Quibi, yet another streaming service, launched on April 6, 2020 on both Android and iOS mobile platforms, achieving 1.7 million downloads of its app during the first week. That’s pretty impressive for a new service with no brand recognition and programming no one has ever seen. There are two things that likely contributed to Quibi’s record-breaking launch – A 90-day free trial for initial subscribers and a large population of users home under self-isolation or quarantine due to COVID-19. As of April 17, 2020 (eleven days after launching), the number of app downloads had dwindled to a trickle, currently placing 82nd on Apple’s app store yet was 15th on Google Play according to App Annie. Why the sudden drop in app downloads, and just what is Quibi anyway?
Quibi (short for “quick bites”) is the brainchild of Jeffrey Katzenberg, former CEO of DreamWorks Animation, one of the founding partners of DreamWorks SKG (aka DreamWorks Pictures), and former production executive at both Walt Disney Company and Paramount Pictures. The service offers up several series (both long-form and short-form) in short “chapters” running 10 minutes or less. At launch, the majority of programming was reality based (Chrissy’s Court, Dishmantled, Elba vs. Block, Fight Like a Girl) with a smattering of dramatic fare (#FreeRayshawn, 50 States of Fright, Flipped, Most Dangerous Game, Survive), attracting stars such as Laurence Fishburn, Karen Allen, Asa Butterfiled, Chrissy Teigen, Idris Elba, Will Forte, Kaitlin Olson, Will Arnett, Patton Oswalt, Liam Hemsworth, Christoph Waltz, Sophie Turner, and many more.
Quibi is aimed at mobile users exclusively for now (a casting option is currently in the works), and one of its “features” is the ability to switch from landscape (16:9) to portrait (9:16) modes on the fly by simply rotating your phone or tablet. That is one of my major problems with this service. For over a century, storytelling in a visual medium has been in the form of a rectangle, similar to how we see the world. Looking back at the dawn of silent movies in 1892, those were presented in the 1.33:1 (or 4:3) aspect ratio, which was widened ever so slightly to 1.37:1 to make room for optical soundtracks in 1932, also known as the Academy Ratio. It may look like a square, but it is an optical illusion, four parts wide by three parts high. The aspect ratios got much wider over the years, in both movie theaters, television, and now smart phones (my LG G6, and most phones made afterwards, are closer to 18:9). The 9:16 aspect ratio just does not work in a narrative form, and to make things worse, most of the programs on Quibi simply extract the 9:16 frame from the originally shot 16:9 (making a seamless, on the fly change possible), extensively cropping the image in most cases, and changing the visual tone of the scene you are watching. Filmmakers usually select an aspect ratio as part of their storytelling tools, composing the frame for emotional impact. Changing a two-shot to a closeup can drastically change a viewer’s perception of a scene. I remember when Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade arrived on laserdisc in both Pan & Scan and Letterboxed editions, using the scene where Harrison Ford and Sean Connery share the screen as Connery reacts to Ford’s discovery. In the letterboxed version, both appear on screen and you can see Connery’s reaction at the same time as Ford delivers his lines. It is a brilliant use of widescreen, yet in the Pan & Scan edition, the same scene plays as alternating closeups, ruining the dramatic impact. And that is what happens quite frequently on the few Quibi shows I sampled. The Most Dangerous Game has several similar examples to Last Crusade, while the reality show Elba vs. Block (actor Idris Elba and rally driver Ken Block compete in stunts) is almost unwatchable in portrait mode since much of the show involves horizontal movement which ends up being cropped for the viewer.
Then there is the content itself, which I found to be pretty dreadful. The Most Dangerous Game was heavily promoted as being an updated The Fugitive, with Liam Hemsworth’s character being chased and hunted as a way for him to earn enough money to pay off his massive debt and still leave a sizeable sum as an inheritance to his wife and unborn child. The premise is set up rather efficiently in the first seven minute episode, but the next three episodes are backstory and further setup. That kind of breaks the rules of what Quibi is, programming for people with short attention spans, yet this show asks its viewers to be patient and let the story unfold over several episodes before the big hunt begins. On the plus side, though, when watching in landscape mode, The Most Dangerous Game is cleverly framed and is watchable and often entertaining once it gets going. However, the majority of Quibi’s content so far is reality based, which I have absolutely no interest in whatsoever.
Jeffrey Katzenberg was quoted as saying about his new streaming service “…if you make it and it’s good, they will come.” That similar philosophy backfired when he greenlit a ton of low to mid range budgeted live action features in the 1990s that audiences more or less ignored. Movies like The Gun in Betty Lou’s Handbag, Life With Mikey, The Cemetery Club, True Identity. It may have also caused DreamWorks Animation to stumble as the new studio made its way out of the gate with features like Road to Eldorado, Sinbad: Legend of the Seven Seas, and Shark Tale. Looking at Quibi’s current lineup, it seems to be telling a similar story.
With few exceptions, I’m not one to watch video entertainment on my phone or tablet on any kind of regular basis, so maybe Quibi isn’t really for me. I’ll load up my phone or tablet with my favorite movies or TV shows when taking a long flight somewhere or taking my car to the mechanic and knowing I’m going to have to sit in the waiting room for an extended period of time. That doesn’t happen very often, even less so in the current climate. If I’m going to watch something, either a one-hour dramatic TV series or the latest movie blockbuster, I’m much more inclined to watch it on as big a screen as possible, not on something that fits in the palm of my hand. Maybe I’ll give Quibi another chance after they launch their ability to cast to my 65” TV, but for now, I’ll be cancelling my 90-day free trial.