A rapid-fire succession of headlines this week has illuminated what comes next for Warner Bros. Discovery’s (WBD) international content strategy, as light finally broke through the fog of uncertainty hanging over a smorgasbord of canned HBO Max shows.
The news last year that HBO Max was stripping shows, u-turning on commissions and closing down original development teams as part of its cost-cutting measures was understandably concerning for those whose projects were left with an uncertain future.
When even former HBO tentpole series like Westworld could get the chop, no show seemed safe. All eyes have since been on WBD to await the ultimate fate of titles dropped as far back as last summer and as recently as last month.
And then, like British buses, this week has seen show renewals, acquisition deals and new streaming channels all turning up at once, indicating that WBD’s journey from DTC to third-party distribution has begun.
We’ve known since December that WBD was planning to sell packages of cancelled HBO Max shows to third-party FAST channels, while looking to enter the space itself.
But it was nascent European streamer SkyShowtime that struck the first major deal with WBD earlier this week, picking up 21 former HBO Max regional originals.
Among the package are three new titles, which will now be branded as SkyShowtime Originals: six-part Finnish crime series ID (working title); The Winner, a six-part Czech and Slovakian family comedy; and Warszawianka, an 11-part Polish drama.
Also included were Swedish drama Beartown, Norwegian comedy sci-fi Beforeigners and Danish drama Kamikaze, which had been among the first to be pulled from HBO Max last summer.
The SkyShowtime deal includes the option to order new seasons for some of the shows, offering the hope of potential revivals for previously cancelled series. The streamer has already confirmed that it will be premiering the second season of Spanish comedy Por H O Por B, so chances are fair that other well-performing acquisitions could yet land a recommission.
The Comcast and Paramount joint-venture service also took worldwide rights on any renewed shows, an unusual move for a service dedicated to Europe, but perhaps an indicator of plans for further expansion or the flexibility for future exploitation.
HBO Max ceased original productions across swathes of Europe last year, leading to extensive job cuts, and since then it has restructured its local originals model, with combined teams now programming across both streaming and networks – though no European HBO Max commissions from these teams have yet been announced.
Adding up with Amazon
Further demonstrating WBD’s newfound appetite for third-party distribution was yesterday’s announcement that Amazon’s Prime Video in France has struck an exclusive deal to place The Last Of Us on the streamer and launch a ‘Warner Pass’, offering access to all HBO content and 12 WBD channels.
Post-apocalyptic drama The Last Of Us is a highly-anticipated high-end series, that has already generated substantial buzz ahead of its US premiere this weekend. It’s not a stretch to suggest it will lead to a lot of viewing hours for Prime Video France.
However, with France’s originally planned HBO Max launch dropped in favour of the WBD combined streamer, which is likely arriving no sooner than 2024, a third-party sale seems to have been the most astute play.
Its other shows, though, will be locked behind an as-yet-unspecified subscription fee, with the ‘Warner Pass’, which will launch in March 2023, including access to all HBO titles, ranging from Succession, Perry Mason and Barry, to library shows such as Game Of Thrones, The Sopranos and The Wire.
Most of those series had, until 31 December 2022, been available via Orange’s long-standing HBO output deal. The telco, however, is not just getting out of bed with HBO – it’s getting out of content altogether, selling its pay-TV and studio division to Canal+, an indicator of the tumultuous times.
And indeed, the Amazon deal comes at something of a fortuitous moment, with WBD’s Warner TV left in need of a new home in France after being dropped by Canal+ due to a carriage dispute. It will be among the 12 channels offered on the ‘Warner Pass’ alongside Eurosport, Discovery Channel, CNN and others.
It was something of a no-brainer for Starz as the show is produced and distributed by Lionsgate TV, and the second season had nearly completed production when it was dropped by HBO Max last month, going some way to explain why the US network was so quick off the mark.
Not every show comes with an almost oven-ready season, but as with the European rescues, it may offer some hope to the creators of other recently cancelled US titles like The Nevers, Love Life and even the high-budgeted Westworld, that new homes may yet be found.
While in this case, the rights to Minx were in Lionsgate’s hands following its cancellaton, it seems that WBD is ready and willing to let its shows find new life elsewhere – so long as it still makes a profit, of course.