The final season of Game of Thrones is officially underway and multiple outlets, including The Hollywood Reporter, have posted critical looks at the cable network as the industry begins to question the future of HBO amid its new corporate ownership.
This year, AT&T's John Stankey gained oversight of the premium cable network and issued a startling mandate — that the crown jewel in the new WarnerMedia portfolio do more. That has raised eyebrows in the talent and agency community as well as within the walls of HBO, which has built its legacy of "it's not TV, it's HBO" by taking a thoughtful and methodical approach to development. But the industry has changed.
Apple and Disney unveiled plans to position themselves for the streaming future and challenge Netflix and Amazon in the space. And WarnerMedia has grand, albeit for now top-secret, plans to do the same. WarnerMedia CEO Stankey enlisted former NBC Entertainment chief Bob Greenblatt to a top position that gives the former Showtime president oversight of HBO and assets including TNT, TBS and the upstart streaming service. The new gig brings Greenblatt back to HBO, for whom he produced awards darling Six Feet Under in what certainly feels like a lifetime ago.
Now, Greenblatt is charged with overseeing originals across WarnerMedia's brands — including HBO.
The premium cable network, which last year saw Netflix snap its 18-year run as the most-nominated outlet at the Emmys, has already begun ramping up development and is opening a second night of programming on Mondays later this year.
Below, Greenblatt and HBO programming president Casey Bloys — in their first joint interview — talk with The Hollywood Reporter about expanding into other genres, maintaining the same "thoughtful" approach to development and just how the cabler's programming fits into the Warner streaming platform (due in late 2019). Additionally, HBO has provided its slate of originals for the remainder of 2019 and 2020. That list, which can be found below the interview, confirms Westworld — and Insecure — will both take 2019 off.
What were your conversations with Richard Plepler like? Did either of you try to convince him to stay?
Bloys: No, that's a personal decision.
At the Game of Thrones premiere in New York, creators David Benioff and D.B. Weiss — and you, Casey — all praised Plepler and the crazy and pricey bet he took on what then was the most expensive pilot ever, including all the reshoots and delays. That sent shivers up the spines of people both inside HBO and from the creative community who are worried that was demonstrative of an old era. Do you both have the authority in the AT&T era to make the same bet?
Bloys: We're spending plenty of money. No one has come in saying, "Stop spending/ don't spend," quite the opposite.
Greenblatt: Absolutely. There was a huge infusion of investment in original programming for HBO before I got here. And that was a sign of nothing but huge support from AT&T and John Stankey, and a reflection of the time that we live in now. I have such faith in Casey and this group knowing many of them as I do over the years and what they've been doing. It was appropriate to get that big infusion. Casey and his whole team have the ability to put these resources to work with a huge, wonderful slate that they've been introducing me to more and more as the weeks go on.
Bloys: I don't feel restrained in any way — in either creative ambition or how that translates financially. In terms of the programming, it is business as usual.
With one of the multiple Game of Thrones prequels already in the pilot stage, are you prepared to take that long and pricey of an at-bat again, be it with Game of Thrones or any other property?
Bloys: Generally speaking, that ethos of getting something right — sometimes it's harder to do that in this environment where you have to go straight to series [to be competitive], but it is still something that we want to do because what hasn't changed and what will not change is the HBO brand should mean something: quality, exciting, something different, but always, always, always well done and of high quality. And nobody wants to change that.
Greenblatt: When I arrived and heard that they were making a pilot for a spinoff of the show, I was so impressed by that because to be thoughtful and to take the amount of time and go through the steps that are necessary to make something great is really important to hold onto in our business at this time where we're now in a frenzied period where shows are being picked up on the hour and series are being made sometimes with just a logline and two auspices and it's like, "Go to series." Every one of those decisions — and I think Casey agrees — were products of the process and wanting to make sure that things are honed and really thoughtfully done. I know everybody wants to move quickly and we're moving quicker than we ever have in these kinds of things. We're making a lot of series orders, too. But you have to really look at each project and say, "What is it going to take to make it great?" I applaud HBO for going through this kind of process.
