Coming soon to small screens near you: Episodes no longer than an Uber ride

Imaging: Ajay Narvekar
On a soundstage in New Orleans, a door pocked with bullet holes slams in Laurence Fishburne ’s face. He plays a cop trying to defuse a violent standoff in the $15 million drama “#FreeRayshawn,” to be viewed in chapters under 10 minutes and only on smartphones.

The shoot is part of a Hollywood wager that the smallest screen may finally be ready for the big time. “#FreeRayshawn” is one of dozens of serialized short-format programs on the way, as the movie and television industry reaches for an audience of time-killers glued to their mobile devices, with episodes no longer than a typical Uber ride. At the edge of the “#FreeRayshawn” set, Antoine Fuqua, the project’s producer, studies a video monitor to see how the scene will look on a phone screen. He has directed movies for the last two decades, including Denzel Washington pictures like “Training Day,” and says he “had to rejigger my brain” to help break “#FreeRayshawn” into chunks for screens that viewers will hold in their hands.

“The world is moving so fast. Hollywood has to work harder to be in front of it,” he says.

“#FreeRayshawn” was financed by the mobile-video company generating the most speculation and investment: Quibi, named for the programs it will dole out in “quick bites” after its planned launch in April. Led by two moguls of movies and technology, Jeffrey Katzenberg and Meg Whitman, the company has raised $1 billion in funding. Investors include 10 Hollywood studios, such as Disney , MGM and WarnerMedia. Quibi is using that war chest to fund an onslaught of short-format programming and recruit A-list creators.

The film and television establishment has a spotty record of creating shows for the internet era’s short attention spans, including a parade of forgettable “webisodes” and high-concept, low-budget digital series. More recently, mobile apps from Verizon and Vivendi stocked with quick programming both shut down within several years of launch.

But the people now pouring resources into short-format claim the conditions are finally right. They cite the ubiquity of mobile screens, leaps in streaming-video technology, shifting business models and, most importantly, a generational embrace of content in quick bursts.

On Snapchat, for example, a growing menu of made-for-mobile shows is intended to spur binge viewing and top-dollar advertising. After first introducing a slate of serialized originals last fall, Snap will announce up to 10 more of these “highly concentrated” shows in September. The company points to “The Dead Girls Detective Agency” as a bellwether hit, in which deceased characters use lots of phone-centric sleuthing to investigate their own murders. If the five-minute episodes don’t seem quick enough, viewers can always tap the screen to leap forward a bit. Snap says 14 million unique viewers watched the first season.

If short-form proponents are right, they may be opening the next set of floodgates after streaming television. But impediments to their success are everywhere.

They’re vying for phone screens already dominated by a different form of “short”: YouTube vlogs, Instagram stories, looping TikTok clips, and the like. What’s more, people already have a way to watch movies and TV shows on the go in short doses—their Netflix app, for example—and its pause button.

Another wild card is whether users even want to break from the familiar structures—half-hour sitcom, hourlong drama, two-hour feature film—that have dictated the flow of our on-screen entertainment for decades. The boom in streaming programming and services has only reinforced these traditional content units, with more platforms in the works from WarnerMedia, Apple and others.

Instead of competing for people’s couch time with movies and TV shows, Quibi is offering them an option on-the-go—and betting that big Hollywood talent and budgets will seal the deal.

Quibi’s roster includes directors of the two most recent best-picture Oscar winners: Peter Farrelly, with a comedy about a guy attempting to live in the moment, and Guillermo del Toro, who is producing a zombie show. Steven Spielberg is writing a series tentatively titled “After Dark,” a horror serial that can be viewed only after the sun goes down, as determined by the viewer’s location.

In “Action Scene,” comedy star Kevin Hart gets swept up in a string of stunt sequences. Don Cheadle and Emily Mortimer are set to star in a sci-fi drama about a high-schooler who may not be human. Lorne Michaels and Seth Myers are producing a comedy about a mystery writer ( Paula Pell ) trying to solve small-town murders. Quibi also has remakes from the libraries of its studio partners, including new versions of “The Fugitive,” “Varsity Blues,” and “How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days.”

Another startup, Ficto, expects to launch an app in November with about 100 snack-size shows, including adaptations of young-adult novels. It helps that mobile-video rights to these books are significantly cheaper than film and TV rights, says founder Mike Esola, a former Hollywood literary agent. The company says one of its shows, based on the best-selling romance “Can You Keep a Secret?,” will allow viewers to make choices that send its characters down various paths in a branching story that plays out in episodes of between four and 12 minutes.

On Netflix, the absence of ads and scheduling blocks encouraged some TV producers to supersize their episodes, and now they’re shrinking them, too. In recent months several Netflix originals rolled out with episodes clocking in around 15 minutes. They include “Special,” about a character with cerebral palsy navigating the gay dating scene, and “It’s Bruno,” about a New Yorker’s neighborhood doings with his puggle.

