Three months after launch, Jeffrey Katzenberg and Meg Whitman’s short-form service Quibi is entering its first awards season.
As the nascent platform, which is still finding its feet with subscribers, kicks off its debut FYC campaign, Deadline has assembled a virtual roundtable of creators and stars to explore how it lured Hollywood A-listers to the second screen, what they really thought of it when they first heard about it, the creative process, the importance of owning their own rights and how they see things going forward.
Joining us were Darren Criss, co-creator, songwriter and star of musical comedy Royalties, Nicole Richie, creator and star of irreverent comedy Nikki Fre$h, Cody Heller, creator of Anna Kendrick sex doll comedy Dummy, Veena Sud, creator of dark thriller The Stranger and Nick Santora, creator of Liam Hemsworth action drama Most Dangerous Game.
DEADLINE: What did you think of Quibi when you first heard about it?
Nicole Richie (left): I went in there and I had a general with them, not really knowing what I was going to make. Separately, I was kind of preparing to do this comedy album without the show around it and I sat with [Jeffrey Katzenberg] and talked to him about the platform and the idea that it was for these in between moments, and that it’s quick bites, it’s ten minutes or less, and it was something that, I found it very smart and pretty exciting. I’ve done short-form before so I definitely felt like I could do it. There’s a lot of young creative people there and I was very excited to work with them.
Darren Criss: Just like everybody else in the industry I’d heard about Quibi. Obviously, anything that you know, Jeffrey Katzenberg attaches himself, my ears kind of perk up. So, I’d been aware of the concept. I think the specific idea of short form was never something that I thought ‘I have to make short form, nor was it, oh my God, that’s the worst thing ever’. For me, what excited me about Quibi, much like Nicole said, was the fact that it was this new thing. I always gravitate towards the renegade kind of out-of-box thinkers and I always think it’s an exciting opportunity to try something.
In many respects, it is the Wild West. So, when you’re shooting stuff you go, man is this going to fly, do we do it in this aspect ratio, how do we edit this, what is the precedent here, and in the lack of precedent I think for a lot of people that is actually kind of a scary thing where you say ‘We don’t know what works and what doesn’t work’, but for me I actually look at it as a really cool thing because you’re like, ‘Wow, fuck it, shoot it, ask questions later’. We get to decide what the thing is or not. I really was excited by that, it’s a really kind of fresh kind of community of people that are with the company that just got me excited about doing something in a new way.
Cody Heller: I had a weird evolution of Dummy (left) becoming a real thing, it was kind of a twisty journey. I had just written it as a script to get me staffed on other shows years ago and then I had a general meeting with Colin Davis who used to work at TBS and I actually had it set up to be a short form show at TBS, when they were attempting something like 15-minute late night programming thing with edgy stuff. So, I had written seven 15 minute episodes and then the whole block at TBS died. I was devastated but I was already working on this other show on Showtime, so that’s the way it is and I moved on.
Then like a year later you know, I kept in touch with Colin because he’s just a cool dude, and he gave me a call and he said ‘I left TBS, I’m at this new place, you never heard of it before because it doesn’t exist yet. It’s called Quibi. I hope you don’t mind, I gave all your scripts to Jeffrey Katzenberg and he loves them and he wants to meet with you next week’. It was just like the most surreal experience, like I went in and met with Jeffrey and he was quoting lines from these insane, very raunchy scripts, and he just got the show. It was so exciting and cool to have this older Jewish gentleman totally grasp and get what I was going for. That was just so exciting.
Veena Sud: I felt when I met with Jeffrey that what he was talking about was nothing short of potentially revolutionary in how we look at content, from the vertical screen obviously, but also how people would look at our storytelling, and what device they would watch it on. I thought about how radically different our relationship is with these things we walk around with in our hands than it is with the screens that we watched you know, in our homes or in the theaters. The device itself allowed for potentially a very different experience in content, which was really, really interesting to me.
