Disney dominates animation category, why other studios can’t compete

Sven the reindeer and Olaf from “Frozen II.”


Disney has long been the king of animation, with titles that have not only hauled in billions of dollars at the global box office, but also scored a record number of Academy Awards.

This year, that trend continues.

The company, which has two animation studios, has vastly outperformed its competitors, luring audiences to theaters in droves to see new stories and sequels to franchise titles. Disney’s brand reputation, stellar storytelling and emotional resonance has kept it at the top of the box office.

The debut of “Frozen II” last weekend combined with the billion-dollar “Toy Story 4” means Disney has now garnered more than $1.4 billion in ticket sales from its animated movies so far in 2019. And “Frozen II” still has plenty of room to grow, with analysts foreseeing the film topping $1 billion by the end of its run.

Disney’s closest competitor, Universal, which now owns Dreamworks, has brought in $1.2 billion this year from three animated features — “How To Train Your Dragon: Hidden World,” “Secret Life of Pets 2” and “Abominable.”

Every other studio that released an animated feature this year tallied less than $200 million in sales at the global box office.

Part of Disney’s success in this category stems from having two distinct animation arms. Walt Disney Animation Studios and Pixar are separate studios that produce enough content that Disney can typically have between two to three animated releases each year.

“The output from each division is so distinctive and different in voice and tone,” Paul Dergarabedian, senior media analyst at Comscore, said. “And it never feels like they are repeating themselves.”

The diverse characters, stories and points of view are part of the reason that Dergarabedian feels like there isn’t “any Disney fatigue in the market place.”

In just the last few years, Disney has released animated stories that have featured anthropomorphic racing cars, energetic video game characters, a family of superheros trying to fit into regular society and a young boy that travels to the Land of the Dead to learn the truth about his family.

Characters Forky and Woody from Disney’s “Toy Story 4.”

Disney | Pixar

Still, both the Walt Disney Animation Studios and Pixar releases all have something in common — heart. Whether the films are about monsters discovering that laughs are more powerful than screams, a father clownfish looking for his missing son or an ice queen learning to control her powers, Disney films always seem to tap into some core emotional truth.

“There’s just something about the quality of Disney,” Dergarabedian said. “The emotion that people tie to Disney, to that brand, is the most powerful thing.”

King of the box office

The animated films that Disney releases are well-suited for children and adults. The films are designed so that young kids can follow the story, but have enough complexity for older kids and even adults who aren’t parents to want to venture to the movie theater.

And Disney has been rewarded for this. The company currently holds seven of the top 10 spots on the list of highest-grossing animated movies in North America and around the world.

“What Disney has had, and what they still have now, is brand name appeal with parents,” Shawn Robbins, chief analyst at BoxOffice, said. “Kids have always watched Disney movies.”

Of course, other studios have been able to make movie magic at the box office with their animated titles. Dreamworks’ “Shrek 2” is currently the third highest-grossing animated film in North America and Universal’s “Minions” is the third highest grossing animated film globally.

Currently, NBCUniversal owns both Dreamworks and Illumination Entertainment, although it only recently acquired Dreamworks.

“Shrek” was a surprise hit for Dreamworks. The tale of an ogre from a swamp teaming up with a talking donkey and a princess was unconventional, which is part of what endeared it to audiences. Children loved Eddie Murphy’s sassy donkey and the abundant fart jokes, while adults and critics enjoyed how the film played against typical fantasy tropes.

The film also had an unconventional ending. Fiona, who was cursed to turn into an ogre when the sun goes down each day, kisses Shrek and remains and ogre. In a more typical fairy tale story, audiences would have expected for Fiona to remain human or for Shrek to have been transformed into a human.

The success of the first film led to a number of sequels, although “Shrek 2” has been the most lucrative for Dreamworks.

Similarly, Universal’s Illumination Entertainment, which produced the “Despicible Me” movies and their sequels as well as “Secret Life of Pets” movies.

Stuart, Kevin and Bob, left to right, dig their new gadgets in the animated film “Minions.”

