WARNING: Potentially MAJOR spoilers ahead. If you have not seen the entirety of season two of The Umbrella Academy, look away now!
Back in early 2019, Netflix released a show based on a comic book series called The Umbrella Academy. I hadn’t heard of the comic before, so this was completely new. But what made it different was: boy, did it have a sense of humour! It was anarchic. It was crazy. It was madder than a box of frogs. I just knew I had to watch it, and I’m glad I did. It made me take out a subscription to Starzplay just to watch Doom Patrol which also features a highly dysfunctional “family” and is very similar in style.
In the first season of The Umbrella Academy, we learn all about the 7 children, their special abilities, their relationship with other – and the complete lack of a loving relationship with their adoptive father, Sir Reginald Hargreeves, a billionaire businessman and also a bit of superhero himself who took all these children in and trained them to become superheroes.
The show starts with Reginald’s death – leaving behind the vague remnants of the children who have scattered and gone their own ways, Pogo – a genetically modified chimpanzee who talks and was Reginald’s personal assistant, and Mother, who happens to be a robot.
Over the past couple of days I’ve been keeping tabs on the SpaceX/NASA launch of the Dragon module to the International Space Station. This is the first time in nine years that a manned space mission has launched from the United States using US hardware, and in conjunction with a private company.
And it was spectacular. The first thing that struck me was how minimalistic the space suits were. They’re almost fashioned in a Thunderbirds-style uniform (albeit the astronauts still need to wear a helmet). As for the Dragon module itself, it too is very minimalistic. All touch-screen displays with very few physical buttons. It’s as if 2020 finally caught up technology wise (though marred with the the awfulness going on in the world right now, it has to be said that those two astronauts are two very lucky buggers escaping Earth for a short while).
Space is big. Really big. You just won’t believe how vastly, hugely, mind-bogglingly big it is. I mean, you may think it’s a long way down the road to the chemist, but that’s just peanuts to space.
The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams
While I was waiting for the module (now nicknamed Endeavour) to rendevouz with the International Space Station (ISS), I decided to take the opportunity to watch Netflix’s Space Force, created by Steve Carrell and The (US) Office’s Greg Daniels (who also manages Amazon Prime’s excellent TV series, Upload – think of that one as a funnier, yet bleak version of Black Mirror’s San Junipero.)
While Space Force lampoons a certain president’s mad ambitions to conquer space for the US, the message (and mission) is by and large a good one – to work with others to put humanity out there in space. By co-operating with each other rather than going against each other – and at the same time, treat the planet with respect. However, it doesn’t exactly start out that way.
We have Steve Carell’s Mark Naird, a four star general who is promoted to lead the Space Force division. His experience in the army leads him to make rash decisions and ignore the advice of the science team. In the first episode, a $6 billion project is in jeopardy because the science guys are not confident of a successful launch and the chief scientist (played by John Malkovich) goes out of his way to persuade Naird to abort due to weather conditions. After struggling with incompetent and annoying members of staff, advisory boards, etc. (which is why the show partly reminds me of Veep) he eventually decides to launch. He comes to realise that this is a job where you need to balance risk. The launch is a success, but is ultimately sabotaged by.. well, let’s say it gets messy.
The second episode is pure delight, and features some of the best VFX in a TV series second only to The Mandalorian. Weta FX provides a fully mocapped space chimp which was abandoned (along with a dog) as part of an earlier mission. The chimp is still alive, but hungry, and General Naird – through a sign language interpreter – has to get the chimp to try and re-attach the solar panels of the module that was launched in the last episode that were cut off by a rival nation. And the chimp has to do all this with only a promise of a non-existent banana, or a human baby (or chimp). After 3 hours of getting the chimp to pick the right tool, he goes out into space – and well, some of the finest comedy involving a drill and weightlessness ensues.
