|Hollywood Bets On a Future of Quick Clips and Tiny Screens|
Entertainment startup Quibi has already won over industry A-listers with its vision for short-form mobile streaming. But will it catch on with viewers?
January 8, 2019
Katzenberg says he spent three hours convincing Whitman to be the CEO of Quibi. “If you don’t ask, you don’t get it,” he says.Photograph: Rozette Rago
TV, but on phones! You know—for kids?
That’s it. That’s the pitch.
The company making that pitch is called Quibi—a portmanteau of “quick bites.” Its product: less-than-10-minute fiction, reality-show, and news videos streamed exclusively to mobile devices. The shows will be high-end, glossy even, with the production values that only international news divisions and Hollywood studios can manage, but they’ll have the rough shape of user-generated content. Disney, but YouTube. Amazon Prime, but TikTok.
Even Quibi’s origin story sounds like a pitch, this time for a buddy comedy: Ex-studio mogul partners with a former big-shot tech CEO for one last big score. The mogul is Jeffrey Katzenberg, former chief of Walt Disney Studios, the K in Dreamworks SKG, most Hollywood of Hollywood people. The CEO is Meg Whitman, former CEO of eBay and Hewlett-Packard. In a world dominated by a market of 18- to 44-year-olds, two old pros come out of retirement to show the kids how things are done.
This is What Hollywood Is Talking About Now.
Partially that’s because the entertainment business is very open to innovation in a time of great change—by which I mean, everything is on fire and people are running around screaming. The old studio-and-network, theater, and broadcast system is melting into a bubbling cauldron of subscription-based streaming services and online video, and the younger viewers at whom advertisers always want to flash their logos are fleeing the old transmission systems for newer ones with weirder names.
Amid that chaos, Quibi has raised $1 billion in investment capital from every major Hollywood studio and most of the major tech companies. It has corralled an A-list tsunami to make programs—Steven Spielberg, Steven Soderbergh, Guillermo del Toro, Anna Kendrick, Zac Efron, Chrissy Teigen, Jennifer Lopez, Antoine Fuqua, Sam Raimi, Catherine Hardwicke, Idris Elba, Kevin Hart, Lena Waithe, NBC News, ESPN, BBC. The whole thing launches in April with a year of advertisements already sold. It’ll cost $4.99 a month with ads or $7.99 without, and the phone company T-Mobile has already promised to bundle subscriptions to customers—neither Quibi nor T-Mobile would say how many.
Quibi is a thing that is happening. Whether it is a thing millennials and Gen Zers will actually look at is a whole other question. It’s what Katzenberg and Whitman are pitching, hard, in a keynote address at CES in Las Vegas. But really, it’ll get answered only when Katzenberg and Whitman press the button to turn the thing on.
Ask people why they signed up to make a thing for Quibi, and they’ll talk about the general clustereffery that show business has become, but they’ll also say, simply, “Jeffrey.” That’s Katzenberg, who is a macher. He is late to our meeting in a glassed-in Quibi conference room because his earlier meeting with Spielberg ran long. He has to leave a little early because he has a phone call scheduled with Tommy Hilfiger. Status: signaled.
In between, Katzenberg explains that he and Whitman have known each other for 35 years, since he was running Disney and she was a VP there. Katzenberg led the Disney animation renaissance—Lion King, Beauty and the Beast, etc.—that the company is still revisiting with live-action remakes.
But things change. He got ousted, with acrimony, in 1994, and just weeks later announced he was starting a new studio with Spielberg and David Geffen … sparking a whole other animation renaissance (Shrek, Kung Fu Panda, etc.). And now, he says with perhaps some satisfaction, people in Hollywood are joking that if you’re not on a project with Quibi, you’re not really a people in Hollywood. (This seems like the right time to disclose that Roger Lynch, CEO of WIRED’s parent company, Condé Nast, is on Quibi’s board, and WIRED is in early talks about having a show on the streamer.)
