The launch of HBO Max was less than 80 days away when the novel coronavirus forced Hollywood productions to abruptly shut down and studio employees to create new work-from-home setups.
Jeremy Legg, chief technology officer at WarnerMedia, and his team of 600 had been gunning for a May 27 debut for some time. Suddenly, they were thrown off their carefully plotted course. Like many firms, WarnerMedia had to scramble to ensure that workers across the company — particularly at HBO Max — could do their jobs remotely. The company’s VPN had to be scaled up to accommodate more remote workers; full-sized monitors needed to be shipped to developers so they could continue coding from home; and security measures had to be put in place for those employees who still needed access to on-site servers and testing labs.
“Those first two weeks, I was extremely concerned,” says Legg. “I didn’t know how it was going to impact productivity. If someone’s choosing between taking care of their kids or writing code, well, it’s pretty obvious which one’s going to win.”
Legg’s team did lose a little ground, he says, but ultimately not enough to warrant moving back HBO Max's launch date, which wouldn’t be publicly announced for another few weeks. By April, they were at a stage they call “feature complete” where they stopped building new features in the app and moved into an aggressive testing phase. “At this point, we’re literally doing daily buildings of the product, meaning there’s a new version of it essentially every night,” Legg tells The Hollywood Reporter during a mid-March call from his home in Atlanta.
When HBO Max beams into people’s homes later this month, it will mark the first time that WarnerMedia’s historically siloed brands are available under one roof. Wonder Woman will commune with Jon Snow and Rachel Green. The multibillion effort will allow HBO, CNN, TNT and Warner Bros. to compete directly with Netflix.
But the AT&T-owned company is among the last in a string of legacy media companies adapting to a streaming future. Disney debuted Disney+ in November and NBCUniversal soft launched Peacock in April. WarnerMedia’s efforts were stalled by the lengthy review of AT&T’s $85 billion acquisition of the company formerly known as Time Warner. Planning on what would become HBO Max began in earnest near the end of 2018, says Legg, and development of the product didn’t get underway until spring 2019.
Fortunately for Legg, he had an existing framework for HBO Max: five-year-old stand-alone streamer HBO Now. There was some debate over whether WarnerMedia would use the same technical backbone to build HBO Max, but Legg says he knew the infrastructure was solid after the service handled some 4.7 million concurrent video streams during the finale of Game of Thrones. Still, he says using the preexisting technology was both “a benefit and a curse.”
One the one hand, HBO Now was pre-built product that the team knew could handle the stress of a large audience. But there were millions of people already using HBO Now and HBO Go, for authenticated cable subscribers. Now they would need to find a way to lure those preexisting HBO customers to sing up for a new product. Ultimately, WarnerMedia decided to essentially upgrade HBO subscribers to HBO Max at no extra cost. (HBO Max is priced at $15 per month, which is also the standard price of an HBO subscription.)
On May 27, many people will discover that their HBO Now app has morphed into HBO Max. To do that, the company has inked deals with many of HBO’s distributors, but two big platforms — Roku and Amazon — remain absent from the list of HBO Max partners. On the product side, Legg says his team has made sure HBO subscribers can use their existing passwords and account information to access HBO Max.
WarnerMedia is looking to have 50 million HBO Max subscribers in the U.S. by 2025. Those preexisting customers will be central to helping the company reach that goal. But HBO Max will be the first major streaming service to launch amid the pandemic, so there is hardly a roadmap for how consumers will respond. (Quibi launched its mobile-only product in early April.) TV viewing — especially streaming — is up compared with before the pandemic but consumption levels have been slowly falling as shelter-in-place becomes routine.
In the lead-up to launch, Legg and the rest of the HBO Max team have been running final tests, looking for bugs and making sure that there are no obvious problems before shipping the app to Apple, Google and other distribution platforms. He's looking to avoid the kind of glitches that felled Disney+ during the early hours of its launch. (Disney blamed the technical issues on high demand that "exceeded our high expectations.")
“The good news is that we haven’t found anything major wrong,” Legg says. But, he notes, “If you have the luck of millions of people using your product, which certainly we intend to do, those people will find what you missed.”
With the app nearly ready, the HBO Max team has already begun preparations to start rolling the service out internationally. WarnerMedia also has plans to eventually introduce an ad-supported version of HBO Max and to turn on live-streaming capabilities. It’s those updates that now are weighing on Legg's mind.
“It’s harder to think through how you’re going to map that out rolling out an ad-supported service and defining all the requirements, all of the collaborative work you do in front of a whiteboard, in this environment,” he says. “I don’t have a crystal ball as to how much either we’re going to have to change or how much we’ll be hindered by current circumstances as we get to the next phase of this.”