Why vertical video apps might be the future of entertainment

Why vertical video apps might be the future of entertainment

Would you spend 90 seconds of your one wild and precious life on a show called My Gorgeous Wife is an Ex-Convict? If yes, you’re far from alone.

The miniseries is just one of several “shows” that are gaining popularity on vertical video apps like ReelShort. These apps attract millions of viewers with their soap opera-style shows, designed to be consumed in short episodes on your smartphone.

However, the medium’s rising popularity has also brought greater scrutiny to the underbelly of the business, from its non-unionized work practices to its algorithm-driven content generation and non-diverse casting.

Rolling Stone journalist EJ Dickson tells Commotion host Elamin Abdelmahmoud about what she’s learned after taking a deep dive into the world of vertical video, and what it might tell us about the future of entertainment.

We’ve included some highlights below, edited for length and clarity. For the full discussion, listen and follow the Commotion with Elamin Abdelmahmoud podcast, on your favourite podcast player.

WATCH | Today’s episode on YouTube:  

Elamin: For someone who’s never waded into the universe of vertical video apps, can you just describe the kind of shows that you’ll see on a place like ReelShort?

Ej: They’re basically feature-length soap operas, except they’re vertically shot, so they’re meant to be consumed on your phone in bite-sized chunks. You scroll down, kind of like you’re on your TikTok For You Page, for the next episode, and they’re usually pretty well shot. But the acting is pretty cheesy, and the scripts read usually like they’re written by someone who is not human.

Elamin: These [apps] have existed for a hot minute. Why do you think they’re blowing up now, when a few high-profile attempts into this industry have failed? I’m talking most famously of Quibi, which launched in 2020. It  just kind of didn’t go anywhere. But then now this is maybe working?

Ej: Yeah, I think the strike had a lot to do with it, actually. There wasn’t any new content being put out last year because of the actors’ strike, and there weren’t any jobs for actors. Because these projects are non-union, there was a lot of opportunity there for actors to work who were not members of the union. So I think that helped.

I think it also has to do with the fact that Quibi was an incredibly expensive proposition, and these vertical shorts decidedly are not. They use anonymous actors. They hire kids straight out of film school to direct. Quibi had the backing of people like Jeff Katzenberg and tried to enlist all these A-listers; these do not, so it’s a much less costly undertaking — and I think that’s to its advantage.

Elamin: What I remember about Quibi is in my head I was like, this feels like it should work. This feels like there’s a demand for watching this amount of television. A lot of the shows that we’ve seen on ReelShort are variations on the same themes and the same length of 90 seconds. They centre on wealth, these weird marriage plots, werewolves or vampires are often involved somewhere. What do you make of this strange mixture of genres, and titles like The Double Life of My Billionaire Husband? That doesn’t sound real to me.

Ej: A big thing is that these are aimed at an international audience. It’s not just native English speakers. They have people from all sorts of countries watching these, so I think that they try to make the titles as specific and as eye-catching as possible, and also keep the themes fairly universal for that reason.

Most of these stories are sourced from web fiction sites, like competitors to Wattpad, so it tells you something about the type of content on there. But what’s really important to note is that it’s all algorithmically generated. So the reason why they continuously iterate on these themes is because they know that they’ve performed well before. I think in the U.S., the idea of a contract marriage to a billionaire is kind of wild, but in countries where the class systems are perhaps more rigid, it’s like the ultimate Cinderella fantasy in a way, right? So I think the universality of these narratives is really important when you’re talking about why they use these themes over and over again.

WATCH | The Double Life of My Billionaire Husband EP1-EP20 on YouTube: 

Elamin: Anything else strike you as a weird, problematic thing as a result of this mini industry popping up?

Ej: There are labour issues for sure. The average feature film takes about 30 days to shoot, and these are the same length, and they condense the shoots to about five days. So a lot of the actors told me that they can be really grueling and really arduous. Also, sometimes they only get the scripts, like, a day before.

But I think the larger issue is the fact that these don’t take artistic merit or creativity into account at all. And the platforms are very open about that. This is entirely driven by an algorithm, and the scripts to some extent are entirely driven by an algorithm. It definitely has some concerning implications for the future of entertainment when we look at it through that lens.

You can listen to the full discussion from today’s show on CBC Listen or on our podcast, Commotion with Elamin Abdelmahmoud, available wherever you get your podcasts.

Interview with Ej Dickson produced by Stuart Berman.