HBO Max Execs Talk Fate of 'Friends' Reunion, Missing 'Harry Potter' Library

Kevin Reilly, who was joined onstage at the Television Critics Association’s winter press tour by Sarah Aubrey and Michael Quigley, also explained why he doesn't use the phrase "streaming wars."
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From left: Michael Quigley, Kevin Reilly and Sarah Aubrey

Kevin Reilly doesn’t use the phrase "streaming wars," the HBO Max content chief told TV press on Wednesday afternoon, and added that he doesn’t think of the looming battle for digital subscribers "in those terms at all."

Instead, the exec said he sees a situation in which viewers will subscribe to multiple services. "These are all going to be different products where each household is going to be piecing it together," Reilly explained.

WarnerMedia held its HBO Max investor day in October, announcing that the service would debut in May for $15 per month, but Reilly took the hot seat at the Television Critics Association’s winter press tour on Wednesday to aggressively promote the service as the launch looms.

Over the holidays, the exec told the room, he tested out an early version of the forthcoming streamer HBO Max. On his watch list was a combination of HBO’s Watchmen, classic episodes of Friends, the Warner Bros. movie Full Metal Jacket, a Wonder Woman cartoon and the documentary Andre the Giant. "That was an amazing four hours of viewing that I did, and such a wide array of things at my fingertips," Reilly boasted.  

WarnerMedia has big ambitions for HBO Max. The company has said it expects the service to hit 50 million subscribers in the U.S. by 2025. HBO Max’s price point puts it at the high end of the spectrum of services, but Reilly said he still sees "a lot of runway." He added that WarnerMedia will be bowing an ad-supported product "about a year within launching the service" that will offer more pricing flexibility to consumers.

Reilly was flanked by head of original content Sarah Aubrey and executive vp content acquisitions Michael Quigley, who fielded questions about a range of programming that will be available on HBO Max. The hourlong Q&A also touched on questions about HBO Max's pricing, its relationship to other WarnerMedia digital brands like DC Universe and Boomerang and the future of Cinemax in a streaming age.

Here are the highlights:

More Friends?
The Hollywood Reporter reported in November that the Friends cast and creators were in talks for a reunion special on HBO Max. Reilly acknowledged that the talks are real but said that the unscripted project — which would not be a revival of the 25-year-old show — is not a done deal. "There’s interest all the way around, and yet we can’t seem to quite get that interest all aligned to push the button on it," he explained. "Today, unfortunately, it’s still a maybe."

Harry Potter Still Locked Up
In WarnerMedia’s many announcements about its broad slate of programming, the eight Harry Potter films have been noticeably absent. That’s because in 2016, Warner Bros. struck an expansive deal with NBCUniversal that gave the broadcaster TV and digital rights to the films (and the ability to create the Wizarding World of Harry Potter theme parks at Universal Studios). Quigley confirmed Wednesday that NBCU still holds those digital rights, preventing HBO Max from streaming the films, with Reilly adding, "Those discussions will continue on. At some point, you can’t have our experience without having Harry Potter be a part of it."

HBO’s Streaming Universe
Amid HBO’s launch plans, the futures of other premium offerings is still being sorted out. Subscription streaming platform DC Universe already has one original, Doom Patrol, that is earmarked to air concurrently on both the fan-focused platform and HBO Max. As for the rest of the originals — including Titans and the animated series Harley Quinn — Reilly said he’d like for both services to work in tandem. "We’re working out what those mechanics are," said the exec. One option is for DCU originals to air a day early on that platform before dropping on HBO Max. "We have to figure out those two subscriptions, and we haven’t worked out the mechanics of what that’s going to look like," he continued. Meanwhile, Quigley said that Boomerang will continue to be a stand-alone offering, though some of that animation library will be included in the HBO Max lineup.

What’s Next for Audience Network and Cinemax?
WarnerMedia execs are still determining the fate of series like Mr. Mercedes and Loudermilk after Audience Network revealed last week that its future as a home for original content was over. "That’s being sorted out right now," Reilly said. "They had some good shows there. We’ll see what happens once they get through that process." Sources say at least three of the originals could make the move to HBO Max. Meanwhile, the network will drop its name and become a preview channel for the streamer. At Cinemax, Reilly confirmed that original programming production will wind down. It’s unclear what that means for shows like Jett and Warrior, with execs saying they don't expect to bring Cinemax content overall into HBO Max.

What’s in a Name?
When asked about the HBO Max name, Reilly revealed that WarnerMedia executives "had robust debates and conversations and studios" about what to call the new brand. Ultimately, he said, they recognized that Warner Bros. wasn’t a well-recognized brand name a la Disney but instead "an umbrella company for other sub brands." While there have been questions about whether HBO Max will create confusion given the premium nature of the HBO brand, Reilly said that’s not a concern: "HBO, we believe, will be fortified, not diluted with this additional experience."

Lesley Goldberg contributed to this story.