Casey Bloys has had a long stretch of happy Mondays.
The steady growth of viewership and buzz for “Mare of Easttown” over its seven-week run on Sunday nights has been welcome news for the chief content officer of HBO and HBO Max. The Kate Winslet murder-mystery made its mark just as HBO’s parent company was once again thrust into a massive corporate transition with the WarnerMedia-Discovery merger agreement that shocked the industry last month.
“Mare” is the latest in a string of successful and buzzy series delivered over the past few years by Bloys and his programming team. The track record is impressive given the high drama that has gone on behind the scenes at HBO and other former Time Warner units since the sale to AT&T in 2018.
“Though all the mergers and reorganizations, the HBO team has stayed steady together. A lot of us have been together longer than 15 years,” Bloys tells Variety. “We just keep doing our thing trying to deliver on that brand promise for HBO. When a show like ‘Mare’ comes along and feels like it’s hitting on all cylinders, it’s really gratifying.”
HBO was so impressed with “Mare” that it has set a three-year exclusive overall deal for TV with Brad Ingelsby, the veteran screenwriter who created the series and served as showrunner and executive producer. Ingelsby brought the project to HBO with Winslet on board. Bloys hadn’t worked with Ingelsby before but the experience on “Mare” was so strong that they were eager to keep him in the fold for TV.
“Brad just did a fantastic job on ‘Mare,’ “ Bloys said. “It was a great collaboration.”
The new deal is sure to whip up more speculation about a possible second installment of “Mare,” which features Winslet as a police detective working in a small hardscrabble town in Pennsylvania. The series was conceived a one-and-done limited series, and Bloys is doing his best to temper expectations for a Season 2, but there’s also no question that the door is not firmly shut, either.
“If Brad felt like he had a story to tell that felt like it would be at the same level, I think everybody would be open to it,” Bloys said. “Right now, he doesn’t have that story. Who knows? We’ll have to wait to see if they come up with something they’re dying to tell.”
Bloys reinforces when pressed again: “I don’t even have any idea that there’s going to be a timeline” for making a Season 2 decision. “Usually we take the lead from our creators,” he said. “There’s been no real conversations about what a Season 2 would look like.”
Winslet previously worked with HBO as the star of the 2011 miniseries “Mildred Pierce.” Bloys allows that the finely drawn character of Mare Sheehan (and her Pennsylvania accent) was a special undertaking for the Oscar-winning actor.
“I think Mare got her claws into Kate – she has been open about that,” Bloys said. “But there’s a long way to go between that and ‘Let’s do it again.’ The story has to be there and the reason to do it has to be there.” HBO has been down this road before with “Big Little Lies,” the 2017 Reese Witherspoon-Nicole Kidman limited series that packed such a wallop that a second season was assembled in 2019.
“Mare” adds to a strong roster of shows that HBO has fielded in recent years, at a time when competition for talent and prestige TV projects has never been fiercer. HBO also was the subject of a slew of “What Now” headlines when “Game of Thrones” signed off the air in 2019. But Bloys’ team by any measure have nurtured a high volume of buzzy hits including “Succession,” “The Undoing,” “Euphoria,” “Watchmen,” “Lovecraft Country,” “I May Destroy You,” “Insecure,” “Chernobyl” and “Big Little Lies.”
Moreover, Bloys was pressed into service last year to oversee original content for the HBO Max streamer on top of his HBO duties. HBO Max had a slow start in the height of the COVID lockdown, but this year so far it has proven to be a viable launchpad for series with the heat behind original series such as “The Flight Attendant,” “Hacks” and “Made for Love.”
The momentum for HBO Max is gratifying for Bloys because there has been so much discussion of the WarnerMedia’s bet-the-house expansion into direct-to-consumer streaming with HBO Max and the potential for it to hurt the gilded HBO brand. The corporate move to have Warner Bros.’ entire 2020 theatrical slate have day-and-date premieres in theaters and on HBO Max also became a dominant topic.
“There have been a whole lot of conversations about things other than the programming around HBO Max,” Bloys said. “The focus on the shows got somewhat subsumed by the conversation surrounding other areas of the business.
“For ‘Flight Attendant’ and ‘Hacks’ to have been incredibly well received critically and to have two shows in awards contention at that level – that feels really impressive,” he said. (Noting that “Hacks” star Jean Smart also had a role in “Mare,” Bloys quipped, “I’m going to put Jean Smart in every show.”)
Now that HBO Max has passed its first birthday (the service bowed on May 27, 2020), Bloys feels the concerns about brand confusion between HBO and its Max sibling have eased, especially for industryites.
“As people get to interact with HBO Max and understand that HBO is one of the programming services there, they’re understanding how it lives within HBO Max. The messaging is getting easier,” he said.
The distinctions between an HBO and HBO Max series are hardly etched in stone, Bloys said, but Max is aiming for more broad-appeal and younger-skewing stories a la “Flight Attendant” while HBO remains the home of shows that highlight “different voices than you hear elsewhere and shows that are very risk-taking in their own way,” he said. “Having that north star for us is really helpful.”
“Hacks,” which features Smart as a veteran standup comic starting to hit the downside of her career, is one that could have gone either way. “Of course ‘Hacks’ could have been on HBO,” he said.
Getting HBO Max off the ground was the overriding priority for the AT&T regime. With the corporate picture about to change again, Bloys sees no signs that this will change with Discovery coming into the mix – far from it.
Bloys met with incoming Warner Bros. Discovery CEO David Zaslav on June 1 after the longtime Discovery leader held a town hall for WarnerMedia employees. At this early stage, there’s not much detail that they are allowed to discuss according to Securities and Exchange Commission rules. (After a two-year slog through the AT&T acquisition from 2016-2018, Bloys knows this drill well.) But Bloys said he was encouraged by Zaslav’s palpable enthusiasm for the business of making content.
“He’s very excited about the complementary nature of the programming that each company will be bringing” to the enlarged Warner Bros. Discovery, he said. “We don’t know exactly how (Zaslav) plans to put it all together – all of that will come later. You really can’t get into that level of detail.”
Bloys concedes that many HBO and WarnerMedia insiders are on edge again about the coming transition. “It can be scary,” he acknowledged. But he also points to the gyrations across the media and entertainment landscape as an indication that it’s not just a WarnerMedia problem.
“It’s across the industry. The upheaval is not limited to us,” Bloys said. “Any company making programing is going to be going through this. The only thing we can control is putting out the best programming that we think is worthy of the HBO brand. Change at this level and at this speed across the industry can be unsettling. We have to accept that the industry is in a historic period of change and focus on doing what we’re here to do.”