Did HBO Max Win the Year?

Casey Bloys, chief content officer for HBO and HBO Max. Photo-Illustration: Vulture; Photo: Courtesy of HBO Max

For most of 2020, things were not looking particularly great for HBO Max. Subscriber sign-ups were slower than expected, COVID-related production problems had delayed a big chunk of the planned launch slate, and behind-the-scenes corporate machinations had prompted the ouster of Robert Greenblatt and Kevin Reilly, the WarnerMedia Entertainment execs most responsible for shaping the platform’s rollout. While things were never really as bad as some dire headlines suggested, it was definitely not a picture-perfect launch.

And then just like that, Project Popcorn popped into the picture.

A year ago tomorrow, on December 3, 2020, WarnerMedia CEO Jason Kilar dropped a bomb on Hollywood when he announced that all Warner Bros. 2021 feature films would stream on Max the same day they hit theaters. The initial reaction from film producers and their agents was scorching: Christopher Nolan famously denounced the move, declaring he and his peers had gone to bed the night before “thinking they were working for the greatest movie studio and woke up to find out they were working for the worst streaming service.” The gnashing of teeth and rending of garments among film folks was intense, and the threats of legal action serious. But despite the short-term tsuris Kilar’s play prompted, Project Popcorn — WarnerMedia’s in-house code name for the revolutionary day-and-date strategy — turned out to be exactly the narrative shift Max needed.

Even if some of the early titles weren’t exactly blockbusters (no offense, Tom and Jerry), the steady flow of big WB movies as 2021 got underway (Judas and the Black Messiah, The Little Things, and Godzilla vs. Kong), along with the straight-to-Max release of the so-called Snyder cut of Justice League, resulted in a slew of new subscribers, with nearly 3 million joining in the first quarter of 2021 alone. It also changed the subject from “HBO Max, struggling streamer” to “HBO Max, disrupter.” Most importantly, Kilar’s gambit bought more time for Max’s content to catch fire and for the execs who took control of the streamer — Ann Sarnoff (WarnerMedia Studios and Networks Group CEO) and Casey Bloys (HBO and HBO Max chief content officer) — to steady the ship. And that’s exactly what happened:

The Flight Attendant, already gaining altitude in the Zeitgeist during the fall of 2020, snagged important Golden Globes, WGA, and SAG Awards nominations during the winter and gave Max its first signature drama success.

—HBO’s Mare of Eassttown dropped in April and quickly became a cultural phenom. It was followed over the next three months by Hacks (which obliterated the line between “HBO” and “HBO Max” originals), the well-received (and long-postponed) Friends reunion, and the launch of HBO’s smoldering Mike White anthology series White Lotus.

—And finally this fall, with COVID delays in the rearview mirror, long-awaited new seasons of HBO tentpoles Succession, Insecure, and Curb Your Enthusiasm returned, activating millions of fans who might not have had a reason to check out Max.

Not everything has been roses for HBO Max in 2021. The first half of the year was still dogged by a modest drought of big scripted programming from HBO proper, which led to September’s disappointing showing at the Emmys. (Netflix crushed the pay TV pioneer.) It also took Max way too long to fix its outdated, error-prone app, though it’s now (mostly) done just that. But overall, HBO Max heads into 2022 in dramatically better shape than when 2021 began: The global HBO and HBO Max subscriber base was just shy of 70 million at the end of the third quarter, a healthy year-to-year gain of 12.5 million subscribers. And while the pending merger of Max parent WarnerMedia with Discovery Networks brings a ton of uncertainty about the near-term future of the platform, in theory, the added heft from the new partner – not to mention being free of the albatross that was AT&T–should boost the streamer’s growth rate even higher.

As always, however, HBO Max’s 2022 fortunes will rise or fall mostly on the strength of its content slate, which is overseen on a day-to-day basis by the aforementioned Bloys. After starting his career at CBS in the late 1990s, Bloys has been at HBO since 2004, starting out as a mid-level exec at the company’s production arm before taking over the comedy division in 2009 and then the whole programming team in 2016. I recently caught up with the Los Angeles–based exec for a 30-minute chat about his first year as chief content officer for the combined HBO and HBO Max team and what he’s expecting in the year ahead. We talked about everything from the new Game of Thrones spinoff and the end of Project Popcorn to why the Sex and the City spinoff, And Just Like That …, bowing next week, is not yet guaranteed to return for a second season.