I was talking to [former HBO exec and Game of Thrones producer] Carolyn Strauss at the premiere — and we go back to Six Feet Under — and she was saying in this day and age, I don't know if everybody would make a pilot and then step back and correct. Sometimes when you're in series production and you're just going, you get to episode four or five before you even get a cut of the first hour and then it's like, "Oooh there's so many things that we should've reconsidered." I love that process. And you can't do it every time because we know the business is hurtling forward. But thoughtfulness and deliberateness are good qualities that are hallmarks of this company. At the same time, we're ramping up and trying to speed up as much as we can.
HBO has had a number of high-level departures — or as one exec rep said, "Death by thousands of needle pricks." And that is compared to Disney, which has been ripping the big Band-Aid off all at once with post-Fox layoffs. In a larger sense how many more executives do you anticipate will leave the company?
Greenblatt: I think it's going to be a thoughtful process of how can we consolidate some areas across these companies in a way that works for everybody. We've made a couple of those moves in terms of taking a couple of senior executives who were primarily focused on HBO — like in legal and finance — and extending them to a larger role across this WarnerMedia Entertainment Group that is still forming.
There will be some consolidations in other areas as we continue to do that but there's no target number in mind. We look at the organizational structure of all of these companies and see what we need. And we're also adding to the structure with the direct-to-consumer piece, which has a growing original programming department and a growing tech department and a growing user experience department. All of those things are coming together and there's going to be additional people coming in those areas. It's all really still unfolding. I don't think death by a thousand pricks even applies in any way to our company.
There's a larger sense of anxiety about the HBO brand being diminished. How are you addressing that to staffers and the Hollywood community?
Greenblatt: It's been a mantra that I've had since Day One because I do believe that the HBO brand and what it stands for in our business is so important. My No. 1 priority is to do nothing to diminish it. I think we can achieve that even if we're doing some consolidations behind the scenes of certain administrative areas. I want to keep this brand vital, strong and standing for what it's always stood for and grow the volume, which is a tenet of everything that we're all doing in our business today. But grow it in a way that's smart and thoughtful. I keep going back that word: thoughtful. HBO is one of the great brands and I would be foolish to do anything to impede that. What Richard Plepler did here was extraordinary. It's one of the great companies in our business and I hope we can continue in the same way we have been.
We're going to grow this streaming service [and] HBO will be central to it in a big way and with its own identity. It's not going to be just rolled into some big stew of programming that becomes generic. The HBO of it is our competitive edge in our business. One of the advantages HBO has is the legacy and the way it treats talent and markets its shows — and the way everything is hand-crafted. We're going to try to move a bit faster and be a bit more voluminous but try not to lose any of that because that's our competitive edge.
Bloys: This year, we increased the volume of programming by 50 percent to 150 hours and there's not one show in 2019 that we wouldn't have done two years ago — or five years ago. We were able to do more because of the resources but we have not sacrificed quality just to get the numbers up. They're all great shows and we haven't made any compromises in the kinds of shows that we're doing.
Greenblatt: And this is a strategy that Casey and his team have been thinking about for the past year. There are some shows that are in the mix over the next couple years that — I won't say departures — but they are expanding what this company has done and who it has spoken to. A show like Euphoria, for example, is in the zeitgeist of the great quality that HBO stands for but will speak to a significantly younger audience.
Bloys: That's true. In the same way that Game of Thrones, during development and when it first came out, there was a sense of, "Is that an HBO show?" And I think Euphoria, which is about teenagers, you could say the same. If you think about a show that's coming later in the year, His Dark Materials, it's a bit more family oriented. But what they all have in common is really interesting creators with a specific take on humanity, high production values and just really well made shows. I think there is room to do more and with the resources we're able to push that a bit.
