With Fewer Ads on Streaming, Brands Make More Movies

When the N.B.A. shut down its season last year because of the pandemic, one of the first phone calls Chris Paul made was to the Hollywood producer Brian Grazer. Mr. Paul, then a point guard with the Oklahoma Thunder, knew he wanted to chronicle what was going on, and he wanted Mr. Grazer’s help.

“The idea was, basically, film everything that had taken place in that game that night and what was going to come of it,” Mr. Paul said. “We had no clue what would happen next.”

The result was “The Day Sports Stood Still,” a documentary about the shutdown, the N.B.A.’s pandemic bubble and the impact of the Black Lives Matter movement on the league. (Mr. Paul appears in the film and is an executive producer.) It is a portrait of the ways the pandemic convulsed the sports world, but also an example of how Covid-19 has upended the entertainment industry.

The film, which debuts Wednesday on HBO and HBO Max, comes from Mr. Grazer’s Imagine Entertainment and a newer entrant to Hollywood: Waffle Iron Entertainment, Nike’s production entity.

General Electric Theater” television show from 1954 through 1962.

In the past decade, branded filmmaking has only proliferated.

Patagonia funded a feature-length documentary about dams, called “DamNation,” in 2014. Pepsi backed the 2018 movie “Uncle Drew,” which showcased the basketball star Kyrie Irving recreating his septuagenarian character from a popular series of Pepsi Max commercials. The film made $42 million and marked one of the first branded entertainment campaigns to be adapted into a major motion picture. “Gay Chorus Deep South,” a documentary produced by Airbnb, debuted on the festival circuit in 2019. And Apple’s acclaimed “Ted Lasso” began its life as an NBC Sports promotion for its acquisition of the broadcast rights to the English Premier League.

Imagine Entertainment, the production company founded by Mr. Grazer and Ron Howard in 1985, formed Imagine Brands in 2018 to pair companies with filmmakers, hiring Mr. Wilkes and Marc Gilbar, the creator of the “Uncle Drew” Pepsi campaign and an executive producer on the film, to run the group. The division has produced both feature-length documentaries and narrative films with their partners, which have included Unilever, Walmart and Ford.

Imagine is also working with the consumer goods giant Procter & Gamble. The company, which effectively created soap operas when it began to sponsor serial radio dramas in the 1930s to help promote its soap products, is cofinancing a feature-length film with Imagine called “Mars 2080.” It will be directed by Eliza McNitt and begin production later this year. The film, which is scheduled to be released theatrically by IMAX in 2022 before moving to a streaming service, focuses on a family resettling on Mars.

It grew out of a breakfast in New York in 2019, where Mr. Wilkes, Mr. Howard and Marc Pritchard, Procter & Gamble’s chief brand officer, discussed technology in the pipeline. The Imagine team later toured Procter & Gamble’s research labs in Cincinnati, seeing examples of its “home of the future” products and meeting its scientists.

Kimberly Doebereiner, the vice president of Procter & Gamble’s future of advertising division, said the company hoped to do more long-form storytelling, like “The Cost of Winning,” the four-part sports documentary its shaving brand Gillette produced. It debuted on HBO in November.

“We want to be more interesting so consumers are leaning into our experiences and we’re creating content that they want to see as opposed to messages that are annoying to them,” she said. “Finding a way to have content that is in places where ads don’t exist is definitely one of the reasons why we’re leaning into this.”

It’s all part of a deliberate shift by brands to try to integrate themselves more fully into consumers’ lives, the way companies like Apple and Amazon have, said Dipanjan Chatterjee, an analyst with Forrester. And they want to do so without commercials, which, he said, have “zero credibility” with consumers.

“If the right story has the right ingredients and it becomes worthwhile for sharing, it doesn’t come across as an intrusive bit of advertising,” Mr. Chatterjee said. “It feels much more like a natural part of our lives.”

Alessandro Uzielli, the head of Ford Motor Company’s global brand and entertainment division, first met with Imagine Brands in early 2018. He was looking for a way to augment Ford’s advertising campaign for its relaunched Bronco with a piece of entertainment that would reach a younger audience. The result was “John Bronco,” a 37-minute long mockumentary directed by Jake Szymanski (“Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates”) and starring Walton Goggins (“Justified”) as the greatest fictional pitchman of all time.

The short film earned a slot in the Tribeca Film Festival and is now streaming on Hulu. In addition to featuring guest spots from Tim Meadows, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Bo Derek, it helped reintroduce the Bronco, a sport utility vehicle that the automaker pulled in the mid-1990s.

“This helped us speak to an audience that we probably weren’t going to speak to on our own,” Mr. Uzielli said.

“It was Imagine’s project, and we didn’t want to cloud their process, to try to make it feel like too much of a sales job,” he added.

