Is there room for Hollywood on our phones?

The entertainment industry’s best attempt at a mobile video renaissance will face daunting behavioral hurdles.

Andre Redelinghuys
Aug 5 · 6 min read

People spend more than three hours a day on their phones now. Rather than trying to get audiences off their phones and back into cinemas, Jeffrey Katzenberg’s Quibi aims to channel cinema caliber filmmakers, including Steven Spielberg, into quick bites, made for phones.

To successfully create a new high-quality mobile video platform, Quibi’s biggest battle won’t be with Facebook or Youtube but against the audience’s stubborn nature.

The short-form content that currently fills our social feeds, phones and minds is a toxic tsunami fueled by an indiscriminate advertising ecosystem that prefers only quantity. The dominant mobile video platforms have grown so quickly that quality couldn’t keep up. Now we need a short-form renaissance, but what that might look like isn’t clear.

Hollywood caliber short-form content would give people a meaningful alternative to thumbing through social feeds for X-Factor highlights, abandoned dog makeovers and polarising political bait. With episodes of their “Lighthouse” shows (their key content) running between 7 and 10 minutes and series of 10 to 12 episodes (~120 minutes total), they would offer a whole new class of content.

As with all media platforms, Quibi will only work if it reaches the necessary scale and critical mass. Aiming to launch in April 2020, they have pre-sold $100M in advertising and will spend over $1BN on content and $500M on marketing for their first year. It’s safe to say the number of subscribers they need to attract to make it all work is significant.

Despite the seemingly large amount of attention people give their phones now, fighting for a share of it is not for the faint-hearted. The battle for attention is fierce. Ad driven platforms (like Facebook, Instagram, Youtube, Twitter) dominate the space with content that has evolved algorithmically to hook and hold users and notifications and nudges to keep them coming back. For Quibi, introducing a whole new category has added difficulty. They must convince audiences not only to buy in, but to adopt totally new consumption patterns.

Three human factors stand in their way of gaining a significant share of the mobile phone:

1. Guilt

If watching Quibi at work doesn’t work, their audience’s potential watching time will be massively reduced. They have already stressed that they do not want to compete with TV. It makes sense that watching series at home on your phone when you have a 47 inch TV doesn’t make much sense.

Social media is largely unproductive time yet it feels something like checking up on friends and loved ones — you know social. It feels justifiable for a few minutes in the office, a few times a day. Pure entertainment would be an outright indulgence and unacceptable, like watching Netflix. Employers would frown upon it but above all, employees would feel too guilty — even though they merrily plow through hours of social junk every week on their employer’s dime.

Removing working hours leaves the in-between moments: commuting, waiting, killing time. It’s not a lot to work with; just a fraction of the day. Essentially they need tens of millions of people to watch billions of videos in their first year. As the episodes are between 7 and 10 minutes, this volume isn’t easily squeezed into the cracks.

2. Aversion to quality

Getting people to pay for something they have become used to getting for free is always tough. There is a gaping hole for a premium-ad-free offering in the social and mobile video spaces that audiences could be convinced to pay for. Ironically Quibi has opted to embrace ads with a hybrid model much like Hulu. $7.99 for no ads and $4.99 for ad-supported service. $3 a month to remove ads feels like a bargain but nevertheless, they estimate 75% of their subscribers will opt to save this and have Proctor & Gamble present cereal and detergent ads before their videos.

Are people willing to pay for better quality? Surely. A much more difficult question to answer — do people actually want quality? Do they want Michelin Star quality storytelling (Spielberg, Soderbergh, del Toro, Fuqua, Blum) when they reach for their phone in the queue at Starbucks or are these snack moments better suited to the junk food currently served up by social platforms?

There will most certainly be those that opt for high quality, again the question is whether this audience has the scale and volume necessary to float the platform.

To watch just the best reviewed new films and series, those ‘certified fresh’ by Rotten Tomatoes, requires 4.7 hours every day.

It’s easy to want better quality video for our phones and social feeds when considering the current quality, but do we have a shortage of quality overall? If cinema offers the highest quality and TV now offers excellent quality, affordability and access — perhaps people’s quality quota is comfortably being met. Having quality on your phone too may be quality overload. Where do I just veg out? It used to be TV.

3. Portions that pay off

The hugely addictive nature of phones has much to do with ad-driven platforms luring users with content and experiences that provide small endorphin hits. Likes and notifications work well, novel content does too. A key factor is that there are multiple payoffs per session.

We check our phones, on average, 150 times a day. The average session is then around 1 to 2 minutes.

Two minutes is enough to read some headlines, reply to a tweet, see who viewed your Instagram story etc. The user can get multiple quick payoffs in this time.

With episodes of 7 minutes or longer, you will need to watch the conclusion of your Quibi Lighthouse next time you grab your phone or perhaps the session after that. No reward this time, except enjoying the relatively high quality despite the lack of conclusion.

Having a series to watch is a commitment and a burden. We invest in the story and characters and need to see where it goes and how it concludes, but it’s unlikely that people will schedule time to watch on their phones. So payoff could be fleeting and irregular.

Much of behavioral psychology suggests we are more like monkeys doing tricks for peanuts than transcended beings able to defer short term pleasure for long term reward. In a 5 minute session, the pre-roll ads will conclude but not my episode. This is not a good reward transaction.

People’s behavior can evolve. They may stretch their phone sessions for their entertainment to conclude (wherever they may be between home and work), but in an overloaded on-demand mobile world it’s much safer to assume the content will adapt to people’s availability.

A big balancing act

If people don’t watch at the office or at home and they need to find at least a 7-minute gap to be properly rewarded, then will there be enough potential viewing bandwidth in the market? Will enough people have enough opportunities to watch enough content?

Quibi is incredibly well supported and funded. They won’t need to make a profit soon but they will have to grow and grow fast. To have a decent chance of success, they must make sure there is enough room for their product in people’s lives. This could require adapting their vision drastically in time.

Katzenberg’s bold vision is essentially a balancing act between the grand productions of Hollywood and mobile audience’s shrunken attention spans. Can you squeeze Spielberg and Soderberg into formats and portions that can compete with the sea of fluid fragments on social media? Maybe. Will Quibi be nimble enough to move like a tech company if their product and market don’t fit perfectly at first? Hopefully, but we’ll have to wait and see.

Attention Lab

Observations on media, marketing, technology and the war for attention.

Andre Redelinghuys

Written by

Founder @ Attention Lab - helping ventures grow. Observations on marketing, media and tech - where they intersect

Attention Lab

Observations on media, marketing, technology and the war for attention.

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