Quibi: On the Edge of Third-Generation Storytelling

In August 2018, renowned American producer Jeffrey Katzenberg announced the arrival of a new platform that would revolutionize the consumption habits of mobile audiences. Although the official launch won’t be until April 2020, Quibi continues to turn heads by dropping a series of tantalizing nuggets. Between its remarkable economic model and the announcement of collaborations that are impressive to say the least, the platform is positioning itself as a worthy competitor to the big digital players.

At the Banff World Media Festival’s opening conference, Katzenberg explained that Quibi is a contraction of quick bites. Quibi’s most distinct feature is the plan to produce content exclusively for mobile devices, casting aside the fixed screen in favour of episodic content lasting less than ten minutes. A content offering created specifically for intelligent devices implies building a substantial catalogue from the ground up. Indeed, during its first year of activity, Quibi plans on delivering 125 original productions of about 25 episodes a day for a total of some 7,000 episodes.

It’s an audacious gamble, but that’s right up Katzenberg’s alley: “I’m at my happiest when I am doing things that are somewhere between improbable and impossible—that’s my home address.”

When technology meets entertainment

Take Silicon Valley’s technological expertise and combine it with the know-how of Hollywood’s creative giants. That recipe might be worth a fortune, but only if it strikes the right balance between risk-taking and pragmatism.

"There needs to be as much innovation around that as with the content and the product. If we both set the bar as high as we are aiming, this could be a blockbuster."

To succeed, this joint project for which Katzenberg brought on board Meg Whitman (CEO of eBay and Hewlett-Packard in turn before joining Quibi) depends primarily on the collaborative meeting of two opposing minds: Katzenberg’s spontaneous creative genius and Whitman’s analytical thinking. Both assets are critical to delivering this type of product in a global context, as Katzenberg notes: “We need state-of-the-art technology, a platform and a user experience unlike anybody has seen before, and there needs to be as much innovation around that as with the content and the product. If we both set the bar as high as we are aiming, this could be a blockbuster. But I can’t do this without Meg and she would say the same.”

The new-wave of screen industry

According to Katzenberg, the evolution of formats in the audiovisual industry can be summarized in two phases. He sees the first generation as represented by the feature film, telling stories with a beginning, a middle and an end over a two-hour span. Such productions are still intended for viewing on a large screen in movie theatres. A second generation of storytellers arrived with television, a medium that encourages longer stories that are often told over 13 or 26 episodes, each representing about an hour of content designed for viewing on a smaller screen in the home. The leading media of those two generations—film and television—continue to coexist and occupy the most media space, despite the popularity of “new” mobile devices that were unknown in bygone days.

In 2018, as we pointed out in our last Trends Report, 89.1% of Canadians owned a mobile telephone. On average, Canadian consumers spend 40.5 hours online each week, 16.8 of those hours on a mobile device, and these statistics remain stable for 2019. That figure rises considerably among the 14–20 age group. According to a report by GlobalWebIndex on Generation Z consumption habits, 97% of that segment own a smartphone, and they spend a staggering 4.25 hours on mobile devices each day.

Are we on the cusp of a third generation of on-screen storytelling? “Seventy years after its arrival on the market, television has never been greater, more popular, there’s never been more diversity, more competition for the ways that we deliver to our consumers,” Katzenberg points out. “We’re witnessing extraordinary transformations right now, but there’s never been more TV and there’s never been more consumption of TV.”

Source: GlobalWebIndex

The goals Katzenberg and Whitman have set for Quibi are to tell stories in a new way and combine elements of the first two generations of audiovisual storytelling, creating a model of what they believe will be a third generation within the screen industry. As with feature films, the total length of stories will be about two hours, but broken into short chapters filmed, directed and edited for watching on the go. “We look at this not as short form, but long form in chapters, more like a novel” clarifies Katzenberg.

An innovative business model

By announcing that Quibi will adopt a subscription model, it’s hard not to compare the new service to Netflix, Amazon, Hulu, HBO and other on-demand television platforms. But Katzenberg underscores an important difference, pointing out that for those other brands, “less than 10% of their viewing is happening on the phone. We’re not competing directly with them, it's like saying we're competing against Spotify, on the macro sense yes for dollars, but for viewing or eyeballs, we're not.”

Two pricing plans will be available for consumers to subscribe to Quibi: $5 a month with advertising or an advertising-free premium subscription at $8 a month. A free trial period will also allow interested viewers access for about two weeks. During that short period, the platform founders intend to put eight flagship productions online. This “super premium” programming has a budget of $1 million per episode for a series of 15 episodes. Moreover, during the first year, some $470 million will be invested in marketing around the platform launch and its elite productions.

These amounts have manifestly attracted some big names in film and television. In recent months, such renowned directors as Sam Raimi, Guillermo del Toro and Antoine Fuqua have announced collaborative projects. Stephen Spielberg is even working on a horror series that can be viewed only at night. You can be sure that Katzenberg and his team will take full advantage of smartphone features not available on the fixed screen, such as geolocation, to give his creations full effect.

For content producers, the project could prove even more attractive because of an economic model that is different from that of other players. Katzenberg explains the operational logic: “When a team will edit the content, they will make two versions of it. The first version be the Quibi version in its 15 chapters. That version is exclusive to Quibi, so it’s a license deal, we license the content and it’s exclusive to Quibi for seven years. After that, the content is reverted to the producer and they own it free and clear, we have no longer interest whatsoever."

"it’s the first time it’s possible for all creators and producers and even the studios to own their own intellectual property."

"What we will also do when editing the show is we’ll do a second version of it, which is, think of it as a more traditional movie that will be edited into something to be watched in a single viewing. It’ll be approximately two hours, and two years after it airs on our platform, in its Quibi version, the producers are allowed to take the two-hour version and sell it globally to Apple, Amazon, Hulu, Netflix, HBO, etc. So it’s the first time it’s possible for all creators and producers and even the studios to own their own intellectual property.”

This makes for a potentially promising production partnership: Quibi is committed to paying for all episodes, in addition to a 20% markup on costs. “Filmmakers and storytellers are excited by the challenge of this, but also by the financial model that we created here. But, every single piece needs to be authored and the only way we can get to this volume of content is if every studio, every producer across the globe gets on board.”

Laurianne Désormiers
A professional in the culture and media sector, Laurianne Désormiers is responsible for the editorial section of CMF Trends. In parallel with her work with the Canada Media Fund, Laurianne is pursuing a Master's degree in Communication at UQAM, with a specialization in cinema and moving images. In the past, she has worked with the Phi Centre, DHC/ART, and CISM, and has collaborated on several cultural publications.
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