Can the Shortform Video Market Make a Comeback?

Courtesy of networks (Logos)

As mobile viewing grows, Netflix, Amazon and Hulu are experimenting more with 10- to 15-minute programs.

In fall 2015, Verizon held a star-studded party where executive from Maker Studios, AwesomenessTV and Funny or Die held court as Kanye West performed the hits. It was all part of a no-expenses-spared launch of streaming app go90, one that included spending hundreds of millions of dollars on shortform programming. 

During the digital video heyday that followed, spurred on by the launches of streaming services like Seeso, Fullscreen and Comcast’s Watchable, dozens of shortform content studios emerged to capitalize on the voracious appetite for stories told in 10- to 15-minute increments. But the market was short-lived as subscribers failed to materialize and digital advertising competition from Google and Facebook made it hard to recoup budgets. Already, Seeso, Fullscreen and Watchable have closed up shop. Tim Armstrong, CEO of Verizon's new Oath content division, has indicated that a similar fate could befall go90. 

Now, Hollywood's digital producers have turned their attention to a new crop of potential buyers with even deeper pockets:  Netflix, Amazon and Hulu.

In recent months, the major streamers have experimented with show formats and lengths, whether through Amazon's deal (through its Video Direct self-distribution division) to fund Funny or Die-produced short films or Netflix's plan for 15-minute comedy specials — not to mention its expansive deal with Jerry Seinfeld that includes 24 new episodes of Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee (which range from nine to 23 minutes each).

Hulu, meanwhile, has begun taking meetings with digital producers as it explores what programming chief Joel Stillerman calls "an emerging content lane" for the streamer. “It opens up some opportunities for us to incubate talent and ideas that might not necessarily find their way into a big, high-end series right out of the box,” Stillerman explains, adding that shortform content “might get people to interface with our platform for reasons other than to watch an entire episode of television.”

Short video clips are not new for either Hulu or Netflix, which tested out supercuts of popular movies and TV shows on its app in 2014, this investment in so-called "snackable" original programming comes as mobile video viewing is expected to grow to nearly a quarter of all video viewing in 2018, per research firm eMarketer.

Digital series, often sold as 10-minute episodes in blocks of 10, also are a cost-effective way to keep fickle young viewers engaged between, say, new seasons of Stranger Things or The Handmaid's Tale. The average cost of a digital project is typically about $10,000 per minute but can stretch higher than $20,000 if a project (or the talent attached) warrants. Those budgets might have been more than the digital ad market could support, but they are a fraction of the billions of dollars that Netflix content chief Ted Sarandos and rivals have earmarked for programming annually.

"There's been a bit of a misconception that shortform means lesser quality or lesser talent," says T.J. Barrack, whose Adaptive Studios produced Project Greenlight for HBO and The Runner for go90. "The whole shortform world is being professionalized right now." 

As if a check from Netflix weren't enough, many digital producers are eager to reach the millions of customers already paying for these services, a stark contrast from the upstart streamers using shortform video as a way to establish an audience. “It’s frustrating to make something you really believe in and place it on a platform where they don’t have that many viewers or they haven’t figured out the marketing,” notes Gunpowder & Sky CEO Van Toffler. "You do have to be patient, and if you're too reliant on one platform, you may find that you need a second or third job." 

The interest in shortform isn't expected to stop with the established streamers, either. In addition to Jeffrey Katzenberg, who is seeking to build a business around premium shortform video with his new company, WndrCo, executives at HBO and Disney's forthcoming streaming service also are said to no longer be as constrained to the standard half-hour and hour formats that once dominated the TV landscape. "Thank God," sighs one digital executive. "It was starting to feel dismal for not just my business but for Hollywood."

A version of this story first appeared in the March 21 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.