Hopes are high as short-form mobile video platform, designed for consumers in transit, arrives to a world on pause

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This is not how Jeffrey Katzenberg envisioned the launch of Quibi, his $2 billion gamble on short-form mobile programming. 

For 18 months, the entertainment mogul has targeted an April 6 launch for the video platform, which is focused on quick bites of content — hence, Quibi — each under 10 minutes in length, designed for consumers on-the-go.

All was well, until the world went topsy-turvy in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic. Now, Katzenberg — the former chairman of Walt Disney Studios, and a co-founder of DreamWorks SKG, along with Steven Spielberg and David Geffen — finds himself in a vastly changed media environment, let alone world, looking to make the most out of an extremely difficult situation.

"Like anyone else, you adapt," says Katzenberg, on the phone from his Los Angeles home earlier this week. "Adversity is the mother of invention."

Around three weeks ago, Katzenberg sat down with Quibi co-founder Meg Whitman, former CEO of Hewlett-Packard, and they pulled out a yellow legal pad and drew a line down the center. Just as with any major life decision, they began listing the pros and cons of going forward with their planned timeline. 

The pros won. Quibi is still launching Monday, with an arsenal of content in the can and ready to go.

"I feel like it was the only and the right thing to do," says Katzenberg, 69. "I feel like maybe it’s the right moment in time for us, in in oddly contrarian way. What might have been the most difficult of times, if not the worst of times, may in fact be a time in which we can do something that people will really appreciate."

Content on deck

Monday's launch will see one dramatic adjustment. Quibi was set to offer customers a free two-week trial period, which has now been extended to 90 days to give users more time to experiment with the service and its offerings of scripted shows, reality programming, franchise reboots and mini-movies. (At the end of the trial period, Quibi will cost $4.99 a month with ads, or $7.99 a month without.) 

Among the 50-odd shows ready to roll are: "Survive," a dark thriller starring Sophie Turner as a plane crash survivor; "Most Dangerous Game," a Detroit-set action drama starring Liam Hemsworth and Christoph Waltz based on the classic story of the same name; "Chrissy's Court," a "Judge Judy"-style courtroom show with Chrissy Tiegen handing out judgments (and sass); a Chance the Rapper-hosted re-visitation of MTV's "Punk'd"; a Keke Palmer-hosted re-visitation of MTV's "Singled Out"; "Murder House Flip," an HGTV-style home makeover show focused on former crime scenes; "You Ain't Got These," which celebrates sneaker culture; and many more, including shows from Reese Witherspoon, Usher, Jennifer Lopez and Megan Rapinoe

Also premiering Monday are a series of two dozen quick-hit news and information style shows, dedicated to everything from music news and celebrity gossip to Esports and the weather.

Again, all are under 10 minutes in length — most are around five to seven minutes — and are designed to be watched on mobile devices, either in vertical or horizontal format. (Users can toggle between the two viewing options; more than 80 percent of mobile content is watched vertically, Katzenberg says.)

Those shows have been in dress rehearsal mode for about a month, and Katzenberg and a team of about 100 Quibi staffers have been viewing them daily, offering tweaks and suggestions as the shows prepare to go live. 

Some of the programs have shifted to the hosts' homes as the world has gone into lockdown. It's not how they were envisioned, but producers are playing the hand they've been dealt.

"Everyone is being very innovative and entrepreneurial," Katzenberg says. 

The lightbulb moment

Quibi's original inspiration was two-fold.

In 2013, Katzenberg was introduced to Brian Robbins, the filmmaker (he directed "Varsity Blues" and pro wrestling comedy "Ready to Rumble") and Nickelodeon producer who founded AwesomenessTV, which makes content aimed at teenage girls. (Gen-Xers — who are outside Quibi's target demo of 25-35-year-olds — might remember Robbins from the late '80s sitcom "Head of the Class.")

Robbins sold Katzenberg on the idea of movies in chapters and the upside of short-form storytelling. "Brian was my Yoda," Katzenberg says. 

The other, oddly, was "The Da Vinci Code." Dan Brown's hugely successful 2003 novel is broken up into small chapters, each only a few pages in length; the 489-page book has 102 chapters. 

Brown said at the time of publication that he formatted the book that way because he knew readers didn't always have 30 minutes to dedicate to a book and he wanted them to have a great reading experience even if they only had a few minutes to spare. 

"That was an a-ha moment," Katzenberg says. "You can tell great stories — movies, if you will — in chapters."

Of course, the Quibi format is not just about taking existing content and slashing it into short, digestible chunks. 

"It changes the architecture of the storytelling," says Katzenberg, who started his career as an assistant to producer David V. Picker ("A Hard Day's Night," "The Jerk"). "It requires a writer from the outset to engineer that story for this format. You want something that grabs your attention right off the bat, something that wows you along the way, and finally something that makes you want to come back." 

Katzenberg adds that this is merely a new application of old science. "TV has been doing this for 70 years," he says. 

So what is Quibi's sweet spot? Is it the daily content or the game shows or the big budget fare? 

"I don’t know," says Katzenberg, but he trusts that once Quibi goes live, he'll get an answer. 

"Very quickly, people will tell us," he says. "The great thing about audiences is they will tell you unfiltered, unabashed, and in high volume what they like and they don’t like. The beauty of Quibi is we’re in a incredibly advantageous position to be able to quickly, quickly double down on the content they’re most enjoying."

And with a customer base that's no longer on-the-go, they suddenly have more time to invest in shows — short-form or otherwise. 

agraham@detroitnews.com

@grahamorama

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