HBO Max Announces Animated ‘Aquaman,’ Wolfgang Puck and Adam McKay Series, Deal With Steven Soderbergh

HBO Max, WarnerMedia’s direct-to-consumer service debuting in spring 2020, announced a smattering of content deals during the studio’s Television Critics Association day.

The service has greenlit a three-part, animated miniseries Aquaman: King of Atlantis that will be executive produced by James Wan (Aquaman and the upcoming Malignant) through his Atomic Monster production company. Based on the classic DC character created by Mort Weisinger and Paul Norris, each of the standalone episodes will have a unique storyline following the adventures of Aquaman as protector of the deep.

“This DC property is a fan favorite rich with well-known characters and dynamic storylines,” said Sarah Aubrey, head of original content, HBO Max, in a statement. “On the heels of Warner Bros. Pictures’ box office smash hit, we are certain AquamanKing of Atlantis will be an exciting addition to our already robust slate of kids and family programming.”

At the same event WarnerMedia announced that filmmaker Steven Soderbergh has signed a three-year deal to develop content for both HBO Max and HBO, which shall be exclusive in all forms of television and a first-look for features. Soderbergh’s first project with HBO Max is the previously announced feature Let Them All Talk, starring Meryl Streep, Candice BergenDianne Wiest, Lucas Hedges and Gemma Chan. It’s the story of a celebrated author (Streep) who takes a journey with some old friends to have some fun and heal old wounds. The film will launch on HBO Max in 2020.

“This arrangement grew out of talks Michael Sugar and I were having with Sarah Aubrey during the negotiations for Let Them All Talk, and there were four things tractor-beaming me toward this deal: One, I have a history with both HBO and Warner Bros.; two, my definition of a good product, a good process, and a good working culture is shared by the WarnerMedia family; three, the wide range of potential outlets aligns with my range of interests, and four: I get to witness and participate in the building of something new at a very large scale. Oh, and there is a financial aspect, so that’s probably five,” said Soderbergh.

“Steven is a groundbreaking filmmaker who not only tells unique, irresistible stories, but is also a master of so many genres,” said Aubrey. “In many ways, he is the anti-algorithm constantly surprising, never predictable and his career is living proof that one gifted filmmaker can impact our culture again and again. I can’t wait for the projects that we’re working on together to premiere on HBO Max.”

“From Behind the Candelabra, to The Knick and Mosaic, we know first-hand that Steven Soderbergh’s creative genius knows no bounds,” said Casey Bloys, president, HBO programming.  “An indefatigable innovator, we couldn’t be more excited to continue our relationship with Steven and provide a home for his future projects.”

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The service has also ordered eight episodes of “The Event,” an unscripted documentary series featuring a look behind the scenes of events created by Wolfgang Puck Catering and restaurateur Wolfgang Puck.

“Wolfgang is one of the most accomplished chefs of our time and for decades has been the go-to restaurateur and caterer for the biggest names and events in Hollywood and across the country,”said Kevin Reilly, chief content office, HBO Max, and president, TNT, TBS and TruTV. “This series will usher viewers into a world of opulence and luxury and showcase the unpredictable challenges he and his team encounter while executing the biggest and most exclusive A-list events we all wish we were invited to.”

“We are really excited to share a behind the scenes look at planning our most creative and complicated events with HBO Max subscribers,” said Puck.

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In addition, HBO Max has greenlit writer-director Adam McKay’s “The Uninhabitable Earth,” an anthology series inspired by David Wallace-Wells’  best-selling book and New York Magazine article of the same name. It will be comprised of stand-alone fictional stories covering a wide range of genres and possible futures that could result from the rapid warming of our planet. McKay (The Big Short), who recently closed a five-year, overall television deal with HBO and HBO Max, is attached to write and direct the first episode.

“Adam is one of the rare artists who can deliver a pointed, impactful message in a piece of great entertainment,” said Reilly. “I can’t wait to see what he does with this material, as there is no timelier and more relevant message than a wake-up call on climate change and the growing impact on our lives.”

“I’ve been chomping at the bit to get this show going. I’m very happy that HBO Max stepped up and made the commitment. There’s obviously no subject as vast and daunting,” said McKay.