Space Force is incredibly funny. It is poignant. It highlights bureaucracy (both good and bad) of a space programme, and the potential dangers of weaponizing space. Let’s hope that doesn’t become a real thing. The SpaceX/NASA collaboration is wonderful thing to behold, for the right reasons. But let’s not turn it into something destructive.
Once these cretins start blocking Disney, which has been doing the same thing (perhaps even more aggressively than Universal, though they have not said or committed to anything regarding future simultaneous theatrical/VoD releases when cinemas open, with the one exception being the forthcoming Artemis Fowl movie which WILL be streaming only via Disney+) – these cinema chains will effectively be dead.
Fancy seeing the latest James Bond movie at your local AMC Theater (for Americans) or Odeon (for us Brits) when it’s eventually released and cinemas are open once more?
Well, you can’t.
It seems that the CEO of AMC Theaters, Adam Aron, has had a massive temper tantrum over Universal Pictures release of the animated movie, Trolls 2: World Tour on video on demand platforms during the cinema release, with Universal Pictures planning similar launches for future films. Universal wants it to be complementary to a theatrical release, but cinemas such as AMC/Odeon (as well as Cineworld in the UK and Regal Cinemas in the US) are up in arms.
With cinemas already affected by video on demand/streaming platforms, they need all the revenue they can muster, and generally there has been a window of opportunity for new films to be released only in theatres first before it ever hits VoD. But Covid-19 has changed all that. And cinemas are not at all sympathetic to their studio “partners” in this situation.
For me, I’ve always tried to watch new films at the cinema. Nothing beats a really big screen with superior audio. But over the past few years, the experience has not been as good as it could been – with even big chains like the Odeon not really doing much to improve upon it.
The local cinema (Ambassadors) was cheap and cheerful, but the seats were very uncomfortable and everything started to look shabby. So I made the effort to take the train to Guildford and watch films at the local Odeon. But in a move that will undoubtedly help them in the long term (assuming they don’t block film studio releases), Ambassadors started doing major renovation work on the cinema before the Covid-19 pandemic came to be, with plans to open in summer 2020. Meanwhile, Odeon in Guildford was planning to take over the buildings directly next to it, but then withdrew.
With regards to cinema releases being available to rent via the likes of iTunes or Amazon Prime Video at £15.99 for 48 hours access – it’s not something I’ll be doing, but like most things, it’s always good to have a choice. The kind of choices that the movie exhibitors would rather the consumer not have. It’s understandable, of course, but it’s very much a case that one has to adapt or die – something many businesses in this pandemic have had to do.
However, the current window of VoD opportunity is a confusing one. I recently spent £13.99 on the last of the Star Wars Skywalker films on Apple TV, thinking that it’d be some time before it hits Disney+. I was wrong – in less than three weeks since its release on iTunes, Disney+ is going to stream it as part of everybody’s Disney+ subscription. I’m okay with that – in fact, it’s good because hopefully Disney+ will offer the thing in UltraHD whereas the iTunes version is only HD.
Now I have absolutely no idea what DIsney plans to do with the release of Pixar’s Onward. I’ve always enjoyed a good Pixar movie – they’re the US equivalent of Japan’s Studio Ghibli to me – but at the moment we have no idea when the Apple TV release is going ahead, and with that, the Disney+ UK release. And why doesn’t Mr. Aron take exception to Disney and block their films? Because they own 20th Century Fox, Lucasfilm, Marvel, and Pixar as well as their own films. That really would be business suicide.
I think studios are just as unsure of release schedules during this time of pandemic as the cinemas. Nobody knows when the lockdowns will ease. Will there be a resurgence of the virus? Secondary infections? How long before a vaccine is developed and rolled out?
The big problem here is that the studios have spent many tens (if not hundreds) of millions of dollars making these films, only to find there is no avenue in which to release them theatrically SAFELY and start making their money back. Without that return and profit on investment, new films can’t be made. Yes, they want to release them in cinemas, but while people can’t get out to them, the only way forward is video on demand.
