LAS VEGAS — Here comes Quibi.
Jeffrey Katzenberg and Meg Whitman revved up the public launch campaign Wednesday morning at the CES conference for the streaming service billed as the first platform for original short-form content designed to be viewed on smartphones and other mobile devices. The pair talked up plans to launch with some 175 series in the first year, with plans to deliver three hours of fresh content each day.
Quibi has been in the works for two and a half years. It’s been Katzenberg’s primary focus since the 2016 sale of DreamWorks Animation to Comcast. He has recruited all of the major media giants as investors in the ambitious ventures, and seemingly everyone in the creative community is working on a show or two for the platform.
But with the April 6 launch date approaching, the consumer PR effort is the new focus, starting Wednesday with the launch of Quibi.com, where the pair hopes to begin collecting email addresses for those who want to be in the loop on plans for the service. Quibi plans to deliver everything from scripted dramas and comedies to news, weather, sports and other nonfiction material that the company will package as “Daily Essentials” for users.
In an interview with Variety, Katzenberg and Whitman marveled at how dramatically the streaming content marketplace has expanded in the time that they have been nurturing Quibi.
“I’m thrilled we picked the path we did,” Katzenberg said. “As our industry goes up the mounting to fight the battles for consumers and engagement and all kinds of new offerings, I’m so happy that we chose to go our own path and be the first to pioneer the mobile experience. This is about whether we succeed or fail, not what somebody else does. I love that.”
Katzenberg and Whitman emphasized the importance of Quibi delivering content that integrates smartphone functions and interactive features directly into the storytelling. Zach Wechter, director and exec producer of the Quibi thriller series “Wireless,” said the POV in the show changes depending on whether the viewer is holding the phone in horizontal or vertical mode. In vertical mode, the viewer sees the story unfolding through the perspective of the character’s smartphone.
“There is all sorts of artistic merit to designing a project specifically designed to be watched on the phone,” Wechter told Variety. “It’s a wholly new medium. The viewing experience is very intimate. You hold it close to your face. You’re alone most of the time when you take in this content. Just as with any artist thinking about working in a new medium, designing something specifically for phones is exciting.”
Wechter noted that the rampant growth of Instagram is a sign that consumers crave short-form content. Katzenberg observed that the average time spent watching video on smartphones daily has spiked from about 40 minutes two years ago to about 80 minutes today.
“There’s not a week that goes by where we don’t find some data point in the business where we say ‘That’s good for us,’ ” Katzenberg said. Quibi at present has about 230 employees. All of the company’s content comes from outside providers. Quibi itself does not have any production infrastructure.
Quibi will offer an ad-supported version for $4.99 a month and an ad-free version for $7.99 a month. The company announced last year that it has already sold out its advertising inventory for the first year, a $150 million haul.
The venture is a bold bet on the company’s original content being compelling enough to draw viewers. Katzenberg and Whitman acknowledged that they don’t have the heft of a Disney or HBO behind them to drive subscriber acquisition. Whitman said they aim to leverage the social media heft of the stars working on Quibi shows to help spread the word.
“We have to build awareness,” Whitman said. Quibi will launch a marketing blitz in the near future on major digital and social platforms as well as traditional TV and out of home.
The Quibi partners have been encouraged by the response from the public to various programming announcements that have been coming at a steady clip for more than a year. “From the sublime to the ridiculous, we’ve got it all,” Katzenberg promised.
When Chrissy Teigen unveiled plans to host a comedy court show “Chrissy’s Court,” she had some 3,000 submissions for prospective litigants within minutes, Whitman said.
“One of the things we’re excited about is how important fresh content is to people,” Whitman said. “Our research has found that people were excited that there is going to be three hours of fresh content every day, 52 weeks a year.”
Quibi is serving up a host of a series and projects that it will dub “Movies in Chapters,” which will be released every other Monday. Most of Quibi’s shows will be made available at 6:30 a.m. ET on the day of release, although some shows will be scheduled accordingly such as a planned news program from the BBC that will be released at noon ET.
Producing scripted content for the Quibi platform was a learning experience for two seasoned Hollywood helmers, Catherine Hardwicke and Antoine Fuqua, who were among the first to commit to working for Quibi.
“I love a big challenge,” Hardwicke told Variety. The short running time of episodes “forces you to really boil down the scenes to their essence.” Hardwicke is steering the drama “Don’t Look Deeper,” set 15 minutes in the future, which stars Don Cheadle and Emily Mortimer. The show will run 14 episodes, which adds up to a feature-length two hours.
Hardwicke noted that framing shots was a challenge to make scenes work in vertical and horizontal mode. “If you’ve got a two shot and someone shifts their weight a little, all of a sudden it’s a single.” She noted that Quibi’s technology tools also allowed her to monitor the post-production process in real time via streaming on her phone.
“I could see what the editor was cutting on my phone as she was cutting it,” Hardwicke said. “That really helped for seeing how things look on a phone screen.”
Fuqua is exec producer of “#FreeRayshawn,” about an Iraq war vet who barricades himself inside an apartment with his girlfriend and child after he’s framed by New Orleans police for a drug deal. He uses the phone to communicate with a hostage negotiator played by Laurence Fishburne.
Fuqua concurred with Hardwicke on the learning curve that it took with cameras and camera angles to deliver cinematic-worthy visuals on the series, which was directed by Seith Mann. Fuqua said he found that the experience was invigorating for cast and crew members.
“There’s no old wise man who comes to tell you all the rules (of production),” Fuqua told Variety. “That doesn’t exist any more. If it works and it’s compelling, then it works. Those are the only rules.”
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