Inquiry Into Casino Giant Crown Gets Funding Extension

Inquiry Into Casino Giant Crown Gets Funding Extension

An inquiry into Crown Melbourne's operations has been extended to October.

MELBOURNE, Australia — An inquiry into whether Crown can retain a license for its Melbourne casino has been extended, and its multi-million dollar budget nearly doubled.

The Victorian government has granted a request by Raymond Finkelstein, who is heading the royal commission.

His investigation has grown to include a broader range of matters than initially intended because of the severe nature of the allegations made.

Acting Premier James Merlino granted Commissioner Raymond Finkelstein’s request to continue the investigation and increase its funding, as per the state government officials.

Map of Melbourne Australia

“Due to the seriousness of evidence produced through hearings and submissions to date, Commissioner Finkelstein is now investigating a wider range of matters,” said the officials.

“This relates to the corporate culture of Crown Melbourne, gambling harm minimization, and claims brought forward in evidence so far — including allegations Crown Melbourne underpaid casino tax.”

This week’s probe heard severe concerns about Crown’s workplace culture drawn from employee surveys and former chief executive Ken Barton.

The state government has almost doubled funding from AU$10 million ($7.7 million) to AU$19.75 million ($15.32 million) while extending the inquiry until mid-October this year.

The inquiry, which began in February, was due to be completed by August 1.

Commissioner Raymond Finkelstein AO QC is seen during Victoria’s royal commission into Crown Casino, in Melbourne, March 24, 2021. (James Ross/AAP Image)

Crown Melbourne has been accused during the inquiry of predatory behavior, including allowing a gambler who could not repay an AU$100,000 ($77,558) debt to keep gambling and that a casino VIP was allowed to gamble for 34 hours straight.

The casino’s responsible gaming head Sonja Bauer claims staff would encourage carded players — those who can be electronically tracked — to take a break every 12, 15, and 17 hours through an alert system.

But she said staff would not automatically check on un-carded players, who cannot be tracked, instead of relying on general observations.

The counsel assisting the inquiry, Adrian Finanzio, SC, claimed that a VIP gambler played for more than 34 hours straight in 2019 at Crown Melbourne before they were forced to take a break.

“The system is set up to make it quite possible that someone could gamble for hours on end and not be approached by any staff,” Finanzio said.

The state government has almost doubled funding from AU$10 million ($7.7 million) to AU$19.75 million ($15.32 million) while extending the inquiry until mid-October this year. (Michael Dodge/AAP Image)

Bauer agreed this could happen given the casino’s size, staffing levels, and alert system.

Finkelstein was also informed that Crown Melbourne had only 12 staff employed to ensure an estimated 64,000 daily visitors gambled responsibly.

“It doesn’t make sense to me. It can’t be done. It is physically, humanly impossible,” the commissioner said after hearing the figures.

Until December 2019, Crown Melbourne employed just seven responsible gambling advisors.

People who gamble at the Southbank casino are three times more likely to experience problem gambling than those who use other Victorian venues.

The inquiry continues on June 16 with further evidence from Bauer.

(Edited by Amrita Das and Pallavi Mehra. Map by Urvashi Makwana)

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Empathy App Helps Mourners Complete Tasks

Empathy App Helps Mourners Complete Tasks

Empathy helps plan each step after a death in the family. (Courtesy of Empathy)

“Death is the final consumer sector that has remained neglected from an innovation standpoint,” said Ron Gura, CEO of Empathy, an Israeli startup whose app recently came out of stealth with a technological approach to the bureaucracy of grief.

The reason is that humans have an aversion to dealing with death, Gura said. “Logistics are made hard by grief, and grief is made hard by logistics.”

How hard are those logistics? After a loved one dies, a family member will spend an average of 570 hours dealing with issues that are often entirely new for the recently bereaved: Arranging a funeral, canceling accounts, clearing out property, hiring movers, claiming benefits, reviewing wills, understanding probate laws and more.

It’s a devastating job that comes when one is at his or her most vulnerable — which also allows unscrupulous vendors to take advantage of the bereaved.

Empathy — either with live help or DIY via the app — aims to help mourners with the piles of paperwork that suddenly become relevant, “so you have more time to be with your family,” Gura said. “We help you stay organized and in control during this overwhelming situation.” (Courtesy of Empathy)

Some 3 million people die every year in the United States, which is where Empathy is launching first. The company announced funding of $13 million from VCs General Catalyst and Aleph to bring its “GPS for grief” to market.

The Empathy app first asks you to fill in details about your circumstances and then guides you through a step-by-step process of everything that needs to be done after a person dies. Dozens of articles and professionally produced audio clips are available (in English) and a help desk manned by real people who can jump in to assist.

“Sometimes the help desk staff can even take on some of the tasks for you,” Gura said. “So, if you can’t seem to cancel your Comcast account, the helpline might say, ‘Let’s call Comcast together now and I’ll stay with you on the line.’”