A Casualty of Streaming Wars, ‘Friends’ Sees Spike in Disc, Digital Sales

“Friends” is giving the transactional side of the home entertainment business a very happy new year.

The landmark sitcom that helped birth the TV DVD category nearly two decades ago is once again a top DVD and Blu-ray Disc seller — and this time the sales boost is also being felt in digital sales, commonly known in the industry as “electronic sellthrough.”

The catalyst: the disappearance of “Friends” from its longtime exclusive on-demand home, the Netflix subscription streaming service. With streaming wars accelerating, AT&T, which owns the Warner Bros. studio that produced “Friends,” made plans for the show to come off Netflix once the license expired Dec. 31, 2019, and reappear on its own streaming service, HBO Max, which is launching in May 2020.

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In the meantime, “Friends” is only available for on-demand viewing on disc and for digital purchase or rental — and that’s led to a significant spike in sales.

Jeff Brown, EVP and GM of Television and Animation for Warner Bros.’ home entertainment division, said sales began to rise shortly after the announcement in July 2019 that “Friends” would be leaving Netflix at the end of the year.

Through the end of 2019, he said, sales of the season and complete series sets more than tripled. And since the official departure of “Friends” from Netflix on Jan. 1, Brown said, sales have spiked even higher, on both physical and digital formats.

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“Not bad for a 20-year-old TV show,” Brown said. “The discs really started selling well in the summer, when we announced the show was coming off Netflix and we launched a 25th anniversary promotion — but the digital really took off after the first of the year, once the show was off Netflix.”

The top seller is the complete series set, which Warner re-released on Blu-ray Disc and DVD in September. The package contains 10 seasons’ worth of shows, or a total of 236 episodes. On Amazon, the complete series set retails for $69.99 on DVD (40 discs), and $109.16 on Blu-ray Disc (21 discs).

Bundles of all 10 seasons also are available digitally through other retailers, like Apple iTunes and Walmart’s Vudu. They, too, are leading sales.

Individual season sets are also available for purchase on disc and through digital retailers, including Amazon Prime. DVD season sets sell for $13.19 on Amazon, with digital season sets going for $19.95. Consumers who want digital versions also can buy individual episodes at $1.99.

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During the five months in which “Friends” is absent from the streaming world, Brown said, Warner Bros. Home Entertainment will mount a “robust” promotional campaign he hopes will drive sales even higher.

 

HBO Max Won’t Carry Cinemax, Boomerang, DC Universe Programming

When WarnerMedia launches HBO Max in May, the $14.99 subscription streaming video platform won’t include programming from Cinemax or SVOD services Boomerang and DC Universe. At the same time, the former Time Warner company plans to keep operating HBO Now and HBO Go concurrently with Max, according to Kevin Reilly, chief content officer, HBO Max and president, TNT, TBS, and truTV.

The Boomerang and DC Universe apps launched in 2017 and 2018, respectively, priced at $4.99 and $7.99 each.

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Speaking Jan. 15 at the Television Critics Association winter press tour in Pasadena, Calif., Reilly, along with Michael Quigley, EVP of content acquisitions and strategy, and Sarah Aubrey, head of original content, outlined additional details on Max, which will rival HBO Now as the most-expensive SVOD service on the market.

Specifically, reports suggest WarnerMedia would migrate HBO Now subs to Max to help jumpstart subscriptions, while also linking it to on-demand platform HBO Go.

He said it remains up in the air how “[we] manage that whole ecosystem ourselves.”

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Reilly said Cinemax, which has traditionally been bundled with HBO to pay-TV distributors, would be moving away from original productions. The channel’s notable shows included “Banshee,” “Warrior,” “Outcast,” Quarry,” and “The Knick”.

Cinemax shows such as “Strike Back,” “Gangs of London,” and “C.B. Strike,” are co-productions with Comcast-owned Sky Studios and the BBC, respectively.

“You can expect that there won’t be any more originals,” Reilly said.

WarnerMedia plans to fill the void with high-profile catalog shows such as “Friends,” and “The Big Bang Theory,” in addition to hundreds of Warner Bros. movies. Max also inked a three-year production deal with director Steven Soderbergh, who is helming original movie, Let Them All Talk, for the service.

“This will be the preeminent classic movie offering of any service out there,” Quigley said.

