Tax-Free Status of Movie, Music and Games Traded Online Is on Table as WTO Nations Meet in Abu Dhabi

Geneva — Since late last century and the early days of the web, providers of digital media like Netflix and Spotify have had a free pass when it comes to international taxes on films, video games and music that are shipped across borders through the internet.

But now, a global consensus on the issue may be starting to crack.

As the World Trade Organization opens its latest biannual meeting of government ministers Monday, its longtime moratorium on duties on e-commerce products — which has been renewed almost automatically since 1998 — is coming under pressure as never before.

This week in Abu Dhabi, the WTO’s 164 member countries will take up a number of key issues: Subsidies that encourage overfishing. Reforms to make agricultural markets fairer and more eco-friendly. And efforts to revive the Geneva-based trade body’s system of resolving disputes among countries.

All of those are tall orders, but the moratorium on e-commerce duties is perhaps the matter most in play. It centers on “electronic transmissions” — music, movies, video games and the like — more than on physical goods. But the rulebook isn’t clear on the entire array of products affected.

“This is so important to millions of businesses, especially small- and medium-sized businesses,” WTO Director-General Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala said. “Some members believe that this should be extended and made permanent. Others believe … there are reasons why it should not.” 

“That’s why there’s been a debate and hopefully — because it touches on lives of many people — we hope that ministers would be able to make the appropriate decision,” she told reporters recently.

Under WTO’s rules, major decisions require consensus. The e-commerce moratorium can’t just sail through automatically. Countries must actively vote in favor for the extension to take effect.

Four proposals are on the table: Two would extend the suspension of duties. Two — separately presented by South Africa and India, two countries that have been pushing their interests hard at the WTO — would not.

Proponents say the moratorium benefits consumers by helping keep costs down and promotes the wider rollout of digital services in countries both rich and poor.

Critics say it deprives debt-burdened governments in developing countries of tax revenue, though there’s debate over just how much state coffers would stand to gain.

The WTO itself says that on average, the potential loss would be less than one-third of 1% of total government revenue.

The stakes are high. A WTO report published in December said the value of “digitally delivered services” exports grew by more than 8% from 2005 to 2022 — higher than goods exports (5.6%) and other-services exports (4.2%).

Growth has been uneven, though. Most developing countries don’t have digital networks as extensive as those in the rich world. Those countries see less need to extend the moratorium — and might reap needed tax revenue if it ends.

South Africa’s proposal, which seeks to end the moratorium, calls for the creation of a fund to receive voluntary contributions to bridge the “digital divide.” It also wants to require “leading platforms” to boost the promotion of “historically disadvantaged” small- and medium-sized enterprises.

Industry, at least in the United States, is pushing hard to extend the moratorium. In a Feb. 13 letter to Biden administration officials, nearly two dozen industry groups, including the Motion Picture Association, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the Entertainment Software Association — a video-game industry group — urged the United States to give its “full support” to a renewal.

“Accepting anything short of a multilateral extension of the moratorium that applies to all WTO members would open the door to the introduction of new customs duties and related cross-border restrictions that would hurt U.S. workers in industries across the entire economy,” the letter said.

A collapse would deal a “major blow to the credibility and durability” of the WTO and would mark the first time that its members “changed the rules to make it substantially harder to conduct trade,” wrote the groups, which said their members include companies that combined employ over 100 million workers. 

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Japan’s ‘Naked Men’ Festival Succumbs to Aging of Population

Ōshū, Japan — Steam rose as hundreds of naked men tussled over a bag of wooden talismans, performing a dramatic end to a thousand-year-old ritual in Japan that took place for the last time. 

Their passionate chants of “Jasso, joyasa” (meaning “Evil, be gone”) echoed through a cedar forest in northern Japan’s Iwate region, where the secluded Kokuseki Temple has decided to end the popular annual rite. 

Organizing the event, which draws hundreds of participants and thousands of tourists every year, has become a heavy burden for the aging local faithful, who find it hard to keep up with the rigors of the ritual.  

The “Sominsai” festival, regarded as one of the strangest festivals in Japan, is the latest tradition impacted by the country’s aging population crisis that has hit rural communities hard.  

“It is very difficult to organize a festival of this scale,” said Daigo Fujinami, a resident monk of the temple that opened in 729.  

“You can see what happened today — so many people are here and it’s all exciting. But behind the scenes, there are many rituals and so much work that have to be done,” he said.  

“I cannot be blind to the difficult reality.”  

Aging population 

More than 1 in 10 people in Japan are 80 years old or older, and almost a third of its population is older than 65, according to the World Economic Forum’s Future of Jobs Report 2023.

The aging of Japan’s population has forced the closure of countless schools, shops and services, particularly in small or rural communities.  

Kokuseki Temple’s Sominsai festival used to take place from the seventh day of Lunar New Year to the following morning.  

But during the Covid pandemic, it was scaled down to prayer ceremonies and smaller rituals. 

The final festival was a shortened version, ending around 11 p.m., but it drew the biggest crowd in recent memory, local residents said.  

As the sun set, men in white loincloths came to the mountain temple, bathed in a creek and marched around temple’s ground. 

They clenched their fists against the chill of a winter breeze, all the while chanting “Jasso, joyasa.” 

Some held small cameras to record their experience, while dozens of television crews followed the men through the temple’s stone steps and dirt pathways. 

As the festival reached its climax, hundreds of men packed inside the wooden temple shouting, chanting and aggressively jostling over a bag of talismans. 

Changing norms

Toshiaki Kikuchi, a local resident who claimed the talismans and who helped organize the festival for years, said he hoped the ritual would return in the future.  

“Even under a different format, I hope to maintain this tradition,” he said. “There are many things that you can appreciate only if you take part.” 

Many participants and visitors voiced both sadness and understanding about the festival’s ending. 

“This is the last of this great festival that has lasted 1,000 years. I really wanted to participate in this festival,” Yasuo Nishimura, 49, a caregiver from Osaka, told AFP. 

Other temples across Japan continue to host similar festivals where men wear loincloths and bathe in freezing water or fight over talismans. 

Some festivals are adjusting their rules in line with changing demographics and social norms so that they can continue to exist — such as letting women take part in previously male-only ceremonies.  

Starting next year, Kokuseki Temple will replace the festival with prayer ceremonies and other ways to continue its spiritual practices. 

“Japan is facing a falling birthrate, aging population, and lack of young people to continue various things,” Nishimura said. “Perhaps it is difficult to continue the same way as in the past.” 