Universal Pictures

While “Secret Life of Pets” and “Despicable Me 2” performed well in North America, “Minions,” which was a prequel film focused on the small yellow creatures from the “Despicable Me” franchise, garnered more than $1 billion the global box office in 2015 and remains the third-highest grossing animation film world wide.

The unique, cute and silly pill-shaped characters have had universal appeal, not just with American audiences, but internationally. Part of it is their appearance — they’re cute. But, the other piece is their distinct personalities. The Minions are the id personified. They are joyful and mischievous, prone to distraction, but also unceasingly devoted to the ones they love.

Their antics translate to audiences around the world. Then there is their language. While at times it seems like they are just fumbling with words, the Minions actually babble in Spanish, Italian, Chinese, Filipino, French and Russian.

Still, the number of blowout box office successes for Disney’s rival studios pale in comparison to what The House of Mouse has been able to achieve.

“Disney has spent decades of building good will,” Dergarabedian said. “It started all the way back with “Snow White” in 1937. It’s very difficult to think of another brand that has that kind of cachet with audiences.”

Disclosure: Comcast, the parent company of CNBC, owns Universal and Dreamworks.

Winter storms sweep the US as travelers return from Thanksgiving holiday

Wintry weather bedeviled Thanksgiving weekend travelers across the United States Saturday as a powerful and dangerous storm moved eastward, dumping heavy snow from parts of California to the northern Midwest and inundating other areas with rain.

Authorities found the bodies of two young children, including a 5-year-old boy, and a third child was missing in central Arizona after a vehicle was swept away while attempting to cross a runoff-swollen creek. A storm-related death also was reported in South Dakota.

The National Weather Service said the storm was expected to drop 6 to 12 inches of snow from the northern Plains states into Minnesota, Wisconsin and Upper Michigan.

Blizzard conditions early Saturday were already buffeting the High Plains. The city of Duluth, Minnesota, issued a “no travel advisory” beginning at noon Saturday because of a major snow storm it termed “historic.”

Duluth officials asked the public to be patient as plows clear roadways and recommended that drivers stay off the roads to prevent accidents and let officers respond more quickly to emergencies.

Farther south, rain and thunderstorms were forecast along and ahead of the cold front, with heavy rainfall possible Saturday in parts of the Tennessee and Ohio Valleys.

Forecasters said a new storm is expected to bring California several feet of mountain snow, rain and gusty winds through the weekend. Another system is forecast to develop in the mid-Atlantic Sunday, moving as a nor’easter into Monday.

Airlines at O’Hare International and Midway International in Chicago reported average delays of 15 minutes as a winter storm headed toward the Midwest with heavy snow and ice and gusty winds.

The companies said they had canceled 27 flights at O’Hare and two at Midway as people scramble to get home on the year’s busiest travel weekend.

At Denver International Airport, there were 100 flights canceled Saturday because of high winds.

“Tomorrow, the airlines anticipate to be the busiest travel day of the Thanksgiving period at both O’Hare and Midway,” said Karen Pride, a spokeswoman for the Chicago Department of Aviation. “Everybody thinks the day before Thanksgiving is the busiest; it is not.”

Authorities in the western states were still grappling Saturday with the aftermath of heavy rains and snow over the busiest travel weekend of the year.

In Arizona, officials initially found body of the 5-year-old about 3 miles downstream from where the vehicle they were riding in was swept away Friday, said Gila County sheriff’s Lt. Virgil Dodd. The second of the three children turned up later Saturday. The sheriff’s office didn’t provide the second child’s age and gender.

The agency said Saturday two other children and two adults who were in the vehicle were rescued from a small island and the bank of the creek in Tonto National Forest northeast of Phoenix. Sheriff’s officials initially had said six people, including four children, were rescued Friday at locations along the creek.

Families in California took advantage of the early season snow in the Grapevine area, sledding down slopes in Frazier Park, California. Traffic was heavy but Interstate 5 was open in both directions as holiday travelers headed home.

High winds and ice were making travel almost impossible in some other places, however.

