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.

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.

 

Ex-HBO Boss Inks 5-Year Apple TV+ Production Deal

In a move to jumpstart its branded subscription streaming video service, Apple has reportedly signed a five-year production deal with Richard Plepler, former CEO of HBO.

Under the deal ironed out by Zack Van Amburg and Jamie Erlicht, Apple’s joint heads of video, Plepler’s company, Eden Productions, will create original series, movies and documentaries for Apple TV+. The $4.99 service launched Nov. 2, 2019, with fewer than a dozen original programs.

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“I’m excited to work with Zack, Jamie and the standout team at Apple who have been deeply supportive of my vision for Eden from day one,” Plepler said in a statement. “The shows that Zack and Jamie produced, ‘The Crown’ and ‘Breaking Bad,’ are among those I most admired. Apple is one of the most creative companies in the world, and the perfect home for my new production company and next chapter.”

Plepler, who helped launched subscription streaming video platform HBO Now in 2015, ran HBO for 28 years — a career that saw the premium channel produce myriad high-profile shows, including “The Wire,” “The Sopranos,” “True Detective,” “Game of Thrones,” “Silicon Valley,” “Oz,” “Sharp Objects,” “Westworld,” “Boardwalk Empire,” “Big Love,” “The Larry Sanders Show,” “Sex and the City,” “Veep,” “Last Week Tonight With John Oliver,” “Chernobyl,” “Band of Brothers,” “Barry” and “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” among others.

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Plepler stepped down from his position shortly after AT&T closed its acquisition of Time Warner, creating WarnerMedia, headed by John Stankey.

‘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.”

WarnerMedia’s truTV Readies First Theatrical Release

WarnerMedia’s truTV has announced the theatrical release date for its first-ever feature-length film, Impractical Jokers: The Movie, directed by Chris Henchy (Daddy’s Home, Eastbound & Down) and produced by “Funny or Die.”

Opening in select theaters nationwide on Feb. 21, 2020, the film stars James Murray, Brian Quinn, Joe Gatto, and Sal Vulcano, also known as the comedy troupe, The Tenderloins.

The film is an extension of truTV’s “Impractical Jokers” series, currently in its eighth season and ranking as a top three original cable comedy, according to WarnerMedia.

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The film will feature The Tenderloins playing themselves in a fictional story of a humiliating high school mishap from the early nineties. Featuring appearances from Paula Abdul, Jaden Smith, and Joey Fatone, the movie combines the fictional narrative with real life footage of over-the-top punishments and callbacks to classic moments from the series. Once the Impractical Jokers hit the road, they compete in hidden camera challenges for the chance to turn back the clock and find redemption.

“One can never have enough Impractical Jokers in their life and we’ve finally been given the chance to deliver on that,” Brett Weitz, GM for TNT, TBS, & truTV, said in a statement.“As we continue to build upon their ever growing brand, the film will celebrate all of the hijinks and antics these guys are known for but with bigger twists than we can achieve in a 30-minute format.”

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The film is produced by Gatto, Murray, Quinn, Vulcano, Henchy, and Funny Or Die’s Jim Ziegler and Buddy Enright. Executive producers include Jack Rovner and Funny Or Die’s Mike Farah and Joe Farrell.

New episodes of truTV’s “Impractical Jokers” return on Jan. 30, 2020 at 10:00pm ET/PT. The series’ 200th episode airs on Feb. 13 and is set in Los Angeles, a first for the series.

WarnerMedia, Xandr to Host First Mixed Media Advertising Upfront

WarnerMedia and Xandr, both part of AT&T, announced they will join together for the first time on the Upfront stage on May 13, 2020. This inaugural event will showcase the future of advertising capabilities in the digital era.

For example, AT&T has reportedly begun running ads during pauses in VOD and on-demand video consumption.

The WarnerMedia and Xandr Upfront will take place at The Theater at Madison Square Garden in New York City.

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After more than a year of collaboration, launching new and enhanced products with dozens of advertising case studies, WarnerMedia and Xandr will disclose what they contend are new advertising opportunities when assembling HBO, Warner Bros. and Turner brands and content with new technology.

“May 13 will be a culmination of two years of commitment, collaboration and innovation with our partners at Xandr to make superlative advertising solutions available in market today, alongside premium content that matters to audiences globally,” Gerhard Zeiler, chief revenue officer, WarnerMedia and president, WarnerMedia International Networks, said in a statement.

Launched in September 2018, Xandr encompasses all aspects of AT&T advertising & analytics businesses, including AT&T’s advanced TV business, AT&T AdWorks; AT&T’s data and analytics business; ATT.net and AppNexus.

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“We are at a pivotal moment in time in the advertising industry. In partnership with our colleagues at WarnerMedia, Xandr aims to not just make advertising better, but completely reinvent it,” said Brian Lesser, CEO, Xandr.

