May 25, 2020

It's Not HBO, It's HBO Max

Anthony Bourdain, subject of a forthcoming documentary by Morgan Neville that will stream on HBO Max. Courtesy of CNN

By March, COVID-19 had been declared a pandemic and it effectively changed the world. But the virus didn't change WarnerMedia's launch date for their new video streaming service, HBO Max. The novel streamer will appear May 27, making it the latest player in the ever-growing subscription VOD landscape. For $14.99 a month HBO Max subscribers will have access to hit TV show franchises like Friends and South Park, and content from within the WarnerMedia portfolio including HBO and CNN. HBO Max programming will also include original series and movies as well as plenty of new nonfiction content.

While existing HBO subscribers and approximately 10 million AT&T customers will have access to the new service for free, HBO Max executives predict that by 2025 the company will have 75 million to 90 million HBO Max global subscribers, including 50 million in the US.

This year approximately 20 nonfiction one-off and series will make their debut on HBO Max. Alex Gibney, Morgan Neville, Kirby Dick and Amy Ziering are just a few veteran documentary filmmakers working with the streamer. From Gibney's Jigsaw Productions, Generation Hustle is a CNN Original 10-part doc series about the lengths young people will go for fame, fortune and power. Neville's doc about the late chef, writer and TV host Anthony Bourdain will first be released in theaters by Focus Features, depending on the state of the pandemic, and will then simultaneously air on CNN and stream on HBO Max. Dick and Ziering's On The Record marks the first festival film acquired by the streamer. About various women who have accused music mogul Russell Simmons of rape and harassment, the doc premiered at Sundance 2020 after becoming the subject of controversy when Oprah Winfrey decided to remove herself as the film’s executive producer, thus leaving On The Record, which was supposed to premiere on Apple TV+, without a distributor.

Back in February, Jennifer O'Connell, HBO Max's Executive Vice President, Original Non-Fiction & Kids, spoke to Documentary about what the forthcoming streamer is looking for in docs, target demographics and what makes HBO Max different from HBO Documentary Films.

(In March. HBO Max issued a statement that read "to ensure the health and safety of show teams across the WarnerMedia portfolio, the company announced it will suspend and delay many of its productions across television and film until the outbreak is contained.") 

DOCUMENTARY: What does HBO Max's unscripted department look like?

JENNIFER O’CONNELL: We have two different teams in my nonfiction group. We have one team who are focused on documentaries, whether it's feature-length docs, returning docs and limited doc series. And then there is the reality group and competition show group, which is everything from dating shows to Bethenny Frankel's show—The Big Shot with Bethenny—which is a hybrid competition show to find out who's going to work for her but embedded in her real life. There are also competition series about floral design and ballroom performance.

D: Who is your target audience?

JO: We hope that our programming will be attractive to a millennial, Gen X audience, leaning female. [We are] not wanting to push away men. We definitely would like a co-viewing audience between men and women, but I would say that we tend to lean a little bit more female. I think that across the board as a brand new streamer, not yet launched, we're trying to take things that either the concept alone will grab [viewers'] attention, or the auspices attached will grab your attention as a viewer.

D: When you look at the docs and reality series that make up the HBO Max original nonfiction slate, what’s the through-line that connects them?

JO: I think that what we all as a group like in projects is that they will be buzzy for one reason or another or [projects] like our lovely floral competition series called Full Bloom, which is just a little left of center. There aren't many places that can say, 'Hey! We're going to go big on a floral competition show!' A linear network might not be able to get away with that, but I love that we might be able to. It will be interesting to see what the audience actually responds to. We're playing around with a lot of different genres before we super double-down on anything.

D: Does that hold true for docs as well? You have a real range of nonfiction films from the controversial doc On The Record to Expecting Amy—a behind-the-scenes look at Amy Schumer's life as she goes through a difficult pregnancy while touring and preparing for a stand-up special.

JO: In the doc space, I would say that there are two things that we're really circling. One are docs that feel pro social. We saw On The Record at Sundance and felt like, 'Wow. Those women's voices need to be heard.' We are so lucky to be the platform for that film. We also have a doc called Equal, a four-part docuseries about the history of the LGBTQ+ rights movement. The reason we felt that was important was because it's a history that isn't well documented. There hasn't been a real deep dive. So when Greg Berlanti and Jim Parsons brought it to us, we just felt it was special. So, we are looking for that pro social element or a pop culture element. Something that might be lighter, fun or has been brought up and continues to be relevant within pop culture.

From Kirby Dick and Amy Zeiring's 'On The Record,' which premieres May 27 on HBO Max. Courtesy of HBO Max

D: What are the pop culture-driven docs HBO Max is set to premiere?

JO: In that bucket we have something called Heaven's Gate, which is a four-parter that explores the infamous California-based religious movement [that ended in mass suicide in 1997]. It’s a story that continues to remain sensational after decades and is referenced in pop culture here and there. There's a big chunk of the audience that will remember it and then there's a whole other chunk of the audience that won't, but I think will be fascinated by it. With Expecting Amy, which is Amy's life on tour as she is going through this really, really tricky pregnancy and getting ready for this big Netflix special. That one is a perfect combination of both a social issue doc and a pop culture doc. That’s because she’s tacking things like women and complicated pregnancies and why it’s not something talked about more in our culture. She's also Amy Schumer. People love her and are fascinated by her. Another doc about culture is 15 Minutes of Shame, which is produced by Monica Lewinsky and looks at people from around the world who have been caught up in a situation that involved public criticism and humiliation.

D: Is HBO Max looking for politically oriented docs?