A 100-mile section of Interstate 80 in Nebraska and Wyoming closed Saturday morning because of high winds and blowing snow.

The Nebraska Department of Transportation said I-80 was closed in both directions and advised against travel in the state’s Panhandle region. Several other roads and highways also were closed.

Back-to-back snowstorms and strong winds combined to serious complicate travel by land across much of the rest of Wyoming, where roads were closed in the eastern and southern parts of the state because of whiteout conditions.

The National Weather Service in Wyoming reported 4 inches of snow fell in Cheyenne from 7 p.m. Friday through 10 a.m. Saturday “that has been blown all over kingdom come by our winds,” said meteorologist Andrew Lyons.

That was added to a foot of snow that fell before Thanksgiving.

Wind gusts up to 50 mph created ground blizzards and below-zero wind chill temperatures in some areas. A wind gust of 77 mph was reported in the mountains between Cheyenne and Laramie, Lyons said.

All roads in and out of Casper were closed Saturday morning, including the entire 300-mile stretch (483-kilometer) of Interstate 25 in Wyoming.

Travel was also difficult in Colorado Saturday as winds blew around snow that had fallen in previous days.

Northeastern Colorado roads were closed due to strong winds, blowing and drifting snow and poor visibility.

Interstate 25, U.S. Highway 85 and U.S. Highway 287 were closed north of Fort Collins, Colorado due to the poor conditions in Wyoming.

Black Friday shopping at brick-and-mortar stores dropped by 6%

Black Friday shoppers wait to purchase goods at a Best Buy store on November 29, 2019 in Emeryville, United States. Black Friday is traditionally the biggest shopping event of the year, and marks the beginning of the holiday shopping season.

Philip Pacheco | Getty Images News | Getty Images

Black Friday brick-and-mortar retail sales fell by 6.2% compared to last year as consumers eschewed in-person shopping for online purchasing, according to preliminary data from ShopperTrak.

The pullback corresponds with a jump in Black Friday spending online, which hit $7.4 billion, the largest online Black Friday total ever, according to Adobe Analytics.

“There is no longer one way to shop on Thanksgiving Day and Black Friday,” said Brian Field, senior director of global retail consulting for ShopperTrak. “Black Friday continues to remain the busiest shopping day of the year by a long shot.”

The drop in Black Friday physical shopping mirrors a year-long share pullback in departments stores including Macy’s, Kohl’s and Foot Locker, all of which are down more than 25% this year. Meanwhile, Amazon, the dominant U.S. e-commerce retailer, has gained about 20% this year.

Brick-and-mortar sales on Thanksgiving Day rose 2.3% from a year ago, resulting in a combined 3% decline for the two-day period, according to the ShopperTrak data.

Eight of the 10 predicted busiest shopping days of the year are still to come as the December holidays arrive, according to ShopperTrak. Dec. 2, also known as Cyber Monday, is on track to break records as the biggest online sales day ever, at $9.4 billion, based on Adobe estimates.

Watch: Next retail revolution treating clients with dignity: Ethan Allen CEO

Ilhan Omar’s opponent banned on Twitter for suggesting hanging of Omar

Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-MN) holds a news conference to discuss legislation creating “a federal grant program to help local governments invest in waste reduction initiatives,” at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, July 25, 2019.

Mary F. Calvert | Reuters

Twitter permanently banned Democratic Rep. Ilhan Omar’s Republican opponent on Friday after she accused the Minnesota congresswoman of treason and wrote on the platform that Omar should be hanged.

Danielle Stella, a candidate hoping to challenge Omar for her Minnesota seat in the 2020 election, tweeted earlier this week, “If it is proven @IlhanMN passed sensitive info to Iran, she should be tried for #treason and hanged.”

The post that followed included a crude drawing of a body hanging from gallows with a link to a right-wing website on her belief that Omar should be hanged if a conspiracy that Omar provided sensitive intelligence to Qatar and Iran were true.

NBC News has found no evidence that support this claim, but Stella is also a known purveyor of the far-right fringe QAnon conspiracy theory.