And that’s why I think AMC/Odeon/Cineworld/Regal are being bloody fools in this argument. If you remove the ability for somebody to watch a movie at their local (or regional) cinema all because you’re so pissed off with them for releasing something during a time when nobody can go anywhere at all, people are simply going to see that film elsewhere. It may be another cinema or video on demand.
What really makes me mad about Mr. Aron’s decision is that AMC Theaters put on a really good film premiere back in 2005 when I went to New York to attend the world premiere of Peter Jackson’s King Kong. The place was buzzing, and everybody had such a great time (and talk about celebrity spotting – it’s not often you get to watch a film in the same theatre as George Lucas who was there with his son). It was a brilliant presentation from AMC and Universal, and it saddens me that Mr. Aron is willing to destroy that relationship because Universal needed to release the film.
Is it the end of the cinema? I don’t think so. But I think there has to be many changes made to the business model. Not only does the price point need to be such that entire families can afford to go more regularly (the various subscription passes go some way to resolve that issue, but perhaps not enough), but content options need to be wide open – not reduced further. More live events on a big screen. More TV shows (yes, really) – why couldn’t I pay something like £40 to watch an entire season of Breaking Bad or Better Call Saul at the highest quality over a period of a few weeks?
In any event, I hope this issue is resolved, otherwise I’m pretty sure we might be saying goodbye to AMC and Odeon as people leave it for other chains or home video.
In the beginning there was Netflix. And it was good. Then Amazon Prime Video popped up, and it too was good. Then the main terrestrial, cable and satellite broadcasters got involved too. Then Apple decided to throw its hat into the ring, entering the arena with no back catalogue and just a handful of original titles.
Now a new (but old) kid has arrived and it’s looking to school the old timers on how a streaming service should work. Welcome Disney+ UK.
When Netflix launched, it effectively laid down what other video streaming services would eventually do themselves. Initially offering content from other companies, Netflix started commissioning their own original programs – starting with the excellent Lilyhammer (sic). Netflix added UltraHD content too, but held out for the longest time in offering downloadable content to tables and mobile phones. The honour of offering downloads goes to Amazon’s Prime Video, which like Netflix, started off offering content from others before moving into their own original productions.
Amazon even attempted to put out audio commentaries on original content – but the only title that I can think of is Transparent – and only season 1. Up until Disney+’s launch, no other subscription-based video streaming service offers extra content like deleted scenes, featurettes or audio commentaries like Disney+ offers.
Disney+’s USP (unique selling point) #1
Featurettes – deleted scenes, audio commentaries and BTS documentaries.
Comparing Disney content I’ve purchased via iTunes and on Blu-Ray, the number of featurettes across Disney movies on Disney+ vary. The newer titles feature audio commentaries, though for something like Black Panther which streams in UltraHD (but can only be purchased in iTunes in HD or SD), you only get a handful for extra features – no commentaries, whereas the iTunes edition, features a full audio commentary from director Ryan Coogler.
There are other titles like this – the original Star Wars trilogy, for example, which offers audio commentaries on the iTunes editions, but NOT on Disney+. This disparity means that you still have to buy titles (at a lower resolution, no less) to get all the features. Disney+ is no Criterion Collection. But it could be. It could be. For fans of films, like me, that like to deconstruct movies and see what makes them tick, audio commentaries and featurettes are a staple of movie watching.
But I dislike double dipping, and I dislike having to “own” lower quality material. My beef against Amazon which streams Good Omens in UltraHD but doesn’t offer the physical discs in UltraHD but does feature audio commentaries is still very much a thing. Also: why couldn’t Amazon or BBC Studios make the audio commentaries on Good Omens available via iTunes or Amazon Prime?
Disney+’s USP (unique selling point) #2
The number of available titles.
