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Bigger, Shorter, More Expensive

by
in Filmmaking
on Jun 19, 2019

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One would think that in this era of superabundance—with Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Prime, Disney+, Apple TV+, Pluto TV, Criterion Channel, OVID.tv, Kanopy and more than 300 hours of content uploaded to YouTube every minute—the last thing we need is another viewing option. But nearly every day a new platform seems to launch, and many are investing heavily in “original content.” New platforms spending money should be good for filmmakers, right? Well, the answer seems a qualified maybe.

The boom isn’t just occurring with platforms focusing on features and episodic content. There’s a new rise in outlets focusing on short-form work. Until recently, the big names in this space were existing publishers (NYT OpDocs, Vice), a handful of new entrants (Topic, Field of Vision) or brand-funded sites (Nowness, CNN’s Great Big Story). Each of these sites does pay for content and offer new ways to get filmmakers’ work seen. But many have been offering filmmakers not much more than exposure, with going rates for most short-form platforms being $1,000 per minute (or less) on average, with occasional exceptions of platforms or brands paying closer to $10,000 to $20,000 per minute.

But last year, Jeffrey Katzenberg, the former DreamWorks exec, took things up a notch when he announced the upcoming launch (2019–20) of Quibi, which will reportedly showcase original content in 10-minute or shorter chapters—“Quick Bites” in its PR—optimized for smartphone viewing.

What is keeping Quibi above the status of also-ran is money. Katzenberg raised more than $1 billion and is spending as much as $100,000 per minute, or $1 million per episode for high-quality content. These budgets are attracting big-name talent, with Quibi commissioning films from the likes of Guillermo del Toro and Doug Liman. There are even rumors of Steven Spielberg, who graced the stage at Apple’s recent event announcing Apple TV+, contemplating new films for the platform. 

Quibi is not the only new entrant in this space. In December, Fiction Riot announced the beta launch of Ficto, another new short-form service for smartphones (its initial programming slate was announced in May), and it too is spending a lot of money to create original shows, even offering a “Million for Million campaign” where the first user-submitted show to reach one million views will receive $1 million in funding. That same week, Quibi announced it was raising another $1 billion to add to its coffers as inevitably more new entrants will begin to compete in the same space.

The plus side of all this money being thrown around is that some of it might end up in the hands of independent filmmakers, right? Perhaps, but Quibi’s first announcements have consisted solely of star directors. Noticeably absent thus far have been any indie darlings, or much in the way of diversity. But the hope is that Quibi raises the bar, not only attracting top talent but hopefully bringing up prices for competitors, which may trickle down to the indie world as well. 

Quibi and others in this space may bring new money, but my bet is most of it will keep going to the top one percent of filmmakers, leaving the rest of us competing not just for money but also for attention. Independents without big names in their cast will find it much harder to break through the noise of so many platforms and viewing options.

Which brings up another problem with Quibi. It’s actually a solution to a Hollywood problem. No one I know is sitting around wishing they had more content to watch. They’re finding plenty of it, mainly on YouTube, Facebook, Instagram and TikTok. The problem for Hollywood is that if viewers are watching “amateur” video online, they aren’t watching their “professional”—and monetized—content. Quibi isn’t a competitor to Netflix, it’s a competitor to Ryan ToysReview—a kid making $22 million posting reviews of toys on YouTube. And in that regard, it won’t be long before it’s just another competitor taking attention away from anyone else without outsize budgets, meaning indie and art house films.

Seven-year-old toy aficionado Ryan Kaji isn’t the only one being targeted by Hollywood these days. As new platforms seek to dominate, we’re seeing a simultaneous ominous turn against “amateurs” of all stripes. Amazon Prime has ended its Amazon Stars festival program and even started removing many indie films without notice. YouTube is making it harder to find content that doesn’t have a lot of traffic or isn’t “safe.” Vimeo seems on the precipice of disappearing altogether. It might not be long before it’s hard for an emerging filmmaker to land a film on any platform of note, much less stand out from the crowd.

So, the question with Quibi and its inevitable competitors is whether or not they can increase opportunities for diversity, equity and inclusion—as well as for new storytellers and independent voices—while building a new model. It would be a shame if all of this funding just supported the status quo, only served up in shorter chunks of time. 

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