A Twitter spokesperson confirmed on Saturday that Stella had been permanently banned from the platform but did not specify why.

“The accounts were permanently suspended for repeated violations of the Twitter Rules,” the spokesperson said over email, referring to the candidate’s campaign and personal accounts.

After receiving considerable backlash for the posts, Stella defended herself on Facebook. She claimed that she had not threatened Omar.

“Breathe, think this through, logically. To clarify, I said, ‘If it is proven ____ passed sensitive info to Iran, she should be tried for #treason and hanged,’ Stella wrote on Facebook, leaving a blank space where Omar’s Twitter handle had been. “Treason is the only thing mentioned in the constitution for the death penalty, punishable by hanging or firing squad. I believe all involved should be thoroughly investigated. I did not threaten anyone.”

Stella did not immediately respond to a request for comment from NBC News.

Omar responded to Stella’s comments on Twitter, stating that the Republican candidate’s latest statements only expands on dangerous political rhetoric that can lead to threats and harm.

“This is the natural result of a political environment where anti-Muslim dogwhistles and dehumanization are normalized by an entire political party and its media outlets,” Omar wrote on Twitter. “Violent rhetoric inevitably leads to violent threats, and ultimately, violent acts.”

Omar has received a number of death threats since winning her seat in the 2018 midterms. President Donald Trump has often taken abusive swipes at the congresswoman on Twitter, which has caused Democrats to accuse him of trying to incite violence against the Muslim lawmaker.

A New York man pleaded guilty on Nov. 18 to threatening to kill Omar in a March call to her office. He faces a maximum of 10 years in prison and up to a $250,000 fine.

Black Friday shoppers spend record $7.4 billion

A group of Black Friday online shopping purchases photographed in delivery boxes filled with polystyrene packing pellets, taken on September 13, 2019.

Future Publishing | Future | Getty Images

Black Friday shoppers spent $7.4 billion online, the second largest Internet shopping day ever, according to data compiled by Adobe Analytics.

The $7.4 billion marked the biggest sales day ever for Black Friday and trailed only last year’s Cyber Monday’s $7.9 billion for the number 1 spot of all-time in online revenue, according to Adobe’s data. The average order value per consumer, at $168, was up nearly 6% year-over-year and also set a new Black Friday record. Adobe Analytics measures transactions from 80 of the top 100 U.S. online retailers.

“Small Business Saturday” has already seen $470 million in online spend, up 18% over last year, as of 9 a.m. ET. Sales are on pace to surpass $3 billion for the day, said Adobe.

“With Christmas now rapidly approaching, consumers increasingly jumped on their phones rather than standing in line,” said Taylor Schreiner, principal analyst and head of Adobe Digital Insights, in a statement. “Small Business Saturday will accelerate sales for those retailers who can offer unique products or services that the retail giants can’t provide.”

Online sales are up about 20% from last year, according to Adobe. The jump in cyber activity is a sign consumers are becoming more comfortable buying larger items at discount prices without going to the store. Adobe is still expecting spending on Cyber Monday this year to hit an even bigger record $9.4 billion, an 18.9% jump from a year ago.

Shoppers have already spent $4.2 billion online on Thanksgiving Day, a 14.5% increase from last year and a record high, Adobe said Friday. Some of the most popular purchased items include Disney’s “Frozen 2” toys, video games such as FIFA 20 and Madden 20, and electronics such as Apple Airpods and Samsung TVs.

While some traditional brick-and-mortar stores have successfully transitioned to online shopping, such as Target and Walmart, others including Kohl’s, Gap and Macy’s have struggled. Target’s stock has risen about 95% this year and Walmart has surged nearly 30% while Kohl’s, Gap and Macy’s shares are down 25% or more year to date.

WATCH: These six retailers facing make-or-break holiday shopping season.

Fiat Chrysler, UAW reach new tentative labor deal

UAW President Gary Jones (left) and FCA North America Chief Operating Officer Mark Stewart opened 2019 contract talks with a ceremonial hand shake during an event on July 16, 2019 at the company’s North American headquarters in Auburn Hills, Mich.

