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Zoos turn to social media to raise money amid virus

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Fernando, the two-toed sloth, reaches out for a red rose to eat inside his habitat at the Phoenix Zoo Monday, April 27, 2020, in Phoenix. The pandemic has jeopardized zoos around the world that have been forced to close but rely on ticket sales. The struggle has some zoos turning to social media to engage with people who can no longer visit and raise some much-needed cash.
Image Credit: (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)

May 04, 2020 – 9:00 PM

PHOENIX – The Phoenix Zoo, struggling like others worldwide during coronavirus closures, has found an unlikely saviour in a sloth.

While Fernando may be a slow mover offline, the 4-year-old Linne’s two-toed sloth has risen rapidly on the internet. Since Fernando joined Cameo, a video-sharing platform where people pay for celebrity shoutouts, the zoo has received 150 requests for a personalized clip. His popularity let the zoo boost his fee from $25 to $50.

“I think we’ve gotten more creative, kind of thinking a little bit outside the box. We’re trying things we never have before,” said Bert Castro, Phoenix Zoo’s president and CEO.

Social media is one way zoos worldwide are engaging with people who can no longer visit — their main source of income — and raise some much-needed cash. Zoos and aquariums have brought adorable distraction by posting photos and videos of animals, but the closures mean they’re still in jeopardy. While a smattering of zoos, from Utah to Germany, have started reopening with social distancing rules, there’s no telling when they will reach their usual levels of visitors and revenue.

Besides jobs, the well-being of the animals is at stake.

“They can’t just send their employees home and turn off the lights and lock the doors. They have to care for animals,” said Dan Ashe, president of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums.

The association’s 220 U.S. zoos and aquariums, which typically host a combined 200 million people annually, all closed, Ashe said. A recent survey showed more than 60% have laid off or furloughed employees.

About 60% of its members have applied for loans through the federal coronavirus relief package intended to limit layoffs at small businesses and nonprofits.

The Phoenix Zoo, a $1 million-a-month operation, has been losing $80,000 a day since shuttering March 18, Castro said. The facility in the nation’s fifth-largest city has been approved for $2.7 million in loans under the federal program and has raised hundreds of thousands online for its 3,000 animals.

Castro believes behind-the-scenes Facebook Live videos make people feel more connected to the zoo. In the past month, viewership has spiked 350%, and its Instagram following is growing. Fernando’s Cameo appearances may be a tiny boost, but “it’s so popular we’ll continue it for as long as we can,” Castro said.

The Oakland Zoo in the San Francisco Bay Area recently brought back more than 200 full-time employees — at least until June — after getting loans under the federal program. It also started an online subscription program offering daily behind-the-scenes videos with animals and zookeepers. It’s $14.95 a month; $9.95 for zoo members.

“Our objective is to just make it to the point where they allow us to reopen for business and the people can come and enjoy the animals,” zoo president Joel Parrott said.

The Toronto Zoo is live-streaming moments like weigh-ins of red pandas, drawing tens of thousands of new social media followers, spokeswoman Amanda Chambers said. The strategy also helps spotlight lesser known animals.

“It’s the opportunity to highlight species that often don’t get high-profiled,” CEO Dolf DeJong said. “For us, it’s being able to talk about Blanding’s turtles, an endangered species from our community that we’re breeding.”

California’s Monterey Bay Aquarium is captivating people by live-streaming African penguins and sharks. It also created YouTube “MeditOceans” videos for meditating to sights and sounds of ocean creatures. Divers jazzed up their kelp forest maintenance routine with a dance to the Sugarhill Gang’s “Jump On It” in a popular video.

The financial scramble is reverberating for zoos worldwide.

Bioparque Estrella, a safari theme park outside Mexico City, is hoping to get by with enough funding until a tentative reopening this month. It’s been using social media primarily to promote reduced-price advance tickets. More than 1,000 tickets have been sold — far below the 10,000 visitors seen at Easter last year.

In Germany, the government is letting zoos reopen with social distancing restrictions. Zoos were trying reduce costs during the closures — the biggest being staff salaries — and some sought public donations, said Volker Homes, head of Germany’s Association of Zoological Gardens.

Recent reports that a cash-strapped German zoo planned to feed some animals to others sparked outrage. But Homes said last month that there’s no reason to fear for any animal’s safety.

