Thomas Lennon on bringing back 'Reno 911!' for Quibi, his weird new movie 'VHYes,' and his brutal gig announcing the Emmys
Thomas Lennon chatted with Business Insider about starring in the future cult classic, "VHYes." He also gave details about the return of "Reno 911!" on Quibi. Lennon opened up about his unpopular stint as Emmys announcer last year, which he said was worth all the haters because Paul Rudd texted him the following day and said he thought it was hilarious.
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You just never know where funnyman Thomas Lennon will show up these days. Recently he was on the penultimate episode of "Veep," he released the first in a series of young adult novels with "Ronan Boyle and the Bridge of Riddles," and he was the announcer at the Emmys (much more on that later). And he isn't slowing down. Lennon will be playing not one but three characters in the upcoming Russo brothers movie, "Cherry," starring Tom Holland; and he's bringing back the beloved "Reno 911!," which he cocreated, for Quibi. But before all that, you can see him in the bizarre new movie from Jack Henry Robbins (son of Tim Robbins and Susan Sarandon), "VHYes." Shot on VHS cameras, the just-over-one-hour movie (opening in select theaters Friday) follows a 12-year-old as he accidentally copies over his parents' wedding tape with the strange shows he finds on late-night cable (a few starring Lennon), and recording a spooky trip with his friend to a nearby house thought to be haunted. Think of the late 1970s classic comedy "Kentucky Fried Movie," blended with "Paranormal Activity," then spiked with acid, and you have "VHYes." Lennon chatted with Business Insider about starring in this strange movie. He also gave details about what's in store for the "Reno 911!" gang on Quibi and explained why it didn't sound like he enjoyed being the Emmys announcer at last year's show. Jason Guerrasio: So, "VHYes" — this is one of those wacky movies. Thomas Lennon: When Jack first reached out and said, "I'm going to make a movie on VHS," I really thought it was a bad gimmick. I just couldn't see any way that this turns out great. [Laughs.] But I liked him and he seemed like a smart guy, maybe there was something here. So we shot it, on the crappiest equipment that 1983 had to offer, and I have to say the first time I saw the movie I was kind of blown away. Guerrasio: Snuck in the middle of it is this great horror sequence that connects everything. Lennon: I think what's really going to surprise people, it actually does add up to something at the end. Parts of it are incredibly random and weird. Guerrasio: A lot of that includes you. Lennon: Yes. But the movie surprised me in that it has genuine emotional moments in it and some legitimate scary stuff.
Guerrasio: Yes. And as a kid of the 1980s, I have to say the movie captures what it was like to stay up past midnight. Lennon: It got really, really weird. Guerrasio: It was B-movies, soft core porn, or really wacky stuff. That's what was on cable TV after midnight. Lennon: I can tell you this, because we actually talked about it while we were filming the movie, I specifically remember when Cablevision first came to Chicago and there were scrambled channels, the real high channels. Those were the porno channels. Guerrasio: I grew up in Connecticut, and we also had Cablevision, so I know what you're taking about. Lennon: But if you looked at the scrambled channels long enough once an hour you would get two seconds of a flash of a naked person. So sometimes me and my friends we would go to my grandmother's basement and do that, waiting hours watching scrambled channel 145 to see one naked breast for a second. It was amazing what we did before the internet. Guerrasio: Kids have it too easy now. The character you play in the movie, was that planned out on page or did you have a lot of freedom? Lennon: The freedom was amazing. The first scene was somewhat on the page. The scene with me and Courtney Pauroso, where we are the Home Shopping Network people, that was kind of scripted. And then, honestly, we riffed a lot. The entire Antiques Roadshow sequence, that was entirely improved. We didn't even really discuss it at all. And one of the weirdest things about that was Jack's dad, Tim [Robbins, who stars in the movie], was there doing off-camera lines for us in the morning. And then at lunch, Susan Sarandon [who also stars in the movie] came and she's one of my all-time favorite actresses, and she just sat and watched the Antiques Roadshow thing. So there she is, one of my favorite actresses, who I've never met, and I had to improvise that scene in front of her. It was very intimidating. Guerrasio: And I know folks in the business want feature-length movies to run at least 90 minutes, but this running time, hour and twelve minutes, is perfect. Lennon: The only thing that made me like the movie