Fiat Chrysler

DETROIT – Fiat Chrysler and the United Auto Workers union have reached a tentative deal on a new labor contract amid tumultuous times for both sides.

The UAW Bargaining Committee agreed to a deal with Fiat Chrysler to add $4.5 billion in investments, translating to 7,900 jobs over the course of a four-year deal, according to a UAW statement. The $4.5 billion comes on top of an earlier pledge of $4.5 billion for a total of $9 billion marked for new investment, UAW Vice President Cindy Estrada said in the statement.

Fiat Chrysler confirmed in a statement that it had reached a tentative deal with UAW. 

Last week the UAW turned its attention to Fiat Chrysler – the last of the Detroit automakers it needs to seal a new contract with in 2019.

The agreement comes days after the resignations of two high-ranking union officials, including UAW President Gary Jones, who were connected to an ongoing federal corruption probe of the union. Jones, whose Michigan home was raided by federal agents in August, has not been charged by federal prosecutors.

It also comes nearly a month after Fiat Chrysler announced plans to merge with French automaker PSA Group.

A final agreement is likely at least a week or two away from being approved or rejected by rank-and-file union members. The UAW-Fiat Chrysler National Council will meet on Dec. 4 to go over details of the proposed deal. If adopted, the tentative agreement will go to all Fiat Chrysler hourly and salary workers for a ratification vote that will begin on Dec. 6, according to the statement.

The pact is expected to share many of the same terms as the union’s recent contracts with Ford Motor and General Motors. Those deals included 3% raises or 4% lump-sum bonuses each year of the contract, retention of roughly 3% out-of-pocket health-care costs and a path for temporary workers to become full-time employees.

“Out of respect for our members, we will refrain from commenting any further or releasing full details of the agreement until the UAW-FCA Council leaders meet and review the details,” said Estrada in the statement.

GM also agreed to $11,000 ratification bonuses for most of its full-time employees. Ford agreed to $9,000 ratification bonuses, however previous contracts have included lower amounts for Fiat Chrysler workers.

The federal probe into corruption of the UAW, which started with Fiat Chrysler, has led to charges against 13 people, including seven convictions of people affiliated with the union and three Fiat Chrysler executives.

— CNBC’s Alex Sherman contributed to this report

How NASA is evolving through partnerships with private space companies

NASA is opening up the International Space Station for tourists with the first mission as early as 2020.

Stocktrek Images | Getty Images

Companies are increasingly looking to space as a place of business, and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration has been changing in several different ways, especially by partnering with corporations to develop new technologies.

Earlier this year NASA announced it would open the International Space Station to private astronauts, with short missions beginning as soon as 2020. Additionally, NASA said it would allow companies to bid for new activities on the space station, as the agency unveiled a directive to “enable commercial manufacturing and production” in space.

The space station has been touted as a stepping-stone toward creating an ecosystem of business in orbit around the Earth, so companies can manufacture, experiment, advertise and even host tourists. After NASA’s announcement, agency CFO Jeff DeWit spoke to CNBC about how more companies involved in the space station will “lower the cost and lower the risk” of doing business in outer space.

“How you drive that is based on what we’re doing now, which is trying to now prove the concepts and get the commercial sector involved,” DeWit said. “The only outcome for this is a positive, not only for NASA but for the space economy for private companies.”

DeWit pointed to the satellite segment of the industry as an example for how shifting ownership and operations from government-built-and-owned to commercial can drive innovation, such as communications or services like satellite television.

“The early satellites were all government-owned, and they were limited in their scope and very expensive. When satellites really took off is when the commercial sector came in,” DeWit said. “The commercial sector figured out these uses that the government never would have figured out, and they put their own satellites up there. The cost came down a lot, and the uses went up a lot.”

That’s a model DeWit sees NASA increasingly replicating, whether its purchasing services from private companies for the agency or providing development awards so companies can develop technologies that NASA wants to utilize. A key example of the latter is NASA’s “Tipping Point” awards, which the agency began issuing in 2014. The awards created public-private partnerships, as NASA calls them, which officials such as administrator Jim Bridenstine often refer to today as critical to the agency’s future success.

