Cutting costs, merging, shelving Batgirl: is this the end of HBO Max?

CEO announces company will ‘fully embrace theatrical’ releases and move from straight-to-streaming productions

The drama has been coming thick and fast at the AT&T-owned entertainment behemoth Warner Bros Discovery – unfortunately for the company, and its viewers, the action is all taking place in its boardrooms.

The company was formed after the spin-off of WarnerMedia by AT&T and its merger with Discovery in April last year, media watchers have been waiting to see how the new media powerhouse would reshape its business. Now a plan, of sorts, is emerging.

First, the studio announced plans to permanently shelve an already-shot Batgirl movie to the tune of an estimated $90m loss, a puzzling move explained in an official statement as symptomatic of a larger shift in company doctrine away from streaming, though more obscure imperatives of tax accounting surely played a role as well.

HBO Max subscribers then began combing the library and noticed that a handful of the original films produced for the platform had been quietly removed; the Seth Rogen vehicle American Pickle, for one, now exists only as a $3.99 rental from iTunes.

Rumors of staff layoffs and series cancelations swirled until the bomb was finally dropped by Warner/Discovery’s CEO, David Zaslav, during a second-quarter earnings report last Thursday: in 2023, HBO Max and Discovery Plus would be combined into a single entity, ideally with a name that doesn’t sound like a brand of batteries.

The decision to demolish the HBO Max brand and start over on the vacant lot it will leave behind comes as a shock to industry observers, who have watched as Warner went all in on streaming during the pandemic’s housebound early days.

The company caused a stir with “Project Popcorn”, an unorthodox business model under which they released their 2021 slate of films to HBO Max on the same day they hit theaters. Upwards of a dozen big-ticket titles – including The Suicide Squad, Cry Macho and In the Heights – materialized in America’s living rooms free of additional charge, an obvious ding to theatrical exhibition meant to funnel viewers into the streaming way of the future.

3D-chess-brained thinking yielded to good old common sense as executives noticed that it’s difficult to get people to pay for what they already have at home. Hopeful earners Dune, The Matrix: Resurrections and Space Jam 2 all underperformed at the box office, and time had come for a course correction.

During a report that sometimes played like a sweaty all-is-well press conference out of Succession, Zaslav pushed the headline of theatrical releasing’s comeback in no uncertain terms. “We will fully embrace theatrical,” he declared, laying out a development slate with a lessened emphasis on straight-to-streaming productions.

Anyone dedicated to the cause of cinema can see reason to rejoice in a renewed commitment to the forever-imperiled theatrical experience, the most optimistic among us envisioning a mini-boom for original concepts from distinctive artists. But Warners is far from the first studio to step out with the daring strategy of releasing only good movies instead of bad ones, an overhaul more easier said than put into practice.

The tone of the recent earnings call erred on the side of corporate inanity, particularly in how the C-suite understands the utility and future of HBO Max. One slideshow card summarily circulated as a meme on social media broke down the presumed appeal of the service, as contrasted with Discovery Plus.

Whereas HBO Max is “male skew”, “lean in” and “home of fandoms”; Discovery Plus is “female skew”, “lean back” and “home of genredoms”. The reasoning that “HBO equals Game of Thrones, which dudes like” versus “Discovery Plus equals Property Brothers, beloved of women” betrays a major misapprehension about the broader potential for these services, which could be hubs for a wider sampling of material catering to omnivorous tastes.

As much as the service has proven a graveyard for its streaming-exclusive films, both deservedly (bland Roald Dahl adaptation The Witches, pandemic rush job Locked) and not (school shooting drama The Fallout and techno-thriller Kimi, both of which deserved higher profiles), it has found greater success in the series format.

The Flight Attendant and Hacks garnered attention from Emmy voters, Station Eleven and Tokyo Vice showed the seedlings of cult followings, and Our Flag Means Death boasted some of the best reviews of any debut in its season. Numbers aside, though HBO Max’s subscriber base dwarfs that of Discovery Plus by a margin in the dozens of millions, it was a success on the sole basis of bringing good entertainment to the people. The mad fusion of HBO Max with Discovery Plus – home of the 90 Day Fiancée Universe, the Food Network, and other reality TV stalwarts – runs the risk of losing the exploratory spirit that gave fan-beloved series like Search Party and The Other Two a home.

The real richness of the HBO Max project lay in its indefiniteness; without a daily schedule to fill or strict runtime requirements dictated by ad sales, it could have been a bastion for experimentation. Look at Terence Nance’s curious, boundary-busting sketch program Random Acts of Flyness on HBO proper, a heartening example of the greatness fostered when a budget and creative freedom are handed to an idiosyncratic talent.

Rather than a claustrophobic holding pen for franchise pictures meant to unfurl in an auditorium, the automatic platform could have been a valuable breeding ground for up-and-comers ready for a bump in exposure. It still could, one supposes, based on the vague language Zaslav has used about streaming’s cloudy future.

The pictographic representation of this bright new day, however, doesn’t inspire much confidence. A perfectly circular blob labeled “Content” feeds a chevron-shaped block emblazoned with “Streaming”, flanked above and below by “Movies” and “TV”. So long as the stewards of art continue to see it as indiscriminate product to be moved around in rejiggered combinations, the renaissance they’re waiting for won’t come any time soon.


Charles Bramesco

The GuardianTramp

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