You’ve been overseeing at HBO Max since late summer 2020. What’s your “how it started versus how it’s going” on your first year in the new role?

Casey Bloys: Well, Sarah Aubrey, head of original content for HBO Max, and her team did a really good job with Flight Attendant. That was a great way to start off and a great way to show what we could do. In general, the idea is to broaden out from HBO. The most obvious example of that is reality television. Jen O’Connell and her unscripted group have done a really good job launching shows like The Sweet Life with Issa Rae, which we’ve just picked up more of. We’ve got a Magic Mike reality show shot in Las Vegas, where they’re taking regular guys and having a competition to be a male stripper. Really fun, somewhat cheeky shows are a place that HBO didn’t typically go. And we can make more young adult content like Gossip GirlPretty Little Liars, or Sex Lives of College Girls. We’ve got a big DC show coming out January from James Gunn, a spinoff from Suicide Squad with John Cena’s character. The HBO Max platform just allows us to do a more regular cadence of broader, female programming than we would typically do on HBO. We’ve got some great female-appeal programming on HBO, like Big Little Lies and The Undoing, but it just allows us to do more.

I know there was so much drama about brand confusion in the months before Max launched, but these days, I don’t really see a difference between HBO and HBO Max content. Something like Hacks could easily be an HBO show. Euphoria feels like something that could’ve come from Max.  But it sounds like you still do draw a line between the two. Why is that? 

There is a difference. HBO Max is the platform, and HBO, the programming service, is within that. So I try to describe HBO Max as kind of our own cable bundle. It has a lot of different things. The same HBO that you’ve always had is available on HBO Max, and then a broader array of programming is also available, and that includes reality shows, DC shows, library content like Friends and Big Bang Theory and South Park. The point that I do think is important is HBO, the programming service — nothing has changed in terms of the people programming it and the mission and the kinds of shows that we’re doing. It’s just HBO Max is another way to distribute it, and we’re not reliant on the linear cable world.

That makes sense. But what about something like And Just Like That …, which is being presented as an HBO Max original even though it’s a spinoff from Sex and the City, one of the most iconic HBO series of all time? Did you make it an HBO Max original to get those linear viewers of a certain age to finally activate their HBO Max apps?

HBO Max’s Sex and the City reboot. Photo: HBO Max/YouTube

Well, that’s certainly part of it, always. But in the time since Sex and the City aired on HBO, it has lived in syndication for a couple of generations of viewers. There have been two big studio movies. So it’s become, I think, a little bit bigger than the show on HBO. It’s been out in the world off of HBO for a long time. And so the thinking was it does feel kind of bigger than the original when it started, and people know it and relate to it in different ways.

Are we now past that period of folks worrying about the HBO brand suffering from being blended into HBO Max? 

To be fair, I don’t know that audiences were worrying about it as much as the press and/or the creative community. But it is an important distinction to make — just reiterating that HBO continues to do what it’s always done.

Let’s talk about some specific titles. And Just Like That … comes out next week. Is it a safe assumption that you’re already gearing up for a season 2?

To tell you the truth, it would be a conversation, because I have no idea. They kind of came together to do this. They were all really busy and doing other things. So it is certainly a conversation we’ll have — for sure. But we haven’t decided anything or done anything.

Having seen episodes, would you like to have another season?

I’m going to leave it up to these guys to figure out what they want to do, but I’m very happy with what they’ve done. I will tell you, it’s kind of what you want in a show like this. It really does feel like you’re picking up with old friends and haven’t missed a beat.

Does the response to Many Saints of Newark, both among audiences and critics, make it more or less likely we’re going to see something else from The Sopranos, in terms of either another movie or a series or anything like that? 

For things like this, as with Sarah Jessica Parker and Michael Patrick King and SATC, it’s really, “Do they see a path? Are they excited? Do they want to do something?” And with David Chase, I don’t know where he is in terms of conversations with another movie. I do think that revisiting the Sopranos family is probably unlikely. But is there another movie in that universe? I honestly don’t know where he is in those conversations with Warner Bros. at the moment.