Nick Santora: Well, my initial reaction was ’What the hell is this?’ I went to meet with Jeffrey, like it seems everyone else on the call did and he’s a very impressive guy, and he’s full of energy, and full of enthusiasm. It was coming off this Most Dangerous Game being a pilot for NBC that didn’t go, and he said, ‘Listen, can you basically add a hundred pages to this and blow it up?’ When he was talking about the ten minute segments I just had a feeling what I wanted to write would work really well for that because you just needed a cliffhanger or a twist or a turn about every nine or ten minutes. I worked on Prison Break and that show was bananas, and every commercial break was a massive cliffhanger and every episode out was an even bigger cliffhanger so I said, ‘I’m going to have to do this 15 times and I thought I could I don’t know if it would have worked better anywhere else. I think it really worked well in the Quibi format because, I call it Pringles entertainment, you just pop one in your mouth every nine minutes.
DEADLINE: How was the actual process of writing, producing and editing in this way?
Nick Santora: The writing for me was the same, I just needed to make sure that organically that every nine to ten pages there was an oh shit moment that would make people want to watch the next episode. The prep was very different because I had to work very closely with my director to make sure that in addition to filming it the way we would normally film something for network television or any television that didn’t have a turnstyle device, we had to have three cameras rolling at all time and we had to make sure and prep for the shot based on the location, based on the actors, based on what was going on in the scene, that the vertical and the horizontal would both have something very interesting to fill the frame. We always had a third camera running to catch the vertical, especially when you’re doing action and we have guys you know, jumping off of boats onto bridges and stupid shit or crazy shit like that, you want to make sure you’re getting it in the frame if people are turning their phones in either direction.
That was challenging and really fun though, and then editing was effectively the same if I’m being honest, it’s just that you had to do a vertical pass and edit the entire thing for you know, for a vertical turnstyle watch. But that wasn’t that big of a deal because it all comes down to making sure you’re editing it in a way that’s visually interesting and tells a good story. The prep was where it was most different for me, where we had to basically say, this is going to basically be two different movies, one vertical and one horizontal.
Veena Sud: What was so fascinating for me with The Stranger, directing it as well, was having to think really radically in terms of not thinking about vertical and horizontal as separate entities. I really wanted to have one monitor. Looking at two monitors or three monitors is really just kind of out of my wheelhouse. I like to look at one thing when I’m directing and focus on performance mostly. So, I had to have something baked in that would allow me to have that freedom to be looking at the actors versus, ‘Are we getting the shot?’. One thing we talked about extensively in prep, which was radically different because of this is, how do you service this story and allow the audience to feel what they would feel on a bigger screen and not feel less? What I mean by this is, if you hold a phone vertically you’re automatically losing east and west, right?
We looked at other shows that had tried to do vertical framing and very quickly started to think this is going to be a disaster unless we come up with a whole other aesthetic approach to this. So, really quickly, instead of thinking east and west in terms of the screen, think of north and south, and think of A to Z. Think of infinities, think of the depth of what you’re looking at. Think of going as deep into the screen as you possibly can in a way that maybe traditionally you wouldn’t think of when you have a landscape you know, when you have that aspect ratio. So, that’s why we had people moving, that’s why we’re always leading and following for the most part, that’s why all the environments were constantly changing, and we were looking for infinity lines constantly when we’re shooting and prepping. So, pushing the aisles of a grocery store closer together so that as the actor moves through them you would see left and right in a way that you know, traditionally you would not see if you were shooting that type of aspect ratio.
Darren Criss (left): Obviously for the three comedy weirdos here, the medium services our genres in very, very different ways than to Nick and Veena. I was really impressed with the way that they utilized what might seem a limitation in storytelling. I noticed it consciously. I wondered how they were going to fill all of the big action stuff in here. Yes, there is this aspect ratio thing, there’s the short form, you’re still applying the same rules that you would apply to if Katzenberg told all of us ‘I want a three-hour movie’ but if it was just that, if your idea is good enough, if you’re dexterous enough as a storyteller, you can kind of kneed the dough to fill in the space that you’re given. People have thought of really cool ways to maximize their narrative within this very specific box and that variety of nuance is such an exciting thing and the fact that that’s possible in such a fresh way is like something not to be ignored.
