There’s a buzz around the name Jeffrey Katzenberg right now, and that’s just the way he likes it. There are two things that are often said about the entertainment mogul when you mention his name in industry circles. One is, “His motto is, ‘If you don’t come in on Sunday, don’t bother coming in on Monday.’” The other is, “Don’t bet against Jeffrey Katzenberg.”
It’s quite probable the two are related. The man who was credited with turning Disney round in the late 1980s (before being fired), and who went on to launch DreamWorks SKG with Steven Spielberg and David Geffen, then hive off the animation business and sell it to NBCUniversal in 2016 for $3.8bn, has his sights set on a new mobile platform. The aim of Quibi, a “quick bite”, short-form streaming service, is to post short chunks of up to 10 minutes of original programming that will fit with current viewing patterns — in other words, via phones.
“For our demographic, which is 25-to-35-year-olds, you’re on your device for five hours a day,” he says. “You’re communicating and collaborating, you’re on social media, playing games, interacting, and watching 70 minutes of content a day.”
That 70 minutes is largely spent on YouTube. “When it was launched in 2005, it was this amazing, egalitarian, democratised platform where we could share our home movies and cat videos. Then Google invests billions and now there are 2bn monthly active users, watching 2bn hours of content a day. People are watching more and more of it — and it’s not because they don’t like it.”
Katzenberg’s aim is to get a slice of that pie, yet he is confident Quibi will be different, and better, not least because of its production values. “We pay cost plus 20 per cent, up to $6m an hour, to make the show,” he says. Having raised $1bn before the company had even pressed the start button, it’s obvious its pockets go deeper than your average cat video.
And then there’s the remarkable bank of talent he can call upon. When asked who is involved, Hollywood A-list names tumble out of his mouth like winning tickets from a tombola. Director/producer Antoine Fuqua (The Magnificent Seven, Training Day) is currently shooting a drama series in New Orleans for Quibi called #Freerayshawn, starring Stephan James (If Beale Street Could Talk, Selma) and Laurence Fishburne (The Matrix, John Wick); the budget is $15m. “We’re shooting on location, and that can be expensive,” Katzenberg says. “We’ve also had to pay breakage fees — we want stars so we have to pay for them.”
But Quibi’s real potential lies in the deal for intellectual property (IP). There are two edits for each show: one is the short-form version, the other is the whole thing, packaged up into a movie. As Katzenberg puts it, “The rhythms of something you watch a chapter at a time versus something you watch in a single sitting — it literally has a different cadence to it in terms of how you edit.”
Two years after the programme has aired, and had all the promotion that Quibi is putting behind it — with a current budget of $500m, that’s a lot of marketing — the movie version can then be sold globally. “Who is going to buy it? Apple, Amazon, Netflix, Hulu, the list is growing every day. They are looking for great content, and something that is shown to be successful. These things have a giant upside.”
After seven years, the IP goes back to the makers. “For the first time, we are making it possible for creators, producers and even the studios to own their IP. That is part of how we have got the best talent.”
Producer/directors Catherine Hardwicke (Twilight), Guillermo del Toro (The Shape of Water) and Doug Liman (Edge of Tomorrow) are all currently shooting for Quibi. And then there’s his old friend Spielberg, who has written a “super-scary” show that can only be watched after dark.
Katzenberg’s vision for short-form storytelling goes back 20 years, when he launched Pop.com with Spielberg and Ron Howard, among others. “It lasted about 12 minutes,” he laughs. “We were going to make premium shorts and monetise them on the internet, and we shot a couple with Steve Martin. We lost loads of money, but it was way before its time.”
Besides an instinct for good storytelling, Katzenberg is well known for his philanthropy. “Both my parents were very generous people,” he says. ‘We had a lot of privilege growing up and they taught me that it is the responsibility of those that have to take care of those that have not. So socialism is something that I’ve been around my whole life.”
And you don’t become CEO of one of the Hollywood’s most successful film studios without having a bulletproof optimism. “Most of us who are blessed spend 90 per cent of our time focusing on the 10 per cent of our lives that stinks. I try to do the opposite.” He’s also someone for whom the word “no” doesn’t exist, which, because he was dyslexic, he says at school he read as “on”.
In order for his new format to succeed, Katzenberg knows he needs to get a lot of people on board. “Every media company is an investor in Quibi,” he says, “for a couple of reasons. If we are successful, this will be the third generation of film narrative. The creators who led the movie industry when television came along went into that business and dominated it. The exact same thing is going to happen here. The studios understand that if we’re right, this could be a blockbuster.”
With a launch date of April 6, 2020, and a target of 7,000 pieces of original programming to air in the first year, Katzenberg is often to be seen at media events, setting out his stall. In recent months he has been “in conversation” at Produced By and South by Southwest, and he found a particularly receptive audience in the Canadian Rockies last month, where producers, film-makers and industry nobility had gathered for the 40th Banff World Media Festival.
When I ask him how long he expects it will take to turn a profit for his investors, he gives his usual upbeat assessment. “Twenty minutes? One day?” he laughs. “It’s a gigantic investment and a big bet, but we aim to hit the high bar. To use a sports analogy: if you don’t take the kick, if you don’t score, you don’t win. And I aim to win.”
As they say, don’t bet against Jeffrey Katzenberg.