more is even before I saw it I knew that it was an hour-twelve, and as a grown adult man with major attention deficit it's custom made for the way I want to watch things. It's exactly how I consume the world, for real. Guerrasio: This is hardly the only thing you're working on. You will be in "Cherry," the next Russo brothers movie. Lennon: "Cherry" is really cool and there's a weird detail about this. I actually play three parts. The way that happened was I got a call and they were like, "Do you want to audition for two sentences in the new Tom Holland/Russo brothers movie?" And I really have no ego about anything, so I was like, "Of course I want to audition for that!" So I went in and read and then the Russo brothers, God bless them, they had a really neat idea. They thought wouldn't it be cool if instead of me playing the one authority figure of the movie, I play three different sh---y authority figures in the movie. So I get to do a minor Peter Sellers in "Dr. Strangelove"-type thing. Guerrasio: And will we recognize you as all three characters? Lennon: You will recognize me in two of them, at least. But I'm not really sure. It will be a surprise even to me. But it looks like a very cool movie and I got really lucky to do it. Guerrasio: And "Reno 911!" is going to Quibi. Lennon: I actually have the highlights in my hair and have the mustache, so obviously we've very close to shooting. Guerrasio: So what can you divulge about what your guys' plans are? Lennon: We start shooting at the end of the month. We have every single member of the cast back with us, so that's super fun. One thing that's going to be pretty fun is with Quibi you can watch it in two different ways. So if you hold your phone vertically when you're watching Quibi, you can see one feed, and if you flip it horizontal, you can see something else. So we're going to try to take advantage of that as much as possible. I think there will be times where you're seeing Lt. Dangle and what he's doing and if you flip your phone sideways, you'll get to see what his body cam is filming. Stuff like that. Guerrasio: I love that! Lennon: We're going to do some fun stuff with the technology. The reason I think we're very uniquely qualified for Quibi is episodes are going to run less than 10 minutes. Guerrasio: So not every episode is going to go the full 10 minutes that Quibi allows for its shows? Lennon: Oh, God no. I think some episodes will go five minutes long, which would be one scene. And others will be seven minutes long that are 20 scenes in that time. We're going to keep it fast and light and punchy. Guerrasio: Because one episode could literally be you guys going on a 911 call. Lennon: Exactly. But there are a couple we're working on that's kind of like "1917." We just want beginning to end to feel like a single shot. There will be a couple of those. But, as always with "Reno," it's highly improvisational so we'll see how it plays out. But along with all the original cast there are a lot of favorites coming back. It's going to be pretty fun. Guerrasio: So I have to bring up your experience as the Emmys announcer back in September. What was that all about? Lennon: I had a tremendous amount of fun at the Emmys. There were some really great jokes, but yeah, there were a lot of haters. But I got fan letters from some really amazing people who seemed to love it. Those things tend to be a thankless job. I think most people who host those things, you'll never get them to do it twice. Though, I wouldn't mind doing it again. Guerrasio: Even in that format again? Lennon: Would I do that again? Probably. I have to say, one of the nicest things I got was a three-part text from Paul Rudd the next day telling me how hilarious he thought it was. And I have to say, that made all the bull---- totally worth it. One of my favorite funny people thought it was great. Guerrasio: But when you did that woke joke and then stopped and said, "This is why people don't do this, because it sucks," was that a bit or were you serious? Lennon: That was really me. Because they came in and told me to be more upbeat and say facts. At one point, they were like, "Why don't you just start saying facts," and I was like, "Oh, no, no, no, that ship has sailed. I'm not that guy." So me saying, "That's why nobody does this, because it sucks," that was definitely after I had been given notes. But I still enjoyed it. Guerrasio: I'll be honest, when you said "this sucks," I just thought, "I hope he's getting paid a ton to do this." Lennon: Oh, God no! The answer is no. Guerrasio: [Laughs.] Lennon: But I have to say, someone wrote an article about Ricky Gervais hosting the Globes and how he made a Felicity Huffman joke, the story said my Huffman joke flopped. Check the tape, my joke killed at the Emmys. SEE ALSO: The 11 worst 2020 Oscar snubs — from Jennifer Lopez to Robert De Niro to female directors Join the conversation about this story » NOW WATCH: Documentary filmmaker Ken Burns explains why country music is universal