In Poland, where zoos have been closed since mid-March, the lack of income from tickets is threatening their future, and they’re asking people for financial support.

Private-owned zoos are in especially dire straits. The popular Zoo Safari in central Poland, known for breeding rare white lions and tigers, lost most of its income overnight. It’s offering advance ticket vouchers for the 2020 and 2021 seasons to help fund care for its 600 animals. It also launched a crowdfunding page.

The ZSL London Zoo has used social media to promote itself and front-line workers. It’s near several hospitals and has let medical employees use its parking lot, where many glimpse giraffes Maggie and Molly through the fence during lunch breaks, according to the zoo’s Facebook page. It’s shared photos and videos of the giraffes in front of a sign honouring medical workers.

— Associated Press writers Terry Chea in Oakland, California, Frank Jordans in Berlin and Monika Scislowska in Warsaw, Poland contributed to this report.

News from © The Associated Press, 2020

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Britney Spears calls recent documentaries about her ‘hypocritical’

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LOS ANGELES (Reuters) – Pop singer Britney Spears spoke out on Tuesday about recent documentaries about her life and career, calling them “hypocritical” because they rehash her personal problems while criticizing the media for reporting them the first time.

Walt Disney Co’s FX network and The New York Times released “Framing Britney Spears” in February. The documentary examined the singer’s meteoric rise to fame as a teenager, the ensuing media scrutiny and her widely publicized breakdown.And this month, the BBC released “The Battle for Britney: Fans, Cash and a Conservatorship” in Britain. It will debut in the United States and Canada starting May 11 via the BBC Select streaming service.

In an Instagram post, Spears did not name either documentary but said “so many documentaries about me this year with other people’s takes on my life.”

“These documentaries are so hypocritical … they criticize the media and then do the same thing,” she added.

In March, Spears said she cried for two weeks after watching part of “Framing Britney Spears”.

The BBC said in a statement on Tuesday that its documentary “explores the complexities surrounding conservatorship with care and sensitivity.”

“It does not take sides and features a wide range of contributors,” the statement added.

A New York Times spokesperson declined to comment.

Spears, who shot to fame in 1998 with the hit “Baby One More Time,” is in a court battle seeking to replace her father as her conservator. He was appointed to the role in 2008 after she was hospitalized for psychiatric treatment.

Her fans have shown their support on social media under the hashtags #We’reSorryBritney and #FreeBritney. Spears is scheduled to speak to a Los Angeles court in June.

In her Instagram post, which included a video of herself dancing, Spears said that “although I’ve had some pretty tough times in my life … I’ve had waaaayyyy more amazing times in my life and unfortunately my friends … I think the world is more interested in the negative.”

(Reporting by Lisa Richwine; Editing by David Gregorio)

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Grammy organizers change rules after allegations of corruption

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LOS ANGELES (Reuters) – The organizers of music’s Grammy Awards on Friday announced an end to the so-called “secret” committees that have led to allegations that the highest honors in the industry are open to rigging.

The Recording Academy said that nominations for the next Grammy Awards in January 2022 will be selected by all of its more than 11,000 voting members, instead of by committees of 15-30 industry experts whose names were not revealed.

The Academy was slammed last year when Canadian artist The Weeknd got zero Grammy nominations, even though his critically acclaimed album “After Hours” was one of the biggest sellers of 2020.

The Weeknd, in a Twitter post last November, said “The Grammys remain corrupt. You owe me, my fans and the industry transparency.”

The Recording Academy said in a statement on Friday that the changes were significant and were made “to ensure that the Grammy Awards rules and guidelines are transparent and equitable.”

Allegations that the Grammy nominations process is tainted were made in a legal complaint filed in early 2019 by the former chief executive of the Recording Academy, Deborah Dugan.

At the time, the Academy dismissed as “categorically false, misleading and wrong” Dugan’s claims that its members pushed artists they have relationships with. Dugan was later fired.

American pop star Halsey, also shut out of the 2021 Grammys, last year called the nominations process “elusive” and said she was “hoping for more transparency or reform.”

Former One Direction singer Zayn Malik called in March for an end to “secret committees.”

“I’m keeping the pressure on & fighting for transparency & inclusion. We need to make sure we are honoring and celebrating ‘creative excellence’ of ALL,” Malik tweeted hours ahead of the 2021 Grammy Awards ceremony.

