Entertainment

Johannes Larcher, director of HBO Max International: “Not all platforms are going to survive, there will be three or four services left”

“Traditionally we were oriented to a very urban male audience. HBO Max tends to go to everyone, for families, for kids, for older people, for people in big cities, in the countryside,” says Johannes Larcher

The world of platforms is a relatively new universe. Consumers are finding more and more options for high-quality productions. If before the best products found their perfect place in movie theaters, today we can also find them on television and its derivatives (phones and tablets). This is largely due to the material and intellectual investment made by the various platforms to attract subscribers. A situation that was unthinkable a few years ago, when television fiction was considered a minor genre.

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Johannes Lacher is the director of HBO Max International and knows the world of platforms like few others. During a visit to Argentina he spoke with TechMarkup about the Latin American consumer, how they coped with the most critical moment of the pandemic and the future of the platforms, among many other topics.

Larcher is responsible for the launch of the HBO Max platform, inaugurated in the United States in May 2020, with a subsequent landing -in June 2021- in Latin America. Born in Austria – fluent in English, French and German – he currently resides in Texas, and also served as international senior vice president of Huluwhere he led the initial growth phase of hulu japan.

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—What differentiates the Latin American consumer from a European or an American when it comes to entertainment?

—Latin American consumers tend to be more passionate about certain content than Europeans or Americans. Telenovelas are a good example: great content that is done incredibly well in Latin America. We don’t find the same passion for telenovelas in North America or in Europe. Something that we also noticed in HBO Max, that as you know we have live sports, soccer in Mexico and in Brazil. Obviously the requirement to watch soccer is very high in Latin America, but although they have several differences, the taste of consumers is quite similar. Some of our global hits like euphoria, for example, it traveled extremely well: we’ve seen great engagement with the series around the world, including in Argentina. Also series like game of Thrones They achieved great performance around the world, and Latin America was no exception.

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—How is a company with a global reach managed in the face of the challenge posed by the pandemic?

—The pandemic was a great test for the flexibility of human beings. We all had to learn to radically adapt to something we had never seen. It has clearly affected us both positively and negatively.. On the negative side, one of the biggest impacts we had around the world was that face-to-face, physical productions of films or series became very difficult to carry out. There were many demands that prevented us from being able to produce them, and we had many restrictions; then, the supply of new content was compressed. Adjusting for a company of 20,000 people was another challenge, and we had flexibility in adopting a policy of letting them work from wherever they wanted. We were very consistent in not forcing employees to go back to office work. We have also lost employees, but we have readapted and moved on.

“And the positive side?”

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—The pandemic caused our consumers to go out less and spend more time at home. That was very good for all streaming services, including HBO Max. We have seen a significant increase in demand and connection, and new subscribers per week, which had a positive effect on our business because consumers were looking for programs that entertained them at home in the way they wanted, in a very flexible way.. The key as a human race is that we have a lot of capacity to readapt.

-There is a very Argentine saying that says: “Take care of the coins that the bills take care of themselves”, What would be those coins that should be taken care of for HBO?

—One of the things that makes us different is telling different stories that distinguish us. Obviously HBO is well known for high quality series like The Sopranos, Band of Brothers, game of Thrones, euphoria, they are great series. But while we provide our service we need to include and bring our brand to a larger audience. Traditionally we targeted a very urban male audience; HBO Max tends to go to everyone: for families, for children, for adults, for people in big cities, in the countryside. That’s why we create content for everyone. We wanted to create a service for the thousands and thousands around the world.

—And with this opening of the audience, a change in the contents was also needed..

-Exact. If you do this, you can’t just produce those great series that we’re known for. We continue to do them, but you also have to offer other types of content. For example, we are now offering reality content that we were not used to before. We have a show in Mexico that is very successful, bake-off, which is doing very well and is entertainment for the family. These shows were clearly content that you saw on other services. But also the way of telling stories must be intelligent, innovative. I think that sensibility about how to tell stories is the key to HBO Max. Investing in that will give us great quality over time. It is not important in our business to have the biggest catalog, but it is important to have the best catalog and the best options for you, the fans..

—What are the challenges of generating content for the youngest consumers born from 2005 to here, who usually opt for platforms such as Tik Tok or YouTube, where the content is very short?

