Quibi is an innovative, mobile-only streaming video entertainment service with a little something for everyone
Jeffrey Katzenberg’s new project shouldn’t be dismissed as 'Short Attention Span Theater' for the new millennium.
By Jeffrey M. Anderson
Yet another streaming service is upon us, but Quibi is nothing like another Netflix clone. A mashup of “quick bites,” Quibi is the brainchild of former head of Disney and Dreamworks Jeffrey Katzenberg, who has raised $1.75 billion to launch some 8,500 epiosdes across 175 new shows in the first year of the service (there are almost 50 shows at launch). The twist is that the content is meant to be viewed only on phones and tablets, and only in small bites of 10 minutes or less.
Quibi is offering a very long free trial of its ad-supported version—90 days—after which you can elect to sign up for a subscription: $4.99 per month with ads, or $7.99 per month for an ad-free experience. But you’ll need to sign up for the trial before the end of April. Apps are available for Android and iOS devices. T-Mobile customers can get one year of service for free. No word if there will be a discount offered for annual subscriptions, but we do know that each account will be limited to a single simultaneous stream.
One of Quibi’s flagship scripted shows is Most Dangerous Game, starring Liam Hemsworth, Christoph Waltz, and Sarah Gadon. It will run 15 episodes of 10 minutes or less, which is in total about the total length of a feature film, except that each episode is individually crafted with its own little cliffhanger at the end, to keep viewers hooked.
It’s essentially like a 21st-century version of the old Saturday afternoon movie serials, with “cliffhangers” that had kids coming back week after week to find out how the hero survived that explosion in the lab or that fall down a mine shaft.
But Quibi’s most unique and most interesting feature is that it makes use of a handheld device’s rotating screen, allowing viewers to watch their shows in either landscape (horizontal) or portrait (vertical) orientation. Each show is framed and edited both ways, and viewers can even flip back and forth during a show.
The landscape view of Most Dangerous Game is more cinematic, making use of the wide, 1.85:1 aspect ratio and negative space to set up visual conflicts between characters, or between characters and their environments. But portrait view is also useful in that it acts more like close-ups; it’s much easier to see the actors’ faces and read their emotions. On this show, the portrait views seem to consist simply of cropped landscape views—much the same way that VHS tapes use to crop or pan-and-scan widescreen movies for old-fashioned TVs—but in other cases, alternate angles are used.
In another of Quibi’s scripted shows, the teen murder mystery When the Streetlights Go On, the portrait shots include full-length shots of characters’ bodies, from head-to-toe, whereas the landscape version frames them from the waist up. In many cases, viewers might want to binge the shows twice through, just to get a look at all the alternate shots and framing.
The company provided reviewers with advanced looks at a handful of episodes from 24 of the shows that will be available on the service’s April 6 launch date, including four scripted shows and 20 non-fiction/reality shows before the beta version of the app was available, so I’ll review the app and the service in general later this week. You can see two photos here that my editor shot of the beta version of the app, which was made available late last week.
Most Dangerous Game looks to be a pretty brisk, suspenseful entertainment, especially given that it’s based on that old standby 1924 short story by Richard Connell. (It’s said to be the most popular short story in the English language, and it has inspired the many movie and TV adaptations.) Hemsworth plays, no kidding, Dodge Maynard; it’s a perfect name. He’s a failed businessman and soon-to-be father who discovers he has an inoperable brain tumor. Looking to leave something behind for his wife (Gadon), he meets with charming, snaky businessman Miles Sellers (Waltz) and agrees to be the “prey” for a 24-hour hunting competition in Detroit. Every hour he survives, more and more money will be deposited in his account. But he has no idea who his hunters are, so he can trust no one.