Empathy — either with live help or DIY via the app — aims to help mourners with the piles of paperwork that suddenly become relevant, “so you have more time to be with your family,” Gura said. “We help you stay organized and in control during this overwhelming situation.”

The app assists with pre-filling in the forms you need. Once you’ve entered the necessary data, it stays in the system so you don’t have to retype your loved one’s address and Social Security number again and again. And by assembling all the documents you need in one place, “you don’t have to go around and look for things you might be entitled to.”

Mapping the grief journey

In creating the app, Gura’s team mapped 16 key paths, 300 steps and 24 data points common to most people’s grief journey.

Empathy can help you apply for benefits, halt identity theft, figure out how to shut down social media accounts, make immediate arrangements for burials or cremation, arrange for an obituary in local media and even inform others about the loss.

For many people, this process can last up to 18 months. Fortunately, the Empathy app doesn’t have an expiration date. The app is free for the first 30 days; if you find it valuable, you can pay a one-time charge of $65 to keep it active.

There are no additional fees, no advertising and no selling of personal data to third-party vendors.

“We’re here to offer some relief,” Gura said. “Loss is messy; it’s personal, it’s real. We think that $65 will democratize access to grief support. We’ll be with you at your pace. It’s not about winning but about coping.”

End-of-life tech

“The end-of-life industry is a large sector that has been untouched by the wave of digital transformation occurring in every other industry,” said Joel Cutler, managing director of Empathy investor General Catalyst. “Empathy is unique in that it addresses both the emotional and logistical anguish of loss.”

Gura gives the example of how the app can help one get ready to go through a loved one’s belongings.

“The app will play a contextual sound bite five minutes before you enter the house for the first time, setting do’s and don’ts.”

It will also remind you that everything in the house belongs to the estate until those affairs are settled, although “if your mom says, ‘I want you to have the sliver,’ then you’ll have it.”

When it comes time to hire a moving company, the app will provide a list of vetted vendors. “We’ll ensure there’s no exploitation,” Gura stresses.

How can an app do this? First of all, with transparency.

“Technology is pretty good at things like price comparison,” Gura said. “We’ll tell you how much things should cost, what to be worried about, what to expect and point you to the right vendors.”

Another thing technology excels at: automating the process of finding information on the web. All the forms and instructions one needs are out there, but often buried deep in government websites.

Empathy’s web crawlers search the Internet for this information and arrange it logically for users in a straightforward, orderly way. “It’s a lot of information for humans to go through,” Gura said. “But it’s very easy for machines to do that.”

Empathy uses 256-bit encryption and two-factor authentication. Preventing identity theft is a key component of the company’s mission. “Thirty percent of identity theft cases are for bereaved cases,” Gura said. “Preventing it is best done with automation.”

Technology vs. despair

Empathy has been building its team and technology since August 2020. As of April 6, the product was ready to download and use in the U.S. Gura expects to expand to other countries. “Loss doesn’t skip anyone,” he said.

“Loss is always complex and difficult,” Gura said. “It will always be there. There may be a vaccine for Covid-19. There’s no pill or vaccine for despair.” (Courtesy of Empathy)

The company has 23 people in its Tel Aviv, New York and Dallas offices. Many of those team members — including Gura’s partner Yonatan Bergman — have been together through several successful startups.

Gura and Bergman previously founded The Gifts Project, which enabled group buying and gifting. The company was acquired by eBay in 2011 for a reported $25 million. Gura became a product director for business incubation at eBay and went on to set up and manage WeWork’s R&D center in Israel.

Gura came up with the idea for Empathy when he was still at eBay, where a team member’s wife had recently died.

“Two months later, I realized that he was dealing with it all the time. It shows how little we know about what’s going on in the minds of our employees and how much more we can do for them, to shift from sympathy to empathy, from flowers and condolences to services.”

While subsequently working as the entrepreneur-in-residence at Aleph VC, Gura was encouraged by managing partner Michael Eisenberg to move forward with his idea.

Empathy’s app has launched with Covid-19 still raging around the world, and the website contains articles and sound clips addressing the pandemic.

“Loss is always complex and difficult,” Gura said. “It will always be there. There may be a vaccine for Covid-19. There’s no pill or vaccine for despair.”

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Behind The Lights, Camera, Action: Netflix’s First Post-Production Facility In India

Behind The Lights, Camera, Action: Netflix’s First Post-Production Facility In India

CHENNAI, India — “We are in a golden age of entertainment in India — this is the best time to be a creator and consumer of great stories,” Netflix, the world’s largest streaming service, said in a post on June 2.

Netflix is opening its first fully-owned post-production facility in India’s entertainment capital Mumbai, as the company furthers its ambitions in the country.

The post-production facility will be fully operational by June 2022 and have 40 offline editing rooms for showrunners, directors, editors, and sound designers.

India is the world’s largest producer of movies, and Mumbai, the capital city of Maharashtra on India’s west coast, is the hub of the Hindi film industry or Bollywood as it’s more popularly known.

Hindi language films dominate the industry in terms of net worth. Netflix India’s headquarters are also located in Mumbai.