After Disney, Whitman went on to a series of heavy-hitter companies, from Hasbro to eBay—when, as she says, it was nonobvious that people wanted to buy stuff online. She left HP after six years at the helm; Katzenberg says he was on a plane to Silicon Valley that night to offer the CEO job at Quibi. She was planning to go travel; he pitched her for three and a half hours. He needed what she knew. “If you don’t ask, you don’t get it. If you don’t take a swing, kick the ball, run with it, you don’t score,” Katzenberg says. “I’ve always come from the school: Go for the unattainable. This is honestly the second time in my lifetime when I actually got the absolute perfect, unattainable partner.”
“What was the first?” I ask.
“Steven Spielberg and David Geffen,” he says.
The guy can do a meeting, I’m saying. And it was good teeing-up, too, because this is roughly when Whitman joined us in the conference room.
Despite what everyone else I talked to said, Katzenberg’s own hypothesis for why a large fraction of Hollywood signed up to make Quibi shows has little to do with him, or even with technology. Broadly, it’s a little bit “show” and a little bit “business.”
The “show” part is the next turn of the evolution of story structure, he says. Movies are a couple of hours of story meant to be consumed in a gulp; TV shows you can choose to see as either a unit of 22 minutes or 42 minutes (that’s show minus commercials), or as a however-many-hours-long story taking one season or many.
But in all of those formats, the secret, irreducible unit is the act. As in a play, these are story subsections, akin to chapters. Movies have them, though smart screenwriters disagree about how many and how long they ought to be. In radio and broadcast TV, commercials became de facto act breaks—an hour-long show has roughly five, in the modern construction. “And the first act break is always at—” Whitman says. “—eight and a half minutes,” Katzenberg finishes.
So while short online video seems more like the purview of a social network or YouTube, the fact is that TV and moviemakers already understand the qui in Quibi. (It’s short for “quick” in case you’ve forgotten. Yeah, I’m not really sure about the name either.) They’re already making shows with acts of 10 or so minutes.
They can already imagine series with those constraints—whether they’re single stories told over multiple episodes or anthology-type shows like Sam Raimi’s 50 States of Fright, which will tell different scary stories set in every US state. “What Quibi is doing is taking these two proven sciences and actually converging them together for our ‘lighthouses,’” Katzenberg says, “in which we’re telling a two-hour story in chapters that are seven to 10 minutes long.”
There’s further inducement—a quibi pro quo. The rise of multiple streaming networks, restructurings at various studios, and an ongoing fight between TV writers and the agencies that represent them all sum up to lots of new opportunities for writers, producers, actors, and the production folks who make entertainment for screens. The old, predictable systems and schedules for making all that stuff no longer apply.
That’s scary, but it also creates a landscape of experimentation. “It might be worth thinking of Quibi the way we think of Darpa. Darpa’s job is to think of new stuff that might not work, but if it works it’ll be very important,” says John Rogers, a veteran television writer and showrunner (who doesn’t have a Quibi show). “You can’t predict what the audience is going to respond to. If you could, all television would be good and high-rated, and there would be no executives.”
That’s not only true for drama and comedy. At NBC News’ famed New York headquarters in Rockefeller Center, producer Madeleine Haeringer is building a whole new newsroom for Quibi shows—two every weekday, one a day on weekends. She’s hiring new correspondents, producers, editors, and crew. They start rehearsals in February, aiming not for a traditional anchor-throws-to-correspondents structure but something more in-depth. “Working within that construct is actually pretty great for me,” says Haeringer, who started her news career at NBC, launched Vice News on HBO, and came back to run the Quibi shows.
TV news is already about short bites; the freer Quibi format actually gives Haeringer more flexibility to go in depth, she says. “A lot of the evening news shows don’t do [segments of] two minutes or more, and that’s fine. It’s great for them. But if I need seven minutes, I can do it.”
That sounds good for news—but why not do it online, or on NBC's own incipient streaming network Peacock? “It’s an emerging platform,” Haeringer says, “and if that’s where viewers are going to be, we want to get to them.
Phones, you’ll hasten to say, have two orientations—horizontal landscape and vertical portrait. Reasonable online video networks could differ on which is better for the viewing experience.
Quibi will do both. Everything it streams will have two versions, landscape and portrait, and (thanks to some clever buffering technology) your view will smoothly shift from one to the other when you rotate your phone; the audio stream unifies the two. The tech folks at Quibi call this Turnstyle, and they say that one of their business advantages is being able to focus on technological innovation like phone-turning rather than prosaic stuff like content management software to organize video or uninterruptible streaming servers.
