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Jeffrey Katzenberg On Launching Quibi In The Middle Of A Global Pandemic & Working To Recruit J.J. Abrams – The Deadline Q&A

Peter White

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Quibi is one of the most anticipated platform launches of the year and it’s also one of the most talked about in Hollywood circles. While the short-form service, which comes out on April 6, is launching around the same time as HBO Max and NBCUniversal’s Peacock, the presence of ex-Walt Disney Studios chairman and DreamWorks co-founder Jeffrey Katzenberg is the main reason for the wagging tongues.

The other reason the town is keeping a particularly close eye on Quibi is its lineup of projects from top stars, both in front of and behind the camera. Steven Spielberg is writing a horror drama – his first writing project since A.I. – and other stars to sign up include Steven Soderbergh, Sam Rami, Antoine Fuqua, Jennifer Lopez, Liam Hemsworth, Idris Elba, Kiefer Sutherland, Lena Waithe, Anna Kendrick, Sophie Turner, Reese Witherspoon and LeBron James.

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Katzenberg’s partner in Quibi is former eBay CEO Meg Whitman, who he persuaded to join him over dinner in San Francisco, shortly after she revealed she was leaving Hewlett Packard. Whitman is ostensibly overseeing the tech of the service, while Katzenberg corrals creatives.

The service is launching April 6, despite the current COVID-19 crisis impacting production on a few of its Daily Essentials and news-related shows, with a 90-day free trial. Starting at $4.99 with ads and $7.99 with no ads, the platform is set to have 175 original shows in its first year, totaling around 8,500 episodes.

Katzenberg tells Deadline how he’s feeling about launching a major new platform in the middle of a global pandemic – calling the fallout “heartbreaking” and “distressing” with people’s lives “being turned upside down” – who he expects to sign up to Quibi and how he’s in talks with J.J. Abrams for potential projects.

DEADLINE: You’re 10 days away from launch. How are you feeling ahead of April 6?

JEFFREY KATZENBERG: I’m quite excited. I’m confident. I think that we’re about to bring some joy and happiness and laughter and something different to people’s lives in a moment in time, which you can’t get enough of that. In a way, it’s the one silver lining, I think that Hollywood, the best and most talented people have turned out and made some extraordinary content that will delight people and is going to bring a lot of enjoyment to them. I’m proud of the Quibi team and, most importantly, our suppliers and creators, what they’re delivering every day.

DEADLINE: How has COVID-19 affected those launch plans?

KATZENBERG: One of the things that we did a couple of weeks ago in anticipation of where we’re finding ourselves, is to give Quibi away free for the first 90 days to everybody. I feel that that’s our acknowledgement and recognition that there’s a lot of challenges and financial challenges going on for people right now and there’s a lot of uncertainty. The one thing we can do is to gift this to people and let them check it out and have some fun. If they love it and they think it’s worthwhile, they’ll end up subscribing to it but I think that pivot on our part to say ‘yes we’re going to go ahead and launch but we’ll make it available for free for 90 days’ was the right thing to do.

DEADLINE: Has the production shutdown impacted any of your launch slate? I gather Hot Off the Mic and 60 in 6 have been hit. 

KATZENBERG: I would say the Daily Essentials have been the thing that is the most remarkable and the most inspiring because all of them, there are 20 on them, were in various stages of rehearsals, dress rehearsals and previews. The shutdown/work from home has hit us; what’s been extraordinary is that each and every one of these shows has pivoted in a way so that they can deliver. All of our Daily Essentials, bar one, is going to be there and deliver. In fact, they are all delivering on Monday their final preview versions for us all of next week. They will all post their shows next week. Hot Off the Mic is the show that can’t because it was being recorded in front of a live comedy audience and the comedy clubs were shut down. However, we have a plan B on that show, which I’m actually meant to see on Monday, that’s more in line with what the late-night shows [are doing]. We’ll see if that works our not, but it’s an interesting virtual comedy club and we’ll see if it works or not. If it works, we’ll go with it, if not, we’ll wait until they can get up.