When the Streetlights Go On begins in the mid-1990s as beautiful teen Chrissy (Nicola Peltz) is having an affair with a cool teacher (Mark Duplass), when both are murdered in the woods by a masked killer. Chrissy’s punk-rock sister (Sophie Thatcher) and the tale’s narrator (Chosen Jacobs) find themselves dealing with the aftermath. Queen Latifah plays the detective on the case. At the start, it has the feel of a soapy teen drama, but it also has a slight dark edge that could prove promising.
The comedy Flipped, from the good people at Funny or Die, is pretty consistently amusing, if only intermittently hilarious. Married couple Cricket (Kaitlin Olson) and Jann (Will Forte) consider themselves visionaries, Jann as a director and Cricket as a designer. Both lose their day jobs at the same time, but decide to enter a contest to become the next house-flipping reality TV couple. They find a dilapidated house in the middle of nowhere and set to work, discovering a huge pile of money stashed in the walls. Brilliantly, they take the money and use it to ramp up their production values. Unfortunately, the cash belongs to the mob.
Weirdly, Quibi also offers an actual house-flipping reality show called Murder House Flip, wherein hosts Mikel Welch and Joelle Uzyel perform makeovers on houses where murders have taken place. The first few mildly diverting episodes take place in 1980s serial killer Dorothea Puente’s former abode in Sacramento.
The fourth scripted show is arguably the least successful, at least so far. Based on a young adult novel by Alex Morel, Survive features Game of Thrones’s Sophie Turner as Jane, an institutionalized, suicidal woman who has earned a trip home to visit her mother. She steals pills and plans to kill herself on the plane, but before that can happen, it crashes, and she finds herself stranded in the snowy wilderness with another passenger, the kind, resourceful Paul (Corey Hawkins). Director Mark Pellington is great at making music videos but has had less success at feature-length productions; this one gets off to a very slow start, is pitched a little too high, with lots of anguish and despair, and resorts to annoying shaky-cam for moments of suspense.
As for the non-fiction material, it represents a very wide range. For example, there are two cooking-related shows: One is a dumb, yet silly contest show; the other is a beautiful, soulful exploration of cooking history and culture. Dishmantled, hosted by Tituss Burgess and featuring celebrity judges every episode, begins by exploding a secret dish, spraying its ingredients all over two contestants, who are blindfolded and wearing protective coverings. Using only taste, touch, and smell, they must determine what was in the dish, then have only 30 minutes to re-create it. The one who gets the most ingredients correct wins.
Shape of Pasta is hosted by chef Evan Funke, who leaves his restaurant for a trip to Italy to find some of the most obscure, regional pasta shapes and learn how to make them. Most of the chefs are little old ladies that have been making their pasta the exact same way every day for 50 years, and watching Funke watch and appreciate their work is truly a thing of joy. It’s also quite a mouth-watering show as those sauces simmer and prepare to be married to the fresh pasta and covered with cheese.
Two titles that feel more like feature-length documentaries are quite rich and fascinating in their first few episodes. You Ain’t Got These, produced and hosted by Lena Waithe, takes a look at sneaker culture among African Americans, and while it doesn’t sound like much, it actually could be the best thing out of these first 24 shows. Run This City tells the up-and-down story of Jasiel Correia II, who, at age 23, becomes the mayor of Fall River, Massachusetts, but becomes embroiled in controversy. The doc interviews participants from all sides, telling suspiciously clashing stories, and the suspense mounts.
Another feature-length doc is I Promise, about a public elementary school established by LeBron James’ foundation to help struggling kids and keep them from dropping out. This one definitely features a moving, inspiring story, but the doc is directed with a bit too much drippy seriousness and an overly sincere musical score. It’s more like a public service announcement than a film, but thanks to James’s heroic presence and a bunch of cute kids, it’s still worth a watch.
