HBO Max is doing well – so of course changes are coming

Don’t worry, there will still be dragons.
Photo-illustration: Vulture. photo: HBO Max

As much as this has been the year of hell for Netflix, 2022 so far has been nothing short of heavenly for rival HBO Max. Subscribers are increasing, your content is connecting with audiences (and rewarding voters), and even its initially buggy user interface has been vastly improved. But while success usually brings stability in the business, the second half of the year is likely to be anything but stable for HBO Max. With the new CEO of Warner Bros. Discovery, David Zaslav, already moving quickly to put his stamp on his newly oversized company, industry insiders are commenting on major changes being contemplated at the streamer, from eliminating entire program departments to dropping the HBO Max brand. completely.

If you’ve paid any attention in recent months to reports surrounding Discovery’s Zaslav-led acquisition of ex-WarnerMedia, nothing about the notion of significant disruption to any division of the company will come as a surprise. Many very talented executives have already been ousted, ambitious film and TV projects have been scrapped, and an entire streaming platform (RIP, CNN+) has been shut down within days of its existence. The 11 months it took federal regulators to pass the WarnerMedia and Discovery merger gave Zaslav and Lt. JB Perrette (now the company’s head of global streaming) nearly a year to contemplate how they wanted to do things. The fact that things are (mostly) going well at HBO Max isn’t going to stop them from executing on their vision of how to build on whatever success the streamer has had to date, as well as correcting any mistakes he thinks were made by the former. player. AT&T owners.

David Zaslav.
Photo: Taylor Hill/WireImage

So far, Zaslav and his team have only made one definitive pronouncement on the future of the service: HBO Max and Discovery+ will be folded into a single, unified app sometime (relatively) soon, once non-negligible technical challenges may arise. be calculated out (there’s a lot of content on Discovery) and the company decides how much more to charge for the oversized service. Other than that, everything else is speculation – although, as usual in Hollywood, that doesn’t stop people talking about what might be in store on a number of fronts:

Warner Bros. continue to make movies just for Max? Last year, former WarnerMedia boss Jason Kilar announced an ambitious plan for Warner Bros. Pictures to produce at least ten great movies directly for Max. One of them – a remake of father of the bride — debuted last week. But I’ve talked to industry insiders who say it’s now an open question whether Zaslav wants to continue dousing millions in expensive movies that have never seen the inside of a theater. We got the first hint of this philosophy last month when news broke that the exec had decided to scrap an already-announced Max feature film based on DC’s Wonder Twins characters. THR reported that the change was made because Zaslav doesn’t want any DC movies to open nonstop in theaters., and that the other movies on the Made for Max list must now have a budget of less than $35 million.

Still, an industry insider told me that there is a broader debate going on within the company as to whether even low-budget films like father of the bride could benefit from a brief theatrical run, particularly since all of Warner’s movies now come to Max about 45 days after their theatrical release. This would effectively end the idea of ​​Warner Bros. Pictures make movies directly for Max, though it’s possible the studio could still make the same number of movies in total: they would just play in theaters before moving to streaming. While this goes against the current conventional wisdom in the film industry that there is no longer room for “smaller” films in theaters, “Zaslav is a big believer in movie theater windows,” an industry source told me. A representative for the studio declined to comment.

Does Discovery take over HBO Max’s unscripted drive? Discovery’s programming experience is unscripted television, and with so many Discovery-branded reality shows targeted at Max as part of the plan to unite the apps, there’s been talk of major cuts for Max’s unscripted team for months. Insider’s Elaine Low last month reported industry speculation that top unscripted execs on the Warner side could soon leave, while last week Puck News noted that Max’s unscripted employees – the people behind of titles like Legendary and fboy island – were convinced that the layoffs would be announced last Friday, although there were no such announcements planned. But as Puck also noted, these employees are probably right to be concerned. Given Discovery’s experience on the unscripted front, industry insiders I spoke with this week tell me it’s possible that the Zaslav team will decide to simply eliminate the HBO Max reality show division, while continuing to fund the separate documentary unit (and highly decorated). A spokeswoman for HBO Max declined to comment.

A name change? While this is likely farther down the Warner Bros. executives’ priority list. Discovery, once again it is said that the name HBO Max may not be long in this world. Speculation about a name change has been going on almost from the minute Max was announced. Many people within the company prior to the merger were concerned not only with diluting the HBO brand, but more importantly, were concerned that HBO would have very little resonance for audiences outside the US (in much of Europe, for example). , HBO shows have long aired under the TV Sky Banner.) CNBC’s Alex Sherman has been throughout this internal debate, documenting dissatisfaction with the brand in December 2020 and again this past October when he reported that these same anti-Max dissidents were preparing to pressure Zaslav to drop the name for something else once he took over.

This time, as Sherman noted, the rationale for a change is that with all the new Discovery content coming to the platform, “HBO Max” doesn’t offer the best description of what the service offered to consumers. A new ID would thus provide an opening to reach the millions of consumers (in the US and elsewhere) for whom 90 days fiance is a bigger draw than Succession. HBO-produced shows would still be marked as such on the app, of course, but the platform’s marketing would treat HBO shows simply as one planet in a larger content universe. A non-Warner Bros. producer. Discovery (and former executive) I spoke to thinks a rebrand would let Zaslav right a big AT&T mistake, although in fact he advocates a slightly less dramatic name change. “It should have always been HBO+,” he said, predicting that the current “Max” moniker “won’t last.”

As interesting as the pro-name change argument is, Zaslav may ultimately decide that it’s not worth the investment of time and resources to do what’s at the heart of a cosmetic change. And as for the other possible changes to Max discussed in this week’s bulletin, it bears repeating: This is speculation. According to several sources familiar with the thinking of Warner Bros. Discover, very little final has been decided beyond the combination of HBO Max and Discovery+. So while there are strong indications that some layoffs are sure to hit Max’s reality TV team, they could end up being less dramatic than some in the reality TV community fear.

Likewise, in terms of original Max movies, THRReports indicate that titles with lower budgets and already in progress are likely to be fine. Zaslav may decide to keep his movie studio by producing a series of budget movies exclusive to Max. Or he may simply decide that, going forward, these same titles now considered “Max Originals” will at least have some form of theatrical release, even if box office expectations are modest. If so, that would be to the advantage of both the movie studio (it’s still making movies) and the streaming side (they’re still getting movies that will be new to the vast majority of subscribers).

What also seems unlikely to change much is the HBO Max content team, run by network veteran Casey Bloys, which, as noted earlier, has been on fire lately. Forwarded to next month’s Emmy nominations, the combination of HBO and HBO Max is the favorite to get the most nominations, having just cleared the newly announced TCA Awards nominations. This year also saw the release of several hits, including victory time, the golden age, Julia, Our flag means deathand Peacemaker. And while it’s too early to say how critics and audiences will react, the arrival in August of dragon house promises to relive at least some of it War of Thrones Magic.

Even before the streaming era, HBO went through periods when things looked a little bumpy and observers questioned its future (remember all those stories declaring the network’s toast after the Sopranos and Sex and the City It’s possible that, after a year of nonstop momentum, HBO Max could experience a bit of turmoil as new owners step into the cockpit and tweak the service’s flight plan. But as long as the streamer’s core content pipeline remains strong and subscriber growth remains steady, it seems likely that all the changes (and rumors about changes) revolving around HBO Max will end up being remembered as little more than background noise.

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