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Hollywood Keeps Saying Yes to Quibi. Wait, What’s Quibi?

Chrissy Tiegen, Kevin Hart, Jennifer Lopez, and Idris Elba.
Chrissy Teigen, Kevin Hart, Jennifer Lopez, and Idris Elba definitely know Quibi. Photo: Vulture, Getty Images and Shutterstock

Hollywood loves to jump on a bandwagon, whether it’s rebooting shows from 20 years ago, getting cast in a Marvel movie, or buying whatever Gwyneth is pitching on Goop. In 2019, Tinseltown types seem to have found a new obsession: signing up to do a project for Quibi, the mobile-centric, short-form streaming-video platform, founded by former Disney and DreamWorks chief Jeffrey Katzenberg, set to launch next spring.

Every few days brings news of another big-name talent (or brand) partnering with the service: Guillermo del Toro and Steven Spielberg are doing horror projects; Kevin Hart has a comedic-action series; Chrissy Teigen, Idris Elba, Tyra Banks, and Jennifer Lopez are starring in unscripted shows; Naomi Watts is doing a Blumhouse thriller. There are, of course, plenty of reboots, too: MTV is reviving Punk’d and Singled Out for Quibi, while new takes on The Fugitive, Varsity Blues, and How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days are all in development. And this just in: Quibi tells Vulture it is working with Vikings writer-producer Michael Hirst on Charlemagne, a biopic about the historical icon Charles the Great.

Quibi has confirmed more than 30 different projects and partnerships so far, and with plans to spend just over $1 billion for content during its first year, the steady stream of announcements from Katzenberg and Quibi CEO Meg Whitman should continue for quite some time. The company seems to be on solid financial footing: It has already raised more than $1 billion from a slew of big-name partners, while sponsors have prepurchased $100 million (and counting) in advertising time. But you might still be wondering exactly what Quibi will be, how it will work, and why its investors think people are going to pay at least $5 per month for shows they can only watch on their phones. With help from Katzenberg himself, Vulture got answers to some basic questions about the latest entrant in the war for your screen time.

What is Quibi?

It’s a subscription-based streaming platform designed to deliver short-form scripted and unscripted content to your cell phone. The name is a mash-up of the words “quick” and “bites,” a nod to the fact that episodes of Quibi shows will run roughly seven to ten minutes in length.

Who’s behind it?

Whitman and Katzenberg. Photo: Katie Jones/Variety/Shutterstock

Katzenberg is the project’s founder, while former eBay and Hewlett-Packard boss Meg Whitman serves as Quibi’s chief executive officer. The content team includes ex–DC Entertainment president Diane Nelson, former CAA exec Jim Toth, former THR co-president Janice Min (who’s focusing on news and information programs), and former Viacom/MTV exec Doug Herzog. A slew of big-media conglomerates are also putting their financial heft behind Quibi: Investors include Warner Bros., NBCUniversal, Disney, BBC Studios, Lionsgate, and MGM, according to media reports.

What kinds of shows will be on it?

Quibi plans to tackle just about every major scripted and unscripted format: comedy, drama, reality shows, documentaries, news. Katzenberg tells Vulture he and his team have even started thinking about ways to reinvent soap operas and late-night talk, evolving those classic genres for a shorter format and a younger audience. “The variety and diversity of the programming that we’re doing cuts across pretty much everything that you could imagine,” Katzenberg says. “We’re trying things in a lot of different spaces.”

How will shows be organized and how often will episodes be released?

Right now, Quibi is dividing its content into three major buckets. Marquee scripted titles, such as Mapleworth Murders (a comedy from SNL writing vet and Wine Country star Paula Pell) are being referred to internally as “lighthouses.” Such projects will run somewhere between two and two-and-a-half hours each season, divided into 12 to 14 daily episodes (or “chapters,” as Quibi calls them.) A new lighthouse will be released, on average, every two weeks.

Quibi’s biggest unscripted titles (reality shows, docs, competition shows) will be part of a section of programming the service is currently calling “quick bites.” Thanks a Million, where Jennifer Lopez helps hand out $100,000 to ten deserving folks over the course of ten Quibi-sized episodes, would fall into this category. While episodes will mostly be self-contained (like an hour of Shark Tank), these shows will all have a recurring format and host.

Finally, there will also be about a dozen so-called “daily essentials,” short bursts of news, entertainment, and lifestyle content that’s overseen by Min and her team. NBC News recently signed up to produce two daily reports that will fall under the daily essentials banner, while the BBC is also set to assemble its own Quibi-fied news program.

Are Quibi shows basically just movies, but told in shorter chunks?

Given most of the serialized Quibi scripted shows will run about two hours, it’s not a stretch to use movies as a frame of reference. But Katzenberg prefers to think of Quibi as something in the middle between film and TV.

