HBO Max GM Andy Forssell: Nothing Changes for at Least a Year — Except Movie Distribution

On the heels of AT&T’s $43 billion spin-off of WarnerMedia in a merger with Discovery, and pending corporate name change, life for the brand’s flagship streaming video platform, HBO Max, continues unchanged.

That’s the message from Andy Forssell, former interim CEO of Hulu, who was tapped last year by former Hulu boss Jason Kilar to be EVP and GM of Max.

Speaking June 3 on the virtual Barclays Future of Media Conference, Forssell said the mission at the SVOD/AVOD Max remains to produce compelling content and grow standalone subscribers — the latter totaling 11.1 million subs over the service’s first year.

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HBO and HBO Max ended the most-recent fiscal period with 44 million combined subs.

“Our mission today is the same as it was a couple of weeks ago: Run the business,” Forssell said. “We’re at least a year away from anything happening [with the merger]. So, certainly big news and one that we pay attention to — but it doesn’t change what we do.”

With Discovery CEO David Zaslav tapped to run the renamed Warner Bros. Discovery company, leaving Kilar and Forssell’s roles going forward in question, Forssell made no mention of his job future.

“Eventually, we’ve got to figure out how do you combine [Max] with Discovery [and Discovery+ SVOD] and what does that mean,” he said. “But for the [Max] team, it seems quite a ways off because we’ve got to wait for the Department of Justice and that type of [regulatory approval] process to play out.”

In the meantime, Forssell said you should expect the company to continue to rejigger the theatrical window through 2022. WarnerMedia made industry shockwaves announcing it would release the Warner Bros.’ 2021 theatrical slate concurrently on Max for 31 days — after doing so with Wonder Woman 1984 on Christmas Day 2020.

That singular streaming strategy will be tweaked next year to re-embrace exhibitors, but the days of the traditional theatrical window are not likely returning, said the executive.

“You’re going to see in 2022 a lot of experimentation that’s going to be far more wide-ranging than it would have been without COVID,” Forssell said.

Specifically, the executive said studios would apply a mixture of PVOD/SVOD and theatrical distribution depending on the movie, current events and market conditions.

“We’ll see experimentation across the board,” Forssell said. “You’ll see everybody trying almost all [distribution] models next year.”

He said the simultaneous release of WW84 on Max saw two-third of the movie’s streaming audience also watch the entire first season of original series “The Flight Attendant” starring Kaley Cuoco.

Forssell said that the streaming audience for the second Warner movie release on Max, The Little Things, attracted a wider audience via Max than it would have strictly through theatrical.

“In other words, The Little Things really enjoyed the benefit of a huge wave of audience,” he said. “So we look at that very closely.”

Indeed, Max’s latest original series, “Mare of Easttown” starring Kate Winslet, has generated strong consumer responses on both on the service and linear television.

“It’s a record setter on Max,” Forssell said.

The executive thinks that as streaming access accelerates, transactional distribution of movies “probably drops” over time. He thinks that when combining SVOD with ad-supported VOD, the possibility of penetrating the equivalent 100 million households reached during pay-TV’s peak is not unreasonable.

“By the end of [next year], I think we’ll have a really clear signal on how does that evolution move,” Forssell said. “We believe there’s a place for theaters in the long term. Super important to us that something like that thrive and survive. But again consumers will tell us.”

WarnerMedia: HBO Max to Enhance Content Appeal with ‘Swipey’ Search

With WarnerMedia in a “quiet period” heading into the May launch of HBO Max, two company executives took to the stage Jan. 7 at CES 2020 in Las Vegas to shed some additional light on the new service.

CTO Jeremy Legg and Andy Forssell, former boss at Hulu and now EVP and GM at WarnerMedia direct-to-consumer, said the new $14.99 SVOD platform would have an enhanced user interface (UI) to help subscribers find and receive content recommendations.

Former Hulu boss Andy Forssell now heads WarnerMedia direct-to-consumer

Legg said Max would attempt to avoid what he characterized as “endless scroll” for users into a more “swipey” experience. The platform is considering presenting myriad content across WarnerMedia brands as Disney+ is doing with Marvel, Pixar, Star Wars and others.

