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HBO Max Comes Back From the Dead

HBO Max original series 'The Flight Attendant'
(Image credit: WarnerMedia)

Remember last month when we were writing HBO Max’s obituary

Alan Wolk

(Image credit: Alan Wolk)

We lamented the fact that their inability to strike deals with Amazon and Roku meant most streaming users could’t download the app and only a few uber-dedicated fans would bother to figure out how to install the alleged workaround? We mocked them for making the launch so confusing that consumer publications needed to create infographics to explain who could and could not upgrade and where they could do so? We shook our heads about the overall lack of any new or original content on the app or anything else that might get consumers to cough up an industry high $15/month?

Yeah, neither do I.

In the past few weeks, Max has undergone quite a remarkable transformation from ugly stepsister to Cinderella.

First off, they struck a deal with Amazon, so that a sizable number of people could actually download the app. Yes, the dozen or so people with Apple TVs and people clever enough to figure out the Amazon hack had already done so, but the Amazon deal opened the door to millions … who still did not have any real reason to subscribe en masse.

But then Wonder Woman came to the rescue. 

Or at least the Wonder Woman 1984 movie, which is going to be shown on HBO Max on Christmas Day, the same day it debuts in theaters and, best of all, will come at no extra charge to Max subscribers. (Compare that to Disney, which charged Disney Plus subscribers $30 to see Mulan.)

Also read: ‘The Flight Attendant’ Gets Season Two at HBO Max

So now there was an actual reason to subscribe to HBO Max, at least for the month of December, because $15 for a first run movie and the entire HBO Max catalog was undoubtedly a very good deal.

This was critical because the majority of the people who were already eligible to get HBO Max at no additional charge (e.g., cable subscribers who had HBO as part of their package and the millions who subscribed to HBO Now) had not actually bothered to download the Max app, having seen no real reason to do so, and, until the Amazon deal, no actual way to do so either.

But then it got even better, Hollywood’s subsequent hissyfits notwithstanding.

Warner chief Jason Kilar announced that not just Wonder Woman 1984, but every new movie in Warner’s 2021 catalog, which includes potential blockbusters like Dune and Matrix 4, would be released on Max the same day they were released in movie theaters … again, at no additional charge. 

Also read: WarnerMedia's Math Problem: It Needs 8.4 Million More HBO Max Customers

This now gave people a reason to subscribe to Max for the rest of 2021. Given the price of a movie ticket in general, the ability to watch any number of first-run movies for just $15/month is a very good deal.

Then Penny added even more firepower.

Not Penny exactly, but Kaley Cuoco, the actress who played Penny on The Big Bang Theory. Her new series on HBO Max, The Flight Attendant, started to get some buzz. Maybe not The Queen’s Gambit level buzz, but buzz nonetheless (a 98% positive score on Rotten Tomatoes, for instance.)

So viewers who were not all that convinced by all Max’s movie options now had another reason to download the app, in that The Popular Gestalt is looking for a new series to glom onto at a time when there aren’t all that many new series out there and The Flight Attendant seemed to fit the bill of something the whole family could get into.

The series also seems to be able to walk the fine line between being more accessible than traditional HBO fare without being so accessible that it turns off traditional HBO subscribers. 

This week saw yet another milestone in Max’s transformation, as WarnerMedia and Roku signed a deal and the Max app showed up on Roku less than 24 hours later. This was another huge win, as now the 40 some odd million people who have Roku sticks and Roku-powered TVs can download Max too, just in time for Wonder Woman’s debut.

As one of those Roku viewers who was converting an existing Now subscription, I have to say I was very impressed with the app overall. The navigation seems more intuitive and better organized than most (which, granted, is an incredibly subjective opinion) and there’s a lot more on there than I’d expected, especially in terms of movies--they have TCM’s excellent Criterion Collection of classic films, for instance.

So it’s been quite the month for HBO Max. 

To recap, on November 15th, Max was still struggling big time to get existing HBO subscribers to actually download the app, which they had access to for no extra charge. Let alone sign up new subscribers. 

There wasn’t a whole lot of buzz about anything that was on Max and even if there was, without any sort of distribution deal with Amazon and Roku, most people would not have had any way to view it. Many observers, myself included, were wondering if Max would be an early casualty of the streaming wars.

But then, within just four weeks, they announced that subscribers would have access to the opening day release of every 2021 Warner Brothers movie, they signed deals with and launched apps on Amazon Fire TV, Roku and Comcast Xfinity, and their Kaley Cuoco powered series The Flight Attendant started to pick up some buzz. 

We still have yet to see the effect all this has on their subscriber numbers, but I would be very, very, very surprised (that’s three “verys”) if things were not looking up next quarter.