“I don’t think of this as revolutionary as much as it’s evolutionary, in that you’re combining together these two tested forms of filmed narrative,” he says. “The first generation was two-hour movies that were created and designed to be watched in a single sitting in a movie theater. And the next generation was these very long, episodic and serialized stories that had either 13 or 26 chapters to them, and they were designed to be watched an hour or half-hour at a time in front of the TV set. What Quibi is setting out to do is the next form of film narrative — the convergence of those two ideas together. What we’re doing is telling stories that are two to two and a half hours long in chapters that are seven to ten minutes, with great talent, and designed to be watched on your phone.”

Will Quibi shows have multiple seasons? Or will they be self-contained pieces of entertainment, like feature films?

Yes. “Some of them are closed-in stories that have a beginning, a middle, and an end, and you’re done,” Katzenberg says, without offering specific examples. “And others have the opportunity to have ongoing, continuing seasons [or] … a sequel.”

How much Quibi programming will there be?

During its first year, Quibi has said it plans to roll out about 7,000 pieces of content. That sounds like a lot, but it’s also not the same as Netflix saying it has thousands of shows and movies (including library titles it licenses from outside studios). If, for example, Quibi ends up releasing a dozen daily essentials segments each day — the NBC newscasts, maybe an Entertainment Tonight–style showbiz report — those segments alone will add up to about 4,400 pieces of content over the course of a year. Still, as evidenced by the steady drumbeat of development news, Quibi is clearly scaling up quickly with the goal of making sure subscribers feel like they’re getting their money’s worth.

How much will it cost?

Right now, the plan is to offer two tiers of service, similar to how Hulu operates. Pay $5 per month and you’ll see some advertising (likely one or two spots per episode, with some ads as brief as six seconds). Don’t want any ads at all? It’ll cost you $8 per month.

Why does Quibi think people will pay for stuff they already get for free on Snapchat, Facebook, Instagram, and YouTube?

Katzenberg has heard this question many times as he’s been pitching his vision to investors, producers, and, yes, reporters, over the last few years. His response boils down to two main points: Audiences have a history of paying for stuff they can get for free, and Quibi will offer a premium version of short-form video content, both in terms of execution and presentation. “Six or seven years ago, all music was free and available,” Katzenberg says. “You could type any title into your device and without any friction at all, you could pull up any one of 35 million titles. Yet there are now 187 million people who pay $10 a month for either Apple Music or Spotify. It’s not different music. It’s not music that was not available to you before. It’s not at a higher fidelity. What is it? Well, it’s playlists. It’s recommendations. It’s a set of features that actually make the consumption of music very, very easy for us.”

Katzenberg believes the short-form programming that Quibi will offer, particularly on the news and information side, is at a similar place. There’s plenty of it available, he says, but it’s either hard to get or doesn’t feature the same level of talent found with long-form programs on cable and streaming.

He is quick to note that he’s not disparaging the short-form programming already offered by other outlets. “We love that content. We think it’s great,” he says. But he points out that for decades, Americans were perfectly happy watching free broadcast TV — until HBO, in the 1990s, decided to morph from a movie channel into a place for premium TV shows presented in an upscale format. “What did [HBO] do?” Katzenberg asks, not expecting an answer from his interviewer. “They eliminate commercials. They free the form and format, so they were not confined at 30 or 60 minutes. They’re no longer beholden to standards and practices, so they could make things like Sex and the City or Sopranos or The Wire, which you could not put on broadcast TV. There was nothing wrong with broadcast TV. People loved it. But HBO did something that was highly differentiated, enough so that people felt it was worth paying a premium for. And that’s frankly what we are doing to the world of short form today. In the same way that they [said], ‘It’s not TV, it’s HBO,’ I would say, it’s not YouTube, Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat — it’s Quibi.”

Can I get Quibi without paying for it?

Quibi is planning to give all first-time users a free-trial period (previous media reports have suggested it’ll be two weeks, but so far, nothing official has been confirmed in terms of length). And in his interview with Vulture, Katzenberg left open the possibility that Quibi could end up being packaged with other mobile entertainment offerings. “We will be bundled,” the exec told us, declining to offer more details other than to say there could be news on that front “soon.”

There’s a history of mobile carriers offering premium video services to attract and retain customers. AT&T, for example, gives customers on its Unlimited and More Premium plan the ability to stream one of six major cable networks (such as HBO, Starz, and Showtime) at no extra cost; T-Mobile has plans which bundle in Netflix. Whether Katzenberg has something similar planned for Quibi is unclear, but the fact that he says he’s working on bundling the service suggests there will be other ways to get Quibi beyond directly paying the company $5 per month.

How will watching a show on Quibi be different than seeing something on YouTube or Snapchat?

Netflix execs never miss the chance to argue that their success has been driven as much by technological advances as programming. Similarly, Katzenberg says Whitman and her “team of 50 product and engineering people” have been busy figuring out ways to make viewing shows on Quibi a superior experience than standard video players. The Silicon Valley side of the service has “created a new way to watch on the phone,” he says.