60 in 6 was never a Daily Essential, it was a show that was going to be part of our offering at the offset, but as you know CBS was hit by the coronavirus, in fact 60 Minutes was one of the earlier places within New York that did have coronavirus so they have had to do the most workarounds of everyone. That will come later, but we have actually put another weekly show in place of that. So our offering on launch is still 50 shows and 300 episodes in the opening week — that’s not changed.

DEADLINE: Do you see the fact that people are on lockdown as an advantage or a disadvantage? On the one hand, people will have time to watch at home, but on the other hand, the service is designed to be watched on the go.

KATZENBERG: It’s not a disadvantage or an advantage, I just think it’s different. There’s no question that there’s a difference between having in between time traveling to work or standing in line at Starbucks or taking a break from a meeting, but that’s not to say our lives have delivered us a whole different set of in-between moments. Whether you need a break from schooling the kids or entertaining them or need a break from sitting on your computer and working, those things haven’t changed, we still need and have many in-between times. I think they are different but I don’t think they are better or worse. I don’t think there’s fewer of them. There’s plenty of in-between moments in our lives right now where I think something like this is going to be appreciated and valued.

DEADLINE: Have you considered launching a smart-TV app as a result of more being home?

KATZENBERG: No. It’s not designed for TV. It’s unique on the phone. Our technology that has been created and patented for this makes watching it on the phone beautiful. It’s special. I can’t stand my TV on its side.

DEADLINE: What demographic are you targeting? I get the impression that the initial focus was on slightly older audiences, but some of the content seems ripe for younger audiences?

KATZENBERG: It’s always been 18 to 44, we’re an adult platform, that’s never changed. We’ve tried to be very targeted at 25-35 millennial audience but it is an 18-44 platform. It’s not for kids yet, maybe we will be down the line; it’s not for family. Those are things that hopefully we’ll get to in time, but we’re not launching for them.

DEADLINE: Who do you see as your competition? Is it the other streaming platforms or is it the likes of Snapchat and TikTok?

KATZENBERG: I don’t see [streaming services] as competition but we are probably the same customer base as them. Snapchat and TikTok are a much younger demographic, 12-21 years olds, their audience is younger than ours. I don’t see this as us taking share away from these platforms. YouTube consumption and Facebook and Instagram viewing is through the roof, all of these have accelerated their growth and I think we’ll add to that acceleration, we won’t be taking away from it. Those platforms, all of them, have billions of monthly active users. You have 2 billion on YouTube and 1.5 billion on Instagram and hundreds of millions on the others. We’re a blip on that but if we get a small, single-digit version of that, we’ll be the biggest hit ever as a subscription platform.

DEADLINE: You’re working with most of the top creative talent in town. Are there any holdouts? 

KATZENBERG: There’s been a handful of filmmakers that have been busy on their own work that I’m dying to have come play. As an example, J.J. Abrams has spent this last year on Star Wars work and has now just come up for air and we’ve actually been having conversations in the last couple of weeks and he’s leaning in and is intrigued. Someday, the dream is to get Jim Cameron, and I haven’t got Martin Scorsese yet, but there’s not many.

DEADLINE: How’s Steven Spielberg’s show coming? Were you able to figure out the after-dark technology?

KATZENBERG: He was finishing up West Side Story, but he’s actually got a bit of free time and every week, I’m prodding him to get back to writing, because he wants to write that himself, and he’s written half of it. They came up with great technology for it and he’s very excited and we’re holding that just for him, that was his idea and I can’t wait for him to get a shot at it.

DEADLINE: Are there any genres or areas that you’re not interested in?