Disney+’s back catalogue is HUGE. Practically (but not quite) every movie ever released, every cartoon, every TV series, is here. And it’s integrated some of the Fox content it acquired when Disney took over 20th Century Fox a year ago (or so). So that means 30 series of The Simpsons. James Cameron’s Avatar. And interestingly, the movie versions of The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe, Prince Caspian (which I worked on), and when Disney (at the time) didn’t want to continue spending money on the franchise, Fox bought it and made The Voyage of the Dawn Treader – which has now come back to Disney as part of its acquisition.
Star Wars fan?
Disney+ has every film, modern TV show (it’d have been nice to have seen the Nelvana-produced Ewoks and Droids that I remember from the 1980’s, but I’m guessing Disney doesn’t own them and can’t license them for the service) with the exception of Rise of Skywalker, which is due to be released digitally on the 13th April. There’s a LOT of stuff here I’ve not seen, so it’s going to keep me occupied for quite some time.
The biggest addition, however, is the first ever Star Wars live-action TV series: The Mandalorian, featuring the world’s least best kept secret: Baby Yoda (that’s not his real name, of course, it’s actually Raymond Luxury Yacht). You just know that merchandising is going to through the roof. But this is a TV show that is a technological marvel and apparently damn entertaining to boot. So I’m very much looking forward to that.
Again, Disney’s acquisitions have paid off in spades. Here we have practically every film and TV show set in the Marvel universe – with the exception being Spiderman, since Sony are clinging on to the rights for dear life.
Lots of titles presented in UltraHD, and some of them even have audio commentaries! Keep it up, Disney, keep it up!
I count Pixar alongside Studio Ghibli and Walt Disney Animation to be the finest animation studios in the world (okay, and Laika Studios and Aardman Animation). Netflix currently has the majority of Studio Ghibi titles on their service, but if you want Pixar – you’ve got the lot. All of it. Including the short films. Again, there is so much here to enjoy and the entire back catalogue of Pixar films are here to enjoy at any time.
So much Disney, it hurts
There is something for everyone here. Absolutely everything. Disney+ is by far the best streaming service I’ve used. It’s well laid out, and on the Apple TV, it performs very well. And logging in was a breeze. I actually set up my account on my 2018 iPad Pro first. When it came to logging in via the Apple TV, I just had to approve the login on the iPad:
And on the iPad:
As I’m also a subscriber to Sky, we get the app on the Sky Q box. However, it is nowhere near as polished as the tvOS/iPadOS/iOS apps. It doesn’t integrate with the rest of the system unlike Netflix, whereas on the Apple ecosystem, it integrates with the Apple TV app and provides a single catalogue of TV and films across Prime Video, BBC iPlayer, Disney+, Channel 5, All 4, etc. – but not Netflix because they’re total spoilsports.
Additionally logging into your Disney+ account on Sky Q box is a poorly thought out, pain in the arse. You’ll need to use your remote control to enter each character of your email address and password. If you use a strong password (generated by a password manager), this is an absolute massive arse ache. It’s as if the app’s User Interface designer just gave up.
Then there’s the lack of UltraHD content. tvOS features content in UltraHD – the Sky Q app (Sky Q is UltraHD capable, as is the Netflix app on it) does not offer any Disney+ content in UltraHD.
I suspect the deal between Comcast (who now own Sky) and Disney was a late one, and the app was somewhat rushed out the door – but it’s a poor performing app. It’s very slow navigating the many options available to you, and combined with the lack of integration and UltraHD makes it a poor cousin to other platforms which Disney+ is available. Maybe in time this will improve – it’s got to – but for now I’d recommend pretty much anything other than the Sky Q app.
Disney+ rating (taking into account cost, catalogue and overall performance based on the tvOS app):
Not entirely sure how I feel about this one, because streaming video is undoubtedly a luxury versus the need to keep businesses running through video conferencing, voice over IP phone calls, and instant messaging.
The problem is that the likes of Netflix, YouTube, Amazon and even Apple have all been asked to reduce the bandwidth or resolution of their streaming services by the European Commission in order to reduce load on Internet Service Providers.