Cody Heller: We’re all just so fucking talented [laughs]. With [The Stranger and Most Dangerous Game], I did find myself wanting to experience both versions, so I want to rewatch in the vertical just to see the difference and experience it both ways. That is different than my experience because for me I really did just kind of center frame everything, like I shot everything in one big square and then just had demarcations on the video village screen. Because I had this show where literally it’s mostly one character and then a sex doll, most of the time they’re close enough together that it’s not really an issue, but the only times I would really notice it would be establishing shots. It was such a fun challenge to rise to and I loved the experience.
DEADLINE: Do you think these shows could be made anywhere else and if not, were you aware of that while you were making them?
Cody Heller (right): I don’t think I could have made this show anywhere else. I think my show, in particular, blends itself so well to ten minutes because I think if you made it a half hour you’d have to really go into [B] stories, which I think for my show it just works better as a smaller piece about Cody and Barbara. Quibi was so supportive and gave me so much artistic freedom that I just cannot speak highly enough of their whole team. They give really good notes that makes it so much better.
I really loved the challenge of taking on something new and the turnstyle thing was exciting. One thing that was super cool that I didn’t think of while I was shooting but noticed during the editing process, was because Quibi has to be ten minutes, it can’t be more than ten minutes but it can be less than ten minutes, and the episodes don’t have to be uniform in length, that was very liberating in the edit stage because then I was able to say this scene that I thought was so funny on the page, it didn’t really play as I thought and it’s not necessary to the story, let’s just cut the whole scene.
Nicole Richie: Cody mentioned having the A story and the B story on a television show and just having it be the A story, it does feel very intimate. I do feel like a B story on your phone doesn’t really work because when you are watching on a phone, you really do want to be locked in to that story, and from a comedy perspective, I love the jokes, but I’m very conscious of the breath after the joke, letting people digest that. With a show like Nikki Fre$h you know, only focusing on two people and then the music video, I was able to shoot that and give the jokes a moment. I can’t see this show living anywhere else.
Darren Criss: I think ideally anything that you make is so good in that particular mode of communication that you simply cannot imagine it anywhere else because the meal has been cooked so well. But I don’t want to shoot myself in the foot if somebody would like to make a five-movie franchise deal with Royalties [laughs].
I don’t think this could have existed anywhere else in any other format simply because I don’t think anybody else would have taken a chance on what we were doing. That is one of the valuable parts that I kind of glazed over about Quibi is that they’re really creator forward and really empowering a lot of the creators. It sounds like we all had a date with the Great Oz [Jeffrey Katzenberg]. I’d like to think it could exist in other places because I’d like to think our idea is malleable enough to fit in other places, but it comes down to the belief system and the support from someone in Jeffrey Katzenberg’s shoes.
DEADLINE: Have you had any feedback in terms of whether people watched in one go or in short bursts?
Veena Sud: It’s been anecdotal and it’s been both. Some waited for the whole thing to drop so they could watch it all in one go, because that’s the muscle that we’re used to as Americans now, with all the streaming devices. The most fascinating feedback were people who watched it day by day and feeling their growing anxiety and their growing desperation for the next hit. That was fascinating because while I was cutting and shooting simultaneously, you could feel that growing kind of addictive nature of something that’s less than ten minutes long and that does have cliffhangers built into it. It’s pretty fascinating to see how the need for the next, and the next, and then next grows over time.
Cody Heller: I binged The Stranger and I think if I had to wait each day I’d probably would have had many panic attacks every day. It would have been such a different experience, and now I am curious and kind of wish that I had experienced it that way because that’s so fascinating.
