, for the most part, has been one hit after another. But a swath of Disney’s audience has pushed back.

review bombed” in the fall because it depicted a gay superhero kissing his husband, with online trolls flooding the Internet Movie Database with hundreds of homophobic one-star reviews. In January, Disney was accused by the actor Peter Dinklage and others of trafficking in stereotypes by moving forward with a live-action “Snow White” movie — until it was revealed that the company planned to replace the seven dwarfs with digitally created “magical creatures,” which, in turn, prompted complaints by others about the “erasure” of people with dwarfism.

Disney executives tend to dismiss such incidents as tempests in teapots: trending today, replaced by a new complaint tomorrow. But even moderate online storms can be a distraction inside the company. Meetings are held about how and whether to respond; fretful talent partners must be reassured.

As Disney prepared to introduce its streaming service in 2019, it began an extensive review of its film library. As part of the initiative, called Stories Matter, Disney added disclaimers to content that the company determined included “negative depictions or mistreatment of people or cultures.” Examples included episodes of “The Muppet Show” from the 1970s and the 1941 version of “Dumbo.”

“These stereotypes were wrong then and are wrong now,” the disclaimers read.

The Stories Matter team privately flagged other characters as potentially problematic, with the findings distributed to senior Disney leaders, according to two current Disney executives, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss confidential information. Ursula, the villainous sea witch from “The Little Mermaid” (1989), was one. Her dark color palette (lavender skin, black legs) could be viewed through a racial lens, the Stories Matter team cautioned; she is also a “queer coded” character, with mannerisms inspired in part by those of a real-life drag queen.

changing of the guard, with Mr. Iger stepping down as executive chairman in December.

Mr. Iger occasionally spoke out on hot-button political issues during his time as chief executive. His successor, Bob Chapek, decided (with backing from the Disney board) to avoid weighing in on state political battles. Disney lobbyists would continue to work behind the scenes, however, as they did with the Florida legislation.

gently explored gender identity. Gonzo donned a gown, defying a directive from Miss Piggy “that the girls come as princesses and the boys come as knights.” Out magazine wrote that the episode “just sent a powerful message of love and acceptance to gender-variant kids everywhere!” And a far-right pundit blasted Disney for “pushing the trans agenda” on children, starting an online brush fire.

Around the same time, some L.G.B.T.Q. advocates were criticizing Disney over “Loki,” a Disney+ superhero show. In the third episode of “Loki,” the title character briefly acknowledged for the first time onscreen what comic fans had long known: He is bisexual. But the blink-and-you-missed-it handling of the information angered some prominent members of the L.G.B.T.Q. community. “It’s, like, one word,” Russell T. Davies, a British screenwriter (“Queer as Folk”), said during a panel discussion at the time. “It’s a ridiculous, craven, feeble gesture.”

The fighting will undoubtedly continue: The Disney-Pixar film “Lightyear,” set for release in June, depicts a loving lesbian couple, while “Thor: Love and Thunder,” arriving in July, will showcase a major L.G.B.T.Q. character.

Last month, when Disney held its most recent shareholder meeting, Mr. Chapek was put on the spot by shareholders from the political left and right.

One person called Disney to task for contributions to legislators who have championed bills that restrict voting and reproductive rights. Mr. Chapek said that Disney gave money to “both sides of the aisle” and that it was reassessing its donation policies. (He subsequently paused all contributions in Florida.) Another representative for a shareholder advocacy group then took the microphone and noted that “Disney from its very inception has always represented a safe haven for children,” before veering into homophobic and transphobic comments and asking Mr. Chapek to “ditch the politicization and gender ideology.”

In response, Mr. Chapek noted the contrasting shareholder concerns. “I think all the participants on today’s call can see how difficult it is to try to thread the needle between the extreme polarization of political viewpoints,” he said.

“What we want Disney to be is a place where people can come together,” he continued. “My opinion is that, when someone walks down Main Street and comes in the gates of our parks, they put their differences aside and look at what they have as a shared belief — a shared belief of Disney magic, hopes, dreams and imagination.”