CBS All Access, Showtime Top Combined 10 Million Subs

ViacomCBS’ standalone subscription streaming video services have more than 10 million combined subscribers — up from 8 million previously announced — but down from the 16 million subs suggested by acting CEO Joe Ianniello in the most-recent fiscal call.

Speaking Jan. 12 at the Television Critics Assn. winter press tour in Pasadena, Calif., Marc DeBevoise, chief digital officer and boss of CBS Interactive, said the services have been growing subs by 60% annually.

“We’re in a great position to hit our goals of 25 million subscribers by 2022,” DeBevoise said.

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The executive, along with Julie McNamara, head of All Access Originals, said the two services’ appeal to subscribers underscores their diversity of content, including catalog and original.

“I think that’s pretty unique,” DeBevoise said.

McNamara said competing against new services Apple TV+, Disney+ and pending platforms HBO Max and Peacock, revolves around the confidence executives have for proprietary platforms.

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“I think we’ve seen with other services, the kind of pro and con of how that works, and you’ve got to have the creative confidence and keep going out there with shows people want to see, and I do believe that most consumers out there will follow their hearts, to some extent, in terms of the content being really desirable for them,” she said.

Regardless, Ianniello calculated the 16 million sub count by combining traditional pay-TV subs accessing Showtime and All Access as well as standalone direct-to-consumer and online TV subs streaming programming through third-party platforms such as Sling TV and AT&T TV Now.

“We think [the overall sub count] is important because there is a lot of headwind in the traditional [pay-TV] business and our point is, when you factor all of that in, we are [actually] growing subs,” he said last October. “So, that’s why we thought that [16 million] statistic was meaningful … that consumers are seeking out our content on other platforms, which bodes well for our future.”

AT&T CFO: $500 Million Invested in HBO Max Content Through Q4

During AT&T’s HBO Max Day last year, senior executives said WarnerMedia planned to spend upwards of $1.5 billion on content for the SVOD service launching in May with about 10,000 hours of programming.

Speaking Jan. 8 at Citi 2020 Global TMT West Conference in Las Vegas, AT&T CFO John Stephens said WarnerMedia spent $500 million on Max content through the end of the fourth quarter (Dec. 31, 2019) largely through acquiring rights to notable content, including exclusive streaming rights to “Friends,” “The Office,” “Doctor Who,” “Luther,” as well as two original movies from Reese Witherspoon’s production company and four from “Riverdale” producer Greg Berlanti. Anna Kendrick is slated to star in a romantic comedy series called “Love Life.”

“We’ve made that investment in HBO Max by holding back some really, really high-quality content so that we can use it,” Stephens said. “And we feel really good about it.”

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The executive expects Max to sign up 10 million initial subscribers by segueing new AT&T customers to the service through commercial tie-ins and cross-promotions.

“We’re working to get it so they can sign right into HBO Max. We’re very hopeful,” Stephens said.

He said the company has a good track record attracting consumers to HBO, including about 30 million subscribers paying the identical $15 monthly (twice the Disney+ fee) Max fee through pay-TV distributors.

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“We’ve got the greatest market study out there,” he said. “We know what the price is, what [an appropriate] price point is, and [Max] is a much higher quality.”

Stephens was alluding to pay-TV distributors offering Max to linear subscribers — heretofore a contradictory situation since one channel would appear to infringe upon the other.

“We certainly want to work closely with them because we think [Max] provides a great stickiness to all the products that are out there,” he said.

The executive said WarnerMedia would produce “really high-quality content,” including shows targeting a “different demographic,” a series of female leads and other demographics.

“We did a great job of holding on to those customers,” Stephens said. “We have confidence that the quality of the content that can be developed by our team is there and can retain customers and interest customers and recruit customers. And so now we just need to make that a key part, and I think [we have] clearly done that.”

HBO in September acquired the Hugh Jackman dark comedy Bad Education at the Toronto Film Festival for $20 million.

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.

 

Average U.S. Home Streaming Bundle Sweet Spot: $20-$21

With the field of subscription streaming video services growing, new data shows the average U.S. household would spend $20 to $21 monthly for combined platforms — slightly more than 20% of the average pay-TV bundle ($96.18).

