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What we know about HBO Max’s decision to remove original content

What led to HBO Max’s decision to remove original content from the streaming site, and what could this decision mean for the future?

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The HBO Max streaming service.

The HBO Max streaming service.

Courtesy WM via Associated Press

Since streaming services began to produce original content in the mid-2010s, they developed the perception of reliability and easy access. After a long day at the office one could sit down on the couch, boot up HBO Max and be inundated with a spoil of choices.

Yet, within the first two weeks of August, HBO Max removed over 68 movies and TV shows from the service — many of them original projects.

Leon Jihanian, art director for the HBO Max original animated series “Tig ’N’ Seek,” tweeted, “It’s gone. They’re all gone. Like, yeah, I can go on a pirate streaming web site to watch episodes but my kid’s can’t. I made this for them.”

What led to this change? And what does it mean for movies and television going forward? 

What has been removed?

The warning shot came on Aug. 2, with Warner Bros.’ decision to not release “Batgirl” on the streaming service or in theaters. The DC Extended Universe entry starred Leslie Grace and featured Michael Keaton returning to the role of Batman for the first time since 1992, with Brendan Fraser as the villain. The movie was directed by Adil El Arbi and Bilall Fallah, who were also behind the massive hit “Bad Boys for Life” and several episodes of “Ms. Marvel.” Filming had been completed months prior and it was in the process of undergoing test screenings which, according to “Deadline,” were going well. 

According to “Variety,” “Batgirl” found itself too small of a movie to make sense for a theatrical release, and not big enough to distinguish itself among an endless supply of content. The money needed to expand the movie for theaters was too much for a studio trying to tighten its belt, reportedly billions of dollars in debt and restructuring after the recent merger of Warner Bros. with AT&T and Discovery. Since “Batgirl” was greenlit under Warner Bros. before the merger, the newly instated CEO of Warner Bros. Discovery, David Zaslav, was able to get a tax write-off for the movie as a “purchase accounting” maneuver.

After “Batgirl” got the axe, the hits continued fast and furious. Within the next several weeks, “Scoob! Holiday Haunt” was also canceled when it was 95% completed. Nearly 200 episodes of “Sesame Street” were removed and spin-off “The Not Too Late With Elmo Show” was entirely wiped from the streaming site, The New York Times reported. The upcoming animated series “Batman: Caped Crusader” was cut from the slate, even though production was far along and it counts J.J. Abrams and Matt Reeves as executive producers. A “House Party” reboot from LeBron James and Maverick Carter was canceled. A significant amount of its library of animated shows were removed from the service, reportedly without any prior notice given to the shows’ creators.

All in all, 68 shows have been completely scrubbed from HBO Max, 37 of them original to the streaming service, according to IndieWire. This is reportedly to cut costs by not having to pay creators residuals. On the human side, Warner Bros. has been hit by a bloodbath of layoffs, including nearly 70 employees at HBO Max in its unscripted and live-action family programming divisions, with cuts also coming in casting, acquisitions and international divisions, per The New York Times.

The cuts all seem to be financially based, part of Zaslav’s mission to find $3 billion in synergies between WarnerMedia and Discovery. The conglomerate is $55 billion in debt and these decisions have the appearance of cost-cutting measures, according to IndieWire. Yet, the optics of scrapping completed movies and removing “Sesame Street” episodes haven’t helped the company. During August, the company lost $2 billion in market cap.

What does this mean for the future?

Since movies were invented, it has generally been considered standard business practice to release movies that have been made. Money made from movie tickets can be used in recouping the significant costs of making movies and financing other ones. Streaming sites shook this up, turning art into content, and financing that content with money from monthly subscriptions. The economics are shaky at best, as evidenced by Netflix’s recent announcement that it lost subscribers for the first time in a decade and its subsequent trouble on the stock market. The loss came on the heels of a revitalization of the movie theater, with “Top Gun: Maverick” grossing nearly $2 billion. 

Though it may still be too early to forecast the effect of HBO Max’s decisions, it seems to indicate a pivot away from streaming and back to the movie theater. It should certainly serve as a reminder that nothing on a streaming site is permanent, and raises questions about whether we can count on media conglomerates to support their own content, let alone be stewards of an archive.