Mr. Szymanski, who has directed both feature films and commercials, including ads for the Dodge Durango starring Will Ferrell’s “Anchorman” character Ron Burgundy, said Ford allowed him a great deal of creative freedom. “I think they could have tried to impose a much larger shadow on it than they did,” he said.

Now, Imagine, Mr. Szymanski and Mr. Goggins are trying to turn John Bronco into the next Ted Lasso — an effort in the early stages of development.

“It’s kind of a win-win,” Mr. Szymanski said of a possible television series based on Mr. Goggins’ character. “I don’t think Ford would have any creative control over it but to have a character named John Bronco in the world, that would be a good thing for them.”

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Discord and Microsoft Said to Discuss Deal That Could Top $10 Billion

SAN FRANCISCO — Discord, a social media company popular with gamers, has held deal talks with Microsoft for a transaction that could top $10 billion, according to people briefed on the situation.

The talks were preliminary and no deal is imminent, said one of the people, who declined to be identified because the discussions are confidential. The talks have taken place as video gaming has boomed in the pandemic and as Microsoft, one of the world’s most valuable tech companies, has bolstered its gaming business with deal making.

Many of Microsoft’s acquisitions in recent years have focused on online communities, such as its purchases of LinkedIn, GitHub, and the gaming developer that created Minecraft. Last summer, Microsoft was in talks to buy the video app TikTok in what would have been a blockbuster acquisition; the discussions later fell apart. In September, Microsoft also bought ZeniMax Media, the parent company of several large gaming studios, for $7.5 billion.

Discord, which counts more than 100 million monthly active users, has been highly popular in the pandemic, as people have used the service to chat with one another while playing games. The San Francisco-based company, which has raised nearly $600 million in funding since 2014, has had preliminary deal talks with various suitors over the years, said another person with knowledge of the matter.

previously reported that Discord was holding deal discussions, and Bloomberg reported Microsoft’s involvement.

Joost van Dreunen, a New York University professor who studies the business of video games, said that if a deal were to happen, Discord “would be a natural fit” with Microsoft’s Xbox video gaming business. He said Microsoft has been “building hardware, buying software, and is now stitching it all together with the connective tissue of a community layer.”

Microsoft has said it wants to make it easier for people to play games at home on its Xbox consoles, or on-the-go on their phones. In the last three months of 2020, its gaming business generated $5 billion in revenue for the first time, following the release of new Xbox consoles.

Discord was founded in 2015 by Jason Citron and Stan Vishnevskiy, programmers and entrepreneurs, as a platform for video game players to chat and hang out while gaming. It gained mainstream attention as a gathering ground for the far right, who used Discord to organize the white nationalist Charlottesville, Va., rally in 2017.

Discord has since implemented stricter content moderation rules and banned alt-right communities. The app, which allows people to create private servers — in essence, small communities — features audio, text and video chat options.

Last year, Discord announced plans to expand beyond gaming into everyday usage among online groups of all kinds. It has been used for activities like college classes and organizing events like the Black Lives Matter protests.

The company crossed $100 million in revenue last year, one of the people said. Discord makes money by selling subscriptions to a premium version of the service.

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The David Dobrik Story, Explained

David Dobrik, 24, is one of the best-known YouTubers in Hollywood. He made a name for himself on Vine, the short-form video app that created a generation of online stars. Then he moved on to YouTube, where he and a group of friends known as the Vlog Squad began sharing fast-paced comedic content, often involving stunts.

Since 2014, he’s amassed more than 18 million subscribers on his primary YouTube channel.

But an investigation by Kat Tenbarge at Insider published this week, detailing sexual assault allegations against a former Vlog Squad member, led many viewers to angrily re-evaluate Mr. Dobrik’s work and their fandom. Now it’s challenging the success of his growing empire.

On Friday, a spokesperson for HelloFresh, one of his sponsors, said: “We can confirm that we are no longer working with David Dobrik or any member of the Vlog Squad and do not have any plans to work with them again in the future.”

“We’ve made the decision to end our relationship and cancel all planned activity,” said a representative for Dollar Shave Club. A spokesperson for EA Sports, which once gave Mr. Dobrik a Lamborghini, said the company “can confirm we are not currently working with him nor do we have any plans to in future.”

reviewing” the company’s partnership.

In 2018, Mr. Dobrik posted a video on his YouTube channel called “SHE SHOULD NOT HAVE PLAYED WITH FIRE!!” It showed footage of young women socializing with Mr. Dobrik and members of the Vlog Squad as the men joked about having sexual encounters with them. Later, one of the men, Dom Zeglaitis, recounts having sex with one of them.

That woman told Insider that she was incapacitated by alcohol during the course of the evening and described the experience as rape. Her account was corroborated by at least one other woman who was present.

The woman confirmed her story to The New York Times and provided pictures, texts and video from the evening to corroborate her account.

“We’re going to jail,” Mr. Dobrik said at the end of the video.