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Productivity Surge Helps Explain US Economy’s Surprising Resilience 

Washington — Trying to keep up with customer demand, Batesville Tool & Die began seeking 70 people to hire last year. It wasn’t easy. Attracting factory workers to a community of 7,300 in the Indiana countryside was a tough sell, especially having to compete with big-name manufacturers nearby like Honda and Cummins Engine. 

Job seekers were scarce. 

“You could count on one hand how many people in the town were unemployed,” said Jody Fledderman, the CEO. “It was just crazy.” 

Batesville Tool & Die managed to fill just 40 of its vacancies. 

Enter the robots. The company invested in machines that could mimic human workers and in vision systems, which helped its robots “see” what they were doing. 

The Batesville experience has been replicated countlessly across the United States the past couple of years. Worker shortages have led many companies to invest in machines. They’ve also been training the workers they do have to use advanced technology so they can produce more with less. 

The result has been an unexpected productivity boom, which helps explain a great economic mystery: How has the world’s largest economy stayed so healthy, with brisk growth and low unemployment, despite brutally high interest rates that are intended to tame inflation but that typically cause a recession? 

To economists, strong productivity growth provides an almost magical elixir. When companies roll out more efficient technology, their workers can become more productive: They increase their output per hour. A result is that companies can often boost profits and raise pay without having to jack up prices. Inflation can remain in check. 

The Fed’s aggressive streak of rate hikes — 11 of them starting in March 2022 — managed to bring inflation from a four-decade high of 9.1% to 3.1%. But, to the surprise to the economists who’d forecast a recession, the higher borrowing costs have caused little economic hardship. 

Perhaps the likeliest explanation is the greater efficiencies that companies like Batesville Tool & Die have managed to achieve. Before productivity began its resurgent growth last year, a rule of thumb was that average hourly pay could rise no more than 3.5% annually for inflation to stay within the Fed’s 2% target. That would mean that today’s roughly 4% average annual pay growth would have to shrink. Higher productivity means there’s now more leeway for wage growth to stay elevated without igniting inflation. 

The productivity boom marks a shift from the pre-pandemic years, when annual productivity growth averaged a tepid 1.5%. Everything changed as the economy rocketed out of the 2020 pandemic recession with unexpected vigor, and businesses struggled to re-hire the many workers they had shed. 

The resulting worker shortage sent wages surging. Inflation jumped, too, as factories and ports buckled under the strain of rising consumer orders. 

Desperate, many companies turned to automation. The efficiency payoff began to arrive almost a year ago. Labor productivity rose at a 3.6% annual pace from last April through June, 4.9% from July through September and 3.2% from October through December. 

At Reata Engineering & Machine Works, “efficiency was kind of forced on us,” CEO Grady Cope said. With the job market roaring, the company, based in Englewood, Colorado, couldn’t hire fast enough. Meantime, its customers were starting to balk at paying higher prices. 

So Reata installed robots and other technology. Software allowed it to automate the delivery of price quotes to customers. That process used to require two weeks. Now, it can be done in 24 hours. 

Many economists and business people say they’re hopeful that the productivity boom can continue. Artificial intelligence, they note, is only beginning to penetrate factory floors, warehouses, stores and offices and could accelerate efficiency gains. 

Automation raises fears that machines will replace human workers, killing jobs. Some workers supplanted by robots do often struggle to find new work and end up settling for lower pay. 

Yet history suggests that in the long run, technological improvements actually create more jobs than they destroy. People are needed to build, upgrade, repair and operate sophisticated machines. Some displaced workers are trained to shift into such jobs. And that transition is likely to be eased this time by the retirement of the vast baby boom generation, which is causing labor shortages. 

Some of today’s productivity gains may be coming not just from advanced technology but also from more satisfied workers. The tight labor markets of the past three years allowed Americans to change jobs and find others that pay better and make them happier and more productive. 

Justin Thompson, of Kalamazoo, Michigan, felt burned out by his job as a police officer, with its 16-hour workdays .”I was literally running myself into the ground,” he said. 

Thompson’s wife saw a job posting for operations manager at a charter airline. Even without airline experience, his wife felt he could use skills he gains as a Marine Corps infantryman — handling logistics for missions — during tours in Iraq and Afghanistan. 

She was right. Omni Air International hired him in 2019. 

Thompson, 43, loves the new job, which allows him to work from home when he’s not traveling. And his Marine experience — which included developing ways to improve efficiency — has proved invaluable. 

Other workers have switched from low-skill jobs to those that allow them to be more productive. 

At Reata Engineering, staffers were trained to use new sophisticated equipment. 

“The whole point is not to lay people off,” said Cope, the CEO of Reata Engineering. “The point is to make people do jobs that are more interesting” — and pay better, too. 

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Eva Peron Maintains Grip on Argentina Decades After Her 1952 Death

BUENOS AIRES, Argentina — Early every morning, just as she reaches her workplace at a labor union in Buenos Aires, Ángeles Celerier heads to the chapel and prays to Saint Cajetan, Saint Teresa and Eva Perón.

Perón — unlike the others — has not been canonized by the Vatican, but this doesn’t matter to Celerier.

“For me, she is the saint of the people,” the 56-year-old Argentine said.

Many union members think of Evita as their patron or gaze at her photos with nostalgia, feeling that she and her husband, three-time President Juan Domingo Perón, brought prosperity to their country through an equality and social justice-driven movement that was named after him in the 1940s: Peronism.

That movement is currently the biggest opposition force in Argentina. And some political observers attribute the recent vote to elect President Javier Milei as a means to defeat Peronism and its previous hold on the presidency.

“For us, she is the spiritual reservoir of the people,” said Julio Piumato, human rights director at the largest union in Argentina. He signed a 2019 document requesting Evita’s beatification.

“No other figure has a deeper significance,” Piumato said. “The humble sectors are synthesized in Evita.”

According to the union leader, between 1946 and 1952, when Evita died of cancer at age 33 and Perón concluded his first term, the couple dignified the working class and prioritized social justice.

“Saints show us paths to reach Christ and intercede before God for us,” reads the beatification request delivered to the archbishop. “In our homeland, one generation after another continues to be converted by the humanist and Christian message of the standard bearer of the humble.”

Aside from a 1996 movie starring Madonna or Andrew Lloyd Weber’s 1978 musical, many foreigners know relatively little about this former first lady who died 71 years ago.

But in Argentina, Evita is a constant presence. Her face is printed on 100-peso bills, decorates a mural on a key government building, and greets guests from an altar placed in a restaurant called Saint Evita.

“I carry her image in my wallet, and I have it at home in a small picture frame with a candle,” Celerier said. “I ask her for protection.”

How a first lady turned into a champion of the poor

The secret behind the fascination that she awakens might be hidden in her name.

