April seems so long ago, but it holds a monumental moment for streaming platforms: the launch of Quibi, a phone-only content stream that is all about keeping things short and sweet while emphasizing “movie quality” programming.
That ideal is certainly up for debate, but they spare no expense on the movie star brand to sell their shows. The headliner stars are Anna Kendrick, Liam Hemsworth, Sophie Turner, Reese Witherspoon, and friends, where big names and flashy productions are the incentives to dive into these quick bites (quick bites, Quibi, get it?).
But it all comes at a cost. The warning is right there in their pitch: “Quibi will present fresh content from today’s top talent—one quick bite at a time. Get ready to make any moment extraordinary with incredible storytelling delivered right to your phone.”
The mention of your phone is right there in their messaging, that their glitzy shows are forever trapped to mobile. You’re locked to your four-to-seven-inch screen, and you’re given two modes of watching: horizontal or vertical.
The thing is, the app itself is more than fine. It’s functional, it allows for downloading shows, and the snappiness as you switch from vertical to horizontal is great to see. There’s also this neat swipe-down function that I found myself using often when exiting out when the end logos appear.
But the flaw in the app is in its vertical view, where so much of the production’s real estate is gone from view and we’re instead given a focal point of a character or a specific piece of the frame. It’s great for those who like their phone upright, but they’re missing out on the full wide-frame picture. While I never ran into an issue with missing out on key information on a show, it does feel lessened to have a close-up on Liam Hemsworth’s face when a full shot is right there, waiting to be rotated and reveal a surprise Christoph Waltz hiding just an inch away.
There’s also the download function; it functions, and everything about the playback side of things is great when offline or on the go. But when you’re looking to download an episode and are forced to sit through an ad before every single download, every single time, it makes downloading episodes a planned event rather than downloading a few in a pinch before heading out.
It’s a slick way to get around ads and downloads, but it just ends up becoming a chore.
No repeat ads encountered, at least.
But then there’s the pricing. $4.99 with ads and $7.99 without is an odd balancing act, as the former price feels reasonable after the two-week trial period, but the price without ads feels a hair too high for the current line-up. For those of us in Canada, it’s $6.99 with ads, $9.99 without. That’s reaching into the Disney+, Amazon Prime Video pricing threshold, and they offer mountains more for similar cost.
But what about the shows? That’s what matters most, right?
There’s no denying that there is top talent involved in the actual shows. This is a fact. But the problem becomes having the right project or vehicle to drive this talent, to nurture and have it thrive. That’s not there in its current form, at least not in a widespread way.
Take, for example, the show I was initially most interested in: The Stranger (not to be confused with the Harlan Coben Netflix thriller of the same name, which also released this year). Created by Veena Sud of The Killing (2011-2014) fame and starring Dane DeHaan and Maika Monroe, the premise and the talent are phenomenal jumping off points. But as the episodes progress, the bite-sized nature of the show leaves episodes feeling like the act of an episode where it cuts off at the commercial break rather than concluding the episode’s immediate intent.
This becomes clear pretty fast: these aren’t eight-minute episodes, but take on the feeling of a script broken into chunks where act breaks go. For argument’s sake, let’s say they are created with eight minute runtimes in mind; then why do the shows all feel like episodes with the character development and exposition ripped out?
There are bright spots, at least.
The show that’s captured my imagination the most is Centerpiece with Maurice Harris. It’s a deceptively simple show that feels like a cross between The Eric Andre Show and Comedy Bang Bang, but with a deep, resonating goal of digging into emotions and tying those emotions to floral arrangements. Each celebrity guest opens up and for their deepest shared feeling is given a monument of floral beauty, and it’s always rewarding and always full of heart. A lot of it works because of Maurice Harris’ personality bursting from the screen, and it feels like that hidden gem that Quibi should be drawing more attention to.
There’s also Run This City, a fantastic documentary series about a young Massachusetts mayor’s deep dive into corruption that is a perfect marriage to this short-form style. It is the kind of show that makes the case for this format, and while it’s over before you know it, the show is a fast-paced doc with a lot to say and with a fascinating figure at its middle.
One show that deserves special mention is #FREERAYSHAWN, a crime thriller that has shades of Dog Day Afternoon (1975) and Training Day (2001). With Stephan James and Laurence Fishburne in the leads and a fascinating supporting turn by Skeet Ulrich, it feels like it’s been unearthed from the ’70’s era of film but with modern sensibilities. By show’s end it has dragged its premise a little too far, but there’s absolutely something here in this show.
It becomes a trend for Quibi’s more conventional shows, that they end up overstaying their welcome despite the shorter episode length. This comes from a need to keep you wanting more, and while some shows do produce that result, it creates this false sense of tension that just can’t be sustained over ten or fifteen episodic chunks like this.
The programming is bolstered by deals with news media and other quick bites that are informative and helpful for those interested in movies and sports, but they are the sort of thing you can find on YouTube for free in most cases.
But then there is everything else. There are still things worth your while in there, like Chrissy’s Court or Dummy if you’re in a sadistic mood, but a sticking point is that a lot of the more reality-based programs feel like something you’d find recommended on YouTube rather than behind a subscription. Everything certainly has its entertainment value, but there is a feeling that some of this has been greenlit to boost the quantity rather than the quality.
The content itself can be enjoyable, don’t get me wrong. There are certainly standouts in the library. But it becomes difficult to see why this method of distribution is the one landed on for so many of these projects.
As someone who primarily, if not entirely lately, watches television and movies on a TV, maybe this app isn’t for me. But as a massive fan of the television medium, there feels like a disconnect where these glossy shows are being held back by the smaller screen real estate. They look great on the six-inch screen of my phone, but how much better would it look in 4K on a big TV? Or even a laptop?
It’s not only the fact of shrinking down the size of the shows, and its picture, but the shrinking of a potential audience. It’s attempting to reach a very particular audience that uses their phone for everything, but it’s leaving behind the infinitely larger market of literally everyone else. We all use a phone nowadays (except you, you know who you are), but is watching shows that way when tablets and televisions and streaming boxes are a thing a viable move for the grand majority of people?
There’s the possibility that these shows are not for fans of prestige television, but why not allow them the chance? There are definitely shows here that could do with some attention. Why is it app only, and not at least allow for a browser log-in?
Could this be the reason for the incredibly soft launch? Or is it that the large advertising campaign touted stars but the shows didn’t capture the imagination? It’s all open to interpretation, but it’s definitely not from a lack of content or a lack of advertising.
The signs of growing pains are already apparent, only two months later. There’s reshuffling afoot, the company has unlocked AirPlay as a casting option after being resistant, and series are still being announced.
Quibi shows no sign of going down without a fight. There’s word of an aggressive push for Emmy consideration, they have renewed Tituss Burgess’ show Dishmantled while considering retools on others, and there are more and more shows still incoming.
But when advertisers are looking to defer payments and you’ve fallen from the Top 50 apps on the Apple app store, maybe a relaunch and a larger retool are in order.
Quibi, in the end, feels like a neat idea that doesn’t quite rise to its full potential.
There is hope, though, not in a change of distribution but in its shows. Its most interesting show is nearly here with The Fugitive, an update on the classic 1993 film with Boyd Holbrook and Kiefer Sutherland as leads and developed by writer Nick Santora. There’s also Don’t Look Deeper, a sci-fi mystery starring Helena Howard and Don Cheadle, and projects by Steven Spielberg and Alexandre Aja (an adaptation of the manga Tomie).
Projects like these could really jumpstart the service, but again, sound a little big for such a small screen.