In 2019, both teams collaborated on strategies but featured two separate, complementary Upfront events. Building on what both groups accomplished in the past year, next year’s Upfront claims to not only highlight content coming to the WarnerMedia brands, but also offer tangible results through advertising solutions available currently and in the future, including the anticipated AVOD version of HBO Max, expected in 2021.

HBO Max Announces Stand-Up Comedy Specials

Pending subscription streaming video platform HBO Max has greenlit four new stand-up comedy specials.

The streamer, which launches in 2020, is teaming up with Tracy Morgan (“The Last O.G.”), John Early (Search Party), and rising stars Rose Matafeo, Edinburgh Comedy Award winner, and Ahir Shah, double Edinburgh Comedy Award nominee.

“From legends to newcomers, this impressive slate of specials will complement the library of premium stand-up specials that HBO has become known for,” Suzanna Makkos, EVP of original programming, comedy and animation at HBO Max, said in a statement.

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Tracy Morgan returned to television in 2018 with “The Last O.G.” on Turner-owned TBS, which debuted as cable’s #1 new comedy. The series’ sophomore season ranks among the top 10 cable comedies of 2019 and a third season is due to premiere on TBS in 2020.

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Morgen, a multiple Emmy nominee, is no stranger to stand-up specials. His most recent special, “Staying Alive”, explores his new take on life, his career, and mortality. Morgan recently announced his 2020 comedy tour, “No Disrespect”, and will executive produce this special for HBO Max.

John Early is best known for his role as Elliot in the TBS series, “Search Party”. Following sold out runs of his live show, “John Early: Now More Than Ever”, in New York and Los Angeles, this will be Early’s first one-hour television special showcasing his talent in stand-up, characters, and cover song performances.

Rose Matafeo

Rose Matafeo is a comedian and actress whose show, “Horndog” won Best Show at the prestigious Edinburgh Comedy Awards 2018. A whirlwind of stand-up, sketch and mid-20s angst, “Horndog” has enjoyed sell-out performances around the world. Her first-ever comedy special is a continuation of her partnership with HBO Max following the recently announced “Starstruck, a brand new comedy series written, created by and starring Matafeo.

Ahir Shah has had sold-out runs in London’s West End, as well as successful U.K. and international tours, including runs at the Melbourne International Comedy Festival and Just for Laughs Comedy Festival in Montreal.

He is currently on tour with his critically acclaimed new stand-up show Dots, which made best of the Edinburgh Festival Fringe lists including The Guardian, The Times, The Daily Telegraph and The Scotsman.

HBO Max recently announced a partnership with Conan O’Brien and Team Coco to bring stand-up specials to the streamer. O’Brien will host two specials that feature short sets from multiple up-and-coming comics while also curating hour-long sets from three comedians. In addition to those five specials, HBO Max has purchased the rights to a one-hour special from comedian James Veitch, also produced by Team Coco.

‘Friends’ Props and Costumes to be Auctioned for Charity to Celebrate the Series’ 25th Anniversary

As part of the 25th anniversary for former NBC sitcom, “Friends,” Warner Bros. Television for the first time is putting up for bid to the public props, costumes, studio-edition authorized reproductions, set decorations and production material from the series.

Created by David Crane and Marta Kauffman (“Grace and Frankie”), “Friends” helped make Jennifer Aniston, Courteney Cox, Lisa Kudrow, Matt LeBlanc, Matthew Perry and David Schwimmer household names. The show aired in primetime from Sept. 22, 1994 to May 6, 2004.

The show has been a home media retail juggernaut, in addition to generating lucrative runs in syndication and streaming video. WarnerMedia reportedly paid $425 million to land the show for its pending HBO Max service, beginning in 2020.

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Proceeds from the auction will benefit The Trevor Project, the world’s largest suicide prevention and crisis intervention organization for LGBTQ young people.

Bidding begins on Dec. 3 and runs until Dec. 17. Bidders who sign up for the auction are also eligible to win a production script. Complete contest rules can be found at PropStore.com/FRIENDS. Each item comes with a Warner Bros. Certificate of Authenticity.

Warner is working with film and TV memorabilia company Prop Store, which will offer more than 100 auction lots spanning all 10 seasons of “Friends,” straight from the Warner Bros. Archive.

“It’s an honor to be able to bring some amazing original pieces to the fans, such as Joey’s (LeBlanc) original Hugsy doll,” Brandon Alinger, COO of Prop Store, said in a statement. “We’re also happy to offer detailed studio-edition reproductions, including the Holiday Armadillo costume, Central Perk couch and 10 copies of Monica’s (Cox) peephole door frame, straight from the Warner Bros. Props department.”

Auction items include:

Numbered, limited edition silkscreen coffee cup modeled after the signature image featured on the wall of Central Perk. The print is signed by artist Burton Morris and includes a signed “Friends” catalog, Est. $3,000.

Studio-edition authorized reproduction of Ross Geller’s (Schwimmer) Holiday Armadillo costume, Est. $10,000-15,000.