Long before becoming first lady, she called herself María Eva, a girl who left the town of Los Toldos to try her luck as an actress in Buenos Aires. As a modest film star she was known as Eva Duarte and afterwards became Eva Perón, the president’s wife. Then came Evita.

“Evita is the one who is close to the people,” said Santiago Regolo, a researcher at Museum Evita. “People began to call her that, and that construction is linked to the political and social work that distinguished her from the women who preceded her and take her as an example to this day.”

Evita was the one who paid visits to elders and single mothers. The one who handed out toys for children and bread for families. The one who promoted paid vacations for workers who had never been able to afford a break and gave a final push to achieve the women’s right to vote in 1947.

She has also inspired some feminists — who carry her photo along with their green scarves during protests — as well as a political organization that asks for social transformation using her image as a logo.

“Having Evita on our flag represents being with those in the lower classes and trying to vindicate her name over time,” said Iván Tchorek, from the Evita Movement, which has 155,000 members nationwide and was created after an economic crisis in 2001.

She’s relevant as ever, Tchorek said, because Peronism is. Thousands of workers like him recently led a general strike against the right-wing Milei, who defeated Peronist candidate Sergio Massa last November. Soon after, Milei issued a decree that would revoke or modify hundreds of existing laws in order to limit the power of unions and deregulate an economy that has traditionally featured heavy state intervention.

Even as a union standard-bearer in polarized times, Evita and her memory have the ability to transcend politics. “Certain issues are linked to matters of a sentimental, sacralized nature,” Regolo said. “She is seen as a companion, a sister, a mother for the humble.”

At her home in an impoverished neighborhood outside Buenos Aires, 71-year-old Rita Cantero says she almost met Evita. When her mother asked the first lady for help, she was pregnant with her.

“My mother used to say that Evita was very supportive, that people really liked her for the service she provided.”

Aware of the challenges of being a single mother, Rafaela Escobar attended a public event held by Evita in a plaza near her home. After being able to approach her and confide in her distress, Evita hugged her and said: “Don’t worry, I will help.”

Three weeks later, Escobar received a cradle and clothes for her unborn child.

Cantero says her mother never met Evita again, but she sent her letters and the first lady replied with envelopes carrying money.

“For us she is like a saint,” Cantero said. “Many judged her because she was a woman, but she was an honest, hard-working girl. She fought for our nation and was the force of Perón.”

Evita’s mixed legacy and the fight over her embalmed body

Perón died two decades after Evita, in 1974, but his name continues to spark both admiration and hatred, yearning and blame.

His critics — among them legislator Fernando Iglesias, who has published several books contending Peronism ruined the country — claim that Perón was an authoritarian leader and his movement’s social assistance disguised corruption and patronage while generating too much dependence on the government.

Critics address Eva too. Her foundation pressed donors for resources, some say. She was careerist and a hypocrite, others assert. On the one hand, she claimed to defend the poor and on the other, she dressed in Dior.

“Would she be the saint of the lazy?” a user tweeted when the union requested her beatification. “Patron of criminals,” someone else wrote.

Erasing her from history was once a command. After a coup overthrew Perón in 1955, it was forbidden to say her name, display her image or keep her gifts. The military removed her embalmed body from a union’s headquarters, where it was initially kept, and sent it to Europe.

The body came back after 14 years, and when the military took over again in the 1970s, it was given to her family under one condition: She would be buried 8 meters underground, sealed in a marble crypt so that no one would ever see her again.

“Evita is the best thing that could have happened to this country,” said Carolina Castro, 22, holding back tears next to Evita’s grave in Recoleta Cemetery, where Argentines and foreigners alike honor her with flowers, letters and rosaries.

According to Castro’s mother, 56-year-old Andrea Vellesi, Evita is a sensitive topic because their family is going through a difficult time. “I have never been in such anguish,” Vellesi said about economic measures that Milei recently decreed and that she claims hurt her business.

Víctor Biscia, 36, says that he doesn’t keep photos of Evita at home, but he does have images of the late President Néstor Kirchner and his wife and successor Cristina Fernández, another Peronist couple that prompts devotion and resentment among Argentines.

“They were key to achieving rights that are being curtailed by the current government,” said Biscia, who thinks of Fernández as a sort of 21st century Evita.

“She reflects a lot of what we are as Argentines,” says Gimena Villagra, 27, standing next to Evita’s tomb. “I don’t think there’s anyone for whom she doesn’t mean something.”

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Dior Postpones Hong Kong Fashion Show ‘Indefinitely’

HONG KONG — Dior has postponed a fashion show set to be held in Hong Kong next month, a city official confirmed Saturday, dealing a blow to the financial hub’s ambitions to boost its economy through major events.

Hong Kong is courting top international celebrities and brands in the hope of rebooting its reputation, which has been battered by years of social unrest and strict pandemic curbs. 

The Dior fashion show — meant to feature artistic director Kim Jones and the men’s autumn collection — was to be one of several “mega events” touted last month by Hong Kong’s culture, sports and tourism chief, Kevin Yeung, as part of the city’s drive to become an event capital. 

But Yeung’s office confirmed to AFP on Saturday that it had “just been notified” by organizers that the fashion show would not go ahead as scheduled on March 23. 

“Large-scale events are postponed from time to time, and we continue to welcome large-scale events to take place in Hong Kong,” a spokesperson for Yeung’s office said. 

Dior said the show had been “postponed indefinitely” without giving specifics, according to a company statement quoted by the South China Morning Post. 

According to the South China Morning Post, the event was expected to cost about $100 million ($12.8 million U.S.) and draw nearly 1,000 attendees.  

Louis Vuitton in November held its men’s pre-fall 2024 show in Hong Kong, led by creative director Pharrell Williams and drawing celebrity guests from China and South Korea. 

The much-hyped runway show was seen as a boon to Hong Kong’s international image and a sign of the luxury giant’s commitment to Asian markets. 

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Chip Giant TSMC Shifts From Hotspot Taiwan With Japan Plant

TOKYO — Chip giant Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Co. opened its first semiconductor plant in Japan Saturday as part of its ongoing global expansion.

“We are deeply grateful for the seamless support provided by you at every step,” TSMC Chairman Mark Liu said after thanking the Japanese government, local community and business partners, including electronic giant Sony and auto-parts maker Denso. The company’s founder, Morris Chang, was also present at the ceremony in Kikuyo.

This comes as Japan is trying to regain its presence in the chip production industry.

Japan Advanced Semiconductor Manufacturing, or JASM, is set to be up and running later this year. TSMC also announced plans for a second plant in Japan earlier this month, with production expected to start in about three years. Private sector investment totals $20 billion for both plants. Both plants are in the Kumamoto region, southwestern Japan.