Can I just circle back to one thing that we were talking about before… Nicole, you made a really smart interesting point about the phone and it being this personal thing. For me I was one of the early ones to shoot and I didn’t know at the time that it was only for your phone. I thought that you were going to be able to also watch it on your TV, so I wasn’t really aware of that and then when I found out later during post-production I was kind of bummed since I thought that especially for comedy and especially during corona, like people love to laugh together. I was happy when they decided to add the possibility to your TV feature because I love nothing more than going to the theater and laughing with people. You can’t do that during Corona but at least you can be with family members or whoever we’re quarantined with and watch something together.
Also, I just want to say one other thing, Nicole Richie, you seriously, like could be in a Christopher Guest movie.
DEADLINE: Quibi’s rights position is that you can retain the IP and after two years repackage these shows into long form versions if you want to. How important was that for you and have you thought about that since you made these shows?
Nick Santora (left): I’m in the process of dealing with that right now. We have a potential buyer very interested in doing Most Dangerous Game as a feature film, and it was a big selling point to me because I just intuitively thought I could take those ten-minute segments and work with the composer to smooth out some of the musical cues, get the establishing shots that we would need to act as bridges and in just a matter of weeks with some minimal effort, turn it into a nice hour and fifty-minute movie that would play really well. There’s a fair amount of interest and I think we’re going to be successful in selling it. It was a selling point to me because you know, you want as many people to see your work as possible, and I think it’s great that Quibi gives you the opportunity to just turn it into another platform and see if it can be successful there. I’m interested to see how it plays out.
Darren Criss: I think for everybody it’s sort of a no-brainer deal. If anything, it’s sort of a brilliant way to incentivize the creator to deliver the best shit humanly possible because it’s a money back guarantee. Having this deal, I kept asking what’s the catch here, like this simply cannot be the case. I was so grateful frankly for the set up that was given behind our deal that, aside from just personally wanting to make something great, I was incentivized to make this really as kickass as humanly possible for the hand the fed me.
Veena Sud (right): What I found so fascinating about the idea of retaining the rights to what I create, even in its modified form, is this discussion has not been around since the 70s and United Artists. It’s the radical idea that we, as creators, get to own the thing that we create, which is revolutionary and beautiful. Katzenberg introducing it into the ecosystem of our industry is something that needs to be talked about and will be resisted being talked about certainly, but let’s talk about it. Let’s use this wonderful incentive that he provided us as artists to come and play in a sandbox that hasn’t been tested as a way for we, as artists, to start talking about that we should own the rights to what we create.
Darren Criss: One of the things that Jeffrey said on the first rollout of introducing Quibi, like maybe two years ago, was saying up top that this is the single handedly most disruptive time in the entertainment industry’s history, and so structures like Veena’s talking about are being kind of thrown out the window and everyone’s kind going, wait a second, things don’t need to be like this.
I mean, right now people are considering this with the very nature of how Coronavirus is making cooperate structures reconsider their rent on buildings. We are reconsidering a lot of old things that we say, ‘Wait a second, this was maybe not the best thing’. I think we all know what I’m talking about on a much more social scale. There are a lot of things that are happening where, I think the renegades again are stepping forward and saying ‘This is fucked, why don’t we think of a different way that can empower us in a way that can really service the things we’re making in a more fruitful way.
The very question of you asking ‘Was it a good thing that you get your thing back in two years?’, that’s crazy that that gets to be a causal question. It’s an amazing thing and of all the things I think are really great about Quibi I would hope that it starts this conversation and this precedent for fueling creative in this way, and not just for the selfish sort of economic notions that I get out of it, but empowering creators can only be a good thing. I’m very careful with that because I don’t want to sound like a maniacal egotist, but there’s so many things that really incentivize positive things about content when it’s done in this structure.
Cody Heller: I mean I just can’t wait to own it again so that I can sell it to Disney+ [laughs].
DEADLINE: Nicole, Nikki Fre$h is coming back for a second season. Can you talk about where your show goes for season two and have you signed up Bill Nye?
