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Quibi versus the world

Can Jeffrey Katzenberg and Meg Whitman change everything about video on your phone?

Photo illustration by William Joel | Photo by Vjeran Pavic

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Jeffrey Katzenberg insists that his new video-streaming service Quibi isn’t competing against Netflix, Disney+, HBO Max, Peacock, or any of the other streaming services that have launched or are launching soon. You’ve got it all wrong. You’re not even asking the right questions.

“We don’t think we’re in the streaming wars,” Katzenberg, the former boss of Walt Disney Studios and founder of DreamWorks, tells The Verge in a closed-door meeting the day before the company’s grand reveal at a CES keynote. “They’re all battling for this,” he says as he thrusts his arm toward a TV in the room. “We’re going for this,” he says, gesturing toward his phone. “Don’t tell them!”

Katzenberg and Quibi CEO Meg Whitman, who is best known as the CEO of HP and eBay, are publicly announcing Quibi at CES — but not quite unveiling it — after having raised $1 billion on the promise of a roster of Hollywood stars and supposedly revolutionary video-streaming technology that delivers portrait and landscape video at the same time. Everything on Quibi is designed for viewing on a phone, on the go, in 10 minutes or less. These chunks of video are called “quick bites” — hence, “Quibi.”

Everyone working with Quibi at CES talks about it as though it has already created the future of video

When Quibi arrives on April 6th of this year, it’ll cost $5 a month for an ad-supported version or $8 a month for an ad-free experience. Katzenberg and Whitman formulated this idea nearly two years ago and have been relentlessly signing up the biggest names in Hollywood to be a part of it.

And while there have been bumps along the road, including a raft of executive departures, everyone working with Quibi at CES talks about it as though it has already created the future of video — like it already has millions of users. Training Day director Antoine Fuqua, who is executive producing a show called #Freerayshawn, says Quibi, before it has even launched, has created a “new language of cinema.” It’s like that.

What’s unclear is whether anyone wants to watch Hollywood-style rotating video on their phone in minutes-long increments, let alone pay $5 a month to access it with ads. To his credit, Katzenberg knows he has a hard sell to make.

“We’re competing against free.”

“We’re competing against free,” he says. “We have to offer something that is meaningfully, measurably, quantifiably, creatively different.” Instagram and YouTube are happy to let people watch user-generated content for free, but Katzenberg, as always, is bullish on star power. The social media companies don’t actually understand how to make quality content, he says. “They don’t know how to do what we do, with all due respect,” he says. So he’s going to make tech go Hollywood.

Quibi, says Katzenberg, represents the “third generation of film narrative.”

CES is something of a coming-out party for Quibi, which has made waves by announcing deals to make shows with huge names like Chrissy Teigen, Steven Spielberg, and Jennifer Lopez. It’s also signed big ad deals with major household names like Procter & Gamble that are tired of the endless flare-ups on social platforms like YouTube and Instagram. Quibi, with a roster of videos vetted and approved by Hollywood royalty, is a much safer environment for its ads.

An image supplied by Quibi in lieu of an app preview.
An image supplied by Quibi in lieu of an app preview.
Image: Quibi

But Quibi hasn’t actually shown anyone the app yet, and it still isn’t really ready to do so. “Glimpses” of the app will be shown at the keynote, and chief product officer Tom Conrad says the default interface “will be a stream of content we’ve curated for you, much more inspired by TikTok and Instagram than other streaming services.” But that’s all for now.

Quibi is ready to talk about the app’s signature technology, Turnstyle, however, which lets users switch between portrait and landscape video instantly when they rotate their phones. Everyone at The Verge’s meetings wants to talk about Turnstyle. Katzenberg says it “is unlike anything creators have had before.”

Image: Quibi

Here’s the idea: rotating your phone while watching a show on Quibi will give you a different point of view. Every show (and ad) is filmed and edited in both portrait and landscape. Creators upload two video files and a separate audio file, which are then synced and streamed simultaneously to your phone, so the video instantly switches when you rotate the device.

Some clever streaming and compression tech — the video feed you’re not watching arrives as a lower-res “sidecar” stream that jumps to full quality when you switch to it — means that Turnstyle video uses only 20 percent more data than a standard video. Downloaded Turnstyle videos for offline viewing will be bigger than that but still not quite twice as big as traditional videos. All of this tech is the basis of the company’s patent portfolio, according to CTO Rob Post.

For Turnstyle to be as disruptive as everyone hopes, Quibi shows have to actually use it, and some shows lean hard into the idea. A show starring Ready Player One’s Tye Sheridan called Wireless, for example, relied on a specific rig that can simultaneously capture a phone’s forward-facing and rear-facing cameras as well as the phone screen. The idea is to make the viewer feel like they’re holding Sheridan’s phone so they can view a scene in which his character is using Tinder as if it’s their account in vertical orientation. During action sequences, however, people will be encouraged to flip to horizontal orientation to watch the scene. 

But other shows don’t do more than slightly re-crop for portrait or landscape, like the preview we saw of Shape of Pasta, a show that highlights Italy’s pasta culture.

How many people want to routinely flip their phone around while watching a show?

Turnstyle is certainly a unique feature, but how many people want to routinely flip their phone around while watching a show? How many people want to watch a show twice, just to see both points of view? These are all open questions, and Quibi’s answer is that they’re just going to find out when it launches. Still, Turnstyle is Quibi’s signature feature, and it’s what the company is banking on to set it apart from everything else.

