HBO Max Eyes European Streaming Strategy (EXCLUSIVE)

In the year between last year’s European Film Market and this year’s virtual confab, new streaming entrants have begun shaking up the content landscape in Europe in unprecedented ways.

While players such as Netflix, Amazon and even Disney Plus — now a year into its European reign — have enjoyed a head start, WarnerMedia has big plans ahead for HBO Max, its new streaming service that promises to lean into the might of the storied brand while crafting a mass appeal service that can grab a younger demographic.

Hannes Heyelmann, head of programming for EMEA at WarnerMedia, oversees the programming strategy as well as acquisitions for HBO Max, HBO and other linear channels in the region. While HBO Max is set to launch in Latin America’s 39 markets in June, a European launch across the Nordics, Spain and Portugal will follow later in the year, followed by Central and Eastern Europe.

“The goal is to be in 190 markets across the world,” says Heyelmann, speaking exclusively to Variety during the European Film Market’s Content Strategies event. “It’s just a matter of when, because there are existing distribution and content licensing agreements in place that we need to factor in, and look at the existing market conditions. But it’s full steam ahead.”

The roll-out raises complex questions about distribution for all the U.S. studios — not only WarnerMedia. Namely, do they sacrifice key content licensing deals in order to have exclusivity in important markets? In Germany, for example, Comcast-backed pay-TV operator Sky has an output deal in place for HBO content, much like its U.K. pact. Will those deals come to an end?

“HBO content is a very important part of the HBO Max offering, and Sky in Germany has been a long-time partner of taking some of that content and the first-pay movies — they’re our partner for years to come,” assures Heyelmann.

However, the executive notes that without HBO programming, “HBO Max wouldn’t be the same.”

“Once programming and distribution agreements expire, we have so much great content at WarnerMedia — the tentpoles and franchises we want as exclusive for HBO Max,” Heyelmann says. “That’s the way it is in the U.S. and Latin America, and when we bring it out in Europe, there [should be] a big amount of exclusivity on the service, particularly when it comes to our own WarnerMedia programming.”

Anke Greifeneder, VP of original productions for German-speaking territories, oversees commissioning and programming for channels such as TNT. The executive notes that the arrival of HBO Max means that she can widen her outlook when commissioning, keeping the SVOD launch in mind.

“We will broaden it out to look at genres we haven’t looked at before,” Greifender says. A wish list includes big IP focused on fantasy, horror, thrillers and young adult fare. “It’ll be a mix that’s still quality-driven, with content that’s fresh and in the zeitgeist.”

Most local-language scripted fare that eventually lands on HBO Max will need to be serviceable for other European markets, explains Heyelmann, who adds that the platform will also commission non-scripted content. “We’re really start looking at true crime and reality shows, as well as documentary series — the whole range of original programming,” he notes.

On the film side, WarnerMedia made waves last year when it revealed plans to launch its entire 2021 movie slate on HBO Max. For international, and specifically Europe, Heyelmann says it will be a “case by case” basis, that will be informed by the pandemic’s toll on cinemas. He points to the “Wonder Woman 1984” PVOD release in Germany on Sky alongside cinemas as one example of a roll out that was necessary for that market given COVID conditions.

“This is not us saying new movies going forward will all be on HBO Max,” Heyelmann says. “We’re not doing what the U.S. is doing with all of its slate. At the moment, we’re looking on a market by market basis — what’s best for the movie and what’s best for consumers? And taking the COVID situation into account.”

How also might HBO Max adapt to the European Union’s Audiovisual Media Services Directive, approved by Brussels in November 2018, which demands more local content from the SVOD giants?

Here, Heyelmann points out that meeting the quotas, which require roughly 30% of a streamer’s output to be local programming, has to do with both commissioning as well as acquisitions.

“The percentage makes it more complex because you always have to keep in mind, if [we’re] acquiring [X] many movies, we then need to figure out what we’re doing on the quota side so we still stay within the 30%,” says Heyelmann.

“That’s the part that’s probably more complicated…To me, it’s not as negative as it sometimes sounds to have more European programming [on the platform]; it’s just complicated because you have to balance it out.”

Streaming appetite for Euro content

Elsewhere in the Variety-hosted Content Strategies sessions, production and distribution executives such as Gaumont vice-CEO Christophe Riandée and REinvent Studios CEO Rikke Ennis were on hand to discuss the streaming boom and what it means for European players.

Ennis said the last year has seen a “huge appetite” among streaming players for Scandinavian titles. The expansion of players like Disney Plus and HBO Max coinciding with the AVMS directive for more local content on these services bodes well for production companies, says Ennis, “because we can produce much more than before.”

The catch, however, is that “budgets are a bit more limited. The platforms are trying to get more titles for a little less money, because it’s about having as many titles as possible.”

Riandée, who has a major hit on his hands with Netflix series “Lupin,” says Gaumont’s primary business is now with streamers. The French studio has around 19 productions in the works currently. “There’s a huge demand from platforms around the world, and even more since last year because Disney and HBO have reorganized their teams,” explains Riandée. “They’re going widely international. Obviously, they have access to a wide library of shows but they also want to do content for local audiences.”

Elsewhere, Europe is increasingly a major draw for U.S. creators like “The Queen’s Gambit” writer, director and producer Scott Frank, who says he will return to the continent for a number of projects. Frank tells Variety he shot in Berlin for 80 days in late 2019, turning the show’s German hub into Las Vegas, Moscow, Mexico City and Paris.

Frank plans to shoot “Monsieur Spade,” a series on fictional detective Sam Spade starring Clive Owen, almost entirely in France. Co-written with Tom Fontana, the series will turn on Spade’s golden years in the early 1960s in the south of France and Paris, just as the Algerian war is ending.

Frank is also adapting Vladimir Nabokov’s “Laughter in the Dark,” which is set to star Golden Globe winner Anya Taylor-Joy and the whole “Queen’s Gambit” team, and is also adapting the novel “The Sparrow” with “Chernobyl” director Johann Renck for FX.

The creative is adamant that “Queen’s Gambit” won’t return for a second season. “It was always intended to be a limited series,” says Frank, who adds that Netflix “haven’t yet come to me and said, ‘Do you want to keep going?’

“I don’t feel I have any more I want to say about Beth or that thematic idea of genius. I feel I’ve done it and want to move on to other things,” says Frank.

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