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Meg Whitman and Jeffrey Katzenberg have been talking about their plans for mobile video startup Quibi for the past year and a half. On Wednesday morning, they stood onstage at CES in Las Vegas and revealed the first public look at what they’ve been building.
“What is the next big opportunity in entertainment? That’s a question I’ve been asking myself for my entire career,” Katzenberg said after a sizzle reel featuring Steven Spielberg, Guillermo del Toro, Reese Witherspoon and other Hollywood filmmakers touted that mobile storytelling is the next step in entertainment innovation.
Many of the details about Quibi have been known for some time. The mobile-only service will launch April 6 with two pricing tiers, an ad-supported plan for $5 per month and an ad-free option for $8 per month.
All programming will hew to a standard length of less than 10 minutes per episode, though there will be a range of formats from news-driven segments known as Daily Essentials to episodic, unscripted and documentary programming, to cinematic stories told in chapter installments.
Over the past year, Quibi executives have been assembling a robust pipeline of programming for its launch; it plans to offer more than three hours of original content each day, equating to 175 shows in its first year alone. Projects include Catherine Hardwicke-directed future-set drama Don’t Look Deeper, Tye Sheridan thriller Wireless, Antoine Fuqua-produced drama #FreeRayshawn, horror anthology 50 States of Fright, Lorne Michaels-produced comedy Mapleworth Murders, Evan Funke food show Shape of Pasta and countless others.
Given how much Katzenberg and Whitman have already shared about Quibi ahead of its launch, the most noteworthy portion of their keynote came as executives showed off a clever feature called Turnstyle, which effectively allows its videos to instantly flip between vertical portrait framing and horizontal landscape framing as the phone moves.
In an interview ahead of the presentation, Whitman noted that the decision to show off Quibi’s Turnstyle technology in Las Vegas was strategic. “We’re launching some groundbreaking new technology, which is what you do at CES,” she said.
What this means for filmmakers is that they must deliver two edits of their projects, one with horizontal framing and one with vertical, that Quibi’s team then stitches together so that no matter how viewers are holding their phones, they are seeing a shot that the filmmaker wants them to see.
“When we talk with creators about creating shows for the phone, they say early on, ‘One of the things that’s frustrating to me is I shoot this big, beautiful panoramic episode in landscape and then these kids today hold their phone [vertical] and the show gets projected in this little tiny postage stamp at the top of the screen,'” chief product officer Tom Conrad, who previously served as vp product at Snapchat, told The Hollywood Reporter. “No one is creating Hollywood-style content in portrait with the level of production value. I don’t think this exists.”
To avoid lag time as a viewer switches between the vertical and horizontal orientations, Quibi’s streaming technology is designed to always be “side-loading” some of the other video offscreen, said CTO Rob Post, “so as soon as you turn [the phone], it’s there and it’s ready to be displayed. There’s no rebuffering, there’s no audio pops.”
While creating two different versions of the same story could be time consuming, Conrad says that Quibi worked with filmmakers such as Doug Liman to experiment with filmmaking techniques for this platform. Many chose to shoot a wider shot at 8K resolution that they could then crop in the editing room to create the horizontal or vertical framing. This is similar to a technique used by some broadcasters for sports coverage.
“It was a bit of a fun challenge,” said Hardwicke, whose Don’t Look Deeper stars Helena Howard as a high schooler who can’t shake the feeling that she’s not human. “It’s a new way to think, like, how can it look good and beautiful and captivating in both formats.”
Others may choose to do two separate shoots, which has already unleashed some outside-the-box thinking about storytelling. An example is Zach Wechter’s Wireless starring Tye Sheridan. The survival thriller about a young man whose car has crashed shows Sheridan’s character when in horizontal orientation. But when viewers flip to vertical, they instead see the interface of the character’s phone — who he is calling or texting as he tries to survive the accident.
“The phone is almost like a character in our life; we interact with it so much,” Conrad explained, with Wechter adding, “We really did have to rethink our approach to production and find a very unique set of best practices for shooting from both the phone’s perspective and the cinema camera’s perspective.”
Another challenge for the filmmakers was adapting to the shortform nature of Quibi. Seith Mann-directed #FreeRayshawn, for instance, was developed as a feature film, and had to be reconceived as an episodic story. “It has a strong impact on how you approach the story,” Fuqua said of the format.
Wednesday’s presentation also marked the beginning of Quibi’s consumer marketing campaign. The company has started directing prospective subscribers to its website, where they can sign up to become a “Quibi Insider” and receive updates about the app in the months leading up to its launch.
Building awareness around Quibi will be key for the service in the months ahead of its launch, especially since it doesn’t have library programming from existing franchises to entice subscribers like Disney+, HBO Max and NBCUniversal’s Peacock all do. One way Quibi will work to build up its subscriber base is through a partnership with T-Mobile.
Katzenberg and Whitman, who raised $1 billion for Quibi in 2018 and recently added another $400 million in funding to its coffers, are making a big bet that users will flock to their service. Still, it could be a gamble, and there have been some bumps along the way, including the high-profile departures of several executives including Janice Min and Diane Nelson.
“We feel good about the staff we have in place,” Whitman said, noting that the company now has more than 200 employees. “We feel good about about where we are.”
And while she and Katzenberg acknowledged that there might be other challenges ahead, they said they’re prepared for whatever may come their way. Whitman, pointing to the years of experience between herself and Katzenberg, noted: “This was a lot harder for me at 42 than it is 20 years later.”
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