When HBO Max launched on May 27, 2020, it did so in the shadow of the spectacular launch of Disney+ six months earlier. By comparison, HBO Max — between its confusing name, a COVID-weakened launch slate, and a lack of carriage on two of the most ubiquitous streaming devices — looked a lot like a stumble. Ten months later, issues remain, but the streamer has worked out many of its earlier kinks, and even scored some bona fide wins. On balance, how is HBO Max doing as we get closer to its one year anniversary? Herewith, five wins and five loses from the streamer's first ten months:
When Christopher Nolan blasted HBO Max for being the worst streaming service in the wake of Warner Bros.' announcement that they'd be releasing all their 2021 films in theaters and on HBO Max simultaneously, those who weren't furiously agreeing with him pushed back and got their "actually" on. Actually, some said, HBO Max's film library, might actually make it the best of the streaming services, give or take a Disney+, whose status as an essential film library tends to rest upon the question of whether you have kids or not. With Netflix bleeding non-original content for several years now, it's refreshing to see a catalog so robust. Just a sampling of HBO Max's offerings include all the Beverly Hills Cop movies, all the Rocky flicks, and the complete Nightmare on Elm Street franchise. It's got Oscar-winning Best Pictures like Argo, No Country for Old Men, Chicago, and Titanic. Its partnerships with the Criterion Collection and Studio Ghibli make it a no-brainer for serious cinephiles (anyone who gets into a mood after watching Mank on Netflix can come watch Citizen Kane on HBO Max), and its vast collection of DC superhero movies and the complete Lord of the Rings make it a happy home for blockbuster fans as well.
Perhaps the biggest fail of the HBO Max launch was that for the longest time, huge swaths of people couldn't watch it on their TVs. The fact that it took so long for the service to become available on Amazon Fire and even longer on Roku was a source of frustration that stretched on and on. What good is a superior film library if the only way you can watch it is while tethered to your laptop? Mercifully, the Roku deal was reached in mid-December, but by that point a whole lot of frustrated feelings had seeped deep into the bones of subscribers.
Before Warner Bros. decided to launch all of their planned theatrical productions on HBO Max, the streamer had to subsist on its own original films. And while some, like the Steven Soderbergh-directed Let Them All Talk were under the radar treats, others, like the Robert Zemeckis remake of The Witches, fell disappointingly flat, contributing to the general sense that streaming film releases tend to fizzle more often than they pop. It's hard to overstate just how disappointing this film is to watch, given the talent involved.
Although Warner Bros. plans to return to a traditional theatrical window in 2022, HBO Max premiering movies like Wonder Woman 1984 and Godzilla vs. Kong has absolutely brought the event vibe back to the movies, even if we aren't at the movies. Even mid-range releases like the Denzel Washington cop drama The Little Things and the small-but-brilliant awards play Judas and the Black Messiah helped to contribute to the sense that HBO Max was giving us back something we'd lost in the pandemic: the sense of major movie releases driving the conversation again. Even a film like Zack Snyder's Justice League, something that was never intended for theaters and which is very much a creature of online discourse, felt like an HBO Max event.
Yes, this is much more of a Warner Bros. problem, but with HBO Max inextricably tied to Warner's film output this year, we're chalking it up as a loss. The fact that in a year without a summer blockbuster season, a movie like Wonder Woman 1984 couldn't pull any Sound or Visual Effects nominations really speaks to how poorly that film was received. And while a Jared Leto nomination for The Little Things would have been one of the strangest Oscar narratives in recent memory, the fact is he was close, and WB couldn't get him over the line. Warner's inability to recognize Let Them All Talk as a critical hit directed by Oscar-winner Steven Soderbergh and starring three-time Oscar winner Meryl Streep, instead opting not to campaign it at all, was a real blunder. But the most perplexing of all came with the studio's one big Oscar success: Judas and the Black Messiah, which pulled in six Oscar nominations, including Best Picture, yet because of the rules regarding the streaming window for WB's day-and-date releases, the film disappeared from the HBO Max platform as soon as the Oscar nominations were announced, thus robbing the film of its ability to pick up valuable momentum.
The WB theatrical deal was so huge for HBO Max in terms of clout, especially when you looked ahead at the major titles headed its way in 2021. In the Heights! The Matrix 4! Dune! Well… not so fast on Dune. Much like Christopher Nolan, Dune director Denis Villeneuve was none too happy about not being consulted on the migration of his film from theaters to TV, and he blasted HBO Max, Warner Bros., and parent company AT&T in a Variety editorial. Now, though, there are rumblings that come this fall, when it makes its theatrical debut, Dune actually won't premiere simultaneously on HBO Max. And if Villeneuve can muscle his film out of the HBO Max straight jacket, one assumes plenty of other filmmakers will try to do the same going forward.
The mark of a truly great TV network or streaming platform is when a show that doesn't feel pre-guaranteed to be a smash (see: all the franchise series on Disney+) ends up bubbling up to be a word-of-mouth hit. So it was with The Flight Attendant, a rather strange little drama starring Kaley Cuoco as the titular flight attendant who wakes up with the dead body of the pilot she'd just spent the night with dead in her bed. The show's twists and turns as Cuoco tried to solve the crime and clear her name delighted audiences who were craving something buoyant and fun in the midst of a pandemic, and Cuoco ended up getting Best Actress nominations from the Golden Globes, Critics Choice, and SAG Awards.
Pretty much the exact opposite of how The Flight Attendant turned out, Raised by Wolves was exactly the kind of feather that a streaming platform wants in its cap at launch: a sci-fi series produced by the great and prolific Ridley Scott, director of Gladiator and Blade Runner and Alien. Unfortunately, while the series got decent reviews, it was virtually absent from any kind of cultural conversation and disappeared almost as soon as it was released.
Perhaps less heralded than the original series and films that were lined up for the HBO Max launch, but the shows that HBO Max picked up from other platforms and continued with new episodes turned out to be some of the brightest spots in their year. Max picked up TBS's comedy Search Party for its third and fourth seasons and got that series back into the conversation again. And amid all sorts of weird publicity for DC Comics-based film and TV shows, HBO Max got raves for picking up the animated Harley Quinn and renewing it for a third season in 2021.
At their best, streaming platforms can take their wide canvases and ability to commission many more shows than a traditional cable network could and use it to make the kinds of shows that are lacking in the greater culture. So a big tip of the cap to HBO Max for really building out their lineup of queer-themed programming. The reality series Legendary was a very early and very essential show about competitive ball culture in the queer community. The British miniseries It's a Sin was a devastatingly beautiful and furious history of the AIDS outbreak in Britain. The current series Generation is a Gen Z series teeming with queer themes. Even a show like the dog-grooming competition Haute Dog feels canonically queer with his Matt Rogers doing his best to elevate TV's wardrobe game. These shows are a testament to HBO Max living up to the potential of a new streaming platform to deliver shows we wouldn't get on regular TV, and they're a good omen for the platform's future.
Joe Reid is the Managing Editor at Primetimer and co-host of the This Had Oscar Buzz podcast. His work has appeared in Decider, NPR, HuffPost, The Atlantic, Slate, Polygon, Vanity Fair, Vulture, The A.V. Club and more.