The One Big Reason Why Quibi Seduced All of Hollywood

Tarpley Hitt
Photo Illustration by The Daily Beast / Photos Getty

The joke about Quibi is that no one needs it, knows what it is, or thinks it will work. “Meet Quibi, the Short-Form Streaming Network No One Needs Right Now,” the headline ran in Rolling Stone. “Quit trying to make Quibi happen,” said Engadget. “Type the words ‘will Quibi’ into Google,” Vulture’s Josef Adalian wrote in their requisite Quibi piece, “and the third autocomplete suggestion is short and stark: Will Quibi fail?” Skepticism about Quibi is so widespread, the company has built it into their own advertising. “Is Quibi a noun or a verb?” Chrissy Teigen asks in an ad. “I honestly don’t know what a noun or a verb is.”

The uncertainty surrounding Quibi’s success pushed the company—helmed by former Disney exec Jeffrey Katzenberg and Meg Whitman, an alum of HP, eBay, Disney, and Mitt Romney’s presidential campaigns—to offer Hollywood types, from Reese Witherspoon and Will Smith to Drake and LeBron James, a kind of escape hatch: intellectual property rights.

Unlike most streaming services, movie distributors, or networks, Quibi allows movie and TV makers to own the rights to their project. That is to say, if a production studio debuts a series on the app, broken into 10-minute segments, it doesn’t have to stay that way forever. After two years, the studio can edit together the full-length series or movie and sell it again somewhere else—maybe someplace more mainstream, maybe Netflix. After seven years, they own the segmented version too. “There’s certainly an appeal for all of us,” said Veena Sud, writer, producer, and director of Quibi’s The Stranger, “that at Quibi, the rights revert back to the artist—which in Hollywood is unheard of.”

Van Toffler, whose media company Gunpowder & Sky produced the 2019 indie movie Her Smell, as well as the Quibi shows 50 States of Fright and Survive, put it more bluntly. Were ownership rights the draw? “The answer to that question,” Toffler said, “is ‘Hell, yes.’”

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The world officially found out what Quibi was when it launched on April 6: a mobile-only streaming platform for watching high-production movies and shows chopped up into 10-minute “quick bites.” But in Hollywood, the startup and its twee neologism have been buzzing around for more than a year, in part because it has something everyone here wants: a lot of money. As of last month, according to The Verge, the company had raised nearly $2 billion in investment funding. In the past two years, Quibi has been on a buying frenzy to stack their decks with shows, enough for 35 programs to debut this month alone.

“What Quibi offered us was speed,” said Joe Farrell, executive producer of the Quibi shows Flipped and Agua Donkeys, and executive vice president of longform development and programming at Funny or Die. “They heard these ideas and greenlit them very quickly. We pitched and sold these projects all within one calendar year—that can be rare in Hollywood. There was also financial support. Quibi spent money for us to make things that I think feel and look premium.”

But in an ecosystem where so much revolves around the sales rights, domestically and abroad, some of the real money may lie in what happens to a series after Quibi, or during the “second window,” to use Hollywood jargon. “With 50 States of Fright, not only could we chapterize [the series] for the first window and have them live as seven or eight-minute videos,” Toffler said, “we could also build these into half-hour episodes and sell them in the aftermarket around the world—and they would be [reaching] two completely different audiences. On the flip side, Survive was initially written as a full-length feature and we cut that one up into chapters. We believe the second window for that will be as a film.”

Part of the rationale on Quibi’s end, according to CEO Meg Whitman, concerned that skepticism—the fact that no one knew what Quibi was. Offering ownership rights was a way to attract bigger names who might not take a gamble on a startup that “no one asked for,” as Inverse put it. “We’re a brand new platform,” Whitman said. “No one’s ever done anything for us before. We thought making an attractive deal would work well for us.”

Whitman and Katzenberg also insist that they don’t see themselves as competitors to Netflix, Hulu, or Amazon, or as late-comers to the “streaming wars,” though that hasn’t stopped others from seeing them that way. “Our use-case is for those in-between moments, where you have 10 minutes here and 10 minutes there,” Whitman said. “Originally—and I think we’ll get back to this—it’s for when you’re on a commute, waiting in a doctor’s office, waiting for a friend for dinner, waiting for a meeting to start, wherever. For Netflix and Hulu and all the big streaming services, about 10 percent of their viewership takes place on a mobile phone, which means virtually none of it takes place between moments when you’re out and about.”

They are betting, in other words, it won’t make a difference that audiences could wait to see Quibi productions elsewhere. But the arrangement has opened the door for studios to effectively sell their project twice, taking a bite out of Quibi’s massive seed investment budget while remaining open to mainstream distributors later. It’s a way to double their money, to keep a lifeboat at bay in case Quibi sinks, or even if it doesn’t. At least one filmmaker has already edited a full-length version of his movie, Whitman said, and gotten an offer to release it elsewhere. Sud said she had factored the possibility of a TV-length version into The Stranger’s production process. “It was definitely a thought in prep, when I was considering transitions from episode to episode, what would it feel like, what other B-roll I would need to connect episodes,” Sud said. “Hopefully, not that much! We shot a lot of B-roll on purpose to have that as a way to go from episode to episode if we needed to.”

In the realm of major Hollywood studios and streaming startups, there are no obvious underdogs. They are all trying to make money. But the arrangement does put ownership in the hands of people who make shows and movies, rather than tech companies that stream them. “The idea that the artist may, to some degree, own their work and be able to bring it elsewhere and do what they will with, it is the revolution,” said Sud. “That’s what Francis Ford Coppola tried to do with United Artists back in the day: let the artist live with their project and own the rights to it. What I think is really interesting and exciting and a game changer is that it might change the way we decide who owns the art.”

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