When the major US studios and tech giants unveiled plans to launch their own streamers, no one knew quite what that meant.
Fast-forward two years, and things are becoming much clearer. Disney+ is going global with a smorgasbord of library content and an array of originals such as The Mandalorian; Apple TV has unveiled a somewhat pared back offering of commissioned series across genres; and NBCUniversal’s strategy for Peacock is finally gathering pace ahead of a launch early next year.
WarnerMedia, meanwhile, has taken something of a different tack: HBO Max is built on a huge library of existing studio product but it’s also offering partnership potential for producers, broadcasters, financiers and distributors around the world.
Here, TBI speaks to the streamer’s originals boss Sarah Aubrey and Sandra Dewey, president of business operations and productions, who pull back the curtain on their soon-to-launch service and provide pinpoint detail on what they want and why.
US focus means global opportunities
The first thing to note is that HBO Max’s focus at present is on the US. The service is planning to launch Stateside next spring with 10,000 hours of its own content, 50 shows commissioned exclusively for the streamer – and a further 30 originals taken from HBO.
This immediately presents opportunities for those outside the US. Comcast-backed Sky, for example, has negotiated a five-year extension to its overall deal with HBO, handing it exclusive rights to series such as the spin-offs from Game Of Thrones. Such deals suggest that in some countries outside of the States, WarnerMedia can make better returns licensing content to third parties than piping it direct to customers. at least for the time being.
For producers and broadcasters, the clear takeaway is that there is another deep-pocketed US-based participant playing in the co-production sphere. Sky already has plans to co-produce on HBO Max shows, as revealed by TBI, while just this week the WarnerMedia streamer confirmed it was a co-pro partner on Channel 4 drama Boys, from Russell T Davies and Nicola Schindler’s UK-based Red Production Company.
WarnerMedia’s Warner Bros. clearly will become a “primary supplier”, as Dewey puts it, but she adds that HBO Max “absolutely wants to talk to other producers because our primary objective is to bring the best content to our subscribers and have the best show whether it comes from us or someone else.”
“It is also advantageous for us because we are initially launching domestically in the US,” adds Dewey. “And although we plan to launch in Latin America shortly and then in selected European territories, it isn’t a light switch. We are making deals with some of our partners where we are taking domestic rights and they are able to retain international rights.”
The types of shows HBO Max needs
So what do they need and how much of it? Aubrey, who was speaking alongside Dewey at the Video Exchange Summit in London this week, admits that HBO Max’s originals push is ambitious. The 50 series it is aiming to greenlight also surpasses most of the original programming plans from rival streamers that have either recently launched or will do so in the coming months. And perhaps most notably, it underlines the fact that WarnerMedia is well aware of the fight faces in catching up with market leader Netflix.
“It is a huge number but Netflix has set the bar at a pace with new shows just for you. There is always something new to check out and that has accustomed viewers to wanting something new, I’d say, once a month if not sooner,” Aubrey says. “And that isn’t just one demo, that is across all demographics. So yes, it sounds a lot but if you look across a year and [the fact] that we have to go from kids to adults, then we feel confident it is a good amount to start with.”
The originals content chief, who previously oversaw US cabler TNT, admits HBO Max wants to “very quickly and aggressively” get into the streaming game and that means an offering fit for all. The streamer’s cause is helped by its existing US networks funneling their content across – but more than that, WarnerMedia’s understanding of how its existing content attracts different demos means that the gaps Aubrey is looking to fill quickly become apparent.
“HBO for example mainly skews adult and primarily male – obviously there are exceptions but that is where the bulk of HBO shows sit demographically. We want to compliment that and round out HBO Max so we have shows for children then right up through to adult premium, covering all demos and in scripted and non-scripted,” she explains.
TBS and TNT “skew more male and adult,” Aubrey says, while The CW is “younger and more female-skewing”. Elsewhere, CNN is “definitely older and skews male, but dual” and True TV and Adult Swim tends to attract “younger males”. Add a “robust animation collection for adults” and anime from CrunchyRoll – plus of course that enormous offering from WarnerMedia’s programming library that includes Friends and The Big Bang Theory – and the goal for HBO Max’s originals becomes clearer.
It means “the focus is primarily on 18-34s, millennials and generation Z,” Aubrey says, which will help to fill in gaps not immediately served by existing content. “That said,” the exec adds, “in the adult space, we are looking to complement HBO’s offering with some programming more squarely female-skewing – and no show performs just according to demographics, of course.”
Avoiding “pedestrian” reboots and HBO Max’s ‘North Star’
HBO Max has not been shy in commissioning its originals, which is understandable given that originals ambition. Numerous series have already been revealed, from Ridley Scott’s Raised By Wolves to Paul Feig and Anna Kendrick’s Love Life, and a show with Kailey Cuoco and super-producer Greg Berlanti. That’s in addition to The Fault In Our Stars actor Ansel Elgort’s first TV series, set in Japan.
Earlier this week, the streamer made its first series pick-up with a high school-set comedy drama produced by Girls creator Lena Dunham and at MIPCOM, WarnerMedia chairman Bob Greenblatt unveiled a Grease spin-off was in the works, joining a reboot of teen drama Gossip Girl.
Mining the WarnerMedia IP library has clearly been a key area of exploration for the originals team and Aubrey admits she could have all but stocked up the HBO Max originals slate with reboots from existing shows and movies. “But our North Star is how are we pushing culture forward. If we are just redoing ideas that we’ve done before, without a reason, then it feels pedestrian.”
“We’ve regularly had producers coming and asking to reboot this movie or that show, and we have to date been very selective,” Aubrey says, highlighting that the reboot of Gossip Girl offers a timely exploration of wealth and a reinvigorated storyline.
Global roll-out plan and its implications
While Aubrey and Dewey are keen for partnerships, clearly the longer term plan for HBO Max is global. The message from the exec duo is clear: first the US, then Latin America, then Europe.
Complicating the situation is the fact that HBO content is already piped via direct-to-consumer services in Spain and the Nordics with HBO España and HBO Nordics, in addition to the aforementioned content deals struck with the likes of Sky and others such as OCS in France.
“We plan to roll out internationally and initially that push will be into Lat Am and then Europe,” says Dewey. “Unlike other platforms, we are already in business in lots of those places so part of our challenge is to harmonise that as we move forward. Europe is our second target in terms of these plans, because we know to succeed we have to succeed there.”
Dewey also admits there will be a “bit of navigation of the existing platforms and services to work out how quickly we can meld the pieces together.” The complexity of that process and the deals struck to date suggests we won’t see HBO Max – or at least a full fat version including HBO content – in major, non-US markets for at least the next year or two. For producers and broadcasters, that should mean opportunities for partnerships for some time yet.