Why Jeffrey Katzenberg’s Quibi Is Luring A-List Talent

Meg Whitman and Jeffrey Katzenberg Quibi
Michael Buckner/Variety

“Training Day” director Antoine Fuqua met with Jeffrey Katzenberg in late 2016, shortly after the presidential election, for an early-morning breakfast session on Los Angeles’ Westside.

Katzenberg, passionate about how younger generations consume shows and movies, wanted to talk about a new concept of entertainment: short-form, highly produced shows and movies that viewers would watch from their smartphones in “chapters.”

A two-and-a-half-hour movie would be broken down into eight- to 10-minute snippets, for example. The service, which launches April 6, 2020, would come to be known as Quibi, short for “quick bites.”

The deals promise to be creator-friendly.

Projects will be exclusively licensed to the service for seven years. But after two years, producers gain the rights to repackage the series as a feature film.

“That alone was an amazing proposition,” Fuqua tells Variety. “I jumped right on that idea. It’s essentially someone paying for the film and you get to own it.” The power of Katzenberg’s standing in the industry didn’t hurt. “Sitting down with Jeffrey Katz­enberg is like sitting down with the God­father,” Fuqua adds.

To say that Hollywood’s curiosity about Quibi is linked to Katzenberg is an understatement. People are excited about it because he is excited about it. People believe in it because he believes in it. But as an onslaught of high-profile Quibi projects reach the announcement stage, questions have begun to arise about the viability of the platform’s emerging business model.

Targeting 25- to 35-year-old millennials, Quibi will house serialized scripted and unscripted content as well as news and sports. It will release fresh excerpts of content daily, to be watched during pockets of free time as people stand in line for coffee or find a dull moment in their day. Once content is on the service, users can access it whenever they want. It’s not appointment viewing, though it’s not binge TV either.

But one industry exec, who prefers to remain unnamed, questions whether young people, so used to getting something for nothing, will cotton to Quibi’s plans to offer an ad-supported tier for $4.99 a month and an ad-free version for $7.99 a month.

Another exec is wary about Quibi’s plan to release series episodes once every 24 hours, and wonders if users will stockpile the snippets and simply watch them in a traditional feature-length linear fashion. There is also skepticism about whether the viewership will justify the cost. Quibi is set to pay producers cost plus 20%, up to $6 million per hour. Fuqua’s project alone, “#Freerayshawn,” on which he’s the producer and TV helmer Seith Mann is the director, has a $15 million budget.

Proponents of the platform believe that Katzenberg is reinventing pay television for a younger audience. So far, he has amassed an impressive array of backers from Hollywood, Silicon Valley and Wall Street.

Steering Quibi as CEO is Meg Whitman, formerly the chief of eBay and Hewlett-Packard. Katzenberg credits her with bringing on board Quibi’s half-dozen advertisers, ranging from Google to Walmart to AB InBev, and their $100 million in upfront ad inventory. And the company has so far raised $1 billion in funding from Disney, Sony Pictures Entertainment, NBCUniversal, Viacom and WarnerMedia, among others. Whitman has said Quibi plans to raise another half billion later this year or early next.

“It’s a safety net,” Katzenberg told Variety in June. “You want to look for funding when you don’t need funding.”

Talent and literary agents are generally excited at the prospect of getting into business with Quibi, saying that the deciding factor was Katzenberg himself. The former studio boss went door to door to various agencies, selling them on the prospect of going into business with his and Whitman’s new company.

Prior to one such meeting, one agent regarded Quibi as “just another Snapchat,” initially feeling Quibi productions would be worth little money to clients and attract little industry attention. But Katzenberg’s salesmanship won the agent over, as did his deep industry connections.

Katzenberg and Whitman have also been making the rounds with speaking engagements at industry events — such as Cannes Lions, SXSW and the Produced By Conference — to positive receptions.

It’s not as if the short-form premium video market is entirely devoid of precedent. USC School of the Cinematic Arts professor Jason Squire notes that mobile video is “enormously popular” in China.

Yet high-profile attempts at such a service in the U.S. have met with limited success. Verizon’s ill-fated Go90 short-form mobile video service launched to much fanfare in 2015, with projects hailing from noted digital producers like Funny or Die, Vice and AwesomenessTV. Even with the built-in user base of Verizon subscribers, the service never found its legs and was shuttered in 2018. And Verizon and AwesomenessTV’s separate “HBO for millennials”-style premium video service failed to launch entirely.

Snap has said that its originals have solid engagement and reach tens of millions of views among the service’s nearly 200 million daily active users — but as with other social media platforms, what constitutes a “view” is but a few seconds of viewing.

None of Snap’s current originals boasts any A-list talent or creators, though whether that is a determining factor for a millennial audience is another pertinent question.

“I think we’ve seen a lot of iterations of this in the past, people trying to figure out short form, but I don’t think they’ve necessarily brought the resources, the capital and the thinking that Jeffrey is bringing to Quibi,” says David Freeman, CAA’s co-head of digital talent and packaging. “So everyone is spending a considerable amount of time on their mobile phones, and we do believe that there is room in a world of streamers for short-form premium content. … Great storytelling still wins.”

The technical specifics of directing and producing shows for a handheld device are admittedly tricky.

“It makes you think a little differently,” says Fuqua, whose movie is in production. “As a filmmaker, if someone told me they were watching my dailies on their phone, I would cringe. You have to reverse-engineer your thinking to a smaller screen.”

Brightness is a factor, since Quibi intends for viewers to watch the shows between 7 a.m. and 7 p.m. on their phone (except for Steven Spielberg’s horror series, which will be accessible to Quibi users only after dark).

That most of the content is intended to be consumed in broad daylight — during work and school hours — will prove to be either a hindrance or an opportunity.

Writers, producers and directors will have to consider how to structure each “quick bite” so that the minutes-long story is satisfying and engaging as a stand-alone snippet, but also made in such a way that it can be seamlessly threaded and reproduced as a feature-length movie.

Quibi has set an ambitious initial programming slate. Thus far the company has announced just shy of two dozen projects on both the scripted and the unscripted
side, working with studios like Sony, CBS Television Studios and Universal Television. Given the segmented format, the company has previously said it expects to have 7,000 individual pieces of content available within a year of launching.

On the scripted side, Sam Raimi is working on a horror anthology project, while Anna Kendrick is set to star in a buddy comedy about a woman and her boyfriend’s sex doll. Other A-listers doing scripted projects at Quibi include Guillermo del Toro, Don Cheadle and Liam Hemsworth.

Quibi’s unscripted projects also boast a number of big names. Tyra Banks has set up a docu-series titled “Beauty”; Chrissy Teigen is doing a comedy courtroom show; and Idris Elba is doing a show that will see him face off against a professional driver in a series of car stunts. Quibi also has revivals of the MTV shows “Punk’d” and “Singled Out” in the works, with other programs coming from Jennifer Lopez, Lena Waithe and Steph Curry.

Success would mean more subscribers and more advertising revenue, but some wonder whether that will help or hurt the value of the IP and its attractiveness on the secondary market. How ably will creators monetize their work a full two years after it has already been made public? And as Quibi experiences growing pains, how will its model change?

Only time will tell.

“I think we owe it to ourselves to be pioneers and try something,” says Fuqua. “Give it your best shot to entertain people in a new way — otherwise you’re a dinosaur. The world will pass you by.”

Todd Spangler contributed to this report.