“The idea was to see how we can actually make use of this emerging commercial space sector,” LK Kubendran, a NASA leader in commercial partnerships, told CNBC on Wednesday. “So it’s just NASA alone in developing technologies.”

In the past five years, NASA has awarded five groups of tipping point awards, worth more than $120 million combined. Broadly speaking, a company or project selected for a tipping point award receives NASA resources up to a fixed amount, with the private side paying for at least 25% of the program’s total costs. This allows NASA to shepherd the development of important space technologies while trying to save the agency money. Kubendran highlighted manufacturing company Made in Space as an example of the success of this program, as the company received a tipping point award in 2015 and is now testing its 3D-printing technology in space.

“That can go a long way to actually making the demo in flight and eventually allowing us to manufacture in space,” Kubendran said. “That’s actually a great example of how private sector and we have collaborated to make certain things happen.”

Each batch of tipping point awards are divided among multiple programs. The most recent awards, announced in September, saw 14 U.S. companies win a combined $43 million to develop technologies that will help NASA’s “Moon to Mars” initiative. The contracts went to a wide variety of companies — from SpaceX to Blue Origin to Astrobotic – for a variety of purposes — from producing cryogenic production, to developing sustainable energy generators or building affordable propulsion systems for small spacecraft.

SpaceX and Boeing to fly NASA astronauts

Another one of the agency’s top focuses is a program called Commercial Crew, which is the agency’s solution to end reliance on Russian Soyuz spacecraft to send astronauts to the space station. NASA has awarded SpaceX and Boeing more than $3.1 billion and $4.8 billion, respectively, since 2014 to develop capsules capable of launching U.S. astronauts multiple times per year. SpaceX and Boeing are close to completing work on their respective Crew Dragon and Starliner capsules, while Bridenstine said in October that the first launches with crew on board may happen as early as the first months of 2020.

Commercial Crew is representative of a shift within NASA, where the agency buys services rather than hardware from companies. While delays have plagued the program, both companies are in the final stages of testing the capsules. Boeing expects to conduct its uncrewed test flight of Starliner on Dec. 17, which will be much like SpaceX’s Demo-1 mission earlier this year. And, after SpaceX completed a key test of its Crew Dragon capsule, the company expects to conduct a test of the capsule’s emergency escape system during a launch in December.

NASA expects to pay about $90 million per seat to fly with Boeing and $55 million to fly with SpaceX. A seat on a Russian Soyuz spacecraft would cost about $82 million per person currently.

Towns try to stoke excitement for Small Business Saturday

Independent retailers are gearing up for Small Business Saturday, a day used to promote mom-and-pop retailers, and many towns are doing their best to support the effort. 

In 2018, an estimated 104 million consumers shopped at independent retailers and restaurants on the Saturday after Thanksgiving. They spent $17.8 billion, the most since the shopping event was created by American Express in 2010 to help drum up business in the wake of the Great Recession.

Kathi Petrocelli opened The Olive Tap in 2006, right before that economic downturn started. The shop, which sells olive oil, balsamic vinegars and gourmet foods, is one of 49 small businesses in downtown Long Grove, Illinois. On Small Business Saturday, the store will usually see a few hundred customers more than it would on a regular holiday season day, she said.

Woman shopping through The Olive Tap in Long Grove, Illinois.

Diamaris Martino / CNBC

The town works with the American Express Small Business Saturday campaign to promote the event, and individual retailers like The Olive Tap promote it on their social media accounts and flyers.

“Our village prides itself on the small-town feel and personal attention to shoppers with unique and beautiful items,” said Laurie Wilhoit, marketing communications manager for the Historic Downtown Long Grove Business Association.

The Olive Tap in Long Grove, Illinois.

Diamaris Martino / CNBC

Between 500 and 700 people participate in the event, according to Wilhoit.

“Our communities are really supportive,” said Mathilde Wiest-Puchala, an employee at Morkes Chocolates. “We don’t see that many people on an average week. In the summer, it’s busier but in this area it gets pretty cold, so people are more prone to shop online.”