JO: We are certainly not afraid to go there. We do have a doc that CNN is producing called The Scoop, which follows CNN’s female political reporters covering the presidential campaign, but I will say that the perspective of that doc is really through the eyes of the journalists and what their daily existence is like on the road with a candidate. So it's not a takedown on anyone. It is truly more about the journalists and their stories. Would we do a Trump doc? I don't have one planned, but who knows? I mean, if the right filmmaker came in with an approach that is interesting. But I don't know what's left to say about him.

D: Can you tell me about CNN's partnership with HBO Max? I know you are both under the same umbrella, but I’ve never seen a CNN Documentary appear on HBO before. Is HBO Max serving as a CNN streaming system?

JO: I think that CNN Films sees HBO Max as a brand new demo that they could bring some projects that might not make sense for the CNN audience, but there is element of it that works for CNN from a producing standpoint. They also have their own limited space on CNN. They have only so many slots where they could place these docs, especially during an election year. So given their expertise and the fact that we're a younger demo, I think they see us as an opportunity to do some things that they've maybe wanted to do [in the past] but just wasn't the right fit for CNN at the time.  

D: Will HBO Documentary Films executives like Lisa Heller and Nancy Abraham collaborate with HBO Max executives?

JO: Everything that HBO proper will appear on HBO Max at launch—unlike CNN programming, which doesn't automatically end up on each HBO Max the same way HBO programming automatically ends up on HBO Max. But our relationship with HBO Documentary Films is interesting in that there are projects that don't fit HBO Documentary Films' demo but might fit HBO Max's demo. We have a really transparent relationship, so someone over there will call and be like, 'This doesn't work for us, but given what you've been working on, you may want to take a look at it.' And that's actually resulted in success. We ended up buying something and now it's in production. [The title of this project is still under wraps.]

D: So you are not in competition with one another?

JO: If they have a project about a certain topic, we don't want to make the same project about the same topic. That said, we might have a complementary project that we could make. So if they're doing, for example, a big sweeping kind of exposé on an issue and they're going deep with corporations, etc., and they take this big sweeping dive into a world, then we might take a more personal approach. So let’s work together to make sure we're not overlapping, but complementing each other so we could basically own a subject by taking different angles on it. So we're having a lot of conversations about that. We are really looking for creative ways to help each other.

D: How will you make sure that HBO Max stands out in a crowded streaming doc market?

JO: We are not a crazy volume business. The word 'curation' is used a lot when HBO Max is described, and it's true. We are trying to be smart and selective about every single doc we chose. Each one has to have a very specific purpose or stickiness to it. If it’s more on the pro social end, I'm not going to do three shows or docs about the same thing. We really want to have a very diverse offering, while being robust enough where people will continue to want to check back in to see what we have coming on next. But when they go up to our area, they won't feel lost and think, 'Oh no. What three docs or shows dropped last week that I missed.' I think that people are going to look to us to be selective and thoughtful.

Announced HBO Max Unscripted programming (premiere dates have yet to be released):

15 Minutes of Shame: The Monica Lewinsky-produced doc is described as a look at people who have been caught up in a situation that involved public criticism and humiliation.

Anthony Bourdain Documentary: HBO Max and Focus Features are teaming with CNN Films and filmmaker Morgan Neville for a documentary about the life of the influential chef, writer and TV host, who died by his own hand in June 2018.

The Big Shot with Bethenny: Aspiring moguls will compete for a chance to win a spot on the executive team of Bethenny Frankel's lifestyle brand, Skinnygirl.

Birth, Wedding, Funeral: From CNN host Lisa Ling, this docuseries will immerse viewers in the lives of people from a different culture for each episode, through the lens of the three universal rituals—births, weddings and funerals.

Craftopia: A kids-crafting competition show hosted by Lauren Riihimaki, aka LaurDIY of YouTube fame, which will see nine-to-15-year old contestants race to fill up their carts with crafting materials from the studio "store" in order to make the best craft creations they possibly can.

Equal: A four-part docuseries on the history of the LGBTQ+ movement, from Greg Berlanti, Jim Parsons and Scout Productions among others.

Expecting Amy: A doc, which will provide an "unfiltered, behind-the-scenes" look at Amy Schumer as she goes through a difficult pregnancy and a new marriage while touring and preparing for a stand-up special.

Full Bloom: A competition series where 10 contestants will face off to be crowned America's best florist.

Generation Hustle (working title): A 10-part documentary series about the lengths young people will go for fame, fortune and power.

The Greatest Space: A design competition show that will feature interior designers transforming an eclectic mix of empty rooms into spectacular spaces.

Heaven's Gate: A four-part original documentary series exploring the Southern California-based cult whose members participated in a mass suicide coordinated to the Hale-Bopp comet in 1997.

The House of Ho: An eight-episode half-hour docuseries which plunges viewers into the over-the-top world of the Hos, a multi-generational Vietnamese immigrant family who built a multi-million dollar bank, a real estate development company and a new generation in America.

Karma: A competition series hosted by YouTube star Michelle Khare, which takes 16 contestants completely off the grid to solve puzzles and overcome physical challenges, with the contestants’ social actions impacting their success in the game.

Legendary: A competition series featuring contestants on voguing teams called "houses," with the chance to win a cash prize in fashion and dance challenges.

Persona (working title): A documentary feature exploring America’s obsession with personality testing.

The Scoop (working title): A documentary feature following the lives of CNN's female political reporters covering the presidential campaign.


Addie Morfoot has been covering the entertainment industry for the last 15 years. Her work has appeared in VarietyThe New York Times Magazine, Crain's New York BusinessThe Wall Street Journal, the Los Angeles TimesDocumentary and Adweek.