Nicole Richie: We did. We have some calls out to him. The bee-house stuff had me fucking on the floor. Just like Darren was saying, we are in this time where we are burning down everything and rebuilding the lives that we want and at the same time I hope all of us are looking at ourselves and our individual rhythm and checking in with ourselves. So, I think for season two, I’m actually in the process of writing it right now, it will be a question of how do you connect with your audience in this new world. For me I feel like this is actually like a very important time to talk about connecting with nature and connecting to the environment, and caring about where our food comes from… that’s kind of where we’re going to go for season two.
DEADLINE: Nick, Christoph Waltz’s character Miles Sellars keeps the door open for another hunt. Where are you at with that?
Nick Santora: I’ve already written season two and it’s been greenlit. We’re prepping it now with the hopes of being able to film it when there’s a handle on filming safely in the time of COVID. Christoph Waltz is back, and we have a new runner, and season two is going to take place in my hometown of New York, and we’re going to be chasing that poor son of a bitch all over New York, Long Island. He’s going to get fucked with.
DEADLINE: Veena, that ending with the wolves seems to answer the question whether there will be any more The Stranger, right?
Veena Sud: Yes. The Stranger was always conceived as a one-off, a limited series. In terms of the times we live in you know, when I conceived the story I very much wanted to tap into the simmering rage of #metoo and post-2016 election. Through The Stranger, I created what was ultimately an anti-toxic masculinity female revenge story. To be able to speak radically to the time we live in, and to make art that matters and that represents this rage that is being felt throughout the country for everything that’s been happening, has been an incredible opportunity. Maybe there’ll be something else in the pipeline, but for now, she just walked away.
DEADLINE: Cody, any plans for more Dummy?
Cody Heller: I think it is a definite possibility. I’ve been doing a lot of soul searching during this moment, not with Corona but with the uprising and the movement and looking at my white privilege. Certainly, season one is a lot about two sort of failed white feminists who are trying to do their best, but failing along the way with comedic effect, but I certainly think if we do a season two, I would want to make sure that I’m addressing the moment and not just glossing over it. Season one, I thought it was such a triumph because it’s such a female centered show, I had said I really want as many women on the crew as possible, like all department heads if possible, and we did a great job of assembly this mostly female crew and it was incredible, and since then with BLM I’m [aware] it was a lot of white woman.
So, if I do a season two, having the opportunity to make a difference and do something about what’s going on in the world with abolish the police and how representation matters on and off screen. In my ten years of being a writer I’ve worked with like, one or maybe two other black writers and this is a problem, this is something that needs to be addressed. It’s not black people’s problems it’s white people’s problems. We got to fix this problem. So, like if I do a season two it will all be in the spirit of wanting to rise to the occasion. Even though it’s just a silly show about a sex doll I would want to make sure that I’m doing right by myself because I just feel like lately I’ve been in this existential crisis of examining my white privilege and how I’m such a big part of the problem and how do I help fix this problem.
DEADLINE: Darren, you were making Royalties at the same time as Hollywood. Would you want to do more Royalties?
Darren Criss: Yeah [but] hopefully I don’t have to do them all at the same time. I certainly echo what Cody was saying and I feel like anybody in a creative position is definitely hypercognitive of following those same principals. Having an opportunity to look at systems in different ways, in a way that can benefit so many people, is an exciting thing. It’s not, ‘Oh crap, how am I going to pull this off?. It’s like, okay, cool, let’s get all the people involved that we can to make this something really special and more beneficial for everybody involved. I mean look, we’re a whacky, zany comedy about writers that write goofy songs. That is sort of an ever-green game. There is a big pile of funny little puppies in the pen that I really want to give a home. That if there is a second season it’s giving them a place to go because we had to earn those ideas.
The hardest thing about a first season is establishing an audience’s trust, knowing your way around your actors and how the things going to look. It’s not until the second go that you kind of get to roll up your sleeves and go, alright, so here’s what we can really do, now I know what I’m working with. I really look forward in getting to do anything in a second season simply because now I’ve watched other people’s shows, I’ve seen how my show functions on this thing, I’ve seen how people react to my character’s and my jokes, and the songs, I now want to see if I can make those things that I threw out the first go, but hey, that is not up to me, that’s up to Katzenberg.