The woman reached out to Mr. Zeglaitis to ask that the video be removed; it was, after receiving more than five million views.

video addressing the story on Tuesday.

“I wanted to come on here real quick and address some conversations that are going on on the internet,” Mr. Dobrik said in the video, titled “Let’s talk.” It was posted to a secondary channel that has about a tenth of the followers of his main channel.

Mr. Dobrik said in the video that “consent is something that’s super, super important to me.” He added that he seeks approval from everyone who appears in his videos and will take videos down if those featured in them no longer want to be included.

BuzzFeed.

Mr. Dobrik addressed that incident in his apology. “With the Seth situation, I’m sorry to Seth, because like I said, I just want to make videos where everybody in it, whether you’re participating or watching, is enjoying and having a good time,” Mr. Dobrik said. “And I missed the mark with that one. And I’m really sorry. I truly, truly am.”

Mr. Dobrik’s career as an entertainer has made him wealthy enough to purchase a $9.5 million house in Los Angeles — complete with a Hawaiian Punch fountain.

Early last year, Mr. Dobrik was dubbed “Gen Z’s Jimmy Fallon” by The Wall Street Journal. Last April, he stepped back from regular vlogging, which had become challenging during the pandemic, and turned his focus to other projects, including launching his own photo sharing app, called Dispo.

That app’s rating dropped below two stars in Apple’s app store this week. Apple briefly paused the ability to leave reviews, as people crowded to the space to berate Mr. Dobrik in the form of ratings and reviews.

Mr. Dobrik has lost more than 100,000 subscribers on his primary YouTube channel in the last week.

In Mr. Dobrik’s apology video, he also said that he “chose to distance” himself from some people previously featured in his content. “I don’t stand for any kind of misconduct,” he said, “and I’ve been really disappointed in some of my friends, and for that reason I’ve separated from a lot of them.”

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The Swag Must Go On: Hollywood’s Pandemic Oscar Campaign

Those blocks are typically brimming with voters; Paramount Pictures is there, as is Raleigh Studios, where Netflix rents production space. With most people in Los Angeles still holed up at home, however, the thoroughfare was eerily quiet last Monday at 5:30 p.m. Actual crickets were chirping at Paramount’s closed Bronson Gate, which bore a sign reading, “Per government direction, access to the studio is now restricted.”

Comical at best, absurd at worst?

“The public must be so confused,” Ms. Stone said.

None of the studios or streaming services angling for awards would comment for this article. Campaigning, while commonplace, remains a taboo subject. No film company wants to look as if it is trying to manipulate voters.

It is easy to understand where they are coming from, though.

“Like a political campaign, you have to crest at the right moment,” said Paul Hardart, director of the entertainment, media and technology program at New York University’s Stern School of Business. “You need the maximum exposure at that time. And that’s a hard thing to do. How do you become top of mind at the right time?”

So the swag must go on.

As part of its promotional effort for “Nomadland,” about an impoverished van dweller, Searchlight Pictures sent a bound copy of the screenplay to awards voters. The Hollywood press corps received “Nomadland” wine glasses, a “Nomadland” license plate, “Nomadland” keychains, a “Nomadland” T-shirt and a 5-by-2-foot “Nomadland” windshield sunshade.

To celebrate the film’s Feb. 18 virtual premiere, Searchlight teamed with local small businesses to have a “curated concessions crate” delivered to the homes of invitees. It included artisanal beef jerky, wild berry jam, oranges, pears, dried apricots, dill pickle slices, banana bread, salami (“humanely raised”) and a canister of chocolates.

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Livestreaming, Still Niche, Grows as a Tool for Retailers

Amazon isn’t the only company trying out this type of hawking on an American audience. Instagram allows some influencers to sell products on livestreams through Instagram Shopping. Facebook made similar moves for small businesses this year. TikTok livestreamed a shopping event with Wal-Mart. And both Estée Lauder Companies and L’Oreal Group have hosted streams for some of their beauty brands.

“Everybody is thinking about this,” said Mark Yuan, a co-founder of And Luxe, a livestream e-commerce consultancy company in New York. “But they are rushing to it because of the pandemic. Before they had a choice. Now they have no choice.”

Mr. Yuan and Zoe Zhang started And Luxe to help bring Western brands to China but have recently seen an increase in inquiries from Western companies trying to get into e-commerce livestreaming. So far, Mr. Yuan said, no American company had quite mastered it. According to him, success entails more than just adding a video to the typical e-commerce experience. Instead what’s needed is a mix of content that isn’t tied to shopping but can attract new viewers, limited-time deals and even products exclusive to that livestream. That goes for all of the major tech companies trying to expand an audience.

“If they want to become an e-commerce livestream marketplace,” Mr. Yuan said, “they will have to change a lot.”