Other streaming services have attempted interactive storytelling, but few have succeeded. Bandersnatch, Netflix’s Black Mirror interactive special, seemed to go mainstream. But that success likely had to do with the program being a heavily promoted Black Mirror event on Netflix; it wasn’t playable on Apple TV.

“I think the user experience is very unique here, and it’s what will be differentiated for us in addition to the content,” Whitman says. “We are relying on creating a whole new kind of content that’s designed for your mobile.”

Quibi CEO Meg Whitman
Quibi CEO Meg Whitman.

Quibi’s launch slate in April will be built on three different tiers of content: star-studded “lighthouse” productions; mid-tier “quick bites”; and news-focused “daily essentials.” Katzenberg refers to these daily essentials as the “secret sauce,” providing curated daily information in a quality way from trusted sources in an effort to create regular viewing habits.

“Movies in chapters — I think they are exceptional. They are the things people will likely talk about.”

The lighthouse productions are another format innovation. They’re essentially movies that are broken up into several-minute chapters with weekly releases. This means a two-hour movie could take 12 chapters to play in its entirety, and you’ll have the option to binge everything at the end of the run. “Movies in chapters — I think they are exceptional,” says Katzenberg. “They are the things people will likely talk about.”

Quibi’s already made big-name deals for this top tier of programming. Zac Efron, Idris Elba, Kristen Bell, Chrissy Teigen, Kendall Jenner, Tyra Banks, Steph Curry, 50 Cent, and Avengers: Endgame directors Anthony and Joe Russo all have original Quibi series in the works. (Disclosure: Vox Media, which owns The Verge, has a deal with Quibi to produce a Polygon Daily Essential, and there have been early talks about a Verge show.) “It’s like The Godfather,” Training Day’s Fuqua says of deciding to work with Katzenberg. “You walk into the room, he says, ‘I’ve got this thing I want you to do,’ and you say, ‘Okay.’”

Lighthouse projects cost hundreds of thousands of dollars to make, as much as $125,000 a minute. That works out to be about $7.5 million an episode — on par with early Game of Thrones episodes. The mid-tier of programs, the “quick bites,” will run $20,000 to $50,000 per minute, and the “daily essentials” news programming will cost between $5,000 and $10,000 per minute.

“They’re making content at $100 a minute — we’re making content at $100,000 a minute.”

These are all numbers that rival the top tier of traditional film and TV production, which is the point. Katzenberg thinks there’s space above the noise of YouTube and Instagram for premium content that’s made for viewing on the go. “HBO came along in the early 1990s, when broadcast TV was at its pinnacle, and said, ‘We’re not TV, we’re HBO,’” he explains. “They changed the form and format. They weren’t constrained by standards and practices and spent money that a broadcast network couldn’t compete with. In the same way HBO differentiated from broadcast, we are differentiated from social networks.”

This is Katzenberg’s most emphatic point. “They’re making content at $100 a minute — we’re making content at $100,000 a minute.”

Quibi founder and board chairman Jeffrey Katzenberg
Quibi founder and board chairman Jeffrey Katzenberg.

Quibi plans to release three hours of new content every weekday as part of its bid to make watching Quibi a daily habit. It’ll roll out more than 175 original shows and 8,500 episodes of those quick bites within its first year, so if you aren’t into Kendall Jenner’s show, maybe you’ll like 50 Cent’s or Steven Spielberg’s. Something could get you to subscribe.

“In Hollywood, people measure on opening weekend,” Whitman says. “This is a marathon, not a sprint. We’ll be interested to see how many subscribers we get on day one, but that is not the full measure.” Whitman says it might take as long as a year for people to understand what Quibi is and why they want to return. 

Whitman says it might take as long as a year for people to understand what Quibi is

Although Katzenberg is adamant that other streaming video services aren’t his competition, several launched last year, and more are scheduled to launch this year. Apple got into the game with Apple TV Plus, Disney launched Disney+, WarnerMedia has HBO Max on the way, and NBCUniversal plans to launch Peacock. And, of course, there’s Netflix with a years-long head start on all of them.

That’s a lot of money for people to spend for content, and it’s a lot of very established players with powerful franchises to market. Disney, for instance, has a huge portfolio of already-recognizable franchises, including Marvel and Pixar, and its first viral streaming service success story in Baby Yoda from The Mandalorian. But that doesn’t worry Katzenberg and Whitman.

“What have we learned from Mandalorian?” asks Katzenberg. “We learned a big hit TV show attracts a lot of business.” He cracks up the room. It’s true. It’s obvious. He joins the rest of us in chuckling, adding, “Sorry. I’ve been doing this — I get to say this — I’ve been doing this before you all were fucking born.”

“On April 7th, the day after we launch, it’s all about the data.”

He’s right. Katzenberg has been in Hollywood for more than 40 years and has relationships with everyone in town. Whitman’s been in tech for more than 20 years — not longer than most of the people in the room have existed, but her experience is nothing to sneeze at. They both deeply understand their respective domains, and the marriage of the two worlds is what they think will propel Quibi to success.

Whitman says Katzenberg told her that, up until launch, Quibi runs on “instinct, judgement, and experience about what we launch, how we launch it, how many shows we launch, [and] the publishing schedule.” Hollywood stuff. But then, Whitman’s world takes the spotlight. “On April 7th, the day after we launch, it’s all about the data.”

“We’ve designed the production and creative enterprise to turn on a dime,” says Katzenberg. “Believe me, in 60 days, we will be able to turn our creative enterprise to what’s working.”

Additional reporting by Julia Alexander