Prime Minister Fumio Kishida sent a congratulatory video message, calling the plant’s opening “a giant first step.” He stressed Japan’s friendly relations with Taiwan and the importance of cutting-edge semiconductor technology.

Japan had previously promised TSMC 476 billion yen ($3 billion) in government funding to encourage the semiconductor giant to invest. Kishida confirmed a second package, raising Japan’s support to more than 1 trillion yen ($7 billion).

Although TSMC is building its second plant in the U.S. and has announced a plan for its first in Europe, Japan could prove an attractive option.

Closer to Taiwan geographically, Japan is an important U.S. ally. Neighboring China claims the self-governing island as its own territory and says it must come under Beijing’s control. The long-running divide is a flashpoint in U.S.-China relations.

The move is also important for Japan, which has recently earmarked about 5 trillion yen ($33 billion) to revive its chips industry.

Four decades ago, Japan dominated in chips, headlined by Toshiba Corp. and NEC controlling half the world’s production. That’s declined lately to under 10%, due to competition from South Korean, U.S. and European manufacturers, as well as from TSMC.

The coronavirus pandemic negatively affected the supply of electronic chips, stalling plants, including automakers, with Japan almost entirely dependent on chip imports. This pushed Japan to seek chip production in pursuit of self-sufficiency.

Sony Semiconductor Solutions Corporation, Denso Corporation and top automaker Toyota Motor Corporation are investing in TSMC’s Japan plant, with the Taiwanese giant retaining an 86.5% ownership of JASM.

Once the two plants are up and running, they’re expected to create 3,400 high-tech jobs directly, according to TSMC.

Ensuring access to an ample supply of the most advanced chips is vital with the growing popularity of electric vehicles and artificial intelligence. Some analysts note Japan still leads in crucial aspects of the industry, as seen in Tokyo Electron, which manufactures the machinery used to produce chips.

Still, it’s clear the Japanese government is intent on playing catchup. Tokyo is supporting various semiconductor projects nationwide, such as those involving Western Digital and Micron of the U.S., and Japanese companies such as Renesas Electronics, Canon and Sumitomo.

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Gender-Neutral Baby Names Gain Popularity, but Traditional Names Still Rule

US parents get more creative when deciding what to name their children

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Artists Reflect on Black Experience in America

It’s Black History Month in the United States. In Los Angeles, there is an exhibit of black artists sharing their experiences growing up in America. Genia Dulot takes us there.

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Soccer Star Dani Alves Found Guilty of Rape, Sentenced to Four and a Half Years in Prison

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Head of Boeing’s 737 MAX Program Leaves After Midair Incident

WASHINGTON — Boeing said on Wednesday it was replacing the head of its troubled 737 MAX program effective immediately, the first major executive departure since the January 5 midair panel blowout of a new Alaska Airlines MAX 9. 

Ed Clark, who had been with the plane-maker for nearly 18 years, departed as Boeing has been dealing with its latest crisis and has vowed to ramp up quality efforts. 

Regulators have curbed the plane-maker’s production, and lawmakers and customers have been scrutinizing production and safety measures.  

Boeing has scrambled to explain and strengthen safety procedures after a door panel detached during flight on a new Alaska Airlines 737 MAX 9, forcing pilots to make an emergency landing while passengers were exposed to a gaping hole 16,000 feet above the ground.  

Clark’s departure came after Boeing’s board met this week and approved the changes, according to sources familiar with the matter. He oversaw the company’s production facility in Renton, Washington, where the plane involved in the accident was completed. 

Clark was previously chief mechanic and engineer for the 737 before being named head of the program in 2021. He was the fifth person in four years to run the 737 program. 

Katie Ringgold is replacing him as vice president and general manager of the 737 program, according to a memo seen by Reuters sent to staff by Boeing Commercial Airplanes CEO Stan Deal, who said the plane-maker was working to ensure “that every airplane we deliver meets or exceeds all quality and safety requirements. Our customers demand, and deserve, nothing less.” 

The latest mishap occurred as Boeing was still working to rebuild its reputation following the 20-month grounding of the 737 MAX following two fatal crashes that killed a total of 346 people. That grounding was lifted in November 2020.  

Airline industry executives have expressed frustration with Boeing’s quality control. The only other major manufacturer of commercial aircraft is France’s Airbus. 

The memo was first reported by the Seattle Times. 

The FAA grounded the MAX 9 for several weeks in January and has capped Boeing’s production of the MAX while it audits the plane-maker’s manufacturing process, which has suffered a string of quality issues in recent years. 

The door panel that flew off the MAX 9 appeared to be missing four key bolts, according to a preliminary report from the U.S. National Safety Transportation Board in early February. The panel is a plug-in placed on some 737 MAX 9s instead of an additional emergency exit.  

According to the report, the door plug in question was removed to repair rivet damage, but the NTSB has not found evidence the bolts were reinstalled. 

The disclosure has prompted anger among Boeing’s airline customers. Some, including Alaska Airlines, announced they would conduct enhanced quality oversight of planes before they leave the Boeing factory. 

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Commercial Spaceship Set for Lunar Touchdown, in Test for US Industry

WASHINGTON — A company from Texas is poised to attempt a feat that until now has only been accomplished by a handful of national space agencies but could soon become commonplace for the private sector: landing on the moon.

If all goes to plan, Houston-based Intuitive Machines will guide its spaceship named Odysseus to a gentle touchdown near the lunar south pole on Thursday at 2249 GMT, then run experiments for NASA that will help pave the way for the return of astronauts later this decade.

A previous effort by another U.S. company last month ended in failure, raising the stakes to demonstrate private industry has what it takes to put an American lander on Earth’s cosmic companion for the first time since the Apollo era.

“Accepting risk was a challenge posed by the United States to the commercial business sector,” Intuitive Machines CEO Steve Altemus said ahead of launch. “Our collective aim is to return to the moon for the first time in 52 years.”

The company plans to run a live stream on its website, with flight controllers expected to confirm landing around 15 seconds after the milestone is achieved, because of the time it takes for radio signals to return.

As it approaches the surface, Odysseus will shoot out an external “EagleCam” that captures images of the lander in the final seconds of its descent.

About the size of a big golf cart, Odysseus is hexagon-shaped and stands on six legs.

It launched on Feb. 15 atop a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket, and boasts a new type of supercooled liquid oxygen, liquid methane propulsion system that allowed it to race through space in quick time, snapping pictures of our planet along the way.

Its destination, Malapert A, is an impact crater 300 kilometers (180 miles) from the lunar south pole.