“This is one of those things you have to see to understand it, but in effect, what they’ve done is, they’ve created an ability to watch content that is as beautiful whether you’re watching it in landscape or in portrait [modes],” he says. “You can toggle back and forth to either of those literally instantly. Nobody’s been able to do that yet, and this group of engineers and designers has actually done this in a pretty seamless way.” (It won’t be effortless for producers, however, since they’ll often have to shoot different versions of a show to make sure the effect works properly.)

Will any of the programs be interactive, like Netflix’s Bandersnatch?

Yes. Mobile streaming is a more personal and up-close way of watching video content, and Katzenberg says his platform is exploring ways of using interactive series to take advantage of those unique attributes.

“There will be a modest amount of it on Quibi 1.0, but there’s a very ambitious road map over the first two years,” he says. “Interactivity — the things that you can uniquely do on a device, on a phone, which is a two-way device — is very exciting. We have things that are on both our technology and product road map, but also that we’ve been talking about with storytellers and creators.”

One tech tool that’s already generated a bit of buzz: Steven Spielberg’s planned horror series will only be available to stream after sunset, specifically wherever the user is watching.

What if I want to watch Quibi on my computer or my big-screen TV?

You’re out of luck — at least if you want to do so via an official Quibi app. While anyone with the right setup can cast what’s on her phone to a smart TV, Katzenberg and Whitman have made it clear they won’t release a version of the service optimized for non-mobile screens.

“Nobody has made [premium] content that was native to, and only for, the phone,” Katzenberg says. “We want to do one thing which no one else is doing and see if we can do it really great.” Plus, he adds, making shows fit big screens would be a waste of limited resources at this point in Quibi’s existence. “We’re a start-up,” Katzenberg explains. “As soon as you go out and try to be all things to all people, you end up being nothing to anybody.”

Who is Quibi’s target audience?

The service will be aimed at millennial and Generation Z viewers, as well as some younger members of Gen X. Our platform is for 18-to-44-year-olds, and very, very targeted at the 25-to-35-year-old millennial,” Katzenberg says. In other words: Don’t expect to see the Quibi version of Peppa Pig or Andi Mack. “We are not kids, we are not family,” he says. “Some day, maybe we will be that, but we’re not tackling that going in, because it’s just a whole other audience and a whole completely different type of content and programming, and we frankly don’t have the bandwidth to try and be all things to all people. Our bull’s-eye is a 25-to-35-year-old, multicultural, diverse millennial audience.”

How much is Quibi spending to get off the ground?

“Our content budget from now through the first year from launch is $1.1 billion,” Katzenberg tells Vulture. Not every show will cost the same, of course. Katzenberg says the most expensive shows on the service will cost $100,000 per minute. “So, $6 million an hour is the top end of what we are investing in content,” he says. Beyond program costs, he says Quibi will shell out roughly $470 million to market both the platform and individual shows.

How is Quibi getting major studios, writers, and directors to make shows for them?

We live in the age of Too Much TV, so most Hollywood talent has become platform-agnostic — as long as the check clears, nobody’s really stressing too hard about where their show will be seen. In the case of Quibi, having Katzenberg at the helm is also a big advantage: He’s been a Hollywood icon for over a quarter century, and there’s a comfort level between him and most major studio bosses and many artists. Quibi has also allowed studios to become financial investors in the company, giving them an incentive to bring it projects.

But Katzenberg is also offering creators and studios another very seductive proposition: Make a show for Quibi, and after a two-year period of exclusivity, you can repackage the project and sell it to another platform (or directly to consumers). So something like Frat Boy Genius, a drama about the beginnings of Snapchat which originally was a Black List feature script, could premiere on Quibi as a multipart series and then be repackaged by the creators and released as a movie two years later. (Quibi will continue to stream its version of programming even after it loses exclusivity.)

This deal structure is far different from how most big platforms operate today. Most linear and streaming networks either demand an ownership stake in projects (thus controlling all the profits) or put all sorts of restrictions on how and when owners can sell shows to other outlets. “Allowing [intellectual property] owners and creators to own their IP is an invaluable part of our business model, and [it’s] how we have been able to attract the top talent across the board, and why the studios have been supportive of us,” Katzenberg says.

When can I actually check out Quibi?

Not for a while. The platform is slated to roll out next spring, with April 6 set as the official launch date. Katzenberg, ever the Hollywood showman, says he’ll make Quibi’s kickoff a pop-culture spectacle.

“Creating a Zeitgeist event is an essential part of our launch plans for this,” he says. “I am confident that the launch of Quibi will be a must-see event for a huge, huge part of our target audience, and that we will have so much that will be of interest to them. We’ll give them a free trial and there will be no reason not to come check us out. I think we will get them in the tent. I think they’ll be interested. And if we deliver the goods, they’ll stay.”

Hollywood Keeps Saying Yes to Quibi. Wait, What’s Quibi?