Why HBO Max Is Going All-In on Adult Animation

Courtesy of HBO

When HBO Max paid an estimated $500 million for exclusive domestic streaming rights to South Park back in 2019 it was for a very good reason. The Comedy Central series, owned by ViacomCBS, was to be been the cornerstone of the WarnerMedia-backed streamer's adult animation slate, which is now coming into sharper focus.

On Feb. 10, HBO Max — also overseen by HBO content chief Casey Bloys — went straight to series on three adult animated comedies: a revival of MTV darling Clone High (picked up for two seasons), Scooby-Doo prequel Velma and original idea Fired on Mars. Four more adult animated shows — from the likes of Michael B. Jordan, Ed Helms and Brian Michael Bendis — were also put into HBO Max's development pipeline. The trio of new series joins a slate that already includes Harley Quinn (which broke out after arriving on a bigger platform from niche streamer DC Universe) and the upcoming new takes on Gremlins, The Boondocks and original entry The Prince. An adult-focused Game of Thrones animated series is also on the table for the streamer.

HBO Max is not the only outlet that has been making a concerted push into the adult-focused animation space. Netflix has hits including the recently concluded BoJack Horseman, long-running Big Mouth and Disenchantment, the latter of which is from The Simpsons creator Matt Groening. The streaming giant also invested an estimated $1 billion (yes, billion) for rights to bring Roald Dahl's beloved works to life in animated form. (Oscar winner Taika Waititi is already working on a pair of prestige Charlie and the Chocolate Factory animated shows.)

Disney has also been leaning hard into the genre on Hulu, where stalwarts Family Guy and Bob's Burgers among its most viewed acquired shows. Hulu, which shares streaming rights to WarnerMedia's Rick and Morty with HBO Max, has Solar Opposites and the Animaniacs revival. Disney+, home to the entire Simpsons library, has an adult animated show from Marvel due this year, too. Apple also paid big bucks for Central Park, while Amazon has The Walking Dead creator Robert Kirkman's Invincible due this year and a slate that includes the groundbreaking Undone.

While animated shows take longer to craft, they are ultimately cheaper to make than scripted originals and can be safely produced during a pandemic. They also repeat well on streaming platforms where they also have a timelessness that makes them easier to bring in new audiences. And, in success, they can also lead to lucrative merchandising deals. Case in point: Rick and Morty — which launched in 2013 — is already a multibillion-dollar franchise, joining stalwarts like Family Guy, The Simpsons and Bob's Burgers with collectible toys and apparel.

For HBO Max, meanwhile, the animated slate helps check another box as the platform looks to program for all audiences — like every other streamer — and fill in the gaps that it doesn't have via content from HBO and its other WarnerMedia brands. "This slate is a great compliment to the fan favorites we already have on the platform and an important investment in ensuring that HBO Max is a destination for adult animation content," Bloys tells THR.

A version of this story appeared in the Feb. 17 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.