Mathilde Wiest-Puchala, a employee at Morkes Chocolates in downtown Long Grove, Illinois

Diamaris Martino / CNBC

In Summit, New Jersey, around 200 businesses participate in the event, which is one of the busiest shopping days for the town, said Meredith Hendra, a spokeswoman for the city.

The town goes all out for the hectic day. One promotion is the Shop Summit Passport event, which helps to encourage shoppers to explore the town’s hundreds of businesses. Shoppers can get a “passport” stamped at any of the downtown businesses. Once they collect eight stamps — four of which have to be retailers — they can enter to win a $500 Summit Visa gift card. The day is also filled with entertainment and carriage rides.

“Small Business Saturday is a great way to promote shopping small and shopping local in downtowns and the businesses and the downtown benefit from that message going out on a national level,” said Hendra.

Brazil’s president accuses actor DiCaprio of financing Amazon fires

Federal deputy Jair Bolsonaro delivers a speech during the national convention of the Party for Socialism and Liberation (PSL) where he is to be formalised as a candidate for the Presidency of the Republic, in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil July 22, 2018.

Ricardo Moraes | Reuters

Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro claimed on Friday that Hollywood star Leonardo DiCaprio financed fires being set in the Amazon rainforest, without presenting any evidence, the right-wing leader’s latest broadside in casting blame over forest fires that have generated international concern.

Bolsonaro appeared to be commenting on social media postings claiming that the environmental organization the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) had paid for images taken by volunteer firefighters that it then supposedly used to solicit donations, including a $500,000 contribution from DiCaprio.

The WWF has denied receiving a donation from DiCaprio or obtaining photos from the firefighters.

“This Leonardo DiCaprio is a cool guy, right? Giving money to torch the Amazon,” Bolsonaro said on Friday during brief remarks in front of the presidential residence.

DiCaprio denied having donated to the WWF. In a statement, the actor lauded “the people of Brazil working to save their natural and cultural heritage.” But, he said, “While worthy of support, we did not fund the organizations targeted.”

DiCaprio has been an outspoken advocate on behalf of combating climate change, speaking frequently about environmental issues including the Amazon forest fires. His Leonardo DiCaprio Foundation, which is focused on projects that “protect vulnerable wildlife from extinction,” is part of the Earth Alliance.

Four members of the nongovernmental organization Alter do Chão Fire Brigade were arrested on Tuesday with police accusing them of purposefully setting fires in order to document them and drum up more donations. They were released on Thursday on a judge’s order.

Politicians and other NGOs fiercely criticized the arrest, saying it was part of a concerted attempt by Bolsonaro’s government to harass environmental groups.

Scientists and activists blame land speculators, farmers and ranchers for setting the fires to clear land for agricultural use, saying that deforesters are being emboldened by Bolsonaro’s rhetoric of promoting development and farming over preservation.

The Amazon rainforest is considered a bulwark against global climate change.

Bolsonaro has repeatedly lashed out at various factions in casting blame for the forest fires.

In a Facebook live post on Aug. 21, he said, “Everything indicates” that NGOs were going to the Amazon to “set fire” to the forest. When asked then if he had evidence to back up his claims, Bolsonaro said he had “no written plan,” adding, “that’s not how it’s done.”

One day later he admitted that farmers could be illegally setting the rainforest ablaze, but roughly a month later he attacked the “lying media” for saying that the rainforest was being devastated by the fires.

Bolsonaro talked about DiCaprio on Thursday during a live webcast. The president said the WWF paid the firefighting NGO to take pictures of forest fires in the Amazon.

“So what did the NGO do? What is the easiest thing? Set fire to the forest. Take pictures, make a video,” the president said. “(WWF) makes a campaign against Brazil, it contacts Leonardo DiCaprio, he donates $500,000.”

“A part of that went to the people that were setting fires. Leonardo DiCaprio, you are contributing to the fire in the Amazon, that won’t do,” Bolsonaro said.