NASA hopes to eventually build a long-term presence and harvest ice there for both drinking water and rocket fuel under Artemis, its flagship Moon-to-Mars program.

The U.S. space agency paid Intuitive Machines $118 million to ship science hardware to better understand and mitigate environmental risks for astronauts, the first of whom are scheduled to land no sooner than 2026.

Instruments include cameras to investigate how the lunar surface changes as a result of the engine plume from a spaceship, and a device to analyze clouds of charged dust particles that hang over the surface at twilight as a result of solar radiation.

The rest of the cargo was paid for by Intuitive Machines’ private clients and includes 125 stainless steel mini moons by the artist Jeff Koons.

After touchdown, the experiments are expected to run for roughly seven days before lunar night sets in on the south pole, with the lack of solar power rendering Odysseus inoperable.

Dubbed IM-1, the mission is the second under a NASA initiative called Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS), which it created to delegate cargo services to the private sector to achieve savings and stimulate a wider lunar economy.

Four more CLPS launches are expected this year, which would make 2024 among the busiest ever for moon landings.

The first, by Pittsburgh-based Astrobotic, launched in January, but its Peregrine spacecraft sprung a fuel leak and it was eventually brought back to burn up in Earth’s atmosphere.

Spaceships landing on the moon have to navigate treacherous boulders and craters and, absent an atmosphere to support parachutes, must rely on thrusters to control their descent. Roughly half of the more than 50 attempts have failed.

The Soviet Union was the first country to achieve a survivable landing on a celestial body when its Luna 9 spaceship touched down and transmitted pictures back from the moon in February 1966.

Next came the United States, which is still the only country to also put people on the surface.

In America’s long absence, China has landed three times since 2013. India reached the moon in 2023, and Japan was the latest, last month.

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Artificial Intelligence Is Being Used to Help Save Lives

Health care professionals are increasingly using artificial intelligence to better diagnose and treat serious medical conditions. However, with the use of artificial intelligence in medicine growing, there are concerns among medical ethicists about how emerging technologies should be deployed

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Kenyan Companies Embrace AI for Marketing Efficiency, Cost Savings

Kenyan companies, facing economic challenges, are turning to artificial intelligence to reduce production and advertising expenses. That’s causing anxiety among artists and ad agencies, who fear reduced income and job losses if AI can replace the work they’ve always done. Mohammed Yusuf reports from Nairobi.

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Beatles To Get Fab Four of Biopics

NEW YORK — The Beatles are getting the big-screen biopic treatment in not just one film, but a Fab Four of movies that will give each band member their own spotlight — all of which are to be directed by Sam Mendes.

For the first time, the Beatles, long among the stingiest rights granters, are giving full life and music rights to a movie project. Sony Pictures announced Monday a deal that may dwarf all music biopics that have come before it, with the stories of Paul McCartney, John Lennon, George Harrison and Ringo Starr spread out over a quartet of films.

The films, conceived by Mendes, are expected to roll out theatrically in innovative fashion, with the movies potentially coexisting or intersecting in theaters. Precise release plans will be announced at a later date. Sony is targeting 2027 for their release.

McCartney, Starr and the families of John Lennon and George Harrison have all signed off on the project through the band’s Apple Corps. Ltd. Sony Music Publishing controls the rights to the majority of Beatles songs.

“I’m honored to be telling the story of the greatest rock band of all time, and excited to challenge the notion of what constitutes a trip to the movies,” Mendes said in a statement.

Each film will be from the perspective of a Beatle.

“We intend this to be a uniquely thrilling, and epic cinematic experience: four films, told from four different perspectives which tell a single story about the most celebrated band of all time,” said producer Pippa Harris. “To have The Beatles’ and Apple Corps’ blessing to do this is an immense privilege.”

The Beatles’ most famous forays into film were in their early years. Between 1964 and 1970, they appeared in five movies, including “A Hard Day’s Night” (1964) and the animated “Yellow Submarine” (1968). They’ve, of course, been the subject of many documentaries, most recently Peter Jackson’s 2021 “The Beatles: Get Back.”

In 2023, the Beatles reunited with the aid of artificial intelligence in the newly released song “Now and Then.” The recording was made possible by technology used by Jackson on “Get Back,” and featured a music video made by the New Zealand director.

Attempts to dramatize the Beatles’ story have been more sporadic and less impactful. A 1979 biopic, made when Lennon was still alive, called “The Birth of the Beatles” was produced with Beatles original drummer Pete Best as an adviser. The 1994 indie drama “Backbeat” chronicled Lennon’s relationship with Stuart Sutcliffe before the Beatles were famous. “Nowhere Boy” (2009) starred Aaron Taylor-Johnson as a teenage Lennon.

But in the last decade, music biopics have become big business. Box-office hits like “Bohemian Rhapsody,””Rocketman” and “Elvis” have sent Hollywood executives chasing the next jukebox blockbuster. Over Presidents Day weekend, “Bob Marley: One Love,” produced with the Marley estate, was the No. 1 movie in theaters. A Michael Jackson biopic is in production.

“Theatrical movie events today must be culturally seismic. Sam’s daring, large-scale idea is that and then some,” said Tom Rothman, chair and chief executive of Sony Pictures’ Motion Picture Group.

The combination of Mendes’ team “with the music and the stories of four young men who changed the world, will rock audiences all over the globe,” Rothman said. “We are deeply grateful to all parties and look forward ourselves to breaking some rules with Sam’s uniquely artistic vision.”

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Britain, US, EU, Allies Take Down Lockbit Cybercrime Gang

LONDON — Lockbit, a notorious cybercrime gang that holds its victims’ data for ransom, has been disrupted in a rare international law enforcement operation by Britain’s National Crime Agency, the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation, Europol and a coalition of international police agencies, according to a post on the gang’s extortion website on Monday.

“This site is now under the control of the National Crime Agency of the UK, working in close cooperation with the FBI and the international law enforcement task force, ‘Operation Cronos,’” the post said.

An NCA spokesperson confirmed that the agency had disrupted the gang and said the operation was “ongoing and developing.”

A representative for Lockbit did not respond to messages from Reuters seeking comment but did post messages on an encrypted messaging app saying it had backup servers not affected by the law enforcement action.

The U.S. Department of Justice and the FBI did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

The post named other international police organizations from France, Japan, Switzerland, Canada, Australia, Sweden, the Netherlands, Finland and Germany.

Lockbit and its affiliates have hacked some of the world’s largest organizations in recent months. The gang makes money by stealing sensitive data and threatening to leak it if victims fail to pay an extortionate ransom. Its affiliates are like-minded criminal groups that are recruited by the group to wage attacks using Lockbit’s digital extortion tools.