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Quibi insiders explain how its Hollywood roots led to a traditional approach to mobile TV: 'If it can be on YouTube, it can't be on Quibi'
Mobile-video service Quibi has tried to distance its subscription app from free, social-media platforms like YouTube,...Mobile-video service Quibi has tried to distance its subscription app from free, social-media platforms like YouTube, Instagram, and Snapchat. "If it can be on YouTube, it can't be on Quibi," founder Jeffrey Katzenberg is known to say, sources close to the company told Business Insider. But that thinking also injected a rather traditional view of TV — centered on big stars and familiar concepts — into what is meant to be a modern platform for the millennial generation, some Quibi insiders said. Quibi doesn't need to reinvent the wheel when it comes to programming, but it does need shows that resonate with the millennial audience it chose to pursue, the same way Disney Plus enchanted kids and parents with "The Mandalorian." The platform's next slate of programming starts rolling out in July. If you have a tip about Quibi, contact the author at firstname.lastname@example.org, or message her on Signal at 347-770-5933. Visit Insider's homepage for more stories. When mobile-video platform Quibi was commissioning its initial programming slate, the mandate from founder Jeffrey Katzenberg was clear: Quibi's shows needed to be different from the videos on YouTube, Instagram, or Snapchat. "If it can be on YouTube, it can't be on Quibi," Katzenberg is known to say, sources close to the company told Business Insider. Quibi confirmed in statements to Business Insider that Katzenberg believes content that can be on social media shouldn't be on Quibi. But in trying to distance Quibi's subscription service from social media, the company also modeled what is meant to be a modern platform for the millennial generation after a rather traditional view of TV, some Quibi insiders said. Business Insider spoke with eight people who worked on or with Quibi content, including five who said the company took a traditional approach to programming. Quibi's current lineup looks a lot like programming that can be found on network TV. What's different is that Quibi's shows — its daily news and lifestyle series, scripted and alternative shows, and "movies told in chapters" — are under 10 minutes long. Quibi's dance competition series, "Floored," is basically a mashup between "So You Think You Can Dance" and "Wipeout," even if it is hosted by YouTube star Liza Koshy. Its latest news show, "60 in 6," is inspired by the classic CBS news program "60 Minutes." "Chrissy's Court" is a celebrity-infused take on a syndicated reality court show. And Quibi rebooted cable shows from the 2000s, including "Punk'd" and "Reno 911." To some content partners, it felt like a missed opportunity to rethink what shows and movies could look like on an exclusively mobile screen. "By taking something traditional and shrinking down the time, it doesn't make it more innovative," one producer who worked on a Quibi show said. While some of the programming, like the Anna Kendrick-starring "Dummy" about a woman who befriends a sex doll certainly feel fresh, it's not hitting in a major way with Quibi's target audience of 25- to 35-year-olds. It gets to the heart of the problem. Quibi doesn't need to reinvent the wheel when it comes to programming. But it does need shows that resonate with the millennial audience it chose to pursue, the same way Disney Plus enchanted kids and parents with "The Mandalorian"; Netflix made itself a home for hard-hitting dramas and unconventional comedies with "Orange Is the New Black" and "House of Cards"; and Hulu became known for more than next-day TV with the "The Handmaid's Tale." "What's going to make any of these service is having shows that people start talking about," said Alan Wolk, cofounder and lead analyst at TVREV. At launch, Quibi leaned more on Hollywood celebs like Teigen, Anna Kendrick, Reese Witherspoon, Kevin Hart, and Liam Hemsworth, than influencers who have been innovating on mobile platforms like YouTube and TikTok. "The reason why we went with stars, and celebrities, and well-known talent is because it's brand new," Katzenberg said on Thursday, speaking at SeriesFest, an annual festival for episodic content that is being held virtually this year. "We needed to clearly define for the consumer, for people that would subscribe to this, why is it different? What differentiates it from what you would see on TikTok? ... not because there's anything wrong with TikTok, or Instagram, but ours is a subscription service, and we're asking you to pay." Katzenberg said at the event that Quibi wants to work with online storytellers and young