Here in the UK, despite the occasional spike, ISPs have generally stated that they’re able to cope with the extra demand of people streaming video now that social distancing is being put into practice. Yet Netflix has reduced the bitrate for their service to save bandwidth by 25%. The trouble with this is that their service was already very efficient with video compression – and the Premium level gives you the highest quality video (up to Ultra HD). People pay extra for this tier, so is Netflix intended on compensating people for the reduction in bitrate? And especially for those who are also paying extra for top tier ISP performance (G.Fast in particular at 100Mbs or above)?
YouTube is another culprit. I’m paying them £11.99 for the Premium service, and expect to get the highest quality video where available (as well as the removal of adverts – I could just use an ad blocker, but there are a number of creators I want to support and going down this route seems the fairest route).
Amazon Prime Video, Apple TV+, Britbox, BBC iPlayer, UK TV, All 4, ITV Player and Channel 5 On Demand only operate on one tier and you can’t really complain if they reduce the resolution or quality. However, Apple TV+ seems to have gone overboard. This has lead me to cancel my free year-long trial. I was rather enjoying Amazing Stories and Mythic Quest: Raven’s Banquet – but otherwise there isn’t much other content that interests me, and they don’t offer any extras at all – a good opportunity for Apple to showcase their own iTunes/Apple Extras. But I won’t let the buggers reduce quality to the point of blocky artefacts. Even if I’m not paying for it (and yet they expect people to pay up to $350 for an iPad Pro keyboard/trackpad?!).
And what do you think is going to happen on Tuesday 24th March when Disney+ launches in the UK and other countries in Europe. You bet demand is going to go through the roof that day. Will Disney be joining others in reducing bandwidth or resolution?
And furthermore, what’s happening with the US studios plan on releasing titles that were intended for cinema to be available to rent on streaming services such as iTunes, Amazon Prime Video, YouTube, etc.? Will those titles – which cost around £15-20 to rent have their bandwidth or resolution restricted? If so, you can bet that piracy is going to outpace the legitimate version – further hurting the film industry.
(While I’m at it – given that practically everybody in the world is now social distancing and staying at home – what’s the point of separate domestic and international release windows for new releases? Why is there still a pre-order for Star Wars: Rise of Skywalker in the UK when it’s been released early in the US? Why does the country release window matter anymore? We’re all stuck indoors!)
These companies were asked to reduce bandwidth, not ordered to do so. But I expect there would have been consequences if they had not – that seems the way with the European Commission. I wonder if ISPs had ever been asked about the usage and their plans on monitoring and handling traffic accordingly.
Streaming video is a luxury – yes, but for some this is escapism given the solitary demands of social distancing. And what does the European Commission think of video game streaming, video games that communicate with servers for multiplayer games (Fortnite, for example) – the traffic should be fairly negligible (though I use 50Mbs for Nvidia GeForce NOW which is often significantly more than what my streaming habits consume) – but would the European Commission craack down on that too? What other services or protocols does it want to reduce the use of?
What I strongly object to are web sites that load and then autoplay video in a small window (or even if the video is embedded in the body of the page, autoplaying is bad!) alongside 20 billions adverts. Plus the 50 billion third party calls to external services just to make the bloody site work. Now THAT is a waste of bandwidth.
For my work, I just need voice over IP telephony (Zoom), the occasional online conference where we share screens, SSH access, RDP access, VPN access and your usual web based traffic. Face to face video conferencing is not needed for the most part (I can’t remember the last time I had to use it). I paid for a decent internet connection for the likes of streaming – I should be able to use it for it until such times I can’t afford to do so, or the plan I’m using isn’t available any more. I trust my ISP has the ability to manage the traffic accordingly. And if they asked me to reduce my usage, I would (though there would be some discussion about what I’m paying as a consequence of that). But I dislike the EU interfering without first doing some substantial research first.