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We Hate to Quibi-le, But You Might Want to Bet Against Katzenberg This Time

When evaluating the prospects of a huge media project being helmed by a big name, it’s important to remember two things:

-George Lucas made Star Wars

-George Lucas made the prequels

You see my point. Just because someone made something awesome in the past, doesn’t mean they can do it again. If you’ve read any of my work, you know that’s true.

Yet in the media business, we love to ascribe ‘magic touches’ or ‘singular vision’ to people, despite evidence to the contrary.

That seems to be the only reason anyone thinks Quibi has any chance of working.

Don’t bet against Katzenberg.”

It’s true, Jeffrey Katzenberg has had a remarkable career. The legendary executive ran Disney in the pre-Pixar era when it was churning out hits like The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast. He built DreamWorks, and is responsible for stewarding classics like Shrek and Madagascar. The man has incredible connections across Hollywood.

That doesn’t mean Quibi is going to work.

One thing to keep in mind is that the majority of Katzenberg’s work has been in traditional movies and TV, within the legacy distribution system. He’s never done anything like this.

It’s also been a while since he’s had a big hit.

Give him credit, he’s certainly aiming high. Quibi’s not a moonshot, it’s a mission to Mars, and will only cost about half as much (his team has raised a few billion.)

He’s even brought along Meg Whitman as his CEO. Presumably she’s on board to make sure the printers work.

Regardless, the problems with Quibi are many.

For starters, it’s a complete fantasy land category.

Short form, high production value, original, serialized, sometimes scripted content that is made for mobile – is something that no one wants or needs. I don’t know about you, but I rarely want to dive into a few minutes of the latest fantasy work from Guillermo del Toro that evokes the spiritual beauty of Pan Labyrinth while I’m waiting in line for the bathroom. Hey, maybe you do.

“But Mike, he’s getting so many big names, like Steph Curry and JLo and Jason Blum.” Sounds great. I love Jason Blum (The Conjuring, Get Out, etc.) His company has a show on Facebook Watch. You catch it lately? How about the Elizabeth Olsen one? Oh, you didn’t stream a few episodes while catching the bus? Hmm.

To be fair, it’s narrow-minded to think that people can’t create new content forms or styles. A few years ago, who knew we’d all be tapping through Stories on every other application. Now, people can’t stop making or watching them.

And it’s only been a few years since Snap rolled out a suite of daily vertical video content offerings from the likes of Refinery29 and Cosmopolitan and NBC News. For a company that has had lots of ups and downs, credit Snap for getting millions of people to watch the news or check in on culture every day.

Still, none of these offerings asks too much of viewers. We’re not talking about immersive, narrative storytelling. That’s not the nature of mobile media consumption (that is, unless you’re using your mobile device to stream shows you’ve downloaded from Netflix).

To Qubi’s credit, the company is also seeking some sort of daily, lighter programming. The problem there is, Snap already invented that use case. And it’s free.

Indeed, Quibi’s content fallacy is only one part of the problem. Not only does the startup promise an art form no one seems to need – they want to charge you for it.

Yes, you read that right. According to reports, a time when consumers are facing pending streaming subscription fatigues, as the likes of Disney and WarnerMedia seek to get you to pony more each month on top of Netflix armed with deep content libraries, Quibi wants you to pay for something highly experimental.

I realize it’s hard to trust Quibi until you see it. And smart folks I trust have raved about the product.

The thing is, I remember very well how people raved about how sleek and great Vessel looked. That service, from Jason Kilar – the innovator often credited with making Hulu into Hulu – did look cool. Its basic premise – getting people to pay to get access to content they already get for free on YouTube a few days early – never made any sense. But that didn’t stop many people saying “don’t bet against Jason.” Just like tons of Tim Armstrong fans cheered “don’t bet against Tim” as Oath was being put together to challenge Google and Facebook (Otherwise known as “Verizon’s Go4.6 billion.”)

My point is, second acts don’t always work, even from the most brilliant among us. Phil Jackson is the most accomplished coach in NBA history. Ask Knick fans what they think of him.

Katzenberg may wow us. It remains to be seen.

But it’s worth remembering, the same guy who gave us Han Solo once thought to himself, “man, I can’t wait until people see Jar Jar Binks.”

Header photo by Ant Rozetsky on Unsplash