Heavily localized content complementing a wealth of new and library offerings out of the U.S. is very much the modus operandi for HBO Max in Europe.
The WarnerMedia-backed streamer, which will soon be combined with Discovery Plus, rolled out recently to 13 countries in Central and Eastern Europe (CEE), as well as Portugal and the Netherlands, with Turkey, Greece, Iceland, Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania to follow later this year. There are no plans to launch HBO Max in Russia or Ukraine.
Variety can exclusively reveal that one of HBO Max’s big bets is musical talent format “One True Singer,” which promises to launch the next big singer in Romania.
In the show, 14 young artists are selected from hundreds of applicants. Having impressed a jury made up of Alex Cotoi, Alina Eremia, Șerban Cazan and Bruja, they make it inside the “One True Singer” house and compete for a €100,000 ($110,000) prize. Crucially, in addition to a €50,000 cash prize, the winner also receives a recording contract worth €50,000 with Global Records right off the bat.
The idea was pitched to HBO Max by Global Records. “Their pitch was this: ‘We worked with a lot of artists who are either judges or mentors in singing competition shows. And we know that the competitors who win often don’t go on to have a career in the music industry. We want to make the show that starts where other shows finish,'” Johnathan Young, HBO Max VP of original programming for CEE, tells Variety.
“What they do as a record company is they find talent and they give them the skills they need to become an enduring star,” says Young. “We thought this is terrific, because we’re going to get a group of young adults from Romania aged 19 to 24, tons of talent, and put them through a competition which is more than a competition show — they live in a house together, they write songs together, there’s an element of reality in it. And there’s also an element of documentary because we really get to see behind the scenes of the music industry.”
Other shows that Young is bullish about on the HBO Max CEE slate include Xawery Żuławski’s Polish noir “The Thaw”; Bálint Szentgyörgyi’s 1980s-set Hungarian Cold War political drama “The Informant”; Romanian relationship drama “Ruxx,” written by Vera Ion, and a brace of titles from the Czech Republic. They include “The Winner,” written by Zuzana Dzurindová and Peter Nagy, which explores life after politics, and “Czech it Out!,” where actor and foodie celebrity Lukáš Hejlík and his daughter Klára Hejlíková embark upon a food and travel vacation.
“The story of the last 12-18 months has been moving from being HBO Europe to being HBO Max — our slate is broader,” says Antony Root, executive VP of original programming at WarnerMedia in Europe, the Middle East and Africa. “We want the originals that we’re making locally to draw people in who might not otherwise have been drawn in to a pure HBO as it were, but offer things that are broader than that.”
Root adds that while the service has all the American HBO programming, the local spectrum has shows “that would sit very comfortably within the pure HBO brand,” providing “The Thaw” as an example. “The five or six shows Johnathan’s been talking about do represent that new thrust of what we’re trying to do at HBO Max in Europe.”
Young feels that the region’s non-scripted shows also have the potential to be adapted globally. “It would be a source of enormous pride for the creative community here to make a show that worked locally, and then travels,” says Young.
Local first strategy
From a commissioning point of view, Root says that the service is not actively seeking pan-European shows that have languages from various territories, adding that “those shows are probably going to be more difficult to land with us than something that speaks locally with a very definite voice.”
Young concurs, saying: “The thing you have to have to make an HBO show from Central Europe successful is an author. We’re not constructing shows to fit a market. We’re looking for authors who have passion, commitment, vision and stamina and want to work with us and want to work on this platform. Those authors have a sense of an international market because they’re watching our shows, but they are local first and foremost — all our authors are living in their country of origin, wanting to communicate something about their experience.”
The executives reveal that locally, besides subtitling, the shows go through a sophisticated process of being dubbed into English with an emphasis on lip sync. Spanish dubs make it to the HBO Max Latin American service as well.
HBO Max has debuted in a crowded European market that is hugely competitive with deep-pocketed competitors like Netflix and Amazon Prime Video churning out local programming, and Disney Plus making inroads and Peacock, Paramount Plus and Sky Showtime also poised to expand in the territory.
The initial strategy for HBO Max is to attract customers through discounted pricing, with the service currently being cheaper than what HBO Europe used to cost.
For programming, HBO Max is paying on par with what the other international streamers and the bigger local players are paying. As for product differentiation, Root points out that HBO Europe has been in the territory since 1981 and enjoys a “brand halo” from being part of the wider HBO family.
“The differentiation lies in some of those core HBO values — the distinctive storytelling, authorship, strong points of view, that we do believe translate into commercial success,” says Root. “We’re not going to be at the volume levels of some of our other competitors, it’s not our style. The audience has recognized the authenticity and integrity of the talents that we work with. We’re selling a service, not an individual title.”