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Discovery Closes In on Acquisition of WarnerMedia

“I am sure you aren’t surprised that it came with a fair amount of anxiety, disappointment and concern relative to the changes it would trigger,” he wrote. “All considered, I remain confident we have set the right path.”

The creation of Warner Bros. Discovery could prompt changes among existing media companies, forcing smaller companies like Paramount to find a way to get bigger.

“There’s Disney, HBO Max, Netflix, Amazon and Apple — that’s five,” said Michael Nathanson, a media analyst, pointing to the leading streaming services. “You don’t want to be in position six, seven or eight. At some point, they’ll say, ‘We have to find a dance partner.’”

The biggest question will be what happens to HBO Max and Discovery+, the merging companies’ streaming services. Initially, the two could be sold as a bundle, but over time they will be brought together into one giant streaming service, Mr. Zaslav told staff on Friday.

HBO and HBO Max, which consists of new television series and movies, as well as an impressive lineup from the Warner Bros. library, have more than 70 million subscribers; Discovery+ has more than 20 million.

Even brought together, that pales next to Netflix, which has more than 220 million paying subscribers, most of them outside the United States. HBO Max has only recently expanded into foreign territory, though Discovery has built a robust international business.

“A new giant is born when they prove they have international scale,” Mr. Nathanson said of Warner Bros. Discovery. “I don’t think Discovery content on HBO Max in the U.S. is a needle mover. But because international is such uncontested territory, they can have more impact outside the U.S.”

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How You’re Still Being Tracked on the Internet

While Meta adjusts, some small businesses have begun seeking other avenues for ads. Shawn Baker, the owner of Baker SoftWash, an exterior cleaning company in Mooresville, N.C., said it previously took about $6 of Facebook ads to identify a new customer. Now it costs $27 because the ads do not find the right people, he said.

Mr. Baker has started spending $200 a month to advertise through Google’s marketing program for local businesses, which surfaces his website when people who live in the area search for cleaners. To compensate for those higher marketing costs, he has raised his prices 7 percent.

“You’re spending more money now than what you had to spend before to do the same things,” he said.

Other tech giants with first-party information are capitalizing on the change. Amazon, for example, has reams of data on its customers, including what they buy, where they reside, and what movies or TV shows they stream.

In February, Amazon disclosed the size of its advertising business — $31.2 billion in revenue in 2021 — for the first time. That makes advertising its third-largest source of sales after e-commerce and cloud computing. Amazon declined to comment.

Amber Murray, the owner of See Your Strength in St. George, Utah, which sells stickers online for people with anxiety, started experimenting with ads on Amazon after the performance of Facebook ads deteriorated. The results were remarkable, she said.

In February, she paid about $200 for Amazon to feature her products near the top of search results when customers looked up textured stickers. Sales totaled $250 a day and continued to grow, she said. When she spent $85 on a Facebook ad campaign in January, it yielded just $37.50 in sales, she said.

“I think the golden days of Facebook advertising are over,” Ms. Murray said. “On Amazon, people are looking for you, instead of you telling people what they should want.”

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Streaming Took Over Hollywood. Will It Take Best Picture, Too?

The pandemic accelerated the disruption. Traditional studios like Paramount, Universal, Sony, Warner Bros. and Disney rerouted dozens of theatrical films to streaming services or released them simultaneously in theaters and online. For the second year in a row, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, citing the coronavirus threat, allowed films to skip a theatrical release entirely and still be eligible for Oscars. The academy had previously required at least a perfunctory theatrical release of at least a week in Los Angeles.

This is about more than Hollywood egotism. The worry is that, as streaming services proliferate — more than 300 now operate in the United States, according to the consulting firm Parks Associates — theaters could become exclusively the land of superheroes, sequels and remakes. The venerable Warner Bros. has slashed annual theatrical output by almost half and built a direct-to-streaming film assembly line. Last week, Amazon boosted its Prime Video service by acquiring Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, the old-line studio behind “Licorice Pizza,” which is nominated for three Academy Awards, including best picture.