Soda.com, in a survey of 1,000 consumers who stream video in the home conducted Nov. 7-9, 2019, found the majority (32%) of respondents would pay $20 or more monthly for combined streaming services, while 30% would prefer not to bundle services and 14% would not pay more than $10 for a bundle.

Notably, 44% of respondents said they use two or more streaming services per week.

With SVOD services ranging from $4.99 for Apple TV+ to $15 for HBO Max, which launches in May, consumers are faced with the challenge of mixing and matching services or prioritizing services based on the user’s favorite content.

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Netflix is projecting 61.2 million domestic subscribers at the end 2019, with actual figures to be released later this month. That’s more than 80% of the combined tally predicted for Hulu (28.5 million), Apple TV+ (10 million), Disney+ (15 million), CBS All Access (8 million), HBO Now (8 million) and ESPN+ (3.5 million), according to CNBC.

In August 2019, there were about 86.5 million traditional pay-TV households — a number that is projected to drop to 73 million by 2023, according to Statista. Most pay-TV subs continue their subscriptions based on habit, premium channels and sports.

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The survey contends Netflix remains the best overall streaming service followed by YouTube TV. Sports fans favored sports-themed fubo TV or ESPN+, whiles families sought Amazon Prime Video (Prime membership and free shipping) and Disney+.

Movie fans chose HBO Now (soon HBO Max) and Hulu, while budget-minded respondents opted for Sling TV and Hoopla.

 

‘Friends’ No More: Netflix Loses Key Content to Start 2020

New Year’s Day 2020 started ominously for Netflix as it officially no longer can stream ongoing syndication hit “Friends,” the former NBC sitcom that introduced Rachel, Monica, Ross, Chandler, Joey and Phoebe to American living rooms and made household names of Jennifer Aniston and others.

The 26-year-old series stopped airing on primetime television 16 years ago, but has remained a lucrative product on syndication, packaged media and streaming.

Netflix lost exclusive “Friends” streaming rights to WarnerMedia’s pending streaming service HBO Max, which paid $425 million over five years to snag all 236 episodes of the series. “Friends” reportedly was the second-most-popular series on Netflix in 2018, according to Nielsen.

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HBO Max reportedly spent billions more to secure exclusive streaming rights to “South Park” and “The Big Bang Theory”.

“How [‘Friends’ exit] impacts [Netflix] in terms of subscribers … will really depend on what else they have coming up that we’re not focused on,” Courtney Williams, Europe regional director for Parrot Analytics, told Vanity Fair.

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Indeed, Netflix original series “Stranger Things” and “The Witcher” continue to congregate atop weekly Parrot Analytics charts tracking the most on-demand programming.

“I don’t think any specific content matters at all to Netflix,” Michael Pachter, media analyst at Wedbush Securities, said in an email. The analyst contends the bigger threat to Netflix is when other content creators collectively divert content toward proprietary services.

With Netflix increasingly losing Disney/Fox, NBC Universal and Warner Bros. content, consumers will feel compelled to try new services offering recognizable programming and/or favorite shows, according to Pachter.

The analyst believes Netflix will lose around two-thirds of its content (measured in viewing hours) and will have a tough time replacing that with content of similarly perceived quality. At the same time, Pachter says competitors such as HBO Max will take awhile to gain traction with consumers.

“We expect the [Netflix No. 1] status quo to be largely maintained until the end of 2021,” he said. “For now, Netflix provides tremendous value for its subscribers.”

Jori Arancio Named to Communications Post at HBO Max, TNT, TBS and truTV

Jori Arancio has been named EVP of communications for HBO Max, TNT, TBS and truTV.

She will report to Kevin Brockman, EVP of global communications for WarnerMedia Entertainment and Direct-to-Consumer.

Arancio was previously SVP of communications at ABC and ABC Studios.

In her new role, Arancio will be the communications point person for the entertainment units under Kevin Reilly, chief content officer of HBO Max, and president of TNT, TBS and truTV, working closely with his teams.  Her first day in the new job will be Jan. 6.

“I had the unique pleasure of not only working with Jori for 21 years while we were both at Disney, but also promoting her into a variety of jobs where she never failed to impress,” Brockman said in a statement. “She is one of the most strategic, thoughtful, and progressive communication executives in the business, and I’m thrilled that she’ll now bring her expertise to bear on behalf of our new streaming service and cable networks. It’s great to be working with her again.”