Ransomware is malicious software that encrypts data. Lockbit makes money by coercing its targets into paying ransom to decrypt or unlock that data with a digital key.

Lockbit was discovered in 2020 when its eponymous malicious software was found on Russian-language cybercrime forums, leading some security analysts to believe the gang is based in Russia.

The gang has not professed support for any government, however, and no government has formally attributed it to a nation-state. On its now-defunct dark web site, the group said it was “located in the Netherlands, completely apolitical and only interested in money.”

“They are the Walmart of ransomware groups, they run it like a business — that’s what makes them different,” said Jon DiMaggio, chief security strategist at Analyst1, a U.S.-based cybersecurity firm. “They are arguably the biggest ransomware crew today.”

Officials in the United States, where Lockbit has hit more than 1,700 organizations in nearly every industry from financial services and food to schools, transportation and government departments, have described the group as the world’s top ransomware threat.

In November of last year, Lockbit published internal data from Boeing, one of the world’s largest defense and space contractors. In early 2023, Britain’s Royal Mail faced severe disruption after an attack by the group.

According to vx-underground, a cybersecurity research website, Lockbit said in a statement in Russian and shared on Tox, an encrypted messaging app, that the FBI hit its servers that run on the programming language PHP. The statement, which Reuters could not verify independently, added that it has backup servers without PHP that “are not touched.”

On X, formerly known as Twitter, vx-underground shared screenshots showing the control panel used by Lockbit’s affiliates to launch attacks had been replaced with a message from law enforcement: “We have source code, details of the victims you have attacked, the amount of money extorted, the data stolen, chats, and much, much more,” it said.

“We may be in touch with you very soon” it added. “Have a nice day.”

Before it was taken down, Lockbit’s website displayed an ever-growing gallery of victim organizations that was updated nearly daily. Next to their names were digital clocks that showed the number of days left to the deadline given to each organization to provide ransom payment.

On Monday, Lockbit’s site displayed a similar countdown, but from the law enforcement agencies who hacked the hackers: “Return here for more information at: 11:30 GMT on Tuesday 20th Feb.” the post said.

Don Smith, vice president of Secureworks, an arm of Dell Technologies, said Lockbit was the most prolific and dominant ransomware operator in a highly competitive underground market.

“To put today’s takedown into context, based on leak site data, Lockbit had a 25% share of the ransomware market. Their nearest rival was Blackcat at around 8.5%, and after that it really starts to fragment,” Smith said.

“Lockbit dwarfed all other groups and today’s action is highly significant.”

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US-China Rivalry Expands to Biotech; Lawmakers Raise Alarm

WASHINGTON — U.S. lawmakers are raising alarms about what they see as America’s failure to compete with China in biotechnology, warning of the risks to U.S. national security and commercial interests. But as the two countries’ rivalry expands into the biotech industry, some say that shutting out Chinese companies would only hurt the U.S.

Biotechnology promises to revolutionize everyday life, with scientists and researchers using it to make rapid advances in medical treatment, genetic engineering in agriculture and novel biomaterials. Because of its potential, it has caught the attention of both the Chinese and U.S. governments.

Bills have been introduced in the House and Senate to bar “foreign adversary biotech companies of concern” from doing business with federally funded medical providers. The bills name four Chinese-owned companies.

The Chinese Embassy said those behind the bills have an “ideological bias” and seek to suppress Chinese companies “under false pretexts.” It demanded that Chinese companies be given “open, just, and non-discriminatory treatment.”

The debate over biotechnology is taking place as the Biden administration tries to stabilize the volatile U.S.-China relationship, which has been battered by a range of issues, including a trade war, the COVID-19 pandemic, cybersecurity and militarization in the South China Sea.

Critics of the legislation warn that restrictions on Chinese companies would impede advances that could bring a greater good.

“In biotech, one cannot maintain competitiveness by walling off others,” said Abigail Coplin, an assistant professor at Vassar College who specializes in China’s biotech industry. She said she was worried that U.S. policymakers would get too obsessed with the technology’s military applications at the cost of hindering efforts to cure disease and feed the world’s population.

In a letter to senators sponsoring the bill, Rachel King, chief executive officer of the trade association Biotechnology Innovation Organization, said the legislation would “do untold damage to the drug development supply chain both for treatments currently approved and on market as well as for development pipelines decades in the making.”

But supporters say the legislation is crucial to protecting U.S. interests.

The National Security Commission on Emerging Biotechnology, a group created by the U.S. Senate to review the industry, said the bill would help secure the data of the federal government and of American citizens and it would discourage unfair competition from Chinese companies.

The commission warned that advancement in biotechnology can result not only in economic benefits but also rapid changes in military capabilities.

Much is at stake, said Rep. Mike Gallagher, chair of the House Select Committee on the Chinese Communist Party. Gallagher introduced the House version of the bill and last week led a congressional delegation to Boston to meet with biotech executives.

“It’s not just a supply chain battle or a national security battle or an economic security battle; I would submit it’s a moral and ethical battle,” Gallagher said. “Just as the sector advances at a really astronomic pace, the country who wins the race will set the ethical standards around how these technologies are used.”

He argues that the U.S. must “set the rules of the road” and if not, “we’re going to live in a less free, less moral world as a result.”

Both the United States and China, the world’s two largest economies, have identified biotech as a critical national interest.

The Biden administration has put forward a “whole-of-government approach” to advance biotechnology and biomanufacturing that is important for health, climate change, energy, food security, agriculture and supply chain resilience.

The Chinese government has plans to develop a “national strategic technology force” in biotech, which would be tasked with making breakthroughs and helping China achieve “technological independence,” primarily from the U.S.

“Both the Chinese government and the Americans have identified biotech as an area important for investment, a sector that presents an opportunity to grow their economy,” said Tom Bollyky, the Bloomberg chair in global health at the Council on Foreign Relations. He said any restrictive U.S. measures should be tailored to address military concerns and concerns about genomic data security.

“Naturally there’s going to be competition, but what’s challenging in biotech is that we are talking about human health,” Bollyky said.

Ray Yip, who founded the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention office in China, also worries that the rivalry will slow medical advancements.

The benefit of coming up with better diagnostics and therapy is beyond any individual country, Yip said, “and will not overshadow the capacity or prestige of the other country.”

What concerns Anna Puglisi, a senior fellow at Georgetown University’s Center for Security and Emerging Technology, is Beijing’s lack of transparency and its unfair market practices. “Competition is one thing. Unfair competition is another thing,” she said.

Puglisi described BGI, a major Chinese biotech company identified in both the House and Senate bills, as “a national champion” that is subsidized and given favored treatment by the state in a system that “blurs private and public as well as civilian and military.”

