The Quibi Conundrum

Quibi is the most bizarre and fascinating thing to come out of 2020 pop culture-wise so far (and this has been a weird year). There are a million excellent (1, 2, 3, 4) articles about Quibi and why it’s an utter disaster, so I’m just going to give my own opinions on the service here and why I kind of hope it fails. I generally don’t want things to fail or suck, but Quibi, man… it just really rubs me the wrong way, to the point where, yeah, I hope it tanks.

If you don’t know what Quibi is, and chances are you don’t, it’s a couple of billionaire’s clumsy and misguided foray into the world of streaming television… sort of. Quibi’s main conceit upon launch was that it could only be used on mobile devices. Yup – you cannot access Quibi’s content on your Fire TV, smart TV, smart fridge, or even your laptop. The only way the fine folks at Quibi currently allow you to view their content is through their app on iPhone or Android. They recently announced that TV streaming options are coming, likely due to poor adoption of the service, but it’s probably too little too late.

The idea behind Quibi, short for “quick bites”, is to provide narrative content in smaller doses. Instead of episodes being 25-45 minutes long, the shows are in the 8-10 minute range, a format clearly designed for our (alleged) short attention span-having generation. From the very top, it feels like a cynical cash grab to me, rather than an attempt to make interesting or engaging art.

Not only are the episodes shorter and (ostensibly) only available on mobile devices, it’s chock-full of a bunch of other gimmicks. For example, Quibi uses your phone’s sensors and information for stuff like shows that can only be viewed at certain hours of the day (sorry, night shift folks!). It also has the rather unique, uh, “feature”, of being able to watch any of its programming in portrait mode on your phone. The video will literally flip and crop the widescreen image to the vertical aspect ratio of your phone. I also remember seeing an ad or keynote for Quibi where a show of theirs had a feature where the show switched to a character’s cell phone screen they were looking at if you turned your phone portrait, allowing you to see what’s going on on their phones.

These gimmicks are mildly interesting, I will give them that. Some of these ideas are kind of fun. But generally, people don’t want gimmicks. If the shows aren’t good, people aren’t going to care about a gimmick. The shows on Quibi aren’t very good, period, and no amount of gimmicks will change that. Movies and shows generally aren’t theme park rides.

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I also think something like this is a marketing nightmare. I didn’t exactly watch every episode of every show, but I watched a few here and there, and I’m definitely not the target demo. Even their, uh, attempts at prestige-television feel tediously… CW-y. It’s clear that this app has a very specific target audience – young people, probably in the 15-24 demo, with just a little wiggle room on either side.

So what do young people like these days? YouTube and TikTok. Short content. Quick bites. Ask any YouTuber and they’ll tell you that a video can’t be longer than 10 or 15 minutes, because people just won’t watch it. With TikTok, content is distilled even further; we’re talking seconds to maybe a couple of minutes here. But, and this is what the good folks at Quibi must’ve noticed, none of that content is narrative content. What they found was a niche. The only question, then, is whether this is a niche worth filling.

I’m sure these guys spent a fortune on market research. Most Americans can’t afford to buy a house, yet some of us are able to dump millions into asking teenagers if they’d be interested in watching 9 minutes of Sophie Turner running around in the woods. I’m sure they got a lot of “yeah, sure, I guess” that they translated into a definitive “yes” for their investors, but the truth is that kids don’t know what they want, and I coulda told you in mid-2018 (when this dumpster fire was being formulated) that they definitely weren’t looking for short-term narratives that they could only watch on their phones. Only 10% of Netflix’s total viewership occurs on cell phones. Did they not know that? Did they not care? I don’t know.

So who else is Quibi for? Well, let’s think. I guess if you ride the subway or take a bus to work, you could watch an “episode” or two. But the world of YouTube/TikTok and Netflix are very different, and, as proven by Quibi’s failure, are not wires meant to be crossed. Even if Quibi released an absolutely incredible piece of programming, I can’t imagine being interested in experiencing it in eight to ten-minute bites. I don’t want to watch eight minutes of Game of Thrones and then have to wait several days to watch what happens next.

This also leads into one of my bigger issues with the service: it throws the last 100+ years of cinematic rules in the garbage. Now, you can break the rules. That’s fine. A lot of creatives have and do great work by breaking conventions – but I’m talking big picture here. Stuff like narrative pacing and cinematography are extremely important aspects to film storytelling, and these concepts and rules are completely disregarded by Quibi, and not in an intentional, artistic way. For example, the whole “portrait viewing” thing. This immediately stuck out to me as weird. Look at the gif below to see how that aspect works.

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I feel so bad for whoever had to be the director of photography on any Quibi project. There are just so many huge aspects to making a motion picture that have to be completely disregarded by Quibi’s portrait viewing BS. I could write another entire essay on that subject alone, but I’ll try to keep it brief since this piece is already bigger than I want it to be.

Aspects of cinematography like blocking a set, moving the camera, framing your shot, lighting, etc. are extremely important to the art of filmmaking. Call me pretentious, whatever, but this is something I care about. It’s a very important part of what makes a particular movie/show work. Some projects need less focus on the actual cinematography, sure, but no matter what, it will play an important role.