filmmakers to help broaden the audience for the platform. The company is already working with a few digital stars. In addition to Koshy, "Kirby Jenner" is a reality show about an influencer who pretends to be the fraternal twin of Kendall Jenner. And the gaming organization FaZe Clan is headlining an upcoming competition series. Quibi, which launched in April, has about 75 shows out, Katzenberg said at SeriesFest. The company is preparing its next slate, which begins rolling out in July. It'll be a second chance for Quibi to win over audiences. "The first wave of content didn't connect," said Stephen Beck, the founder and managing partner of the consulting firm cg42. "The stakes get higher every day for them to get something that breaks through and captures the attention of just a subset to be able to drive traction." Read Business Insider's full story on Jeffrey Katzenberg's leadership at Quibi: 15 Quibi insiders detail Jeffrey Katzenberg's tight control of the startup's content and intense leadership as he tries to avoid disaster after raising $1.8 billionJoin the conversation about this story » NOW WATCH: Why thoroughbred horse semen is the world's most expensive liquid
10 Quibi insiders describe working on shows for the video startup, which raised $1.8 billion and has become a media punching bag after a sluggish launch
Quibi's sluggish growth since its April debut has made it the butt of some media jokes:...Quibi's sluggish growth since its April debut has made it the butt of some media jokes: "Yes, Quibi still exists," cracked the headline of a June Marketplace episode. Business Insider got the inside story of how people who have developed or worked on shows for Quibi feel about the service post-launch. Most of the people said it showed promise and was producing high-quality programming, but were disappointed with the initial response. "I genuinely thought it would do better," one person said. "I'm not using it as much as I thought I would." The insiders also described a demanding workload on Quibi productions, which was intensified by the pandemic, as well as extensive notes from Quibi's content execs, on everything from the graphics to the talent on screen. If you have a tip about Quibi, contact the author at email@example.com, or message her on Signal at 347-770-5933. Click here for more BI Prime stories. Not long after the mobile-video service Quibi launched, its cofounder Jeffrey Katzenberg ruffled feathers with a quip to The New York Times that one of the company's core bets was not panning out. The startup, which had raised a mammoth $1.8 billion from venture backers, had hired publishers like BBC, ESPN, and E! to create short-form news and lifestyle programming. The slate, called Daily Essentials, aimed to help make Quibi a habit for its target audience of 20- and 30-somethings who spend their days glued to smartphones. "The Daily Essentials are not that essential," Katzenberg told the Times' Nicole Sperling in early May. He also blamed the coronavirus pandemic for Quibi's anemic growth since launch. The remark didn't sit well with some people who were actively working on Quibi's Daily Essentials. "It was disenchanting and concerning," a development exec at one of Quibi's content partners told Business Insider. "You're talking about hundreds of people working on various Daily Essentials ... It leads all of us to ask and wonder, what exactly the future is for the 'essentials'?" "What exactly is the future" is a fundamental question that plagues not just those working on the Daily Essentials, but other Quibi insiders, as well. During May and June, Business Insider spoke with 10 people who had developed or worked on shows for Quibi, including four who were actively involved in productions at the time. The people asked to remain anonymous because they did not have permission to speak about Quibi's productions. The people described a demanding workload that was made more complicated by the pandemic, as well as a stringent content-development team at Quibi that gave feedback — on everything from the graphics to the talent on screen — well beyond what rival platforms like Netflix typically give. Most of the Quibi insiders said they'd used the service themselves and thought it showed promise and was producing high-quality programming. But, like Katzenberg, they were disappointed with the initial response, and some found themselves not considering Quibi content "essential" in their own media diets. "I genuinely thought it would do better," a person who had worked with Quibi's content team said. "There was a lot of excitement in development … I watched a few of the shows. I'm not using it as much as I thought I would." It spotlights a core issue for the subscription service as it prepares its next slate of programming. Quibi commissioned top publishers and Hollywood studios to create short-form programming that was as good