Your parent company, WarnerMedia, decided to put all of its Warner Bros.–produced 2021 movies on Max the same day they opened in theaters. It caused a lot of existential angst in the film world, but it really did seem to help drive new sign-ups and increase buzz for Max. I’m curious how you’d assess its impact and whether you think you’ll take a hit next year when you won’t get day-and-date movies all the time?

It was great for the service, especially during a time where schedules were not fully populated because of COVID-related production delays. It was just a great steady source of movies that people loved. Going forward in ’22, hopefully we’re going to be in a world where people are going back to theaters and not worrying about the pandemic. But what came out of all of this is a 45-day theatrical window. That is a massive shift because the pay-one window — which is what HBO typically got —  was eight months after release. So you’re going from eight months to 45 days. That’s huge. So I believe it’s going to work really well because people who want to go to theaters and experience a movie theatrically get to do that— and then 45 days later, it’s on Max. That, to me, seems like a really great situation. We’ll see how it goes.

So it’s your understanding that 2022 Warner Bros. movies are going to come onto Max right after that exclusive 45-day window in theaters? Or are they going to have to go on other platforms first, like premium rental or digital sales?

No, that’s what we’re doing. For Warner Bros., it’s 45 days.

At the same time, HBO and HBO Max are losing access to movies from outside studios in 2022 and 2023. Universal’s output is going to Peacock and Amazon, and it looks like the 20th Century movies from what used to be 20th Century Fox are headed to Hulu and Disney+ after next year. Is the shortened window for Warner Bros. movies enough to make up for that?

Obviously the theatrical business has changed drastically, and the days of having multiple pay one deals are not coming back. One of our advantages of being within WarnerMedia is we have Warner Bros., which is one of the best studios in the world producing content. So not only will we have their theatrical releases 45 days later, but we’re also going to have a straight-to-Max slate that Toby Emmerich, Warner Bros. Pictures chairman, and his group do for us. Generally speaking, we’re trying to do 12 extra movies — a movie a month is the idea that we will build up to. So it will still be a pretty healthy diet of movies, either fresh out of theaters or direct to Max.

But is making 12 original movies a year enough at a time when Netflix is churning out two or three every week?

I think you could also ask that the inverse of that: Is two or three per week too many? I think that we’ll find the right level that subscribers respond to, and that we feel good about the movies.

What about amping up HBO Films, which used to make a lot more movies every year, some of which also played in theaters years ago? Is that not in the cards?

We still have HBO Films, usually just for Emmy play. That’s slightly different from what we’re talking about with the Warner Bros. output. But we’ll look to Warner Bros. for the direct-to-Max output. I’m not looking to have another label doing movies.

Let’s talk about your 2021 slate. House of the Dragon is obviously the big gun. Is production already wrapped? And how much of it have you seen?

No, production is not wrapped. I was there last week visiting Ryan Condal and Miguel Sapochnik on the set. I’ve seen enough to feel very good and very happy.

Amazon seems to have taken the page from the feature world by announcing its Lord of the Rings series will premiere next September. You’ve already said Dragon will come out in 2022, but can you get more specific about the date? Or at least maybe rule out debuting the same week or month as LOTR

I’m not too worried about what anybody else is doing at this point.

I know you’ve got other Game of Thrones–adjacent scripts in the works, but so far, just one show is actually being made. Are you ready to say yet that you’re going to expand the universe so there’s a new project coming out every year or even more frequently? 

The way that we have approached Game of Thrones is wanting to get it right. So we certainly have other things in development and things that we feel good about. But right now, the only thing that is green-lit and coming is House of the Dragon. That’s not to say there will not be other things, but we’re in the process of developing and seeing what feels like the best edition.

So you’re not going to go full Marvel anytime soon?

I mean, look, if we end up — who knows? It really depends on how good the scripts are. I would rather take it from a qualitative standpoint and react to the scripts as opposed to an artificial number of series that we need on the air.

Staying in the IP realm, 2021 started with a report that you were in the very early stages of developing a Harry Potter show. You put out a statement saying flatly that nothing was in development, but it’s now been nearly a year. What’s the latest from the wizarding world?

There are no updates on it. Like we talked about, the IP — that world — is really exciting, and people love it. It would be wonderful to do that. But there is nothing — no series to report. When there is, I will let you know. But nothing to report on that.

