HBO Max’s launch library is impressive, but that’s not enough to challenge Netflix

No wonder it costs $15.
No wonder it costs $15.
Image: WarnerMedia
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The streaming wars have another new entrant, with HBO Max launching today in the US.

A product of AT&T-owned WarnerMedia, HBO Max allows users to stream all HBO shows alongside a variety of content the WarnerMedia owns or has licensed, including movies from Warner Bros. and shows from Cartoon Network, TNT, CNN, and more. Altogether, WarnerMedia says the service offers more than 10,000 hours of content—roughly double the amount available on Disney’s streaming service, Disney+, when it launched last year.

And HBO Max is priced accordingly. While most existing HBO customers can sign-up at no additional cost, new subscribers will pay $15 per month—more than double the cost of Disney+, and even a few bucks more than a Netflix subscription.

But it might be worth it. Of all the new streaming services to hit the market, HBO Max includes by far the most robust initial library of content. In particular, it stands in stark contrast to the launch libraries of Disney+, which debuted in November with the expected content from its lucrative brands (Marvel, Lucasfilm, and Pixar) but not much else, and Apple TV+, which launched a few days later with a handful of underwhelming originals—and no library content at all.

The Warner Bros. suite of films available on HBO Max is vast, and really does include something for everyone. It boasts blockbuster franchises (Lord of the Rings, Fast and Furious); the DC Comics universe (Joker, Wonder Woman, Aquaman); family-friendly fare (School of Rock, Madagascar, Detective Pikachu); romantic dramas (A Star Is Born); and studio comedies (Tropic Thunder, Dodgeball, The Hangover).

And those are just its modern Hollywood movies—HBO Max has a curated list of classic films (Casablanca, Gone with the Wind, The Wizard of Oz, North by Northwest, etc.) and, for the first time on a streaming service, every film produced by Studio Ghibli, the famed Japanese animation company.

WarnerMedia also magically secured the rights to stream all eight Harry Potter films at the last minute before launch. HBO Max was not expected to include the boy wizard—his distribution rights had been licensed to NBCUniversal several years ago—but when users opened up the HBO Max app for the first time today, they were greeted with a familiar face:

hbo max harry potter
Image: HBO Max

The library is a solid foundation on which to build. But built, it must.

HBO Max will ultimately succeed—or fail—on its ability to add quality content over a long period of time. Having both HBO and Warner Bros. films automatically feeding content into the platform is a plus, provided those arms of WarnerMedia can continue producing good content at the torrid pace required to compete in a competitive streaming landscape. But WarnerMedia has to prove it can create and sustain popular original content made specifically for HBO Max.

The early returns on that original content, dubbed “Max Originals,” are not great. HBO Max launched with only a few original titles, and none of them were particularly well received by critics, like the rom-com anthology Love Life starring Anna Kendrick, and the reality TV series Craftopia.

WarnerMedia is promising at least 22 more originals by the end of the year, but many of the most ambitious content, like an adaptation of the post-apocalyptic novel Station Eleven by Atlanta director Hiro Murai, is unfinished, with no concrete release date.

Coronavirus adds a further complication to every streaming service. And new ones like HBO Max, which are just trying to get off the ground amid a universal stoppage of film and TV production, will be hit especially hard.

Moreover, HBO Max has yet to create an identity for itself. It will always have HBO, but we already know that alone is not enough to grow the service into the Netflix competitor AT&T wants it to be. The HBO brand is featured prominently on the app, but it’s also easy to see how its content will get sucked into the streaming vortex, swirled around, and then spit back out next to every other type of content, to the point where HBO’s shows are indistinguishable from “Max Originals” and licensed titles.

Image for article titled HBO Max’s launch library is impressive, but that’s not enough to challenge Netflix
Image: HBO Max

(Notably, there is no launch hub for Max Originals, despite one being displayed in early marketing for the platform.)

The initial dearth of strong originals has perhaps led to some lackluster marketing, as WarnerMedia searches for creative ways to advertise content consumers have already seen. One much-maligned ad the company released placed HBO’s Tony Soprano next to characters from the network sitcoms Friends and The Big Bang Theory:

The strength of HBO Max’s initial library and its large base of existing HBO subscribers (about 35 million in the US) should bring attention to the service and make it more competitive. But there’s no current plan to monetize those existing subscribers beyond what they’re already paying for HBO. The only way to make Netflix truly nervous is to get better at original content, to bring in the new viewers who have until now resisted the allure of HBO’s unique brand of prestige.