How Quibi Overcame a Rocky Start to Dominate Emmy Nominations in Short-Form Categories

TheWrap Emmy magazine: Actors Christoph Waltz and Jasmine Cephas Jones talk about the new service that landed as many Emmy nominations as all other short-form providers combined

Dummy Reno 911 Flipped Survive Quibi
Clockwise from top left: "Dummy," "Reno 911!," "Flipped," "Survive" (Quibi)

A version of this story about Quibi first appeared in the Down to the Wire issue of TheWrap’s Emmy magazine. The new streaming service Quibi may have gotten off to a rough start this year, but don’t tell that to Emmy voters. While the streamer devoted to short-form content for mobile devices fell short of its projected subscriber count after its April launch and now faces a potentially high cancellation rate as its 90-day free trials expire, the service dominated the Emmy nominations in the short-form categories. It took four of the five nominations in both of the acting categories, plus two additional nominations in the Outstanding Short Form Comedy or Drama Series category. Its 10 nominations were spread among six different shows — “#FreeRayshawn,” “Most Dangerous Game,” “Survive,” “Dummy,” “Flipped” and “Reno 911!” — and equaled all other short-form platforms combined. That success was the culmination of a trend that began last year when the Television Academy instituted screening panels to review short-form content before it qualified for the ballot. While the early years of the categories found a lot of low-budget and amateurish productions nominated — a state of affairs mocked by the four-time nominee “An Emmy for Megan” — the voters are now going for bigger, more polished work. The rule initially made a significant cut in the amount of eligible short-form content, with entries in the Outstanding Short Form Comedy or Drama Series dropping from 50 in 2018 to 30 after the rule was introduced. Short-form variety entries dropped as well, from 26 to 14, while short-form nonfiction fell from 64 to 47.  
Christoph Waltz and Aaron Poole in "Most Dangerous Game"
Christoph Waltz and Aaron Poole in “Most Dangerous Game” (Quibi)
This year, the totals have gone up slightly in the comedy/drama and variety categories, and more substantially in nonfiction. But Quibi has benefited from the Emmys’ movie away from low-budget short-form content, because its programming has uniformly high production values as it unspools in five- to nine-minute chapters. “For the actor, there was no difference between doing this and working on a movie,” said two-time Oscar winner Christoph Waltz, who landed his first Emmy nomination for Quibi’s “Most Dangerous Game,” in which he plays a smooth operator who hires a young man with a terminal brain tumor (Liam Hemsworth) to be hunted by a group of clients for 24 hours. “It was like shooting an integrated movie.” Waltz said he never watches content on a mobile device and rarely watches it on a television screen, but he was intrigued by the format. “It’s a new form of narrative,” he said. “You could say it’s a limitation, it’s scaled-down, it’s condensed. But actually, it’s a new cinematic form and a new dramatic structure. That was the intriguing, involving, engaging and fascinating thing. “Yes, it has an overarching theme and plot, yet the dramatic construction is in these chunks. You have to satisfy each individual partition as a dramatic entity with its beats and twists, and a cliffhanger at the end propels you toward the next one 15 times. That’s new writing and masterful construction.”
Stephan James and Jasmine Cephas Jones in “#FreeRayshawn” (Quibi)
The actor said he wasn’t really aware of Quibi before he was approached about “Most Dangerous Game,” but he trusted its CEO. “I don’t follow development as such,” he said. “But I’ve had an ongoing relationship with Jeffrey Katzenberg, because I did voices for his animation studio. And whatever he touches is automatically interesting. When Jeffrey Katzenberg approaches you or your people with something he has in mind, especially if it is something new and unheard of, you’d better prick up your ears and pay attention.” Waltz didn’t pay any attention to the fact that Quibi programming is shot to be watched either in portrait or landscape mode — “the DP and the director need to watch that, not the actors” — but kept his attention on what he usually would. “I’m always going for, ‘What’s the whole story?’” he said. “Once I can navigate my way around the story, I can then evaluate what the character’s contribution to that should be. In this case, he is the person who sets up and initiates the action and keeps pushing it along, it’s a very clear dramatic function that I thought would be well within my capabilities, especially since the dialogue itself is fun and energetic and clever.” Actress Jasmine Cephas Jones, who was nominated for “#FreeRayshawn” on the same day that her father, Ron Cephas Jones, was nominated for “This Is Us,” said she took her role in the Quibi series at the last minute without really knowing what the platform was. “I kept asking, ‘What is a Quibi?’” said Jones, who recently appeared in the filmed version of “Hamilton.” “It was so weird, because when you’re shooting, it felt like we were shooting a film. The only thing that changes is that the script had to be written so it could be cut off, but that didn’t change the way we performed it.”
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Jeffrey Katzenberg and Meg Whitman (Getty Images)
“#FreeRayshawn” is a timely story of a police standoff with a young Black man (Stephan James) who thinks he’s being framed for drug dealing and wants to protect his wife (Jones) and young son (Danny Boyd Jr.). “I was one of the last people to jump on,” she said. “I found out a week before I had to go down to New Orleans and start the process. So I didn’t have much time with the script as some of the other people involved, and really I just jumped in very, very quickly.” Her big challenge, she said, was to find the heart and emotion in an action-packed narrative. “As much as it’s an important piece to tell at the time we’re in, it’s an action film,” she said. “Or an action show. There’s explosions going off, all that stuff happening. So we had to ground it in emotion, in the emotional roller coaster that one would go through in the process.” The show landed Stephan James a nomination, and also brought Laurence Fishburne his first-ever Emmy nomination. And, Jones said, its subject matter makes it ideal for this moment in history. “I know that Quibi is short for quick bites, and it’s for people on the go but it came out in the middle of a quarantine when nobody was on the go,” she said. “But this story we’re telling is one that we’ve been telling in our music and film and TV for years, and now there are no distractions. We’re living in a moment where people really have to look at themselves and evaluate who they are.” Read more of the Down to the Wire issue here. EmmyWrap Down to the Wire cover


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