Peter Bart: Quibi Success Would Mean Jeffrey Katzenberg Might Be Right This Time

Quibi Jeffrey Katzenberg
Quibi, Jeffrey Katzenberg Etienne Laurent/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock

An astute and forceful corporate soldier, Jeffrey Katzenberg has participated in three major startups but has the most riding on his next one, Quibi. So do his backers, whose $1.75 billion investment reflects their confidence in his ability to predict the future. Even if he occasionally gets it wrong.

Katzenberg famously wrote a manifesto to the film industry three decades ago setting forth its mistakes and keys to survival. Widely circulated and discussed, his 28-page document proved to be wrong-headed in both its analysis and its forecasts.

This week, however, Katzenberg, is embarking on a new venture to prove that his precepts can be razor-sharp after all, albeit on an entirely different platform. Starting April 6, Quibi will send forth thousands of episodes, each 10 minutes or less, created by an imposing array of accomplished filmmakers. The bite-sized shows are designed to satisfy at least two of the stern criteria set forth decades ago by the then-youthful Disney executive: They are tightly plotted and prudently budgeted.

But will they save Hollywood? Will they even save Quibi? The clock is ticking, and the smartphones are waiting.

When Katzenberg initially came forth with his exhaustive inter-office memo, he was serving as Disney’s top film executive under Michael Eisner, expecting to succeed him as president. The memo’s principal thesis was that Hollywood was being destroyed by its “bloated event films,” with Disney a guilty party. At the time, Disney was laboring through a superstar version of Dick Tracy starring Warren Beatty, which, behind schedule and over budget, had become a special irritant to the high-strung executive.

Katzenberg’s solution was to cancel his tentpoles and substitute a slate of midrange “high concept” movies – concepts that were approved, if not conceived, by the studio. The formula: A sympathetic protagonist would endure a transformative experience to which the audience could relate. To nurture these films, Disney created a complex of “squat pyramids” carrying labels such as Hollywood Pictures and Touchstone.

Dick Tracy
‘Dick Tracy” (1990) Moviestore/Shutterstock

One example was titled Rocketeer, about a test pilot whose secret jetpack kept getting him into awkward adventures. A model for failure, in his view, was Dick Tracy, which became a textbook for “losing control of our destiny.”

Katzenberg wouldn’t have minded that his doctrine was leaked to the media, except that its release triggered a succession of dire events. First, the Disney board chose not to award him the presidency. Irate, he sued the company, ultimately winning a prize of $250 million. Further, the movies climbing to the top of box office charts in subsequent years defined precisely the type of “event pictures” that the manifesto scorned — they were even pricier and more eventful.

Katzenberg, of course, moved on to a succession of high-profile startups, such as DreamWorks and DreamWorks Animation, before coming forth with his latest high concept. The Quibi product line will stream onto the world’s smartphones, offering its bite-sized slate at first for a 90-day free trial before ultimately costing $4.99 with ad content and $7.99 without.

Quibi’s stable of auteurs ranges from Jennifer Lopez to Reese Witherspoon, from Steven Soderbergh to LeBron James. Katzenberg’s long-term associate, Steven Spielberg, will also contribute a series of horror films, utilizing exotic technology that can only be seen at night. Meg Whitman, a major tech executive, is Katzenberg’s partner on Quibi.

Emerging at this unique moment of enforced distancing, Quibi might find itself either massively welcomed or instantly irrelevant. In Katzenberg’s view, the new platform will prove “a silver lining” to its audience. It could also prove a welcome alternative to HBO Max and NBCUniversal’s Peacock launching later in the year.

The prototypical Quibi viewer would be between 18 and 44 years of age, perhaps commuting or even waiting at a stoplight. Quibi is not aimed at the younger Snapchat or TikTok set. The shows might be thrillers, or even unscripted shows and documentaries. This week, producers of its news-oriented shows were scrambling around their garages and other spaces to assemble footage, with only two premieres facing delay.

To be sure, many viewers, given unexpected time to kill and family members to entertain, may be searching not for quick bites but rather for binges – weeklong commitments to opaque melodramas like Outlander. On the other hand, this may also be the moment that Katzenberg has long anticipated, when his audience may long for that unexpected jolt, or eye-opening insight, that will take their minds off a pandemic or an economic debacle.

Those who have known Katzenberg over his long career see a certain irony that we would place his gamble on a product that is quick, if not abrupt, consistent with his style of management. Starting with his productive career at Paramount, he became famous for his frenetic pace, scheduling 7 AM meetings and multiple back-to-back breakfasts and lunches.

The key to Katzenberg was pace. Quibi will surely satisfy that rhythm.

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