“From the moment I met Jori, I knew she had the unique mix of strategic focus and personal flair that makes her uniquely qualified to lead our communications and successfully collaborate with our executives and creative talent across our portfolio of media networks, while simultaneously nurturing the critical launch and growth of HBO Max,” Reilly said in a statement. “Jori will make a great addition to the senior team.”

“I am honored to be entrusted to lead the fantastic communications teams at HBO Max, TNT, TBS and truTV,” Arancio added in a statement. “I look forward to working with them to launch the streaming service and to continue to drive awareness of the great programming at the cable networks. I’m especially excited to work with Kevin Reilly, a known trailblazer with a clear vision for his brands who knows how to create cultural impact with content, as well as the talented executives on his team.  It is also a privilege to have the opportunity to once again work with Kevin Brockman.  He is an incredible leader who brings out the best in people, creates successful teams and garners impactful results. I look forward to starting this new chapter in January.”

Arancio worked for the Walt Disney Co. for 21 years. Most recently, as SVP of communications for ABC Entertainment and ABC Studios, she was responsible for all strategic corporate communication efforts, consumer press campaigns, awards outreach and talent relations for the two business units. During her tenure in this position, she shaped critical strategy and creative consumer campaigns for “The Bachelor” franchise, “Grey’s Anatomy,” “A Million Little Things,” “The Conners,” and “Live in Front of a Studio Audience,” among others. She also helped launch the No. 1 comedy of 2018, “Roseanne”; “The Good Doctor”; and a successful relaunch of “American Idol.”

BritBox to Distribute ‘Doctor Who Classic’ Content in the U.K.

BritBox in the United Kingdom will soon include a collection of classic “Doctor Who” content, including episodes, spin-offs, documentaries and related features. The content will be available beginning Dec. 26.

The SVOD platform from the BBC and ITV bowed in the U.K. on Nov. 7 after launching in the United States on March 7, 2017 as competition to Netflix and AMC Networks’ Acorn TV. It now has more than 650,000 subscribers in North America.

A total of 558 “Doctor Who” episodes featuring the first eight Doctors from William Hartnell to Paul McGann, form the backbone of the collection. The collection also includes four complete stories: “The Tenth Planet,” “The Moonbase,” “The Ice Warriors” and “The Invasion,” which feature a combination of original content and animation and total 22 episodes. An unaired story titled “Shada,” which was originally presented as six episodes, has been remixed into a 130-minute special.

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“BritBox becoming the first complete digital home of ‘Doctor Who Classic’ creates a special opportunity for fans and streamers across the U.K.,” Reemah Sakaan, group director ITV SVOD, said in a statement. “We are looking forward to expanding the collection even further by working with the show creators to lovingly restore lost and previously unavailable episodes in the months to come and offering a truly exclusive experience.”

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Additional content includes animated series, “The Power Of The Daleks” and “The Macra Terror”; orphaned episodes, “The Crusade” (2 parts), “Galaxy 4,” “The Space Pirates” and “The Celestial Toymaker,” Doctor Who: The Movie, “An Unearthly Child: The Pilot Episode” and “An Adventure In Space And Time” will also be available on the service, in addition to “The Underwater Menace,” “The Wheel In Space” and “The Web Of Fear.”

“It’s thrilling to partner with BritBox and see all this amazing ‘Doctor Who Classic’ content congregate in one place where subscribers can stream to their hearts’ content — some experiencing the show for the first time whilst others will simply be enjoying it all over again,” said Sally de St Croix, franchise director for “Doctor Who” at BBC Studios.

In August, WarnerMedia’s pending SVOD platform HBO Max announced securing exclusive U.S. streaming rights to “Doctor Who,” including all 11 seasons of the sci-fi hit. As part of Max’s new long-term deal with BBC Studios, the streamer will also be the exclusive domestic SVOD home for future seasons — featuring Jodie Whittaker as the “Doctor” — after they air on BBC America.

“‘Doctor Who’ is one of television’s all-time, most beloved series, on both sides of the pond, and we are happy to be the exclusive streaming stewards for this BBC gem” said Kevin Reilly, chief content officer, HBO Max and president, TNT, TBS, and truTV.