Do not worry, there will still be dragons.
Photo-Illustration: Vulture. Photo: HBO Max
As much as this has been the year from hell for Netflix, 2022 up until now has been nothing short of heavenly for rival HBO Max. Subscriber numbers are way up, its content is connecting with audiences (and awards voters), and even its initially buggy user interface has been vastly improved. But while success usually brings stability in business, the second half of the year will likely be anything but stable for HBO Max. With new Warner Bros. Discovery CEO David Zaslav is already moving fast to put his stamp on his newly supersized company, industry insiders are buzzing about big changes being contemplated at the streamer, ranging from the elimination of entire program departments to even ditching the HBO Max branding altogether.
If you’ve been paying even a little bit of attention the last few months to the reporting surrounding the Zaslav-led Discovery takeover of the former WarnerMedia, nothing about the notion of significant disruption at any division within the company will come as a surprise. Lots of very talented execs have already been pushed out the door, ambitious film and TV projects have been scrapped, and an entire streaming platform (RIP, CNN +) was shut down days into existence. The 11 months it took for federal regulators to approve the merger of WarnerMedia and Discovery gave Zaslav and top lieutenant JB Perrette (now head of global streaming at the company) nearly a year to contemplate how they wanted to do things. The fact that things are (mostly) going swimmingly at HBO Max isn’t going to stop them from executing his vision for how to build on whatever success the streamer has had to date, as well as fix any mistakes he thinks were made by former owners AT&T.
Photo: Taylor Hill / WireImage
So far, Zaslav and his team have made only one definitive pronouncement about the future of the service: HBO Max and Discovery + will be folded into a single unified app at some point (relatively) soon, once the not-inconsiderable technical challenges can be figured out (there’s a lot of content on Discovery) and the company decides how much more, if anything, to charge for the supersized service. Beyond that, everything else is speculation – though as usual in Hollywood, that’s not keeping folks from chattering about what may be in store on several fronts:
➽ Will Warner Bros. keep making movies just for Max? Last year, former WarnerMedia boss Jason Kilar announced an ambitious plan to have Warner Bros. Pictures produce at least ten big feature films 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 keep soaking millions into expensive movies that never see the inside of a cinema. 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 the move was made because Zaslav does not want any DC films to debut without making a stop in theaters, and that the other movies on the Made for Max slate should now come in with a budget under $ 35 million.
Still, one industry insider tells me there’s a broader debate going on inside the company about whether even lower-budget films like Father of the Bride might benefit from having a brief theatrical run, particularly since all Warner movies now come to Max roughly 45 days after opening in moviehouses. That would effectively end the idea of Warner Bros. Pictures making movies directly for Max, though it’s possible the studio could still make the same number of movies in total: They’d just play in theaters before jumping to streaming. While this would fly against current conventional wisdom in the film business that there’s no longer room for “smaller” films in cinemas, “Zaslav is very much a believer in theatrical windows,” one industry source told me. A rep for the studio declined comment.
➽ Does Discovery take over HBO Max’s unscripted unit? Discovery’s programming expertise is unscripted television, and with so many Discovery-branded reality shows headed to Max as part of the plan to unite the apps, there has been talk about big cuts to Max’s unscripted team for months. Insider’s Elaine Low last month reported on industry speculation that top unscripted execs on the Warners side could be headed for the exits soon, while last week Puck News noted that Max unscripted staffers – the folks behind titles such as Legendary spirit FBoy Island – were convinced layoffs were going to be announced last Friday even though there were no such announcements planned. But as Puck also noted, those staffers are likely right to be worried. Given Discovery’s expertise on the unscripted front, industry insiders I spoke to this week tell me it’s possible Team Zaslav might decide to just eliminate the HBO Max reality-show division altogether, while continuing to fund the separate (and highly decorated) documentaries unit. An HBO Max spokeswoman declined to comment.
➽ A name change? While this is probably lower down on the priority list for Warner Bros. Discovery execs, there’s once again talk that the HBO Max name may not be long for this world. Speculation about a name change has been going on almost from the minute Max was announced. Many folks inside the pre-merger company worried not only about diluting the HBO brand but more importantly were concerned that HBO had very little resonance for audiences outside of the US (In much of Europe, for instance, HBO programs have long aired under the Sky TV banner.) CNBC’s Alex Sherman has been all over this internal debate, documenting dissatisfaction with the branding back in December 2020 and then again last October, when he reported that those same anti-Max dissidents were getting ready to lobby Zaslav to ditch the name for something else once he took over.
This time, as Sherman noted, the justification for a switcheroo is that with all the new Discovery content coming to the platform, “HBO Max” does not offer the best description of what the service offered consumers. A new ID would thus provide an opening to reach the millions of consumers (both in the US and elsewhere) for whom 90 Day Fiancé is a bigger draw than Succession. HBO-produced shows would still be branded as such on the app, of course, but marketing for the platform would then treat HBO shows as simply one planet in a bigger content universe. One non-Warner Bros. Discovery producer (and former exec) I spoke with thinks a rebranding would let Zaslav fix a big AT&T mistake, though he actually argues for a slightly less dramatic change to the name. “It should always have been HBO +,” he said, predicting the current “Max” moniker “will not last.”
As interesting as the pro-name change argument may be, Zaslav may ultimately decide it’s not worth the investment in time and resources to make what is at the core a cosmetic change. And as for the other possible changes at Max discussed in this week’s newsletter, it is worth repeating: This is speculation. According to multiple sources familiar with the thinking of Warner Bros. Discover execs, very little final has been decided beyond combining HBO Max and Discovery +. So while there are strong hints that some layoffs are all but certain to hit Max’s reality TV team, they could end up being less dramatic than what some in the reality TV community fear.
Likewise, in terms of Max original movies, THR‘s reporting indicates those titles with lower budgets and already in the pipeline will probably be fine. Zaslav may decide to keep having his movie studio produce a slate of cost-conscious films exclusive to Max. Or he could simply decide that, moving forward, those same titles now deemed “Max Originals” will get at least some form of theatrical release, even if box-office expectations are modest. If so, that would be win-win for the film studio (it’s still making movies) and the streaming side (they’re still getting movies which will be brand new to the vast majority of subscribers).
What also seems unlikely to change much is the HBO Max content team run by network vet Casey Bloys, which as noted earlier has been on fire of late. Headed into next month’s Emmy nominations, the combo of HBO and HBO Max is the favorite to score the most number of noms, having just cleaned up in the just-announced TCA Awards nominations. This year has also seen the launch of several hits, including Winning Time, The Gilded Age, Julia, Our Flag Means Deathand Peacekeeper. And while it’s too soon to say how critics and audiences will react, the August arrival of House of the Dragon promises to revive at least a little bit of that Game of Thrones magic.
Even before the streaming era, HBO has gone through periods where things have seemed a bit bumpy and observers have questioned its future (remember all those stories declaring the network toast after The Sopranos spirit Sex and the City signed off?) It is possible that after a year of non-stop momentum, HBO Max could be in for a little bit of turbulence as new owners step into the cockpit and adjust the service’s flight plan. But as long as the streamer’s core content pipeline remains strong, and subscriber growth stays steady, it seems likely all the changes (and rumors about changes) swirling around HBO Max will end up being remembered as little more than background noise.