Although e-commerce livestreams are still a niche enterprise in the United States, they are big business in China, where they drive about 9 percent of the country’s $63 billion online market. Kim Kardashian West went on a popular Chinese influencer’s stream and sold out her perfume stock within minutes after 13 million people tuned in. At least one Chinese college offers e-commerce livestreaming as a degree. Chinese retailers have also innovated during the pandemic lockdowns, with more streams focused on one-on-one consultations and store walk-throughs.

But the pandemic seems to be enticing more people to test out Amazon Live while they are stuck at home and looking for new ways to connect. Felicia Jones, an influencer in North Carolina focused on beauty and home décor, said Amazon reached out last year to ask her to join the Live program. She was getting out of the shower one day in November and planned to use a bunch of hair products she had gotten off Amazon when she decided to try out a stream for the first time. Figuring out the app took a few minutes, and she found herself talking to an audience that eventually reached 1,500 people. Now she tries to stream on Amazon regularly.

“If I don’t stream every day, I’m thinking about streaming every day,” Ms. Jones said.

According to the analytics Amazon sends her, Ms. Jones said, her livestream usually gets anywhere from 1,000 to 10,000 viewers, although concurrent viewers can top out in the hundreds. It’s successful enough that she has reached A-list, an internal status that gets her benefits like better video placement and more priority when it comes to support issues.

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Deepfake Videos of Eerie Tom Cruise Revive Debate

To those fearful of a future in which videos of real people are indistinguishable from computer-generated forgeries, two recent developments that attracted an audience of millions might have seemed alarming.

First, a visual effects artist worked with a Tom Cruise impersonator to create startlingly accurate videos imitating the actor. The videos, created with the help of machine-learning techniques and known as deepfakes, gained millions of views on TikTok, Twitter and other social networks in late February.

Then, days later, MyHeritage, a genealogy website best known for its role in tracking down the identity of the Golden State Killer, offered a tool to digitally animate old photographs of loved ones, creating a short, looping video in which people can be seen moving their heads and even smiling. More than 26 million images had been animated using the tool, called Deep Nostalgia, as of Monday, the company said.

The videos renewed attention to the potential of synthetic media, which could lead to significant improvements in the advertising and entertainment industries. But the technology could also be used — and has been — to raise doubts about legitimate videos and to insert people, including children, into pornographic images.

digitally resurrected him for a video promoting gun safety legislation. The police in the Australian state of Victoria used a police officer who died by suicide in 2012 to deliver a message about mental health support.

And “Welcome to Chechnya,” a documentary released last year about anti-gay and lesbian purges in Chechnya, used the technology to shield the identity of at-risk Chechens.

The effects could also be used in Hollywood to better age or de-age actors, or to improve the dubbing of films and TV shows in different languages, closely aligning lip movements with the language onscreen. Executives of international companies could also be made to look more natural when addressing employees who speak different languages.

But critics fear the technology will be further abused as it improves, particularly to create pornography that places the face of one person on someone else’s body.

Nina Schick, the author of “Deepfakes: The Coming Infocalypse,” said the earliest deepfaked pornography took hours of video to produce, so celebrities were the typical targets. But as the technology becomes more advanced, less content will be needed to create the videos, putting more women and children at risk.

A tool on the messaging app Telegram that allowed users to create simulated nude images from a single uploaded photo has already been used hundreds of thousands of times, according to BuzzFeed News.

have called the “liar’s dividend.”

In Gabon, opposition leaders argued that a video of President Ali Bongo Ondimba giving a New Year’s address in 2019 was faked in an attempt to cover up health problems. Last year, a Republican candidate for a House seat in the St. Louis area claimed that the video of George Floyd’s death in police custody had been digitally staged.

As the technology advances, it will be used more broadly, according to Mr. Gregory, the artificial intelligence expert, but its effects are already pronounced.

“People are always trying to think about the perfect deepfake when that isn’t necessary for the harmful or beneficial uses,” he said.

In introducing the Deep Nostalgia tool, MyHeritage addressed the issue of consent, asking users to “please use this feature on your own historical photos and not on photos featuring living people without their permission.” Mr. Ume, who created the deepfakes of Mr. Cruise, said he had no contact with the actor or his representatives.

Of course, people who have died can’t consent to being featured in videos. And that matters if dead people — especially celebrities — can be digitally resurrected, as the artist Bob Ross was to sell Mountain Dew, or as Robert Kardashian was last year in a gift to his daughter Kim Kardashian West from her husband, Kanye West.

Black Mirror,” whole aspects of our personalities could be simulated after death, trained by our voices on social media.

But that raises a tricky question, he said: “In what cases do we need consent of the deceased to resurrect them?”

“These questions make you feel uncomfortable, something feels a bit wrong or unsettling, but its difficult to know if that’s just because it’s new or if it hints at a deeper intuition about something problematic,” Mr. Ajder said.

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