KATZENBERG: I don’t think so. That’s the beauty of this. At launch, we really have tried to have something for everyone. I’m excited to get the feedback from our customers. My whole career, I have worked for the audience, they’re my boss, and I’m very excited after all of these years, to have customers to start talking back to us and very quickly learning what they like and what’s meaningful for them and what they’re gravitating to and what they’re getting the most value from, whether it’s the movies in chapters, documentaries, Daily Essentials. My guess is that it’s going to be some of all of those. Once there’s that virality, which happens in the world, that’s so amazing today, where suddenly people are hearing about something and they all want to watch it, I’m excited for that to happen to us, and I’m confident that out of the 50 shows or so that we’re launching with, there’s half a dozen or more that’s going to happen with an they’re going to catch fire, and that will inform where we go from here.

DEADLINE: Have you got a sense of which of these first shows might be the biggest breakout? 

KATZENBERG: Not a chance I’m going to answer that for you. You get to watch and answer that to me. I love all my children equally.

DEADLINE: You’re launching with 50 shows to begin with and you’ve got 175 shows planned for the first year with 8,500 episodes. Are you going look at how subscribers consume that first tranche of shows before deciding how and what you roll out next?

KATZENBERG: We’re ready, we have a pretty strong slate of content that has been developed and is ready to go, and we will lean very hard to that feedback. But our scripted team have probably got, right now, close to a dozen movies that are ready to go and we just need to see if people want to laugh, if they want a good scare, if they want a good drama, what’s the thing that’s working best and when we learn that, we’ll greenlight the next slate of stuff, but we’re ready.

DEADLINE: Quibi has an interesting rights position where after two years, creators have the right to re-release content on another platform and after seven years, rights will revert to creators entirely. Has that helped convince some partners to work with?

KATZENBERG: There are two things that really attracted the best of the best of Hollywood to come play with us. Every single storyteller in Hollywood is an entrepreneur. What I mean by that is they start with an original idea, they have to go out and assemble the right group of people to realize that idea, you then have to go raise a bunch of money to make that idea and if you’re lucky and you get it, you have to bring a team of people together to actually execute that idea, then you have to market and bring it to customers. That’s what every entrepreneur or every start up has ever done and then you do that and you have to it again a year later. The one thing about entrepreneurs is they have the opportunity to go, in the words of Captain Kirk, where no one has gone before, so from the outset there’s that conversation. Then having a technology that allows them to do it in a new way. We try to create a business model that is so enticing and ultimately rewarding, it allows people to bet on themselves, what I mean that is that because Quibi licenses rather than owns the content and it quickly, for its subsequent windows and values, is going to reside in the IP owners, in the producers, in the studios, in the creators, that was the financial incentive, so when you put those things together, that’s what’s turned this town out in supporting and working with Quibi that may be unprecedented for a new business. I’m so proud what people have done for us and the quality of work they have given us and I think when people see it, they’ll be blown away.

DEADLINE: Can you see yourselves doing in-house production or signing first-look deals with creators?

KATZENBERG: No. We are a platform, we’re not a studio or a producer or a production company. We have this amazing partnership with all of the major media and entertainment companies and most of the independent producers in town, and I value them as suppliers to us and I don’t want to compete with them.

DEADLINE: Quibi doesn’t have any library content. Is that a hard rule or can you see yourself breaking up existing shows into small chunks in the future?

KATZENBERG: The only rule is that it has to work on our platform and we have not found, to date, that you can take a library piece of content and chop it up and put it on Quibi. That doesn’t work so we’ve steered clear of it.

DEADLINE: What about international? The focus right now is on the U.S., but you’ve already started working with producers around the world. How local do you want to get?

KATZENBERG: We will be local quickly. In success, we will roll out globally. That’s the next big opportunity for us, we want to get this out around the world. It’s a global platform, we have global rights and it’s been designed that way from day one.

DEADLINE: You closed another investment round earlier this month to bring the amount you’ve raised $1.75B. Where does that get you?

KATZENBERG: We are fully financed. Our business plan was actually meant to raise $1.5 billion, which would have taken us into the second half of next year, and we actually were more successful than we anticipated and closed around a month ago another $750 million [taking the total to $1.75 billion], which gives us a very long runway, well into the end of the second half and last quarter of next year, so the company is very healthy in its financing.

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