Most film projects are blocked for some sort of widescreen format – 16:9, 2.39:1, etc., and thus have very deliberate choices made by just about every part of a given film crew, but mainly the director. The director knows what he/she wants to be in a given frame, and can express a huge amount of information just from the visuals alone. Let’s see an example.

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Above is an image of a famous shot from Citizen Kane, widely considered to be one of the greatest and most influential films of all-time. I love this scene for many-a-reason, not the least of which being how well it’s blocked. You have the main character, the eponymous Kane, as a child in the background playing. You have him framed in-between his mother and the man she’s working with to send him away, and his abusive father on the left, trying to keep him at home. The framing suggests a clear separation between the two parties, with Kane being the central figure of the scene. We get a lot out of the scene just from the visuals.

So what if Kane was on Quibi? What would happen if I turned my phone to portrait mode? Who would it focus on? What if I watched the whole film in portrait mode? So much information would be lost, it’s mind-blowing. This is perhaps the most baffling part of Quibi – its complete disregard for the artistic aspects of the medium it’s dealing with. Maybe Quibi just isn’t for people like me who care about the art of film, but I think completely disregarding artistic integrity in favor of gimmicks people won’t even care to use is utterly insulting. We’re dealing with a visual medium, on a service that cares about film visuals about as much as a book does.

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“This is fine!” – Quibi

The next rule of cinema (and I’m including TV shows here as well) that Quibi completely dumps on is pacing. Quibi’s focus on short episodes is as cynical as it is offensive to the intellect, though I’m sure it was very economical. You could claim to have a hundred different shows, each on their first season. I’m sure investors loved the fact that each season of any given “show” only needs to be about 90 minutes of content total, compared to the eight to ten hours of content demanded by “real” TV shows. Sometimes exactly that, in fact – Survive, one of Quibi’s flagship, uh, “programs”, is only about 95 minutes long, about the length of a feature film. Most Dangerous Game, another one of Quibi’s alleged heavy-hitters, clocks in at about the two-hour range.

This struck me as peculiar, making me think that maybe some of these Quibi programs may have been reappropriated film scripts that nobody else wanted to buy – and I was right! So instead of watching the film as the writer and director intended, I need to watch it in ten-minute chunks. The thing is, you can’t just divide up a movie in chunks and call it a day. I suppose you can argue that that’s what a TV show is (modern prestige television shows/mini-series often just feel like longer movies), but there is a certain structure being followed there that Quibi does not have. A movie is paced very deliberately, and can’t be just cut up into pieces.

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“So that was a f*cking lie.”

This is what we can call a “top-down” approach, rather than a “bottom-up” approach, which I feel would have more integrity. If they told writers what their format was and asked them to build a story that would work with that format from the ground-up, it may have worked. But instead, they took movies with already finished scripts and divided them in a way that they never were meant to.

Thus, my main issue – Quibi treats its audience like it’s dumb. Like we couldn’t fathom watching a movie in chunks, so Quibi had to come in and divide them for us and then pretend it’s a TV show. That stupid vertical viewing mode is another example. This is such a bizarre idea that I cannot wrap my mind around it. Did they think it’d be an interesting gimmick to drum up support? Was it purely artistic, thinking that the DP would jump up and down at the idea of throwing away a century of filmmaking technique? I’m gonna say no.

On another note, Quibi’s programming feels random and unfocused, and I’m guessing it’s because the founder, Jeffrey Katzenberg (TL;DR: led Disney through its renaissance in the ’90s as its chairman, and co-founded Dreamworks), and CEO Meg Whitman (general corporate executive. Warmed seats at Disney, Dreamworks, P&G, Dropbox, HP, eBay – you get the idea), probably just sent out a group text to every one of their deep entertainment industry contacts asking who wanted a piece of that sweet Quibi pie. And they got some big names, too! Like, Stephen freaking Spielberg apparently has some programming heading to Quibi. I was most interested in 50 States of Fright, a horror anthology from Sam Raimi, one of my favorite filmmakers, until I watched some of it and realized that it’s maybe the worst thing I’ve ever seen. Oh well. I hope he got paid. At least he’s doing the next Doctor Strange film.

Jeffrey Katzenberg, founder of Quibi, assigns all of the blame of Quibi’s failure squarely on the current coronavirus pandemic – which simply is rich. They’re not the first to blame their failures on the virus, but they perhaps have the least claim to the excuse. At a time where most people are stuck at home, younger people perhaps being most affected, one would assume the opposite effect would occur. In fact, I’d have given Quibi its best chance at survival given its release on April 6th, smack dab in the middle of the pandemic. All young people are at home on their phones – but they’re not on Quibi. They’re on TikTok, YouTube, or Instagram. Even with nothing to do, and a 90-freaking-day free trial at launch, Quibi caught on about as popularly as the coronavirus itself.

Like I said at the top, it takes a lot for me to want something to fail. Quibi, as it currently stands, deserves to crash and burn, as far as I’m concerned. Maybe they could steer the platform in the right direction, but for now, the best thing we can do is ignore Quibi (which we’re all doing a great job of!) and hope that it goes away. Treating your audience like it’s dumb is inexcusable, and no amount of pretending that these choices were made for other reasons will make up for it.

So long, Quibi!

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