Breaching those technological barriers made companies like Netflix and Amazon Prime possible. They also made those companies expensive to launch and maintain. Now, though, what was bespoke wiring under the hood is commodity hardware and software, much of it open source. This is what analysts call “last-mover advantage.”
Turnstyle, though, is new, and creative types are finding interesting uses for it already. Quibi’s tech leads showed me a news program demo where infographics moved from above the talking head’s head in portrait to left-of-screen in landscape. In a more cinematic demo, a long depth-of-field shot revolved into a wide master on the turn.
Quibi uses a technology called Turnstyle to allow seamless transitions between portrait and landscape views. This show, the car-stunt series Elba vs. Block, will premier later this year.
Give directors a new set of tools, and they’ll use them. Catherine Hardwicke directed the teen drama Thirteen and the teen vampire/werewolf drama Twilight, so when her agents brought her the script for Quibi’s Don’t Look Deeper—part girl-coming-of-age and part sci-fi—she was inclined toward it. The opportunity to shoot something in a novel way clinched the deal.
First, Hardwicke and her director of photography did a test. They shot a scene twice—horizontal in the morning and vertical in the afternoon—and tried editing both. Eventually Hardwicke decided they could get good quality from shooting widescreen and then making the portrait view in the edit, reframing shots by panning-and-scanning during post production. “We mostly just went for it, shot the most beautiful, composed horizontal frames we could, and then it took us about three more weeks to compose in vertical,” Hardwicke says.
Don’t Look Deeper will have 14 episodes totaling just under two hours, and her actors have all done movies—Don Cheadle, Emily Mortimer, and relative newcomer Helena Howard. Hardwicke says the resources she had added up to roughly a $10 million budget—sort of midway-ish between Thirteen’s $1.5 million and Twilight’s $37 million. But Don’t Look Deeper doesn’t act like a movie. “It’s more nonlinear and more fun. We have a cold open in each episode, and each episode ends in some kind of cliffhanger, like ‘holy shit, did that just happen? Fuck, what are we going to do next?’” Hardwicke says. “It added an energy I really liked.”
The upcoming sci-fi drama series Don’t Look Deeper also takes advantage of Turnstyle.
The experiments get weirder from there. Steven Soderbergh is shooting Wireless, his cliffhangery suspense thing, his usual way—with a high-end digital camera aimed at actors acting. But since a lot of the character interaction takes place via phone, every actor also shoots their scenes with devices that capture their texting and video chatting. Their phones capture them through the front-facing camera, and another device strapped to the back shoots outward, as if through the rear-facing camera, for the phone’s POV. Soderbergh’s landscape edit will be the traditional one; the portrait edit will use the phone footage. You, the nominal viewer, will flip-flop between the two.
Gimicky or intriguing? Hard to know. I can tell you that WIRED’s original iPad edition had different landscape and portrait versions of every page. They were meticulously executed, and if readers had shrugged any harder they’d have dislocated their shoulders. We had the numbers. It was a different time!
Meanwhile, the Quibi programming grid is full of concepts higher than Brad Pitt at a Snoop Dogg party. On Jennifer Lopez’s reality show, she’ll give $100,000 to someone in her life who influenced her, and then that person has to give half of it to someone who influenced them, and likewise all the way back up the line. (Would it suck to be the 10th person in line, who by my math would get about $95? Eh, that’s a decent night out.)
For a dating show, Quibi will post profiles of prospective daters on Monday, viewers will send back their videos of why they should go on the date on Tuesday, they’ll pick Wednesday, go on the date Thursday, and then show the results in an episode on Friday. Katzenberg says one of his favorites is Barkitecture. “This is Cribs,” he says, “but for dogs.”
Quibi will have 35 high-gloss narrative shows—Katzenberg’s aforementioned “lighthouses”—in the first year, along with 115 “alternative” shows and daily “quick bites.” So that’s one lighthouse, five quick bites, and 25 “essentials” per day, from the jump. “That is over 180 minutes of original content that we put up every day,” Katzenberg says. “A broadcast network in prime time publishes 135 minutes. So we’re 35 percent more original content every day.”
