Jeffrey Katzenberg is making a $600 million bet on mobile TV

Jeffrey Katzenberg (right) and Michael Kassan discuss “Storytelling for a mobile plant” at the Cannes festival.
Jeffrey Katzenberg (right) and Michael Kassan discuss “Storytelling for a mobile plant” at the Cannes festival.
Image: Courtesy of the Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity
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Cannes, France

Jeffrey Katzenberg is making a $600 million bet on the future of television. The former chairman of Walt Disney Studios and co-founder of DreamWorks started a new company, WndrCo, and raised a big chunk of change at the start of the year.

To what end? Katzenberg is on the hunt for partners that will help him build what he describes as “new TV.” That is, the writers, directors, producers, and platforms that will help him create shows with short episodes—six to 10 minutes—intended to be watched primarily during “in-between times” on mobile devices.

The time people spend on their phones is fast approaching the time they spend in front of televisions, so it’s an understandable move for an ambitious Hollywood mogul looking to reach big audiences. The other inspiration Katzenberg cites is, surprisingly, the novels of Dan Brown.

The Da Vinci Code featured 400-odd pages split into more than 100 short chapters. Brown, and other authors like James Patterson, “reinvented the consumption of a novel—they didn’t reinvent the novel,” Katzenberg told Quartz and a small group of journalists on the sidelines of the Cannes advertising festival. “They changed the consumption habit by their technique.”

The Hollywood mogul is in Cannes this week talking through his idea on stage and setting up meetings with potential partners, especially platforms to distribute the content. “They run from A to V,” he told Quartz and a small group of journalists on the sidelines of the Cannes festival. (Katzenberg had dinner with Viacom CEO Bob Bakish last night.) The company’s first acquisition is reportedly imminent, but he would not be drawn out on the details.

What will set his content apart, he said—be it scripted sitcoms, reality shows, or whatever else his team dreams up—is that the creators will retain more rights to their shows, and he won’t skimp on budgets. His company will pay creators—the likes of Vince Gilligan, JJ Abrams, and Ron Howard, among other A-list directors Katzenberg says he has pitched—the same they would get from traditional networks. Total production costs can run from $100,000 per minute for sitcoms to as high as $300,000 per minute for premium shows like Game of Thrones, Katzenberg said. These sums are orders of magnitude more than what is being spent to produce mobile content today.

“We call that ‘north of Sunset’ money,” said Michael Kassan, the MediaLink CEO and industry matchmaker acting as Katzenberg’s sherpa in Cannes. (In Los Angeles, some of the most exclusive, star-studded neighborhoods in the city are found north of Sunset Boulevard.)

“If you want people to do something new, you have to make it really rewarding for them, creatively and financially,” Katzenberg says. “Ron Howard is a great filmmaker and also a great storyteller in 60- and 30-minute shows, so why isn’t he going to be a great storyteller in 10-minute pieces?”

“From Happy Days to Happy Minutes!” Kassan interjected (referring to Howard’s child acting career on the sitcom).

For something he says has the potential to grow several times larger than the $200-billion-plus global television industry, “new TV” is a rather prosaic descriptor. “I don’t have a name for it yet. But you can’t just say ‘it’,” Katzenberg explains. “At least, in a lame way, it frames the idea.”

And who is going to pay for it all, once his initial funds are spent? Katzenberg says he’s working on the assumption of a wholly ad-funded model, but could entertain a Spotify-like subscription aspect some time down the line. The impracticality of putting 30-second ads in six-minute shows will also require a radical rethink of how to incorporate advertising in shows. More product placements, perhaps? Katzenberg says only that “everything is on the table.”

Few boast his track record or the resources and connections he can draw upon as he embarks on his latest reinvention. But success in a new medium depends upon more than money and experience. “I don’t know the model yet,” he admits. “We’re right at the moment here where that’s about to reveal itself.”