“This system creates market distortions and undermines the global norms of science by using researchers and academic and commercial entities to further the goals of the state,” Puglisi said.

BGI, which has stressed its private ownership, offers genetic testing kits and a popular prenatal screening test to detect Down syndrome and other conditions. U.S. lawmakers say they are concerned such data could end up in the hands of the Chinese government.

The Defense Department has listed BGI as a Chinese military company, and the Commerce Department has blacklisted it on human rights grounds, citing a risk that BGI technology might have contributed to surveillance. BGI has rejected the allegations.

In raising its concerns about BGI, the National Security Commission on Emerging Biotechnology says the company is required to share data with the Chinese government, has partnered with the Chinese military, and has received considerable Chinese state funding and support.

State subsidies have allowed BGI to offer genomic sequencing services at a highly competitive price that is attractive to U.S. researchers, according to the commission. The genomic data, once in the hands of the Chinese government, “represents a strategic asset that has privacy, security, economic, and ethical implications,” it said.

BGI could not immediately be reached for comment.

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Strike Closes Eiffel Tower in Blow to Tourists Ahead of Paris Olympics

Paris — The Eiffel Tower, one of the most visited tourist sites in the world, closed on Monday as staff went on strike in protest against the way the Paris monument is managed financially, disappointing the crowds below.

The strike comes as Paris prepares to host the 2024 Summer Olympics, which begin on July 26 and will feature metal from the tower in the winners’ medals.

Visitors stood outside the barriers of the tower grounds in front of a giant screen announcing the strike.

“It’s a real shame, really, because we come just for three days, and we’re not going to be able to get up,” Nelson Navarro, from Norfolk, England, said.

Vito Santos, from Canada, had planned to revisit the monument 15 years after his honeymoon and show if off to his children.

“It’s disappointing… The plan was to come here really early to get a ticket as early as possible. However, it was a surprise for us, the strike is here, so we cannot make the tour,” he said.

Unions claim Paris City Hall, which owns 99% of the company that oversees the tower, Societe d’Exploitation de la Tour Eiffel (SETE), is underestimating the cost of maintenance and repairs to the monument planned ahead of the Olympics.

This in turn could result in lax maintenance work and put visitors at risk, they say.

This is the second time this year staff have gone on strike for the same reason.

The wrought-iron 324-meter (1,063 ft) high tower, built by Gustave Eiffel in the late 19th century, welcomes about six million visitors each year.

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Berlin Film Fest Grapples With Nazi Past, Far-Right Threat

BERLIN — This week’s Berlin international film festival is wrestling on- and off-screen with the weight of the Nazi past and the menace of a resurgent far right.

The 74th Berlinale, as the event is known, has a reputation for confronting political realities head-on with high-profile movies and hot-tempered debates.

German director Julia von Heinz brought together an unlikely pair, U.S. actor Lena Dunham and Britain’s Stephen Fry, for her drama “Treasure,” about a Holocaust survivor who returns to Poland with his journalist daughter.

Inspired by a true story, the film shows their journey following the fall of the Iron Curtain, after decades of family silence about the Nazi period.

Fry plays the seemingly jovial Edek searching for a connection with his uptight daughter Ruth (Dunham).

Their travels take them to Edek’s childhood home in Lodz, where they make the chilling discovery that a family living in his old flat is still using his parents’ porcelain tea service, silverware and a green velvet sofa they abandoned when they were deported.

Fearful it is the last chance to record his memories, Ruth convinces Edek to return to Auschwitz.

‘A new perspective’

Von Heinz, speaking after a warmly received screening, said that a rise in anti-Semitic incidents in the wake of the Gaza war had spurred her to finish the film for the Berlinale.

She rejected suggestions there had been “enough” movies dealing with the Nazi period.

“There can never be enough stories to be told about this and I think we are giving it a new perspective,” she said.

Fry added: “While history may not repeat itself, as somebody once put it, (it) rhymes and there are similar feelings now as we know rising up.”

The actor, who had several relatives who were killed at Auschwitz, said it was “an extraordinary feeling” to shoot scenes outside the former death camp.

Dunham, who also lost ancestors in the Holocaust, insisted its lessons are both rooted in the Jewish experience and transcend it.

“It’s important to acknowledge that the far right, be it here or in the U.S. — there’s an incredible and shocking amount of anti-Semitic rhetoric and there’s also a shocking amount of Islamophobic rhetoric, anti-Black rhetoric, transphobic rhetoric,” she said. “The goal is to isolate people based on their identities and make them feel inhuman and that’s a universal story unfortunately.”

Resistance ‘superheroes’

“From Hilde, With Love,” starring Liv Lisa Fries of international hit series “Babylon Berlin,” also debuted at the festival over the weekend.

It tells the true story of Hilde Coppi, a member of the “Red Orchestra” anti-Nazi resistance group, who gave birth to a son in prison while awaiting her execution for “high treason” in 1942.

Director Andreas Dresen grew up in communist East Germany, a region where the far-right AfD is poised to make strong gains in key state elections later this year.

He said that in school, resistance members were often portrayed as larger-than-life “superheroes,” meaning many felt incapable of having similar courage to stand up to authority.

Fries, whose vivid portrayal impressed critics, said Coppi joined the Red Orchestra in trying to sabotage the Nazi war effort out of a basic sense of right and wrong.

“It was not only decency but also a sense of solidarity — solidarity is always worth standing up for,” she said.

Dresen stripped the movie of historical images familiar from Nazi movies such as “waving swastika flags and thumping jackboots.”

“Political terror is part of our present and unfortunately not as far away as we would like,” he said. “I really wish this film weren’t so topical.”

“From Hilde, With Love” is one of 20 films in competition for the festival’s Golden Bear top prize Saturday.

Commitment to ’empathy’

The two films premiered amid a fierce debate over whether the Berlinale should continue to invite AfD politicians to its galas.

A bombshell revelation last month — that party members attended a meeting outside Berlin at which mass deportations of foreigners and “poorly assimilated” German citizens were discussed — raised the stakes.

After initially insisting that the elected representatives should attend, the Berlinale backtracked and disinvited five AfD officials, citing its commitment to “empathy, awareness and understanding.”

The move was widely praised by the artistic community, but dissenters argued that democratic culture meant tolerating even offensive views.

Kenyan Mexican actor Lupita Nyong’o, the festival’s first black jury president, was asked whether she would have attended the opening ceremony Thursday in the presence of far-right officials.

“I’m glad I don’t have to answer that question,” she replied. “I’m glad I don’t have to be in that position.”