No one in television or online video knows what’s going to happen next, Whitman says: “A lot of what we’re doing here is based on our judgment and our experience and some research.”Photograph: Rozette RagoThat’s the “show” part; now we can talk business. According to Quibi’s research, in 2012 people watched an average of six minutes of video a day on their phones. By 2018 it was 60 minutes, and though the final numbers aren’t in, in 2019 it was 75 minutes. It’s even higher, Whitman says, among younger viewers, though she didn’t share that specific demographic breakdown.
Some of that digital video is movies or series television—premium longform. Some of it is user-generated or “semiprofessional,” whether long or short. But none of it, Katzenberg and Whitman believe, is premium but also short-form. Or at least, none that’s curated in one place. The trends tend toward that kind of content, Whitman says, and the business area is a “white space,” new customer behavior that opens an opportunity for a business that latecomer entrants would have a hard time copying. It also has a large potential market cap. “I’ve seen every business plan in Silicon Valley for the last 20 years, and virtually none of the time are those four all at work,” Whitman says. “Those four are all at work here.”
Some dollar figures might prove it. By Whitman’s accounting, user-generated or semipro video gets made for anywhere from pennies per minute to thousands of dollars per minute. Premium longform shows cost $10,000 to $100,000 per minute. That means 10 minutes of show can cost $1 million—uneconomical for the vast majority of what’s on YouTube. “YouTube can’t sell a million dollars’ worth of advertising to cover that piece of content,” Whitman says. “That’s why our monetization model is subscription plus advertising, because we have to generate enough funds to go buy this quality of content in its short form.”
Quibi provides the (high) budget, paying creators or other studios the cost of production plus 20 percent, which is nice. That content gets licensed to run on Quibi only for seven years, but the rights belong to the creators, who never lose ownership of their intellectual property. Theoretically that means whether Quibi launches successful shows with cultural oomph or merely goes pfft, the creators can eventually take their ball to some other court. “We have given people a financial incentive and ownership in their own work that they have never had before in this town,” Katzenberg says. “Or at least they haven’t had it for a really, really long time.”
The pitch to advertisers is designed to be just as compelling: brand safety. Quibi’s year of pre-sold pre-roll comes from heavyweight transnational brands like Walmart, Pepsi, Google, Progressive, and ABInBev (so Budweiser or some other beer). Those companies are watching the demographics they covet flee ad havens like prime-time TV, magazines, and newspapers for the web.
But putting an ad up alongside user-generated content can be algorithmic roulette. Today’s Twitch narrator or Instagram make-up applier could be tomorrow’s Nazi or #metoo-villain. “If you think about the tens of billions of dollars that are still spent on network broadcast television, in prime time, every one of those advertisers knows they have to move those dollars elsewhere as the audience is moving,” says Tom Conrad, Quibi’s chief product officer. “And so you say, well, where do you go with that money that has the same characteristics of that network?”
Not to be grandiose, but dealmaking like this suggests a new direction for television (or whatever we’re going to call video entertainment transmitted via the wireless internet). Quibi is a Hollywood startup, a studio-like entity doing something interesting with the internet, as opposed to a Silicon Valley tech business doing something interesting with content. The technology might be cool, but it’s not important (as long as it works). The dealmaking, though? That could make Quibi, um, quibiquitous.
I leave the well-appointed offices of Quibi, two floors of open-plan in the heart of Hollywood’s industrial studio zone, in the frame of mind one should have on leaving a good pitch meeting. I’m thinking, well, maybe it could work (and I’m regretting slightly my decision not to fill my pockets at the Candy Wall). Then, when I get downstairs, I have to sidestep a film crew striking a shoot in the building’s ground floor, and I remember that until something in this town is concrete, it’s filigree. A Hollywood "yes" generally means "no."
Just up the street I walk past a soundstage under construction, open to the world, a featureless white box with curved corners empty of everything except stardust, potential, and a couple of scissor lifts. Maybe Jeffrey Katzenberg and Meg Whitman are running the Big Con, and if I went back to the building today I’d find two empty floors, a couple of broken chairs, and wires dangling from the ceiling.