as the shows and movies you'd find on Netflix or traditional TV. But the programming — like "Chrissy's Court," a celebrity-infused take on reality court shows; reboots of "Punk'd" and "Reno 911"; and thrillers like "The Most Dangerous Game" — isn't drastically different from what's available on other platforms. The in-between moments of the day that Quibi's 10-minute-or-less episodes were designed to fill have mostly dried up during lockdown. And Quibi has yet to land a cultural hit that forces people to take notice, like Disney Plus' "The Mandalorian," Netflix's "Orange Is the New Black," or Hulu's "The Handmaid's Tale." Quibi was fighting an uphill battle by launching on April 6, amid a global coronavirus pandemic and with WarnerMedia's HBO Max and NBCUniversal's Peacock on its heels. The subscription service, which starts at $4.99 per month with ads, gained some early traction with the help of a 90-day free-trial offer that helped drive 1.7 million app downloads in the service's first week. But the service soon sank in the US iPhone app rankings. By May 29, it had fallen out of the top 200 in the iOS app store, according to the analytics firm App Annie. As Quibi battles to build a subscriber base alongside established video services like Netflix, newcomers like HBO Max, and digital platforms like Instagram and TikTok, Quibi's programming can't just be good, it needs to be unmissable — if not for the general public, then for a passionate subset. "Nothing has broken out," said Alan Wolk, cofounder of and lead analyst at TVREV. "Quibi hasn't found its niche yet. And then the second part of that is finding a niche that's going to get people to actually subscribe and pay." Quibi execs are very, very involved in productions and tend to give a lot more notes than competitors The pandemic has created challenges for Quibi's production teams, which, like the rest of the industry, were forced to pause or shift to remote work. Quibi thinks about its content in three main buckets: Movies "told in chapters," or episodes Scripted and unscripted series that are similar in quality to what you'd find on TV Daily Essentials, or timely news and informational programming that is released daily Its launch slate of shows and movies was mostly complete by March, when the production shutdowns rippled throughout the global TV and film industry. The Daily Essentials were still in production, as were some shows due to hit during the summer and fall. The pandemic pushed Quibi's production partners to work even harder to stay on schedule. "This process was difficult as it was to begin with," a second development exec working with Quibi said. "The pandemic added so many layers of complication … The workload was really tough, also because of the feedback that came back and forth that I would call nitpicking in some instances." Multiple insiders said that Quibi's content execs gave extensive notes to production partners on what the shows should look like, down to the graphics, set decorations, on-air talent, wardrobe, and zoom of a shot. The feedback, the people said, went beyond what execs at other mobile-first platforms like Snapchat Discover and Facebook Watch, or at Netflix, typically give. Some notes were more extensive than what TV networks provide. "There are notes and then there are Quibi notes," one of the development execs said. "Quibi from the start of an idea, to the title of the show, to the set design, color scheme, pixels in the graphics, I don't know that there was a detail that Quibi isn't involved in." The intense feedback was partly because Quibi was endeavoring to create content people hadn't seen before, and had very specific ideas about how it should look. The workload was also compounded by Quibi's Turnstyle feature, which shifts between portrait and landscape orientations as viewers rotate their devices. It requires two cuts for every video. "A lot more goes into it than just creating a separate angle for format," another person said. "There's a whole decision-making process on the graphics and styling." Quibi has touted Turnstyle as a key tool that will unlock new ways for content creators and advertisers to tell stories on smartphones. But, so far, it hasn't been enough to make Quibi stand out for audiences. "All of our shows and partners are having to work harder and smarter since COVID forced us into an industry-wide remote reality," Becky Brooks, head of lifestyle programming for Quibi, said in a statement to Business Insider. "We're exceptionally grateful to our partners at how quickly and efficiently they were able to pivot and stand up quality shows." The streaming service was going after mobile-forward millennials, but is still learning who its real audience is In the weeks since launch, the insiders said they hadn't noticed major shifts in the kinds of notes they were getting from Quibi execs. They thought Quibi might need