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Ultimately, Quibi Was the Quickest Bite of All

Jeffrey Katzenberg and Meg Whitman’s heavily funded streaming service didn’t change everything after all. And now that it’s folded, it’s clear that its greatest purpose was to serve as an internet fascination.

Ringer illustration

In the end, the flashy disaster Quibi—the supposedly-smart-money-backed smartphone app that sought to hook viewers on its minutes-long namesake “quick bites” of indulgently produced, Hollywood-grade video content but soon soured into a nearly $2 billion symbol of out-of-touch and/or unlucky industry excess, depending on whom you ask—died as it lived: with a tweet that I initially mistook for a joke. It came from a Wall Street Journal reporter, shortly after the still-nascent Quibi, which had only officially premiered its service this April, confirmed its abrupt, though not surprising, unwinding. “During a video call with employees Wednesday,” wrote the WSJ’s Ben Mullin, “an emotional Mr. Katzenberg”—industry kingpin Jeffrey, the former Disney and Dreamworks exec forever best-signified as “Shrek Daddy”—“suggested Quibi staffers listen to the song ‘Get Back Up Again,’ sung by actress Anna Kendrick in the animated film Trolls, to buoy their spirits.”

Surely this couldn’t be real, and yet sure enough it was, one more wild detail in the strange saga of Quibi that might be straightforwardly funny if it weren’t also pretty fakakte. It was only nine months but also another lifetime ago that former eBay CEO Meg Whitman and Katzenberg unveiled their new platform during the Consumer Electronics Show keynote in Las Vegas. “I’ve been doing this before you all were fucking born,” Katzenberg told the crowd there in January as he advanced his vision for six-to-10-minute-long chunks of content that users would pay to access on their phones (but only on their phones) as they, say, stood in line for a sandwich. Since then, and even before then, each piece of information that came out about Quibi and its content felt like entertainment Mad Libs, as though the Karaoke Prompts bot on Twitter had leased a Tesla in a fit of cynical optimism and moved into new digs with a view of Sunset Boulevard. This applied to both the endeavor’s financiers and the people cashing their paychecks.

Goldman Sachs, all the major Hollywood studios, and Madrone Capital—the investing arm of the Walmart founding family—were some of the many power players who funded the $1.8 billion project. Shows included a cooking competition, Dishmantled, that involved chefs getting blasted in the face by ingredients and reverse-engineering the dish; a trifle called Nikki Fre$h starring Nicole Richie as an “educational, wellness-related” rapper; a car-racing program hosted by a mostly unscathed-by-association Idris Elba; and a true crime series, Last Looks, that “looks at the dark side of fashion, with each episode examining a different crime and its perpetrator while also exploring the world of haute couture.” (Kendrick, the singer-actress of Trolls renown, starred in Quibi’s DUMMY, in which she befriends her boyfriend’s sentient sex doll.)

Reese Witherspoon’s husband, Hollywood agent Jim Toth, was Quibi’s head of content acquisition and talent, and Witherspoon herself narrated a nature documentary for the service called Fierce Queens about female wild animals. (Slay!) The Stevens Spielberg and Soderbergh signed up, one to put together a horror show that could only be accessed after dark; the other to create a thriller revolving around a cellphone battery with only a few precious shreds of power left. (Fine, that’s relatable content.) The service’s underlying technology included the genuinely interesting “Turnstyle,” which delivered different camera angles and viewing experiences of the same show depending on which way a viewer held the phone. Actors from Anna Ferris to Liam Hemsworth played starring roles in various Quibi works, each divvied up into what were supposed to be snackable snippets for a nation of bent-necked cellphone dweebs on the go.

But the problems presented themselves almost immediately, if not preemptively. A slick, soulless Super Bowl ad, that old bellwether, left 70 percent of polled viewers with the impression that this newfangled thing “Quibi” was a food delivery app, not a ridiculously capitalized microstreaming hub. And come early April, very few of those aforementioned bent-necked dweebs were on the go, waiting in line for sandwiches, when the Quibi app launched into the early days of a global pandemic that had rendered the world housebound with their good laptops and their bad laptops and their TVs. (While statistics say that cellphone use rose while people dwelled in quarantine, I know I’ve personally gone days without knowing where in the mess of my house mine is buried.) Users paying six hard-earned dollars a month for the app still saw ads unless they paid even more. Quibi focused its marketing muscle on promoting its app, rather than its shows. Perhaps most ill-advisedly, while all that content may have been snackable, it wasn’t shareable. Quibi viewers couldn’t take a screenshot of a scene to text to friends, for example, nor could they so much as share within the app.