The Recording Academy on Friday also said it was adding two new Grammy categories – for best global music performance, and best Latin urban music album – bringing to 86 the total number of Grammy Awards each year.

 

(Reporting by Jill Serjeant; Editing by David Gregorio)

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Movie theaters face uncertain future

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By Lisa Richwine

LOS ANGELES (Reuters) – Maryo Mogannam snuck into the Empire theater in San Francisco with his older cousins to watch “Animal House” when he was 14. He watched most of the James Bond movies at the historic art house and took his wife there on some of their first dates.

The cinema, which had been showing movies since the silent film era, served notice in February that it was permanently closing because of the impact of COVID-19. The marquee is now blank, and cardboard and paper cover the box office window.

“It’s kind of like losing a friend,” said Mogannam, now 57, who owns a retail shipping outlet near the theater, which had been renamed the CineArts at the Empire.

As vaccinated Americans emerge from their homes, they also may find their neighborhood theater is not there to greet them.

An eight-cinema chain in New England said it will not reopen. The same fate hit a Houston art house beloved by director Richard Linklater and, in a shock to Hollywood, more than 300 screens run by Los Angeles-based Pacific Theatres. That includes the Cinerama Dome, a landmark that hosted several red-carpet movie premieres.

Following a year of closures, theaters face deferred rent bills plus media companies’ focus on drawing customers to streaming services. Up to one-fourth of the roughly 40,000 screens in the United States could disappear in the next few years, Wedbush Securities analyst Michael Pachter said.

The National Association of Theatre Owners rejects that estimate, spokesman Patrick Corcoran said, noting that similar dire warnings accompanying the advent of television and the switch to digital screens never came to pass.

Hollywood filmmakers want cinemas to thrive.

“It’s the only place where the art dominates,” said “Avatar” director James Cameron. “When you watch something on streaming, the other people in the room with you are welcome to interject, to pause to go to the bathroom, to text.”

At theaters, “we literally make a pact with ourselves to go and spend two to three hours in a focused enjoyment of the art.”

“For 300 people to laugh and cry at the same time, strangers, not just your family in your house, that’s a very powerful thing,” said Chloe Zhao, Oscar-nominated director of best picture nominee “Nomadland.”

At the Academy Awards on Sunday, the movie industry will “make a case for why cinema matters,” producer Stacey Sher said. While acknowledging the hardship of the pandemic, “we also have to fight for cinema and our love of it and the way it has gotten us through things,” she said.

About 58% of theaters have reopened in the United States and Canada, most restricted to 50% capacity or less. The biggest operators – AMC, Cinemark and Cineworld – make up roughly half the overall market.

Industry leaders project optimism, forecasting a big rebound after restrictions ease and studios unleash new blockbusters.

Coming attractions include a new Bond adventure, the ninth “Fast & Furious” film, a “Top Gun” sequel and several Marvel superhero movies.

“Avatar 2,” Cameron’s follow-up to the highest-grossing film of all time, is set to debut in December 2022. Some box office analysts predict 2022 ticket sales will hit a record.

Supporters point to late March release “Godzilla vs. Kong,” which brought in roughly $48.5 million at U.S. and Canadian box offices over its first five days, even though audiences could stream it on HBO Max.

“That was a big win for the entire industry,” said Rich Daughtridge, president and chief executive of Warehouse Cinemas in Frederick, Maryland.

But near- and long-term challenges loom, particularly for smaller cinemas.

Theaters are negotiating with landlords over back rent. A federal aid program was delayed due to technical problems.

Plus, media companies are bringing movies to homes sooner. Executives say streaming is their priority, pouring billions into programming made to watch in living rooms as they compete with Netflix Inc.

Most at risk are theaters with one or two screens, Wedbush Securities’ Pachter said. He said his best guess is between 5,000 and 10,000 screens could go permanently dark in coming years.

“I think we’ll see a gradual decline in the number of screens,” Pachter said, “just like we’ve seen a gradual decline in the number of mom-and-pop grocery stores and bookstores.”

 

(Reporting by Lisa Richwine; Additional reporting by Rollo Ross in Los Angeles, Alicia Powell in New York and Nathan Frandino in San Francisco; Editing by Jonathan Oatis)

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