more time to gather and analyze the data before changing course on its content strategy. Bloomberg's Lucas Shaw and Kelly Gilblom reported in May that Quibi was starting to reassess some of its upcoming slate. For the most part, production teams are still working off Quibi's initial assumption of who its audience would be, namely, mobile-forward 25- to 35-year-olds. One person described that target audience as a "premium, film watching" audience. Another person described them as young professionals in their early 30s who were very plugged into culture. Bloomberg reported, however, that the early audience for Quibi had been older and more female than Quibi executives anticipated. The data Quibi has provided to production partners has so far been limited, said some of the insiders, who declined to share details due to non-disclosure agreements. But it's not unusual for a streaming service, especially one as young as Quibi, to play its data close to the vest. Netflix, which has been releasing originals since 2013, only said last year that it would start sharing more data with producers. Quibi has shared some stats with the media: The company says 80% percent of Quibi's viewers complete the episode they are watching, multiple outlets reported. And the app had signed up 1.6 million subscribers to a free trial and been downloaded 4.5 million times, The Wall Street Journal's Benjamin Mullin reported on June 3. Quibi needs more than good shows. It needs a viral hit. Some of the people working on Quibi productions also wondered if the company had backed itself into a corner by restricting how users can share its content on social media. The Quibi app blocks users from taking screenshots of the content. Mobile apps from competitors like Netflix and Hulu do this too, but users can capture content on web browsers and desktops, Business Insider's Paige Leskin reported. Netflix has also leaned into using Twitter and other social platforms to promote its programming, including shows like "Tiger King," which inspired memes and went viral. "The original sin of Quibi is that it's a closed ecosystem," one of the development execs said. "They created this walled garden that you could only see these things on Quibi. Quibi also gives its content partners a limited set of assets they can share on social media and other platforms. Two people said they had been pushing Quibi to allow them to use more clips from their shows and promote their content earlier, in the hopes of making it more discoverable. Quibi has started experimenting with sharing some of its content on social platforms in recent weeks. On June 1, Quibi released a full episode of "The Nod with Brittany & Eric," a daily show exploring Black culture that stemmed from a popular podcast, on its social platforms in support of the Black Lives Matter movement. The special episode honored the lives of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and Tony McDade and discussed police brutality. "We look forward to even more topical episodes and are excited for the future," Ryan Kadro, head of news programming for Quibi, said in a statement to Business Insider. The video had 12,200 views on Twitter and 682 on YouTube via Quibi's official accounts, as of the morning of June 5. It was also shared on Facebook and Instagram, and through the creators' own social channels. The social-media response wasn't overwhelming, but Quibi could lean more into this kind of experimentation to try and kickstart online conversation around its programming. But whether it will be effective is another question. "Quibi wants to be the future of streaming and how people get daily information and entertainment," another of the development execs said. "We're all wondering how that can happen in a world where you need that organic conversation to really blow up."Join the conversation about this story » NOW WATCH: Pathologists debunk 13 coronavirus myths
Quibi launched: a $1.8bn bet on Hollywood-quality mobile video from Jeffrey Katzenberg, with a 90 day free...Quibi launched: a $1.8bn bet on Hollywood-quality mobile video from Jeffrey Katzenberg, with a 90 day free trial and 1.7m downloads in the first week. Thoughts: 1: this is a total un-Silicon Valley way to do things - betting billions before any contact with the customer, and going for a huge fully-formed product rather than experimenting and iterating. 2: It's also (as I've also argued about Netflix) a TV company, not a tech company in any way - all of the tech has to be good, but that's just a condition of entry. The questions that determine success are all LA questions, not SV questions. 3: the tech is pretty good - a UI that's different enough to be distinctive and drive the flow of different atoms of content, without being so different that you need to be in the know to get it (the Snapchat problem). I don't know if it will work, but neither does anyone else.