Content Strategy, Plans From Warner Bros., Quibi Shared At Produced By Conference
Peter Roth (l) and Toby Emmerich of Warner Bros. speak at the Produced By Conference at Warner Bros. Studios on Saturday, June 8, 2019, in Burbank, California. (Photo by Mark Von Holden/Invision for Producers Guild of America /AP Images)
Producers Guild event provides insights into diversity, inclusion, opportunities across platforms, varied business models
  • BURBANK, Calif.
  • --

On one hand, you should zig while others zag. On the other, you are compelled to stream when so many are accessing content on streaming platforms. These pieces of advice--reflecting, respectively, contrarian and conformist thinking--were imparted jointly by Toby Emmerich, chairman of Warner Bros. Pictures Group, and Peter Roth, president and chief content officer, Warner Bros. Television Group, during an opening session of the Producers Guild of America’s Produced By Conference held at the Warner Bros. Studios’ Burbank lot this past weekend.

Roth hearkened back to his own history in the business to show the upside of bucking trends--also known as zigging while others are zagging. He recalled back in his days at Fox being pitched an idea he wasn’t all that enamored with from an unknown writer. Roth asked the writer to identify “what’s not on the air that you miss?” The response was that there’s “nothing scary” on TV. Roth described this as “a revelatory moment,” and from that conversation sprang The X-Files.

Fast forwarding to when he joined Warner Bros. in 1999, Roth read a script that he said “blew my mind” but also led to an embarrassing moment. Roth pointed out to the script’s writer, Aaron Sorkin, that there had never been a successful show based in Washington, D.C. Sorkin responded with a series of expletives, leading Roth to the realization that he had been way off base. He had just been taught a valuable lesson, namely “the fact that it has never worked in the history of television doesn’t mean that it won’t work now.” This, affirmed Roth, underscored the importance of asking the question, “How can we dare to be different?” Sorkin’s show, of course, was The West Wing.

Content decision-makers, said Roth, need to consider not only what’s different but also what’s missing from TV that needs to be rediscovered. Asking such questions instead of making assertions--the province of “arrogant executives,” according to Roth--are what leads to hit shows and movies.

The height of ill-founded assertions by industry execs, continued Roth, was evident back in the day when there were but three major networks. He remembered attending a Hollywood Radio & Television Society luncheon in 1984, a year when nine of the top ten shows in the Nielsen ratings were dramas. The programming chiefs of the three networks were asked if sitcoms were dead. The ABC and CBS execs both said traditional sitcoms had fallen by the wayside. But NBC’s Grant Tinker observed, “Comedy’s dead until there’s a funny one.”

On the feature front, Emmerich noted that Warner Bros. has a high percentage of original vehicles that support diversity (Crazy Rich Asians from Jon Chu being a prime recent example) and emerging filmmakers (A Star is Born from first-time director Bradley Cooper). A Star is Born and Crazy Rich Asians contributed heavily to Warner Bros. major box office success this past year. Warner Bros. plans on continuing to emphasize original groundbreaking fare, with Emmerich citing the Chu-directed In the Heights, a movie musical from Lin Manuel Miranda. Emmerich recently saw some initial dailies from the film and predicted it will be a hit.

Clearly already a hit is streaming. For the younger demographic in particular, it is fast becoming the preferred means of accessing content. Warner Bros. is jumping on that bandwagon in a big way, looking to compete with rivals Netflix and Amazon Prime, not to mention forthcoming platforms from Apple, Comcast and Disney Plus. Warner Media’s direct-to-consumer push on the streaming score is in line with the current “evolution of television,” said Roth who explained, “if we don’t cater to what the consumer wants, we will be obsolete.” 

Emmerich observed that Netflix has changed the movie business. He conjectured that this will result in traditional studios like Paramount looking more like Netflix while Netflix may take on more Paramount-esque characteristics. As Netflix gets involved with leading filmmakers like Alfonso Cuaron and Martin Scorsese, it will find the need to increase its theatrical distribution. Conversely studios will have to account for the popularity of streaming platforms. Emmerich conjectured that a significant number of Warner Bros.’ movies could be released on streaming platforms “sooner than you might have seen” just several years ago. 

