– By James Powers –
Hollywood producing giant Jeffrey Katzenberg has some big plans afoot, although you may not have heard about them quite yet. Katzenberg, the former Disney chairman who went on to co-found Dreamworks (thus giving us, among other things, the animation Burger King to Disney’s animation McDonald’s, but that’s a different story), is now looking to revolutionize the cinema landscape altogether. Specifically, he plans to do so by moving mainstream Hollywood talent out of the theaters and into our phones, via a new streaming service called Quibi that is slated to launch later next year. So far investors, many of whom are from major studios such as Paramount and Disney, have put about $1 billion behind the project. And I’ll admit, it sounds cool. But I also have my doubts about it. The project may indeed revolutionize the way we watch movies and TV… or it may just be a lame attempt by Hollywood to defend its pop culture empire from the ongoing invasion of Netflix, Hulu and other independent producers.
It’s no secret that Netflix and its competitors have completely upended the world of film and TV. Fewer and fewer people are spending their time on theatrical releases; more and more are opting instead for the near-infinite variety of content that is now available via streaming, from archival seasons of beloved sitcoms to inventive, edgy indie dramas. By contrast, mainstream Hollywood is looking like the complacent fat cat, overly dependent on repetitive blockbusters and Oscar bait that audiences are increasingly losing interest in. Katzenberg’s project, however, might offer Hollywood a chance to beat this new generation of media titans at their own game.
For some time now he has been developing the project under the working title of NewTV, but recently he and co-founder Meg Whitman revealed the new official name of Quibi. Sounds…appropriately startup-y. But what is it? Short for “Quick Bites,” Quibi will be a new streaming platform in the vein of Netflix, Hulu, HBOGo, et al…but with a twist. Instead of streaming films, sitcoms and hour-long TV dramas, Quibi will specialize in “short-form” (aka “snackable”) content designed, as its name suggests, to be consumed on-the-go.
“But wait,” you might then reasonably ask, “why do we need that? Don’t we already have YouTube for all the news snippets and hilarious cat videos and 5-minute-history-lessons- with-fun-infographics that we could possibly want?” Well, yes. And Katzenberg knows this. But what if, instead of watching a cat video while at the bus stop or procrastinating on homework, you watched an episode of a show that has Game of Thrones-level writing and production value…but is only 10 minutes long? This is more or less what Quibi will offer, and in fact it is something entirely new: Hollywood budgets and talent, applied to a Netflix format, for a YouTube attention span.
Filmmakers such as Guillermo del Toro, Jason Blum and Antoine Fuqua are already signed on to develop shows for Quibi that will be eked out in 10-minute episodes, and Katzenberg promises it will be revolutionary. Where before we had Hollywood storytellers just filling up our evenings and weekends, now they could potentially be there with us in the waiting room, on our commute, during a coffee break – in all those little gaps that used to be wasted time. And he’s right: if this takes off, it will completely change the way we consume film, TV and stories in general.
But maybe there’s a reason this hasn’t been done before. As one critic noted, Quibi basically aims to “compete with nobody in a market that barely exists.” It’s true that there is a 1 ton of short-form content out there – the vast majority of it on YouTube – and it is very popular. But very little of it has been serialized, that is, developed as a sequence of short episodes that string together into one narrative (which is very different from, say, the documentarian or comedy-sketch brands of many popular YouTubers). Other media startups – go90, Studio+, Vessel, – have attempted to serialize short-form and failed. Katzenberg thinks it’s high time we see the “snackable” version of Game of Thrones or Stranger Things…but he doesn’t seem to be asking if there’s a reason we haven’t seen that yet. Or at any rate, he seems to think the reason is that we haven’t had Hollywood budgets and talent backing it.
But what if there’s a different reason, one that Hollywood isn’t any more capable of solving than YouTube is? What if the reason snackable series haven’t taken off is simply that audiences don’t want them, the same way you wouldn’t really want a meal consisting entirely of Doritos and Mountain Dew? Katzenberg doesn’t seem to have considered this possibility, or if he has he’s written it off. At a recent tech conference he said that “viewers no longer have frequent stretches of 30 to 40 minutes to watch uninterrupted content, even though they consume 70 minutes of short-form content a day.” That’s a puzzling claim for him to make, as the fact remains that people are still finding time to binge watch all sorts of things.
Here’s the thing: the ongoing popularity of binging – and the ongoing failure to wrangle cinema into a “snackable” form – has, I think, two very simple causes. First of all, good stories take time. A quick 10-minute slot is great for delivering information, humor, entertainment and ideas to an audience, but it’s not so great for delivering a resonant story. Simple as that. The whole premise of snackable content is that it is consumed quickly, when you just have few extra minutes to be distracted. Contrast this with the experience of binging that show you can’t get enough of, or even just watching a good film – you get sucked in, you find yourself ignoring your phone, you look up and suddenly realize that two hours have gone by.
But time isn’t the the only problem – after all, by itself that’s a surmountable one. As MGM’s TV chairman Mark Burnett points out, TV writers have been working in narrow time restrictions for decades, organizing story hooks around built-in commercial breaks every 10 minutes or so. The other problem is much bigger: good stories require not only time but mental space. In a word, they require leisure, and this is a need that Katzenberg doesn’t seem to be accounting for. Unlike film, broadcast or cable viewers, Quibi’s target audience isn’t going to be sitting at home and unwinding after the workday. They are a mobile-first audience, “on- the-go” by definition. This means that Quibi’s programming won’t only be competing with other content for its viewers’ attention – it will be competing with whatever is going on in their lives at that moment. They won’t be settling down for the express purpose of watching something; they will merely be looking for something to briefly occupy their attention during a moment of idleness in an otherwise busy schedule. It’s one thing to ask viewers to engage with a brief, self-contained piece of pop journalism from Vice or BuzzFeed while they are sitting at the bus stop, but it is entirely different to ask them to dive into an ongoing Breaking Bad-esque narrative when their attention has just been elsewhere, and will soon be somewhere else again.
I think that Katzenberg’s failure to understand this might be setting him up for a losing battle against Netflix and co. Other streaming services are finding success because they offer something that audiences want, and that Quibi, almost by definition, will not: an affordable haven away from their increasingly hectic lifestyle. The theater has become too expensive (and too homogenous) to offer that escape, and Quibi won’t really offer any escape at all. With it, Katzenberg is basically proposing to bring stories into our on-the-go lifestyle, rather than building us a safe space in which to enjoy them, and that’s a little backwards.
To be clear, I’m not saying that streaming services are necessarily a new Mecca of high- quality film and TV that will rescue us from the bloated predictable product of Hollywood. But at the same time…they kind of are. If nothing else, Netflix and Hulu and Amazon understand the fundamental need of the average, exhausted, middle-income human to sometimes plunk down on the couch and do nothing but listen to a good story for a while. Hollywood’s product is often too overpriced and undercooked to satisfy that need, and Katzenberg just doesn’t seem to understand it period. More’s the pity, but in the meantime, I’ll happily go home when I’m done writing this to curl up with some Crazy Ex-Girlfriend or The Haunting of Hill House. Then in the morning I’ll get up and go be busy again.
About the Author
James Powers is currently earning his MBA in Film Producing at JPCatholic as a member of the class of 2019.
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