Studio-edition authorized reproduction of Central Perk orange couch, Est. $6,000-8,000.

Joey Tribbiani and Chandler Bing’s (Perry) wood canoe and two paddles, Est. $4,000-6,000.

Rachel Green’s (Aniston) Hawaiian print dress, Est. $3,000-5,000.

Studio-edition authorized reproduction of door picture frame, Est. $2,000-3,000.

Studio-edition authorized reproduction of turkey with sunglasses, fez and stand, Est. $2,000-3,000.

Ursula Buffay’s (Kudrow) “Buffay The Vampire Layer” VHS tape, Est. $1,500-2,500. Joey’s bedtime penguin pal Hugsy, Est. $1,000-1,500. Monica and Chandler wedding invitation set, Est. $1,000-1,500.

A selection of lots will be available to view in the “Friends” Boston Pop-Up starting on Nov. 21.

HBO Streaming Aspiring Directorial Pilots

Taking an earlier page from Amazon Studios, HBO has begun streaming directorial shorts from aspiring directors on its SVOD platform HBO Now and TVOD service HBO Go.

HBO Access Directing Fellowship selects three-to-four fellows to participate in a biennial program designed to foster diverse directing talent. The program includes a series of master classes, which lead into the production of pilots.

Delivered by industry professionals both internal and external to HBO, the classes cover a variety of subjects including creative topics such as story and character, as well as the technical aspects of production and post.

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Upon completion of the course, the fellows are given a budget and crew to direct a short presentation allowing them full immersion in a true industry production.

HBO said it would continue to support the directors by screening the films for the entertainment community and offering shadowing opportunities on HBO series.

Pilots include:

HALFWAY | Run Time: 16:21
Written & Created by Katherine Craft
Directed by Carey Williams

Recently released from prison, Krystal must navigate the new rules and strong personalities of her local Christian halfway house if she has any hope of regaining custody of her estranged daughter.

 

 

UNIMUNDO 45 | Run Time: 13:38
Written & Created by Claudia Forestieri
Directed by Thembi Banks

When her parents threaten to self-deport, a jaded Latina news producer sheds her cynicism and becomes an activist — on live TV.

 

 

 

 

 

 

STERLING | Run Time: 20:12
Written & Created by Bryce Ahart & Stephanie McFarlane
Directed by Ryan Zaragoza

A small West Texas town struggles to pick up the pieces after a devastating mass shooting at their local high school.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Director bios:

Carey Williams — Recently hailed by Filmmaker Magazine as one of the 25 New Faces of Independent Film, Williams is currently in pre-production on his first feature, R#J, with Timur Bekmambetov, a participant in the NBC Emerging Directors Program and has set up the feature version of his award-winning short film, “Emergency.”

Thembi Banks — Born in Harlem New York, Banks is an award-winning writer/director who received her MFA from USC’s Film & TV Production program. Banks was a 2017 directing fellow at Film Independent’s Project Involve, she was also a 2018 HBO Access Directing Fellow, a 2019 Ryan Murphy Half Initiative Directing Fellow and a participant in Powder Keg’s inaugural female directing program, created by Paul Feig.

She will be making her feature film directorial debut with Young. Wild. Free written by Juel Taylor in 2020 and is currently writing a feature for Universal Studios with Malcolm D. Lee attached to produce and direct. Her most recent television directing credit is on Issa Rae’s show “Insecure.”

Ryan Zaragoza — Zaragoza is a writer/director originally from El Paso, Texas. He’s an alumni of Ryan Murphy’s HALF Initiative, WBTV Director’s Program, and HBO Access, where he directed Sterling, which premiered at SXSW. Zaragoza is currently directing an episode of “All American” season 2, and is slated to direct an episode of “Animal Kingdom” in early 2020.

Writer bios:

Claudia Forestieri is a bilingual, biracial TV writer of Dominican-Italian descent who was born in Puerto Rico and raised in Miami. Her storytelling career began in the world of news where she served as a reporter and producer for Telemundo stations in Miami, San Francisco, Chicago, and Los Angeles.

She broke into TV writing in 2017 and has since staffed on Freeform’s “Good Trouble” and Netflix’s “Selena: The Series.”

Katherine Craft is a playwright, screenwriter, and Texas native. She’s the creator of “Kappa Crypto,” a Snap Original series, currently streaming on Snapchat. She’s also the founder of Conspire Theatre, a prison theater program that worked with women during and post-incarceration. Her short films have played in the Tribeca Film Festival, PBS Online Film Festival, and the LA Asian Pacific American Film Festival, among others.

Bryce Ahart and Stephanie McFarlane are both alums of NYU Tisch School of the Arts, where they each graduated Cum Laude from the Dramatic Writing Department. After completing the 2017–2018 HBO Access Writer’s Fellowship, they went on to staff on The CW’s “Legacies.” Most recently, their pilot, “Sterling,” premiered at SXSW and is currently continuing the festival circuit.