I mean, almost certainly not. But believing that Quibi is the next big thing does require buying into a few basic concepts. You have to believe, for example, that the people watching more video on mobile devices want video optimized for those devices as opposed to just, like, pressing pause. “The under-25 crowd has grown up with short-form video, from YouTube to Snapchat to really short form on Vine and TikTok,” says Ben Carlson, senior vice president and general manager of streaming platforms at the analytics company MarketCast.
But, he adds, when successful iterations in those media like Between Two Ferns or Awkward Black Girl moved to more “grown-up” media, that leveling-up—leveling-over?—came with increases in length and more traditional formats. “There is ample evidence of a desire for short-form content on a mobile device,” Carlson says. “What is as yet unproven is what happens when you set Hollywood professional storytellers out to do content specifically for that.”
One possible advantage Quibi has—and I’m just spitballing here—is that because its shows have a unique format and delivery mechanism, people will remember where they watched. Carlson says people often have trouble attributing which streamer carries which show, as when people protested the show Good Omens at Netflix even though it ran on Amazon Prime.
Maybe a Quibi show won’t be subject to the same kind of network brand confusion suffered by each of the other 75 bazillion TV programs. Quibi will need that kind of differentiation if it’s going to succeed; HBO Max powers up in May, and NBCUniversal’s Peacock unfurls in April. Quibi is launching into a crowded sky.
Maybe phones-only quick bites are a brand differentiator, but that won’t help if Quibi doesn’t have a hit. For now, Carlson says that Quibi shows like the documentary series on the rivalry between DC and Marvel Comics, produced by the Russo Brothers—makers of the last two Avengers movies—and a Reno 911 revival have gotten the most chatter. The Spielberg and Del Toro shows? Not so much. Of course, that could all change once they actually debut.
You further have to believe that people will pay for something they already get for free. You can already watch short videos on your phone, for the cost of your mobile subscription. To be fair, consumers have made that transition before, with music and television. Now, potential paying customers will have to ask whether it's worth adding another $60 a year to a credit card bill already laden with entertainment options? Amazon Prime video is essentially a perk that comes with faster delivery, so maybe you keep that. Cable often comes with home internet. Netflix … maybe. Disney+ is a yes for families and nerds; DC Universe even more so. CBS Online is using Star Trek as a wedge into new TV business models, a tradition in the industry. And that’s not even counting music services, videogames, newspapers, and magazines. At some point, people are going to start to say no. If Quibi is that point, the company has a problem.
Quibi (or something like it) isn’t the only possible answer to all these questions. The this-is-fine fire in which Hollywood now burns extends at least as far north as Mountain View, where YouTube, that maximalist provider of video-to-mobile, is preparing for a future that’s the opposite of the one Quibi pitches. Fully 70 percent of YouTube watch time is on mobile, but the company’s fastest-growing locus is the big screen at the front of the living room—250 million hours of video watched a day on a billion devices as an approximate replacement for cable TV.
Relative to mobile, what people are watching on that screen is a higher-than-usual proportion of premium stuff like full TV episodes, movies, and livestreamed events. “As more and more folks are getting smart TVs, they’re all HD-capable, and YouTube has the largest library, so it sort of makes sense,” says Kurt Wilms, head of living room at YouTube. (His official title is project manager.) “Folks are looking for content similar to traditional television, so we’re trying to make it easier for a viewer to select content and lean back.” (Yes, it’s harder to search with a scroll wheel and a remote than with a phone keypad. YouTube technologists are spending a lot of money on voice search, Wilms says.)
No one in television or online video knows what’s going to happen next. Whitman and Katzenberg have been good at seeing the future a few times already. “A lot of what we’re doing here is based on our judgment and our experience and some research. I think it’s hard to research products that don’t exist,” Whitman says. “But once we launch, it’s all about the data. We have no legacy tech platform and we have no legacy data platform. So all this is being built de novo, purpose built. Which is actually really fun.”
That’s why people are willing to spend money to try something as manifestly outlandish as Quibi. Young people are watching a lot of free video on their phones. They might be willing to pay for it if it was better. So why not?
That’s it. That’s the pitch.
Updated 1-9-20, 1:45PM ET: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that 215 million hours of YouTube are watched on televisions a day. It's 250 million hours.