Which is why—with Quibi’s early subscriber numbers rumored to range anywhere from the embarrassing to the catastrophic—Katzenberg’s blame-the-virus dissembling rang pretty hollow. “I attribute everything that has gone wrong to coronavirus,” he told The New York Times in May. “Everything.” By the summer, things had gone from bad to worse. The Quibi app fell to no. 284 in the download rankings. There existed practically zero buzz around any of its shows. Even the Turnstyle technology was under assault, with a deep-pocketed activist investor funding a patent infringement legal challenge. In July, New York magazine published a methodical, rollicking takedown of the people supposedly tasked with leading a revolution in entertainment. The most damning moment: When reporter Benjamin Wallace asked Whitman one of the most standard small-talk questions in the world, particularly for someone at the helm of a multi-billion-dollar media enterprise. What shows was she into these days?

“I’m not sure I’d classify myself as an entertainment enthusiast,” Whitman deflected. When Wallace pressed, she finally thought of something. “Grant,” she said. “On the History Channel. It’s about President [Ulysses S.] Grant.” It’s hard to know what was a surer sign of Quibi’s impending doom: Whitman’s complete remove from the essence of what Quibi sought to offer, or, on the other end of the spectrum, Katzenberg’s aggressive insistence on one of his business’s early selling points: the money, honey. Most studios making a normal-length picture, he told people at CES in January, “They’re making content at $100 a minute. We’re making content at $100,000 a minute.”

In hindsight, it doesn’t feel like he was making the point he thought he was. (The quote reminded me of one of my favorite examples of misguided Tinseltown braggadocio, in which a cocky young studio executive made a worrisome boast: He’d earned his pilot’s license, he told Town & Country, “faster than anyone.” Uh, I’ll just walk, thanks!) But Katzenberg is also not the first to equate profligate spending with deeper meaning, or the first to make a big, loopy bet on what the youth seem to be doing and what they therefore must want.

I will forever remember a similar endeavor in the online media world from about a decade ago, when Rupert Murdoch poured funding into what was supposed to be a game-changing e-magazine product tailored to the world’s newest medium, the iPad. That project, called The Daily, was bold and expensive; it was also ultimately garden-walled and irrelevant. “Great content doesn’t do much good if there’s no good way to share it,” a former The Daily editor wrote in a 2012 reminiscence that carries the same melancholy, we-did-what-we-could-in-the-face-of-weird-bosses energy that I’m sure a lot of people who devoted creative labor to Quibi are currently feeling. I have specific memories, from the time The Daily launched, about how the broad story of the effort was how much money was being sloshed around. So my eyes bugged out a little when I went back to see how much that was: something along the lines of $30 million. Quibi, meanwhile, raised nearly $2 billion.

Of course, the whole reason the operation is being shut down already is so that a lot of those funds can be returned to investors, according to Whitman and Katzenberg, whose damage-control tour has already included pats on their own backs for being experienced enough to know when to fold ’em. Which may be true, I guess, but their practiced PR slickness makes it that much more notable when something appears to stick under their C-suite craw. In the May New York Times article in which Katzenberg blamed the virus for all that ailed him, he also bristled when presented with an obvious observation: Quibi’s whole thing, its entire premise, revolves around the concept that people want quick bites as they’re waiting for a quick bite, or whatever, and hey: Maybe he’s right! Just look at the hockey-stick growth of TikTok, which actually delivers, and has thrived, even and especially during quarantine, on that very same promise! But: “That’s like comparing apples to submarines,” Katzenberg said defensively when the Times brought that up.

The best Quibi clip I’ve ever seen, of course, I did not see on Quibi. It’s a video posted on Twitter, shot on a handheld device, pointed at another smartphone that is playing “The Golden Arm,” an installment of a Quibi horror series from director Sam Raimi. (Life finds a way, you know?) Rachel Brosnahan, who won an Emmy as Mrs. Maisel in Amazon’s The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, is on the screen, though she isn’t playing that hit-making role. Instead, she’s lying in a hospital bed, sickly admiring what appears to be a cursed/bionic metallic arm. Fashioned from pure gold, the new appendage is, a doctor tells her and us, terminally poisoning the rest of her body, and fast. “Pulmonary gold disease,” the doctor concludes; he advises that she rid her humanly form of the appendage immediately. “Bury me with my golden arm,” Brosnahan’s character begs.

It is all extremely absurd, which is why the best part of the video is the unsuppressable giggles of the people in the background, the heroes whose brave citizen footage brought Quibi to the masses, disabled screenshots be damned. They aren’t even trying to laugh, they just can’t not do so. Their production is perfect, and there’s nothing I’d change; their reactions are human and soulful and real, and the only thing I’d pay money to get more of. I watched their video, a quarter-Quibi in length, again and again.