—It is a great challenge and also an opportunity to use these platforms and channels to generate content for a group that has not yet discovered those same platforms. The appetite for a good story to be told hasn’t changed, we clearly have services like Youtube, tik tok, Twitter and others that offer other types of content, which do not follow the typical script model of how to tell a story. But we use those platforms to tell you about the content that we have on HBO Max. We believe that we should invest a lot of effort and money in the content for this young audience.. We do everything we can but we also have to compete with other situations related to leisure, such as video games, reading a book or going to dinner. The younger generations spend a lot of time on platforms and we must convince them so that they can give their attention to a good story that we offer them.

—In recent times, the time it takes for movies to go from the cinema to digital platforms has shortened a lot. In other words, in a few weeks we can have big hits available on television that used to take months to arrive. Do you think that the cinema is a competition or a complement to the platforms?

I don’t think there is a competition, I think we work together. Cinemas play a very important role. There is a symbiotic relationship between the release in theaters and then on platforms like HBO Max. For example, in the United States, in 2021, even in the pandemic, we have taken an extraordinary step by premiering all new films on the same day on HBO Max and in theaters, titles like Godzilla vs. kong. That was a special situation during the pandemic. But now it depends on where you are around the world. In 2022 we’re bringing every Warner Bros movie to HBO Max within five to six weeks of its theatrical release. For example, batman It is a title that will soon arrive on the platform. Other titles will also come to the platform throughout the year, such as Elvis, Flash Y aquaman. Five or six weeks is very fast: consumers were used to many months passing before the film could be seen outside of theaters. But there are certain movies that I love to see in theaters: dunes It was made to be seen in the cinema. It’s great to have on the platform, but to capture the creator’s vision of the film it’s better to enjoy it at the cinema. So I think both experiences complete each other. So we don’t see a conflict: we think it’s a great combination of two of our businesses.

—Many times consumers feel overwhelmed by the number of platforms on the market. Do you think they will all survive?

“These are two different questions. Are consumers feeling overwhelmed? I hope not, and that they appreciate that they have so many options. There is a staggering amount of content being produced around the world like never before. We see quality content in all forms for all consumers. So I don’t think they’ll feel overwhelmed: if you look at typical households, depending on where you are in the world, there’s access to various platforms but the number is not infinite. I think that in Latin America there will be two platforms and something at home, and that depends on each country. Our mission is to make it easier for consumers to find the right content for each of them, at the right time.. We have to make sure invest a lot of effort in generating content that stands out and is relevant to our consumers. And taking into account the personalized targeting that we have in our base, we use computer algorithms that recommend content that is outstanding, relevant and interesting for a consumer, but that may not be relevant content for the person next to you.

—Linked to the latter, how do you manage the production of local content in Latin America?

—We have a team in Buenos Aires, Sao Paulo and other places in Latin America that selects the content for our service. That’s very important to us: investing in local teams that have the knowledge of what consumers like and don’t like, what’s going on or what’s being talked about on social media, or what’s the topic of the day.

—Going back to the previous question, are all platforms going to survive?

The answer is absolutely not.. The way we think of it is this: Netflix invented this category of streaming, they have executed it perfectly and have a huge successful business. We believe that HBO Max will be one of the ones that will survive based on the strength of our content, and having proprietary intellectual property titles such as Harry Potter, game of thorns, the DC multiverse. We also believe that companies like Disney, They have a great brand and they are doing very well. When I look at all the other services, which focus on a few countries, one or two, there is certainly a place for them and there are also platforms, for example, that focus on anime or others specialized in content in Arab countries, which can work, but not to be a global service. I think there will be three or four services, and I hope that we will be one of them.

How important is technology at HBOMAX?

-We believe that everything begins and ends in the content. It is the most important factor for consumers that leads them to choose a platform: what can I watch, what movies are there, what series are there, what actors. But Without good technology that makes it easy for you to search for content, that allows you to find what you’re looking for, content alone can’t do anything. We invest a lot in the product, we also know that we have to work on it, we are not perfect. We launched the product very quickly in 61 countries and made it a priority to get to market quickly. We are very realistic and we are going to be very busy for a long time to improve our product. The market is very ambitious and I feel very bad when consumers go down: when it was launched we had some problems in Latin America with subtitles, it was very painful for us. So yeah, technology is super important and we focus a lot on that..

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