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‘Bob Marley: One Love’ Stirs Up $27.7 Million Weekend at Box Office

New York — Paramount Pictures’ Bob Marley biopic “Bob Marley: One Love” outperformed expectations to debut at No. 1 at the box office with a $27.7 million opening weekend, while Sony’s “Madame Web” flopped with one of the lowest debuts for a movie centered on a Marvel character.

Both films launched in theaters on Tuesday to rope in Valentine’s Day moviegoers. But on a weekend that was once expected to go to “Madame Web,” “One Love” emerged as the much-preferred option in theaters, despite largely poor reviews.

Instead, “One Love,” starring Kingsley Ben-Adir and produced with the involvement of the Marley estate, performed roughly on par with previous hit musical biopics like “Rocketman” and “Elvis.” Paramount is forecasting that “One Love” will gross $51 million over its first six days, including estimates for President’s Day on Monday. It added $29 million from 47 international territories.

Chris Aronson, distribution chief for Paramount, noted that pre-release projections forecast a six-day total closer to $30 million for “One Love.” But moviegoers from a wide range turned out for the first big-screen biopic of the Rastafarian legend.

“It was across all generations. It wasn’t just a movie for an older audience that grew up with Bob Marley’s music,” said Aronson. “Our highest quadrant was (age) 18 to 24. A third of the audience was under 25. That, to me, speaks volumes.”

Produced for about $70 million, “One Love,” directed by Reinaldo Marcus Green, chronicles Marley during the making of the 1977 album “Exodus” while leading up to a pivotal concert for his native Jamaica. Among the movie’s producers are Marley’s children, Ziggy and Cedella, and his wife, Rita.

Ziggy Marley, in a statement Sunday, said: “We thank the people for embracing this film and in so doing helping to highlight the message of one love.”

Though critics dinged the film (43% “fresh” on Rotten Tomatoes) for relying on biopic conventions, audiences gave it a much higher grade, with an “A” CinemaScore. That kind of audience response plus the strong opening should bode well for the film’s run.

“Madame Web,” however, was dead on arrival. Over six days, Sony is estimating a $15.2 million weekend and a six-day $25.8 million haul. Audiences (a “C+” CinemaScore) agreed with critics (13% “fresh”).

Such launches were once unfathomable for stand-alone superhero films. But the film, an extension of Sony’s universe of Spider-Man films, struggled to shed the bad buzz surrounding the $80 million project. In it, Dakota Johnson stars as a New York paramedic with clairvoyant powers.

“The entire superhero genre has had a really rough go of it over the past year,” said Paul Dergarabedian, senior media analyst for data firm Comscore. “Certain things are no longer a sure bet. Except maybe now, the musical biopic has become the go-to genre. It just shows how tastes can change.”

Sony’s Spider-Man spinoffs have been mostly hit and miss. Its two “Venom” films have together surpassed $1.3 billion worldwide. But 2022’s poorly received “Morbius” collected just $167.4 million globally. “Madame Web” still couldn’t come close to the $39 million domestic opening weekend for “Morbius.” In 61 overseas markets, “Madame Web” added $25.7 million.

The better news for Sony’s Spider-verse came Saturday night at the 51st Annie Awards, where “Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse” won best feature and collected seven prizes in total. “Across the Spider-Verse” is nominated for best animated feature at the Academy Awards — and the Annie Awards can often be a good predictor of winner.

The 2024 box office has gotten off to a sobering start for Hollywood, and the disappointing result for “Madame Web” won’t help. Moviegoing has slowed to a crawl in recent weeks, while 2023’s strikes have impacted this year’s release schedules. Even with the strong “One Love” opening, ticket sales were down 15% on the weekend compared to 2023, according to ComScore.

Expectations are high for “Dune: Part Two,” opening March 1. Until then, “Bob Marley: One Love” will be jammin’.

Estimated ticket sales for Friday through Sunday at U.S. and Canadian theaters, according to Comscore. Final domestic figures will be released Monday.

  1. “Bob Marley: One Love,” $27.7 million.

  2. “Madame Web,” $15.2 million.

  3. “Argylle,” $4.7 million.

  4. “Migration,” $3.8 million.

  5. “The Chosen,” Episodes 4-6, $3.4 million.

  6. “Wonka,” $3.4 million.

  7. “The Beekeeper,” $3.3 million.

  8. “Anyone But You,” $2.4 million.

  9. “Lisa Frankenstein,” $2 million.

  10. “Land of Bad,” $1.8 million.

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And the Winner Is… London Rolls Out Red Carpet for BAFTA Film Awards 

London — Hollywood stars descended on London on Sunday for the annual BAFTA Film Awards, where U.S. historical drama “Oppenheimer,” one of the highest-grossing films of 2023, leads nominations for Britain’s top movie honors. 

The three-hour epic about the making of the atomic bomb during World War Two has 13 nods, including for the night’s top prize — best film — which it is the current favorite to win. 

Also leading betting odds are the film’s Irish star Cillian Murphy — who plays the American theoretical physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer — to win the leading actor prize and Briton Christopher Nolan for best director. 

“We’re just thrilled, we’re kind of overwhelmed by it all,” Murphy told the BAFTA red carpet livestream of the film’s nominations. “It’s an amazing feeling for … everyone that worked on the movie.” 

The other contenders for best film include Emma Stone’s sex-charged gothic comedy “Poor Things”; “The Zone of Interest,” about the commandant of Auschwitz and his family living next to the death camp; Martin Scorsese’s “Killers of the Flower Moon,” about the murders of members of the Osage Nation in the 1920s; courtroom drama “Anatomy of a Fall”; and “The Holdovers,” a comedy set in a boys’ boarding school. 

“Poor Things” has 11 nominations, including one for previous BAFTA and Oscar winner Stone, who is favorite to win the leading actress category. 

“We just hope that people feel like this is a unique cinema experience and it says something about the world,” writer Tony McNamara, whose “Poor Things” script is nominated for adapted screenplay, told Reuters on the ceremony’s red carpet at the Royal Festival Hall, by the River Thames in central London.  

None of the best director contenders has previously won the award and four out of the six are first-time director nominees, including the only woman on the list, Justine Triet for “Anatomy of a Fall.”  

“I’m very surprised to be the only woman,” Triet told Reuters. “Things are not coming naturally so we have to push doors open.” 

“Barbie,” the highest grossing film of 2023, has five nominations overall, including leading actress for Margot Robbie and supporting actor for Ryan Gosling. 

As well as a spate of celebrities, the guest list also includes BAFTA President Prince William, who is attending without his wife Kate, who recently underwent surgery. 

Known as the BAFTAs (British Academy of Film and Television Arts), the ceremony will be hosted by actor David Tennant. 

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