A former boss of mine, someone who worked at a legacy cable TV channel that starts with F and ends with “-ox News,” first told me about Quibi last February.
“It’s bite-sized video. It’s run by Meg Whitman and Jeffrey Katzenberg! It raised a few billion!”
If she was so excited about it, why hadn’t I heard about it? I mulled it over a minute and realized the answer: she wanted to work there, I didn’t.
To her, it was the best of all possible worlds: well-funded, run by Boomers in Power, and innovative in a way that wasn’t threatening. It was the obvious endgame for user-generated content: the users, in this case, would be world-famous actors and the production quality would be way better than a ring light and a selfie stick.
It happens every time too much money and not enough sense gets together in the same room and plots their mutual demise.
Quibi, which is set to shutter just 10 months after its splashy launch, was the perfect example of old media grift. It took the best of modern user-generated content—some would say the worst—and packaged it in a way that looked and smelled Hollywood. The goal, obviously, was to beat TikTok and YouTube and every other service that lets you upload short videos and amass millions of followers and views. Imagine the frustrated movie executives watching “OMG I TOLD MY HUSBAND I WAS PREGNANT WHILE WEARING A DINOSAUR COSTUME CAN’T STOP SHAKING” get its 4-millionth view and wondering why their big-budget movies and TV shows weren’t hitting. They had done cinema verite once before, with reality TV, right? Why couldn’t they get back some of that magic?
My cinematographer buddy Loren Feldman always notes that studios spend thousands or millions of dollars a minute on their shows. You don’t get snappy dialogue, guaranteed laugh/cry lines, and great VFX on a budget. There is an uncrossable distance between the best TikTok video and the worst network TV show. Traditional media is regimented, controlled, and massaged into what some would call perfection and others would call pablum. Millions are spent on PR for stars, plastic surgery, and fitness regimens. Everything about Hollywood, the good and the bad, costs money.
Quibi figured that if the kids could do it with a selfie stick and a ring light, the adults could do it way better. Quibi wanted to break with tradition—within reason. They had a billion and a half dollars—enough to make 130 episodes of Game of Thrones—and, in startup parlance, gave them a runway for a few years of cheap content. They apparently didn’t pay union wages—the short videos came in just below the union requirements for length—and they could grab rising and falling stars on the cheap. In short, they were doing what YouTubers did every day: rerun a little popularity through a machine that turns it into even less money. Unfortunately, the old methods that served them so well on backlots and Oscar parties just didn’t work when it came to bite-size garbage.
Quibi failed because no one wants to pay for a formalized bite-sized content experience. Just as magazine journalism begat free blogs, reality TV begat the TikTok star. These TikTok stars monetize themselves, make money on their own terms, and maybe at some point, they’ll come together in a studio that isn’t just a house where kids in bike shorts dance around. But that will happen organically and without the gimlet eye of some weird studio exec watching over the surveillance system.
In this time of the pandemic, we want to watch long-form video. We want to watch video that has been massaged and carefully shot and beautifully rendered. We want Lovecraft Country, not an 11 minute short about someone’s golden arm.
Maybe Quibi gave actors and producers and writers a chance to experiment, to mess around. Maybe it was a hothouse of ideas. Maybe it could have survived in a world where everyone was still on the subway. But here’s the trick: You can still watch Netflix on the subway and you can still watch TikTok. Both of those exist. There was no reason for anything to fall smack dab in the middle.
Quibi won’t be the last company to try to break up a new model in order to shake out extra pennies. Former Crown publisher Molly Stern—a woman who “spotted” Michelle Obama’s memoir and turned it into a best seller—has just created Zando, a publisher that forces writers to do their own distribution and marketing. The idea, apparently, is to monetize Wattpad, a massively popular book-sharing platform. The problem is immediately apparent to anyone who has tried to sell anything on Facebook or Twitter: mainly, people will like and share all day long but they won’t buy. Conversion is easily measured in social media, and even the biggest influencer offers so little conversion opportunity that they still depend on catchy, Hollywood-style advertisements for traditional products or, barring that, telling outright lies about cheap viral products. This is not an alley any old-time studio or publishing exec would be caught dead in, but yet here we are.
Quibi’s Katzenberg was scared. His old world was rapidly aging. He wanted to lend a hand to the new one (palm outstretched, of course.) The result, as we see, was an attempt to squeeze money out of new models using old techniques. As those who are currently trying to monetize online media could tell him, the new consumer is a different breed from the kids that bought countless tickets to Beauty and the Beast. Those kids grew up and they watch Amazon Prime. And, like the Beast, this new consumer will turn on you in a heartbeat if it knows you’re out to steal the only treasure it has left in its strange and twisted little world: its time and attention.