Emmerich said people will always go to theaters for that shared experience, which lends itself to tentpole titles in particular. But, he predicted that the kind of movies that will drive theatrical exhibition may become more limited.

Boding well for Warner Bros’ prospects in the streaming and technological innovation sectors is AT&T’s acquisition of Time Warner Inc. about a year ago. This week, Emmerich, Roth and chief financial officer Kim Williams are slated to have their first corporate meeting with AT&T in New York, entering into an era where there figures to be “a lot of intracompany collaboration.”

In addition to figuring out these synergies, a major priority will be naming in the not-too-distant future a Warner Bros. Entertainment CEO to replace Kevin Tsujihara who stepped down in March following accounts of alleged misconduct. Filling that leadership void in the interim has been the triumvirate of Emmerich, Roth and Williams.

Quibi
Also looking to fill a void is Quibi, a start-up that stands for “quick bites” of video expressly designed for consumption by on-the-go folks via their smartphones. Audiences are increasingly turning to their mobile devices with some research projecting that this activity will, it if hasn’t already, eclipse the amount of time many spend with traditional television.

Jeffrey Katzenberg, co-founder and managing partner, Wndr Co., and founder/chairman of the board for Quibi, shed light on the Quibi business plan along with its CEO, Meg Whitman, during a Produced By Conference session. Katzenberg has a longstanding high-profile entertainment industry pedigree which includes his work at Disney and then the founding of DreamWorks while Whitman’s entrepreneurial/technical mettle has been demonstrated at eBay and Hewlett-Packard. Katzenberg and Whitman first crossed paths during a shared stretch at Disney--and when the concept of Quibi emerged, Katzenberg sought out Whitman in 2017 to help make that vision a reality.

Quibi is a platform, not a studio. The premium short-form mobile streaming service is scheduled to roll out in April 2020, with plans to publish 25 pieces of content daily. Some 7,000 pieces of short-form content will be released in Quibi’s first year. The company intends to tell two to two-and-a-half-hour stories in chapter increments of 7 to 10 minutes each. There will also be chapter installments for overall shorter content, and other tailor-made short-format programming.

The videos will be made for people’s limited downtime during the course of a busy day--Whitman said while waiting in line at Starbucks or at a doctor’s office, and during various other junctures. The target demographic is people 25 to 35 years of age--but that range could be widened seven years on either side, from 18 to 44. A monthly consumer subscriber fee of $4.99 has been set (with pre-roll ads). The service will also be available ad-free for $7.99 a month.

Quibi is being positioned as an amalgam of the best that Hollywood and Silicon Valley have to offer. Katzenberg is tapping into leading filmmakers to make custom content suited for incremental chapters. He noted that cutting up existing films or TV shows to fit into the format doesn’t work. A special pacing is needed to make the viewership experience enjoyable. Leading content creators are eager to explore the format, continued Katzenberg who cited for example the likes of Antoine Fuqua and Steven Soderbergh. Fuqua is working on a two-and-a-half hour piece consisting of 15 chapters, with one chapter to be released on a daily basis. Meanwhile Soderbergh is executive producing a show to Quibi specifications. Katzenberg said that Quibi paid out $15 million for the Fuqua project.

Also alluring to content creators is the opportunity to down the road have ownership of the intellectual property. Quibi has an exclusive seven-year license for the chapter-driven content it pays for, after which the creators/producers assume ownership. And after two years on Quibi, content can be translated into a longer-form version with creators able to sell that converted fare elsewhere.

On the tech front, Whitman has assembled a team of developers/engineers in Los Angeles. They’ve been tasked with making the small-screen experience optimal, addressing algorithms and arithmetic guidelines, dealing with potential issues such as audio (remedied in part by watchable subtitling when viewing a video in a noisy environment) and maintaining a clear picture even when sun reflections come into play outdoors.