Netflix has shown repeatedly how shows made outside the English-speaking world can become global hits, with Squid Game the most spectacular success so far. Does that inspire you to want to up your output of international content even more than you have already?

HBO has been producing shows internationally for 20 years. HBO Europe, HBO Nordic, HBO Spain, HBO Latin America, HBO Asia — all of those territories have been producing local content for, I want to say, 20 years. We’ve just not done a great job highlighting those shows. Part of that is because HBO historically was set up differently in different territories. In the U.K., it is distributed by Sky. In Canada, it’s Bell Media. In Spain, we had our own service. So it was really a patchwork around the world. We’re trying to be much better about that. I believe we will do a much better job of coordinating those programming efforts that my colleagues around the world have been doing for years. Each territory has a library and has been producing local content and will continue to do that. But now it will be for HBO Max as opposed to whatever HBO affiliate they were doing it for.

Might we see more international content green-lit, or will you just do a better job promoting that output?  

I think it’s safe to say that as we expand HBO Max globally, you will see more content being produced

Netflix has made a lot of noise in recent weeks by rolling out new weekly “ratings” for its content. We’ve had detailed data for HBO linear shows for decades, but we don’t have that for HBO Max, even though clearly that’s how a big chunk of viewing takes place now. Are you considering revealing more precise data about how programs perform on streaming? 

You want to know something interesting? Ten years ago, in 2011, 90 percent of an HBO show’s viewership would’ve come from linear, either Sunday night or repeats throughout the week. Ten percent was from on demand. Now, 50 percent of viewing comes from linear. The rest of it, the majority, comes from HBO Max.

All the more reason to give out those numbers!

For years, reporters would report on viewing for HBO, and we’d say, “But we don’t have advertisers. People watch it throughout the week, people watch it on demand. People are watching things in a much different way.” And a lot of reporters, even if they knew that, would just report same-day ratings and say, “Oh my gosh, look, only number of people are watching this show.” They knew very well that that was not our business model, that the business was subscribers. So I saw how numbers could be misreported and misused. I’m kind of enjoying the anonymity that comes with streaming.

You’re not eager to make more data available then.

I’m not necessarily rushing to it. That said, I understand, especially from a talent and business affairs point of view, why that might be important. But for now, I’m going to enjoy not having to parse numbers every day.

Let’s look forward. Where do you want HBO Max to be at the end of 2022? Will your story be one of dramatically more shows, more regular releases, more genres where HBO Max is active?

All of the above. I would say fourth quarter 2021 is the first time where we’re really back on, past all the COVID shutdowns and everything. We’re firing on all cylinders on HBO Max. So my hope is that, a year from now, we’re cementing our place as one of the must-have services. Because we’re all in this race to end up as one of the top streaming services. It is a race. Not everybody’s going to survive, and my hope is that our programming makes us one of the must-haves.

Getting together with Discovery Networks would surely help on that front, right? It would bring a ton of content to Max.

As you know there’s not a lot we can say, but I feel really good about the combination and where it might go. I am hopeful.

I know you have to love all your kids equally. But is there any piece of programming coming up in 2022 that’s under the radar that you’re really eager for folks to see?

Well, you’re right. Once I start to mention one, I’m going to want to say, well, what about this one and that one? We have this great Laker show coming up, and we have Euphoria coming back, and we’ve got Peacemaker with John Cena — really big shows. But there’s one I’ll mention because it’s not quite as big: Julia. Sarah Lancashire from Happy Valley plays Julia Child, David Hyde Pierce plays her husband, and Bebe Neuwirth plays her best friend. So for people who love television, and television comedy specifically, to see Bebe and David Hyde Pierce together again is great. And Sarah is just phenomenal as Julia Child. It’s a really well done and great show.

I remember seeing the press release for that and being very psyched for that Frasier reunion. When should we expect Julia?

Spring of ‘22.

Just in time for Emmy season!

[Laughs.] Yes.

I don’t even want to think about the Emmy races next year. It’s going to be brutal with so much across all the platforms. 

We have White Lotus, Succession, the final season of Insecure, Curb Your Enthusiasm. We’ve got Flight Attendant coming back. We’ve got Hacks coming back. We’ve got Barry coming back. We’ve got new shows like Julia. So whatever happens, I’m excited to have this showing.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Did HBO Max Win the Year?