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Netflix wrote the book on content recommendation, becoming the first SVOD service to zero in on subscriber likes and dislikes using software analytics.

Forssell was asked what consumers could expect from Max regarding programming, including original shows and movies.

“If you think about our mission writ large, we have tremendous creative talent at HBO and HBO Max, Warner Bros., Turner networks,” Forssell said. “Their job is to find great creative, find the right audience and the right place for it.”

He said content would be distributed in the appropriate channel, which includes SVOD, theatrical, third-party and old-school linear TV.

“You’ll see things where we’ll decide the right place for it is SVOD and there may be life for it on linear networks or elsewhere,” Forssell said. “You’ll see the reverse as well. You’re going to see it both directions. I think there is as much synergy there, more so than conflict.”

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Max, which is targeting 50 million subs in the first five years, continues to negotiate third-party distribution deals and bundles similar to what Disney+ did with Verizon and bundling Hulu and ESPN+.

“Bundling, when it’s done right, is good for consumers and it’s good for people doing the bundle,” Forssell said. “It makes things stickier. You can bet that we’ll be aggressive.”

When asked if the executives worry about first-day tech glitches that impacted Disney+ on its debut, both said they anticipate issues but that the company already has a proven track record with HBO Now.

Legg said HBO Now was able to accommodate 4.7 million concurrent streams of the final “Game of Thrones” episode, which he believes should help Max avoid tech issues.

 

WarnerMedia Absorbs AT&T’s Otter Media

WarnerMedia May 31 announced that Otter Media is being realigned under the WarnerMedia Entertainment group run by Bob Greenblatt, chairman of WarnerMedia Entertainment and direct-to-consumer business.

Otter Media was formed in 2014 by AT&T and The Chernin Group. Its properties include Fullscreen, a social media platform serving creators and brands; anime brand Crunchyroll; SVOD platform VRV; Rooster Teeth, a media and entertainment company serving the gaming community with a footprint of more than 40 million subscribers to its YouTube network, over 5 million monthly visitors to RoosterTeeth.com, and 2.5 million registered community members; a majority stake in Gunpowder & Sky, a digital- first studio; and minority stakes in Hello Sunshine, a cross- platform brand and content company for women founded with Reese Witherspoon, and Mars Reel, a media and lifestyle brand focused on telling authentic stories of top high school athletes through premium video content.

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The combination brings together WarnerMedia’s digital businesses of the company at a time when the organization’s new direct-to-consumer platform is being built with access to content from HBO, the WarnerMedia cable networks, Warner Bros., plus a robust slate of new original content.

Otter Media CEO Tony Goncalves

Tony Goncalves, CEO of Otter Media, will now also lead the development of the new WarnerMedia direct-to-consumer service, along with Otter’s existing brands and services.

He reports to Greenblatt. Andy Forssell, most recently COO of Otter Media and former CEO of Hulu, will move to the role of EVP and GM of the new streaming service reporting to Goncalves. Kevin Reilly, president, TBS/TNT/TruTV and CCO of direct-to-consumer, will remain in that position reporting to Greenblatt.

Brad Bentley, who was serving as the streaming service’s GM, informed the company that he would be leaving.

“As we continue to build out our new streaming business and realign WarnerMedia functions, this step will facilitate further scale and focus in our efforts to offer customers an engaging and compelling product experience,” John Stankey, CEO, WarnerMedia, said in a statement.

Goncalves joined Otter Media, as CEO last year. Through AT&T’s acquisition of DirecTV, he served as CEO of digital brands and head of strategy and business development for AT&T where he helped the company navigate the rapid pace of change in a digital centric world.

Forssell currently serves as EVP and COO of Otter Media, as well as president of Fullscreen. He joined Otter from Fullscreen where he served as COO for several years, overseeing the company’s day-to-day operations, as well as leading technology and product development. Forssell has served in a number of CEO, COO and general management roles, at companies like Hulu and ShowYou, helping to define and evolve the world of streaming video from its infancy.