In a year when Hollywood largely failed to jump-start theatrical moviegoing, streaming services solidified their hold on viewers. Global ticket sales totaled $21.3 billion in 2021, down from $42.3 billion in 2019, according to the Motion Picture Association. (Theaters were closed for much of 2020.) Some theater companies have gone out of business, others have merged; the world’s biggest theater chain, AMC Entertainment, racked up $6 billion in losses over the past two years and its stock has dropped 66 percent since June. At the same time, the number of subscriptions to online video services around the world grew to 1.3 billion, up from 864 million in 2019, the group said.

One film that struggled at the box office was Mr. Spielberg’s “West Side Story,” which received an exclusive run in theaters (per his wishes) of about three months. It collected about $75 million worldwide (against a production budget of $100 million and global marketing costs of roughly $50 million). “West Side Story” is now available on not one but two streaming services, Disney+ and HBO Max, where it has almost assuredly been viewed more widely than in theaters. But the film was never able to recover — among Oscar voters — from being branded a box office misfire. It received seven nominations, and is poised to win in one category, for Ariana DeBose as best supporting actress.

Mr. Spielberg’s also-ran presence in the current Oscar race makes the ascendance of streaming contenders all the more striking: a lion in the fight to keep the Academy Awards focused on theatrical films is pushed aside.

However unlikely, it is possible that “West Side Story” could come from behind and win the best picture trophy. So could Kenneth Branagh’s “Belfast,” for that matter. Such an outcome would be a bit like 2019, when academy voters, turned off by an over-the-top campaign by Netflix to push “Roma” to best picture glory, instead gave the prize to “Green Book,” a traditional film from Universal Pictures.

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Quiet Awards Season Has Hollywood Uneasy

The Academy Awards were created in 1929 to promote Hollywood’s achievements to the outside world. At its pinnacle, the telecast drew 55 million viewers. That number has been dropping for years, and last year it hit an all-time low — 10.4 million viewers for a show without a host, no musical numbers and a little-seen best picture winner in “Nomadland.” (The film, which was released simultaneously in theaters and on Hulu, grossed just $3.7 million.)

Hollywood was planning to answer with an all-out blitz over the past year, even before the awards season. It deployed its biggest stars and most famous directors to remind consumers that despite myriad streaming options, theatergoing held an important place in the broader culture.

It hasn’t worked. The public, in large part, remains reluctant to return to theaters with any regularity. “No Time to Die,” Daniel Craig’s final turn as James Bond, was delayed for over a year because of the pandemic, and when it was finally released, it made only $160.7 million in the United States and Canada. That was $40 million less than the 2015 Bond film, “Spectre,” and $144 million below 2012’s “Skyfall,” the highest-grossing film in the franchise.

Well-reviewed, auteur-driven films that traditionally have a large presence on the awards circuit, like “Last Night in Soho” ($10.1 million), “Nightmare Alley” ($8 million) and “Belfast” ($6.9 million), barely made a ripple at the box office.

And even though Mr. Spielberg’s adaptation of “West Side Story” has a 93 percent positive rating on Rotten Tomatoes, it has earned only $30 million at the domestic box office. (The original grossed $44 million back in 1961, the equivalent of $409 million in today.)

According to a recent study, 49 percent of prepandemic moviegoers are no longer buying tickets. Eight percent say they will never return. Those numbers are a death knell for the midbudget movies that rely on positive word of mouth and well-publicized accolades to get patrons into seats.

Some believe the middle part of the movie business — the beleaguered category of films that cost $20 million to $60 million (like “Licorice Pizza” and “Nightmare Alley”) and aren’t based on a comic book or other well-known intellectual property — may be changed forever. If viewing habits have been permanently altered, and award nominations and wins no longer prove to be a significant draw, those films will find it much more difficult to break even. If audiences are willing to go to the movies only to see the latest “Spider-Man” film, it becomes hard to convince them that they also need see a movie like “Belfast,” Kenneth Branagh’s black-and-white meditation on his childhood, in a crowded theater rather than in their living rooms.

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