Netflix says it has no plan to promote shorter shows in their own category. Still, the format did help the streamer this year achieve its highest tally of Emmy nominations so far—both “Special” and “It’s Bruno” were nominated for “outstanding short-form comedy or drama series,” an Emmy category created in 2016. Other nominees include “State of the Union,” a SundanceTV series written by Nick Hornby ; the 10-minute episodes revolve around one couple’s conversations before marriage-counseling sessions.

The Disney+ streaming service launching in November will feature multiple capsule shows, including a new vehicle for the Muppets, which will join the long-form movies, series and specials Disney has announced, including a new vehicle for the Muppets, which will join the long-form movies, series and specials destined for Disney+. In September, cable channel FXX introduces “Cake,” a late-night showcase for animated and live-action shorts, and intended as an incubator for larger-scale shows.

Long before Quibi, and during his 22-year tenure with DreamWorks studios, Mr. Katzenberg was preaching the value of “snackable” video stories. Just as the dot-com bubble was bursting, he created a company for short films, animations and other video “pops” on the web. Partners included his DreamWorks SKG co-founders (Mr. Spielberg and David Geffen ) and Imagine Entertainment’s Brian Grazer and Ron Howard. But their folded before the site even launched.

“It was a very short-lived short-form content company,” Mr. Katzenberg says. “In 1999, you could not make a dime monetizing anything on the internet.”

Quibi says it has sold more than $100 million in advertising (with $50 million still available) to six companies, including Google and Procter & Gamble, that are exclusive ad partners for Quibi’s first year of operation. The company will also rely on subscriptions, with or without ads, for about $5 or $8 a month, respectively.

That business model is what will allow Quibi to keep paying for premium-quality shows with budgets much larger than that of typical digital content, Mr. Katzenberg says, drawing a parallel to HBO and its ability to outspend ad-supported TV networks.

Skeptics argue that even awesome-looking shows from name-brand creators won’t carry the clout with mobile audiences that Quibi is expecting. “It’s not about product. It’s about minutes, the number of ways people can spend the next 15 minutes [on their phones], which is just going up every day,” says Forrester Research media analyst James McQuivey. The growing number of streaming platforms competing for monthly user fees exacerbates the challenge, he says. “If you’re the fourth or fifth subscription service people pay for every month, you’re as easy to leave as to try.”

Episodes of Quibi’s shows, from news roundups and docuseries to high-end scripted series will all be between six and 10 minutes long. That length is based on research showing that millennials and Gen-Zers spend time on their phones throughout the day in sessions averaging 6½ minutes at a time.

“That happens to be consistent with what TV writers are used to writing,” says Ms. Whitman, Quibi’s chief executive and the former head of Hewlett Packard Enterprises Co. and eBay Inc., referring to the typical time span between commercial breaks on television.

Cliffhangers come in various forms in “#FreeRayshawn,” directed by Seith Mann and produced by Fuqua Films and Sony Pictures Television. An Iraq war veteran played by Stephan James (of the Amazon TV series “Homecoming” and the Oscar-winning film “If Beale Street Could Talk”) flees from cops after his attempt to sell a gun goes wrong. He barricades himself at home, inadvertently trapping his wife and son in an armed standoff with police. Rayshawn uses social media to communicate with the public watching his situation unfold. Some episodes end with a spike in the action, or revelations intended to keep viewers in suspense over whom to trust, Rayshawn or Mr. Fishburne’s character.

Mr. Katzenberg compares “#FreeRayshawn” to “Dog Day Afternoon,” the gritty 1975 Al Pacino hostage film directed by Sidney Lumet. This is one key to his recruitment pitch to Hollywood’s elite: Quibi is backing the kind of mid-budget, character-driven stories that franchise-focused movie studios rarely buy now. “We’re using a new form of film narrative to return to an era of movie storytelling that was phenomenally successful for 20 years,” Mr. Katzenberg says, reeling off a list of classic films, from “Chinatown” to “Rosemary’s Baby.”

On the set of “#FreeRayshawn” this summer, however, the title mentioned most often is “House of Cards,” the streaming TV series that in 2013 helped put Netflix on its path to industry behemoth.

o Mr. Fishburne, “#FreeRayshawn” looked like an opportunity to get in on the next wave. “This is written, edited and shot to appeal to the person who watches on a small screen,” says the “Matrix” and “Apocalypse Now” star. “I don’t watch things on a small screen—I much prefer a larger screen—but it’s fantastic for my work to be present there.”

Quibi’s other selling point to producers is financial: Each project is licensed to Quibi exclusively for seven years as a short-form series, but after two years, its producers have the right to repackage it and shop it elsewhere. “Jeffrey said to me, make this thing and in a couple years, you own it,” says “#FreeRayshawn” executive producer Mr. Fuqua, who got his start directing music videos and commercials in the 1990s, and has recently produced TV and documentaries. “To own intellectual property that someone else is paying for? That just doesn’t happen.”

As he watched another take of the door-slamming scene, Mr. Fuqua asked the director to capture reactions on the actors’ faces. The producer would need such transitional footage later. He plans to eventually re-edit “#FreeRayshawn” and sell it to a different distributor in a more familiar format, as an uninterrupted feature film.

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