China’s factory activity unexpectedly returns to growth in November

Employees work on the production line of a robot vacuum cleaner factory of Matsutek in Shenzhen, China August 9, 2019.

Jason Lee | Reuters

Factory activity in China unexpectedly returned to growth in November for the first time in seven months, as domestic demand picked up on Beijing’s accelerated stimulus measures to steady growth.

But gains were slight, and export demand remained sluggish. More U.S. tariffs are looming within weeks and Beijing and Washington are still haggling over the first phase of a trade deal.

With China’s economic growth cooling to near 30-year lows and industrial profits shrinking, speculation is mounting that Beijing needs to roll out stimulus more quickly and more aggressively, even if it risks adding to a pile of debt.

The Purchasing Managers’ Index (PMI) bounced back to 50.2 in November, its highest since March, China’s National Bureau of Statistics (NBS) said on Saturday, above the 50-point mark that separates growth from contraction on a monthly basis.

The result compared with 49.3 in October. A Reuters poll showed analysts expected the November PMI to come in at 49.5.

The official factory gauge pointed to an improvement in China’s vast manufacturing sector last month. Total new orders bounced back to expansionary territory with the sub-index rising to 51.3, the highest level seen since April.

That indicates domestic consumption firmed up after Beijing repeatedly urged local governments to kick stimulus up a gear to meet economic goals before year-end. Factory output also rose to 52.6 in November, marking the strongest pace since March.

“In the short term, we may have already passed the low point where the economy hit the bottom,” Zhang Deli, a macro analyst with Lianxun Securities, wrote in a note.

Beijing has front-loaded 1 trillion yuan ($142 billion) of a 2020 local government special bonds quota to this year and has urged that they be issued and used as early as possible to boost infrastructure investment. Some analysts say that could be a sign that the government is worried about downward economic pressure.

Zhang attributed to the better-than-expected November PMI to a government push on infrastructure investment, less property market control, and a de-escalation in U.S.-China trade tension in October, when both sides said they had substantially reached a “Phase 1” agreement and the United States delayed a tariff increase scheduled to take place on October 15.

Rising uncertainties 

But recent developments underscore rising uncertainties in the trade conflict, which bodes ill for the outlook for external demand. New export orders fell for an 18th straight month in November, albeit at a slower pace, with the sub-index rising to 48.8 from 47.0 in October.

U.S. President Donald Trump said this week that the world’s largest economies are close to reaching agreement on the first phase deal. But trade experts and people close to the White House said it could slide into the new year, given China is pressing for more extensive tariff rollbacks.

An additional 15% in U.S. tariffs are scheduled to take effect on about $156 billion of Chinese products on Dec. 15.

Trump has also highlighted Washington’s support for protesters in Hong Kong, potentially a huge sore point for China.

The PMI survey also indicated factories continued to cut jobs in November despite slightly improved business confidence, while it signaled a further deterioration in profits for Chinese manufacturers, with output prices falling into a three-month low.

Beijing’s drive to guide more bank lending towards small private firms appeared to be working. Their PMI index recorded the strongest gain in November, compared to medium-sized and large firms, but their performance was still the poorest of the three at 49.4.

Growth in China’s services sector also quickened in November, while construction activity held up well, but growth in the latter slowed compared to the previous month, a separate statistics bureau survey showed.

The official non-manufacturing PMI picked up to 54.4, recovering from October’s 52.8, the lowest point since February 2016.

A strong services sector has offered Beijing some cushioning effect as manufacturers face growing difficulties in securing demand both at home and abroad. However, the sector’s resilience weakened late last year amid a broader economic slowdown.

Some analysts have also cast doubt over the prospects for robust growth in the construction sector.

“After all, we are still waiting for more definitive signs of a recovery in the credit cycle. Meanwhile, sentiment in the property market continues to cool down, which clouds the outlook of the sustainability of property investment growth,” researchers from China International Capital Corporation (CICC) said in a note this week.

China’s gross domestic product growth is expected to slow to a near three-decade low of 6.2% in 2019 and then hit 5.9% in 2020, according to a Reuters poll.