Netflix entered India five years ago in 2016, with monthly plans of INR 500 ($6.85) and other plans priced at INR 650 ($8.9) and INR 800 ($10).

“We are excited that Mumbai will be home to this wonderful creative space,” Vijay Venkataramanan, director, post-production, Netflix India, told Zenger News.

Bollywood director Shashank Khaitan, whose last release was “Majnu” which was part of the Netflix anthology “Ajeeb Daastaans”, says there has been an influx of writers and directors from small towns. (National Film Archive of India/Facebook)

“This reinforces our commitment to India’s entertainment industry as we continue to empower creators with the best resources to tell great stories.”

India is the fastest-growing entertainment and media market globally in terms of consumer revenue. Subscription Video on Demand is expected to be the prime driver of revenue, increasing at a 30.7 percent compound annual growth rate.

Online video subscription revenue jumped by 142 percent in India last year primarily due to the Covid-19 pandemic, and subscription video revenues rose to $639 million at the end of 2020 from $265 million in 2019, according to a report from London-based research and consultancy firm Omdia.

Global players like Netflix, Disney+ Hotstar, Amazon Prime compete alongside Indian streaming services like AltBalaji, Voot, and ZEE5, vying for the attention of an estimated 62 million Indian users with streaming platforms subscriptions and over 600 million internet users in the country.

Netflix invested INR 3,000 crores ($410.4 million) over 2019 and 2020 on local programming. Earlier this year, it announced 41 original films, series, documentaries, and reality shows, signaling the importance the Indian market holds for the firm.

Netflix is making a lot of their own individual content right now. (Pictured) (From left) Seema Khan, Bhavana Pandey, Maheep Kapoor, and Neelam Kothari in “The Fabulous Lives of Bollywood Wives.” (Rachel Santos/Netflix)

“Netflix is making a lot of their own individual content right now,” Dwani Guru, a freelance editor who has worked with streaming platforms players, told Zenger News.

“Until now, Netflix’s productions have mostly been in collaboration with other houses, which would provide spaces for post-production work. So it’s great that Netflix is setting up their own spaces for efficient post-production work to happen in-house.”

Last year, Netflix said India has the highest viewing of films on Netflix globally and that 80 percent of its members in India chose to watch a movie every week.

“India is the big market for them,” Vivekanand Subbaraman, a tech, media, and telecom analyst at Ambit Capital, told Zenger News.

“They are not going to China on multiple accounts. And, other developed markets like America are somewhat saturated. So, they are banking on India for sure.”

“They have also emphasized multiple times that India is a strategic market for them. It’s also an important market for cross-content strategy. Like they introduce Spanish shows like ‘Money Heist’ or a French show like ‘Lupin’,” Subbaraman said.

Delhi Crime
Netflix series “Delhi Crime” won an International Emmy. (Courtesy: Netflix India)

“Netflix wants to create this hook for people to remain subscribed because these platforms have one big issue, they have a high churn where affordability is an issue.”

And India is a price-sensitive market. So, Netflix changed the pricing for the Indian market, again a first, by introducing a mobile-only subscription plan for INR 199 ($2.7) in 2019, which it later rolled out in other countries.

Apart from this, the firm’s subscription plans are on the pricier end of the spectrum in India.  A basic Netflix plan costs INR 499 ($6.8) per month, and its premium subscription costs INR 799 ($10.3) for a month.

In comparison, Disney+ Hotstar’s VIP membership is INR 399 ($5.5) per year and INR 1499 ($20.5) for its premium subscription. On the other hand, Amazon Prime charges INR 129 ($1.7) for a monthly membership and INR 999 ($13.7) for an annual one.

And, while Netflix is the top streaming platform globally with 208 million paid subscribers, the company is behind its competitors like Disney+ Hotstar and Amazon Prime in India.

For instance, Netflix and Disney+ Hotstar accounted for 50 percent of all Subscription Video on Demand subscribers in India in 2020. But the latter tripled its subscriber base from 8 million to 25.6 million subscribers in 2020, while Netflix’s India base grew to 4.4 million subscribers from 2.4 million in 2019, Omdia’s report said.

Poster of the Netflix series “Bad Boy Billionaires: India”. (IMDb)

The last few years have also seen streaming platforms invest in original content to boost subscriber numbers, especially in local Indian languages.

Netflix began to make original content in India with “Sacred Games” in 2018, a crime thriller nominated for the Best Drama Series at the 2019 International Emmy Awards. Another series, “Delhi Crime”, based on the 2012 rape case in the nation’s capital, won the International Emmy in the Best Drama Series category in 2020.

“Having original content has become more of an imperative now, for large content companies, as the incumbent industry players like Sony, Star, and Zee are not selling their content so readily to streaming platforms,” Subbaraman said.

“The imperative for someone to sign on to Netflix is also a bit reduced because of the Indian players who are cheaper.”

Netflix also launched NetFX last year, a cloud-based platform that enables multiple creators and artists to work on visual effects for titles globally.

(Edited by Amrita Das and Gaurab Dasgupta)

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