Casey Bloys has had a long string of happy Mondays.
The steady growth of viewership and buzz for “Mare by EasttownDuring Sunday night’s seven-week run was welcome news for the chief content officer of HBO and HBO Max. Kate Winslet’s murder mystery made an impression just as HBO’s parent company was once again pushed into a massive business transition with the WarnerMedia-Discovery merger agreement that shook the industry last month.
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“Mare” is the latest in a series of successful and bubbly series delivered over the years by Bloys and his programming team. The track record is impressive given the great drama that has unfolded behind the scenes at HBO and other former Time Warner units since its sale to AT&T in 2018.
“After all the mergers and reorganisations, the HBO team has stayed together. Many of us have been together for more than 15 years,” says Bloys Variety. “We’ll just keep doing our thing to deliver on that brand promise for HBO. When a show like ‘Mare’ comes along and feels like it’s hitting all cylinders, that’s really satisfying.”
HBO was so impressed with ‘Mare’ that it signed a three-year TV exclusive deal with Brad Ingelsby, the veteran screenwriter who created the series and served as showrunner and executive producer. Ingelsby brought the project to HBO with Winslet on board. Bloys hadn’t worked with Ingelsby before, but the experience with ‘Mare’ was so strong that they were eager to keep him in the fold for TV.
“Brad just did a fantastic job on ‘Mare,'” said Bloys. “It was a great collaboration.”
The new deal is sure to spark more speculation about a possible second installment of “Mare,” in which Winslet works as a police detective in a small Pennsylvania hardscrabble town. The series was conceived as a one-off limited series and Bloys is doing his best to temper expectations for a season 2, but there’s also no doubt that the door hasn’t been shut properly either.
“If Brad felt like he had a story to tell that felt like it would be on the same level, I think everyone would be open to it,” Bloys said. “Right now he doesn’t have that story. Who knows? We’ll have to wait and see if they come up with something they’re only too happy to say.”
Bloys reinforces it when pressed again: “I don’t even have a clue there will be a timeline” for making a decision about season 2. “Usually we take the lead from our creators,” he said. “There have been no real conversations about what a season 2 would be like.”
Winslet previously worked with HBO as the star of the 2011 miniseries “Mildred Pierce” Bloys admits that Mare Sheehan’s finely drawn character (and her Pennsylvania accent) was a special undertaking for the Oscar-winning actor.
“I think Mare got her claws into Kate — she’s been open about that,” Bloys said. “But there’s still a long way to go between that and ‘Let’s do it again’. The story has to be there and the reason to do it has to be there.” HBO has been down this road before with “Big Little Lies,” the 2017 Reese Witherspoon-Nicole Kidman limited series that dealt such a blow that a second season was put together in 2019.
“Mare” adds to a strong roster of shows HBO has performed in recent years, at a time when competition for talent and prestigious TV projects has never been more fierce. HBO was also the subject of a slew of “What Now” headlines when “Game of Thrones” went off air in 2019. But Bloys’ team has nurtured a host of buzzy hits anyway, including “Succession”, “The Undoing”, “Euphoria”, “Watchmen”, “Lovecraft Country”, “I May Destroy You”, “Chernobyl” and ‘Big Little Lies’.
Additionally, Bloys was hired last year to oversee original content for the HBO Max streamer in addition to his HBO duties. HBO Max had a slow start at the height of the COVID lockdown, but this year so far has proved a viable launch pad for series with the heat behind the original “The Flight Attendant,”Hacking‘ and ‘Made for love’.
The momentum for HBO Max is gratifying for Bloys as there has been so much discussion about its expansion into streaming and the potential it would hurt the gilded HBO brand. The business move to Warner Bros.’ entire theatrical slates of 2020 have daytime premieres in theaters and on HBO Max also became a dominant subject.
“There’s been a lot of talk about things other than programming around HBO Max,” Bloys said. “The focus on the shows was softened somewhat by the conversation about other parts of the company.”
“That ‘Flight Attendant’ and ‘Hacks’ have received incredible critical acclaim and been awarded two shows at that level – that feels really impressive,” he said. (Noting that “Hacks” star Jean Smart also had a role in “Mare,” Bloys jokes, “I’m going to put Jean Smart on every show.”)
Now that HBO Max has passed its first anniversary (the service arc on May 27, 2020), Bloys feels that concerns about brand confusion between HBO and its Max sibling have abated, especially for industrialists.
“When people come into contact with HBO Max and understand that HBO is one of the programming services there, they understand how it lives within HBO Max. Messaging is getting easier.”
The distinction between an HBO and HBO Max series is hardly set in stone, Bloys said, but Max is aiming for more broad appeal and younger stories a la “Flight Attendant,” while HBO remains home to shows that “emphasize different voices.” than you hear elsewhere and shows that are very risky in their own way,” says Bloys. “It’s really helpful to have that north star in front of us.”
“Hacks,” which features Smart as a veteran stand-up comic at the bottom of her career, is one that could have gone either way. “Of course ‘Hacks’ could have been on HBO,” he said.
Getting HBO Max off the ground was the top priority for the AT&T regime. With the corporate image set to change again, Bloys sees no signs of that changing with Discovery in the mix – far from it.
Bloys met with the new CEO of Warner Bros. on June 1. Discovery, David Zaslav, after the longtime Discovery leader held a town hall for WarnerMedia employees. At this early stage, there are not many details that they are allowed to discuss under the rules of the Securities and Exchange Commission. (After a two-year slog through the 2016-2018 AT&T acquisition, Bloys knows this drill well.) But Bloys said he was encouraged by Zaslav’s palpable enthusiasm for content creation.
“He’s very excited about the complementary nature of programming that each company will bring” to the expanded Warner Bros. Discovery. “We’re not exactly sure how (Zaslav) plans to put it all together – that’ll all come later. You really don’t get to that level of detail.”
Bloys admits many HBO and WarnerMedia insiders are once again on edge about the upcoming transition. “It can be scary,” he admits. But he also points to the fluctuations in the media and entertainment landscape as an indication that it’s not just a WarnerMedia problem.
“It’s across the industry. The upheaval is not limited to us,” said Bloys. “Any company that makes programs will experience this. All we have control over is putting out the best programming we think is worthy of the HBO brand. Changes at this level and at this speed across the industry can be disturbing. We have to accept that the industry is in a historic period of change and focus on what we are here for.”
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