Quibi Takes on Sundance With First-Ever Previews as Lena Waithe Praises the Business Model

From a sneaker-culture docuseries to an ASMR chillout show, Quibi wants to have it all. And creators love the licensing model.
Jeffrey Katzenberg demonstrates Quibi's Turnstile technology.
Jeffrey Katzenberg demonstrates Quibi's Turnstile technology.
Chris Lindahl/IndieWire

Quibi co-founders Jeffrey Katzenberg and Meg Whitman spent Friday at the Sundance Film Festival wooing filmmakers on what they call the next generation of storytelling. Quibi also offered its first-ever preview of the platform in action, with a VIP cocktail party that allowed guests to preview some of the 175 titles that will be available in the mobile-only streaming platform’s first year.

For the uninitiated, Quibi serves up short-form content — movies broken into chapters and an array of scripted and nonscripted series, all with runtimes of 10 minutes or less — that’s meant to replace scrolling through Instagram in line at Starbucks or falling into the dread of Twitter in the dentist’s office waiting room.

Talent doesn’t need to be convinced. It already seems like everyone has a Quibi show at the company, which has poured millions into commissioning projects that are licensed rather than owned by the platform. (Unlike Netflix, Katzenberg says, “We’re not a studio.”) Quibi has exclusive rights for seven years, and then the rights are released to the creator.

At a Friday morning Quibi panel with Katzenberg, Quibi creator Lena Waithe (producer and narrator of “You Ain’t Got These,” a docuseries offering a critical look at sneaker culture) praised the licensing model. For Waithe, it means being able to build an audience around the project before, perhaps, re-editing and releasing it as a feature.

“The biggest thing that, really you said it, was ownership — the fact that we would be licensing it to you, an idea that I could do it there and then go sell it to another place,” Waithe said on a stage she shared with Katzenberg. “I’m a businesswoman, first and foremost.”

IMAGE DISTRIBUTED FOR CHASE SAPPHIRE - Actress Lena Waithe seen at the "Bad Hair" after party at Chase Sapphire on Main during the Sundance Film Festival 2020, in Park City, Utah"Bad Hair" Cast Party Hosted by Chase Sapphire, Park City, USA - 23 Jan 2020
Lena Waithe at Sundance.Evan Agostini/Invision/AP/Shutterstock

“You Ain’t Got These” was among the offerings at a preview of Quibi content Friday night. Dozens gathered at a Main Street space and were handed a mobile phone and a pair of headphones to be among the first to enjoy the Quibi experience. The company still hasn’t unveiled its app or user interface, but the demo did show off Quibi’s trademark feature: Turnstyle, the patent-pending technology that offers different points of view depending on whether viewers hold their phones in portrait or landscape mode.

The episode of Waithe’s show available at the party featured her, Hasan Minhaj, and others talking about Air Jordans. Some interview scenes offered viewers two separate angles of the same person talking when viewed vertically, while just one angle was shown in landscape. The transition between the two was seamless.

Other available shows included “The Daily Chill,” which combines an ASMR narrator and soundtrack with calming visuals, and “The Gayme Show,” a campy competition hosted by “Las Culturistas” podcast co-host Matt Rogers and comedian Dave Mizzoni. The episode available had Ilana Glazer (“Broad City”) and “Saturday Night Live” cast member Bowen Yang as guests. Also available were what Quibi bills as movies in chapters, including “The Stranger” from “The Killing” creator Veena Sud.

At the panel, Sud said shooting for Quibi meant shifting actors’ eyelines and playing more with a vertical plane, rather than the traditional horizontal plane. A scene in a gas station was shot with horizontal orientation by narrowing the aisles so viewers’ eyes would be drawn north to south. The result was actors sometimes looked directly into the camera, making for a more intense and intimate thriller.

“It started to feel like FaceTime at moments, which was exactly what the app calls for,” she said.

Veena Sud, Kaitlin Olson and Jeffrey Katzenberg - QuibiDeadline Sundance Studio presented by Hyundai, Day 1, Park City, USA - 24 Jan 2020
Veena Sud, Kaitlin Olson and Jeffrey Katzenberg.Michael Buckner/Deadline/Shutterstock

Given the two native orientations, a Quibi series requires a long list of deliverables. But as Katzenberg tells it, there are but a few rules for producing a Quibi series.

The first is that no episode can be longer than 10 minutes, with a sweet spot of six or seven minutes.

Whether comedy, reality, drama, or news, “It has to grab your interest, right at the first shot … whether it’s visual or verbal,” he said. It also needs to end with what Katzenberg calls a “wow” — there’s no time to waste with slow-burn plot or character development here.

If it’s a serial, it needs to have a hook to keep the viewer wanting more. Katzenberg said the master referent was Dan Brown’s “The Da Vinci Code,” a novel with very short chapters that ended with a cliffhanger or other drivers that kept the reader going.

It’s a hands-off approach that actress Kaitlin Olson, who stars opposite Will Forte in Quibi’s “Flipped,” compared to working with FX on “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia.”

To creators, “I said ‘Other than that, you’re the pioneers. We don’t know,'” Katzenberg said. “We’re in business with the best people in the group. So we’re going to learn as (they) learn.”

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