In a larger sense, WarnerMedia has started buying programming for the streaming platform. How would you describe the nature of originals you want for that service? And how will those differ from what other brands — like HBO and Turner's TNT and TBS — are doing?
Greenblatt: That's a separate topic, which I'd love discuss with you and Kevin Reilly because there's a lot to talk about there. But in a nutshell, we're trying to fill out the roster of programming for the direct-to-consumer service. The HBO content is going to be part of it. Then we look at the many kinds of shows that HBO doesn't do — like animation and shows for children and younger audiences. There are lots of areas of programming that we have identified that supplement what HBO is known for and what they primarily do — even with their expansion. We're going to set up separate people to oversee those divisions under Kevin and Sarah Aubrey to mine that. We're going to go out to the agent and talent community in the next month or so and be more detailed about what we are looking for. We're going to do movies, maybe bring in some foreign shows to the service. There's a lot of other things that will supplement what HBO does for us — but I still want to apply the same level of quality and sophistication. I don't want the overall service to just be a whole bunch of different kinds of levels of execution. We want the execution to be high and strong. We started to buy some shows that will fit that. Gremlins was announced.
There's a talent war going on in the overall deals space. Bob, how aggressive will the new WarnerMedia be when it comes to signing overall deals? How much are you, Casey and John Stankey wooing J.J. Abrams to remain with the company?
Greenblatt: We're in the wooing process right now. [Laughs.] He and I go back and I know he's part of this company in a big way. He's got a number of things in the works at HBO. We're going to be aggressive. [In a larger sense] I don't think we're going to ever be at the Netflix-aggressive level but we will be selective. If you look at the larger company, Warner Bros. Pictures and Warner Bros. Television with HBO and the new service and Turner and all that together — I think we'll make a handful of those big deals, which obviously a J.J. would fall under because he would want to do stuff for everybody in this company. There will be a handful of those and there will be some deals that HBO makes just with HBO because those creators are in that family. But there will be some cross-company deals as well that we'll obviously be able to spend even bigger money on.
Bloys: The Issa Rae (Insecure) deal, for example, is part of that. We have a deal with her but she can work through Warner Bros. Television or do a doc at CNN if she wants. There are deals that contemplate working across the company, not to the level of a J.J. deal or what that might look like, but we have done things like this and are continuing to do so.
Greenblatt: In the few weeks I've been here, we've already talked about six or seven more people that fall into the cross-company area and we're meeting with them and will start that wooing process with those people. But the range will be significant.
Game of Thrones is a massive asset for your company. As you look to the future of that franchise, Casey, in the past you've said that Game of Thrones is something that is exclusive and will always live on the HBO brand. Given how competitive the streaming field is with Disney+ and Apple entering the fray and Comcast around the corner, could you leverage Game of Thrones to help boost interest in the WarnerMedia streaming platform?
Bloys: We are doing the one pilot that we're shooting in June and we're going to take our time. We have other scripts and we're going to take our time and think about what's right for it and that's it.
Speaking of competition, HBO is partnering with Apple and providing content on their platform. Does it make sense to partner with them when you’re soon going to be offering a competing service?
Greenblatt: We made a decision to be a partner with them for a limited amount of time, which will serve us in a big way in the long run. And then we'll re-evaluate that when that deal runs out.
As HBO looks to increase its output, the following are all the projects that have a production commitment at the premium outlet. Note that this does not include scripts in development that do not have a physical production commitment at this moment. The controversial drama Confederate falls into the latter development category as it does not currently have a production commitment, per HBO.
Los Espookys (June)
The Righteous Gemstones (2019)
Room 104 (2019)
A Black Lady Sketch Show (2019)
Mrs. Fletcher (2019)
Silicon Valley (2019)
Curb Your Enthusiasm (2020)
High Maintenance (2020)
I'll Be Gone in the Dark (2020)