Quibi has raised $1 billion, which includes investors from throughout the Hollywood community, and expects to secure another $500 million in funding in the fall or by next spring.

The sponsor-supported component of the business model calls for pre-roll ads ranging from six to 15 seconds. Brands for example could tell a 60-second story in six 10-second segments. Quibi users can follow the brand stories before viewing their selected videos. 

Katzenberg said that if Quibi does it right, the platform will mark the next generation of storytelling, akin to how theatrical features and television revolutionized entertainment. He’s a believer in bite-sized consumption, citing as an example the work of author Dan Brown whose “The Da Vinci Code” consisted of 100-plus chapters with the average chapter being five or so pages long. The book’s short chapter format is conducive to readers stopping and resuming the story at their own pace, making for a gratifying experience.

Whitman added that Quibi will take full advantage of the mobile dynamic which has put “a TV in everyone’s pocket.”

Other highlights
Among other highlights at the PGA’s 11th annual Produced By Conference were:

--Actor/producer Michael Douglas and actor/producer/director Danny DeVito, friends and colleagues for 50-plus years, reflected on their careers and collaborative relationships. On the latter score, the two most recently collaborated with each other on The Kominsky Method, a Chuck Lorre-created series for Netflix in which Douglas stars, with DeVito making a guest appearance. Douglas observed that it’s easier than ever before for artists to go back and forth between feature film and television. In fact, Douglas said that Netflix reminds him of feature filmmaking in the 1970s when there was less interference with the creative process. Netflix, he said, “lets you go and do it,” affording creators and showrunners a measure of freedom to do what they do best. DeVito also gave a heartfelt thanks to Douglas for among other things, the surprise he gave him years ago in War of the Roses. Douglas produced and starred in the feature film, with DeVito also a lead cast member. DeVito recalled going to an industry screening of War of the Roses to see it for the first time--there he learned that his name, along with stars Douglas and Kathleen Turner, were listed above the movie’s title in the opening credits. Douglas made his initial mark in television starring with Karl Malden, his mentor, in The Streets of San Francisco. Douglas also won an Best Picture Oscar for producing One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. DeVito’s TV exploits include his starring roles in Taxi and the ongoing It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia. As a producer, DeVito was nominated for an Academy Award for producing Erin Brockovich.

--In a session titled “TV: Meet The Buyers,” Peter Micelli, chief strategy officer, film and TV, for eOne, dismissed the concern of there being too much content and too many platforms in today’s marketplace. “Are there too many songs?” he quipped, noting that we should embrace the myriad opportunities emerging where you no longer need 10 or 20 million viewers to justify telling a story. A piece of content with considerably less of a following on whatever the platform can prove viable, meaning that stories about subcultures and people that weren’t possible in the past can now be told.

--Leslye Headland, a co-creator of Russian Doll (Netflix), served as a panelist in the “Future of Producing” discussion. She observed that streaming has led to more diverse content. “When you look at something like streaming,” related Headland, “you are actually getting those marginalized voices--female filmmakers of color or a gay filmmaker for example that maybe can’t and don’t have the same access out in front of the world.”  She added that a series like Russian Doll is allowed to break new ground, telling a story about “a female protagonist that doesn’t have anything to do with her job, family or love life.”

--Lucy Fisher, who shares the Producers Guild presidency with Gail Berman, moderated a discussion on “Representation for Everyone: Why It Makes Sense Now More Than Ever.” Fisher encouraged producers to take responsibility, to have pride and a sense of purpose in bringing new voices to the table. She said, “We have to own these problems. We can make the biggest difference. We can find the people that we don’t know.”

Among those people are members of the community with disabilities. Panelist Scott Silveri, creator and executive producer of Speechless, said it’s “wonderful that disability is part of the conversation today.” Speechless, which recently wrapped a three-season run on ABC, introduced us to the character of Maya DiMeo, a wife and mother who is fiercely protective of her family, including a son who has cerebral palsy.

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