Drag fans will love NightGowns with Sasha Velour, hosted by a former winner of RuPaul’s Drag Race, showing both the behind-the-scenes and the final product of an ultimate lip-sync show. Gone Mental with Lior features Lior Suchard, who claims to be able to read minds. He gets former New England Patriot Rob Gronkowski to throw a ball to seemingly random people, who then turn around and reveal a word, chosen by Gronkowski, spelled out on the backs of their t-shirts. He then gets Ben Stiller to name four random numbers, which magically spell out his own name. The trouble with this show is that, while these feats would be amazing seen live, they are spoiled on the small screen, since they could very easily have been scripted or edited.
Toward the middle of the pack, there are a bunch of fairly serious shows dedicated to music, dance, sports, nature, etc. &MUSIC takes a look at the unsung people behind the scenes that are indispensable to working musicians. The title comes into play during each episode, such as “Lights & Music,” or “Dance & Music.” One episode even focuses on YouTube music star J Balvin and his spiritual guru Ramiro Agudelo. The Sauce is a dance competition hosted by Ayo & Teo, who travel to different cities and pit dance crews against one another in front of celebrity judges. Usher is a producer.
Each potent episode of Prodigy focuses on a young athlete who has excelled in some way, such as high school basketball star Jalen Green or five-time national champion boxer Chantel Navarro. Fierce Queens is a nature show hosted and narrated by Reese Witherspoon, focusing exclusively on the females of the species (from ants to cheetahs). To be honest, the nature footage is interesting enough without all that narration.
At the lower end of things, Quibi offers a whole slate of lowbrow shows of the type that everybody watches, devouring in batches like potato chips, although nobody admits it. As bad as these shows can get, they’re probably the meat-and-potatoes of a service like Quibi, since they can be watched while riding a bus or waiting in line. Memory Hole features Will Arnett simply making fun of things (mostly Canadian things). Thanks a Million is a drippy reality show with Jennifer Lopez and celebrity guests giving away money to people who inspired them, and then those people “pay it forward.”
Chrissy’s Court has model Chrissy Teigen as a judge in a small claims court, presiding over (apparently) real cases, with her mother as the bailiff. Punk’d is a reboot of the 2003 MTV hit, with Chance the Rapper playing pranks on unsuspecting celebrities, such as making Sabrina Carpenter think she has a rat problem in her house. Skrrt with Offset is basically a show about the rapper Offset (from the group Migos) and his love of cars; each episode involves some different car-related activity.
Nikki Fre$h stars Nicole Richie—Paris Hilton’s former reality-show sidekick—who wishes to re-brand herself as an environmentally conscious rapper; this one seems to be something of a comedy or a spoof, but it’s not yet clear. Singled Out is a gay-themed dating show, with various contestants answering questions to compete for a date with each episode’s single person. Gayme Show! is a gay-themed game show, wherein straight contestants answer questions and compete to become “honorary” gays.
The bottom line
But more content is promised. There will be “Daily Essentials,” consisting of short bits of news, entertainment, or inspiration. Steven Spielberg has a horror anthology coming that, reportedly, will only be available to watch after sundown. Other horror and sci-fi shows are coming, more movies, some animated shows, a reboot of the 1960s TV series and 1990s movie The Fugitive, and something called Killing Zac Efron.
A quick look at the beta version of the Android app reveals four buttons at the bottom of the app: Clicking “For you” will eventually list shows Quibi thinks you’ll be interested in, based on what you’ve already watched (in my editor’s limited experience, this just showed poster-like images of everything currently available); “Browse” presents Quibi’s offerings by category (“New Releases,” Daily Essentials News,” “Trending,” and “Continue Watching”); “Following” (click and hold on any show to bookmark it); and “Download” (save a show to your mobile device for watching while it’s offline. The beta version of the app offered optional closed captioning in English and Spanish).
Quibi might exacerbate society’s trouble with short attention spans, but its success will depend on whether people will stare at their phones more readily than gazing at 70-inch TV screens—and whether they’ll accept the one-stream-per-account limitation.
That said, Quibi certainly has a little something for everyone. Stay tuned for my full review of the app, coming later this week.