The movies have done their job for HBO Max.
The steady stream of new Warner Bros. theatrical releases landing on HBO Max this year as day-and-date theatrical and streaming premieres has delivered a big boost of buzz and, most importantly, subscribers to the fledgling streaming streaming service that launched in late May 2020.
But with this year half over, HBO Max leaders are looking ahead to 2022 when the service will not have high-wattage titles to help attract new paying customers and to encourage existing subscribers to sample original series content. New Warner Bros. such as “Wonder Woman 1984,” “Godzilla Vs. Kong,” “Mortal Kombat” “In the Heights” and “Judas and the Black Messiah” have been workhorses that definitely helped bring viewers to HBO Max and HBO’s recent breakouts “Hacks,” “Mare of Easttown” and the “Friends” reunion special.
“There’s been great interplay between those titles and the day-and-date films,” said Andy Forssell, executive vice president and general manager of HBO Max. “A huge percentage of the ‘Wonder Woman 1984’ audience watched ‘The Flight Attendant.’ That set the tone for the year. We’ve learned a lot abut how those (film) release schedules and episodic premieres can work together.”
The unexpected windfall of having so many Warner Bros. tentpoles available simultaneously on HBO Max has allowed the company to study “how users think about films and episodic content and how they drive acquisition and retention,” Forssell said.
But it’s clear that HBO Max won’t enjoy the same volume of day-and-date releases in 2022. WarnerMedia made the bold call to have Warner Bros.’ entire 2021 theatrical slate have simultaneous premieres given that the exhibition business was so hobbled by the pandemic and social distancing mandates. But comments from WarnerMedia CEO Jason Kilar on AT&T’s July 22 quarterly earnings call made it clear that the studio’s tentpoles will no longer be having a dual-release plan. Kilar did say that Warner Bros. will produce 10 or more movies exclusively for HBO Max for 2022.
For HBO Max, that means the original content from HBO and HBO Max will have to do more heavy lifting. Forssell assures that they are up to the task. For starters, one of the series on HBO’s 2022 slate is “House of the Dragon,” the much-anticipated prequel to “Game of Thrones,” and a big investment in the DC Comics property “Peacemaker,” a spinoff of “The Suicide Squad” — one of the 2021 movies that will bow Aug. 6 on HBO Max and as a wide theatrical release.
“2022 is going to be just a phenomenal year for episodic content,” Forssell said. “Not just better than 2021 but significantly better” in terms of volume. Of course, HBO Max’s best laid plans for original content were derailed in part by the pandemic and production shutdowns, so some of 2022 is catching up with shows that had been planned to be ready to air this year.
Forssell said it was too soon for a definitive answer as to whether HBO Max would have get any day-and-date movie titles from Warner Bros. next year. The studio has said that as of next year it will shift to an accelerated 45-day exclusive window for theatrical exhibition before the first home entertainment window kicks in — compared to the 75- to 90-day standard at present.
“The whole industry is experimenting with windowing in film across the board,” Forssell said. “That business will continue to be important to fans and to exhibitors and to us as well. Movies are really good for SVOD services.”
Kilar noted on the conference call that Warner Bros. will produce 10 or more movies exclusively for HBO Max for 2022. Forssell stressed that the made-for-Max titles will have significant budgets and well-known faces. In his view, the more WarnerMedia invests in content for HBO Max, the more it will be able to afford high-end content. Forssell said he has told his counterparts at Warner Bros, “my job is to expand the subscriber base so we can afford to pay more for your movies than your other buyers.”
The challenge HBO Max is facing on that score is reinforced by financials that AT&T released early Thursday. WarnerMedia’s programming costs jumped 75% from the year-ago period to $4.2 billion, while marketing expenditures shot up 80% to $983 million. Not all of that is attributable to programming for HBO/HBO Max, but certainly a big portion of the increase can be chalked up to the needs of a fledgling streamer hungry for content.
WarnerMedia disclosed to investors the the launch of HBO Max in some European territories would be pushed back to 2022 rather than the third quarter of this year. The service launched in June in Latin America and is off to a strong start, Forssell said. The delay in Europe should not be misread as a sign of a slowdown in its international rollout plans. Getting to global scale is the key to allowing WarnerMedia to recoup the $2 billion-plus invested in HBO Max to date.
“Global scale is critical for the SVOD business,” he said. “We’ve already made 80% of the technology investment that we need to serve the world but we’re only in 39 markets. Global scale is how you get a return on the investment in technology and programming.”
Moreover, the early experience in Latin America has shown Forssell and his team that its important to have a strong lineup of high-profile local content tailored to the needs of discreet markets, and that takes time to develop no matter how well the technology works.
“It is the entertainment business. It’s tech-enabled and tech-powered but great stories are what’s going to matter,” he said.
(Pictured: “House of the Dragon”)
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