The Inside Story Of How HBO Max Became Home To Streaming's Greatest Genre Shows

If there was a silver lining to a year's worth of shelter-in-place orders, it was the opportunity to spend some quality time with our collective watchlists. And in a year where streaming platforms like Netflix and Disney+ did their best to keep us entertained, it was HBO Max that emerged as the clear winner for genre fans everywhere. With a diverse lineup of action and horror shows – running the gamut from the most ambitious science-fiction series of the year to a re-homed martial arts masterpiece – HBO Max has transcended talk of superheroes to become the premier destination for original programming.

In the year since its launch, the streaming giant has already seen its fair share of headline news. From the initial confusion over the various HBO platforms – HBO Max, HBO Go, and HBO Now spawned their fair share of explainer articles online – to the controversial decision to release its 2021 slate simultaneously on streaming and in theaters, HBO Max has put itself at the center of many conversations about the future of streaming. But discussions about the Why and the How of HBO Max oven overshadow the ambitious lineup of genre content the platform offers, many of which have made this a one-stop-shop for horror and action fans online.

Two of the people responsible for this success are Meredith Gertler, EVP of Content Strategy & Planning, and Katie Soo, SVP and Head of Growth Marketing. Both are veterans in the space; Gertler began her career at HBO as a Marketing Manager in 2004 and eventually pivoted into a content role within the organization. Meanwhile, Soo's background includes stops at Hulu and DC Comics, offering her a well-rounded perspective on the needs of a streaming platform. Like two sides of the same coin, the two women work to bring together the personal and analytical demands of growing HBO Max.

Cornering the Market on Genre

It is probably fitting that HBO Max hit the market with Ridley Scott's Raised by Wolves in tow. While HBO as a cable channel has always been synonymous with quality, longform storytelling, Raised by Wolves seemed to announce the platform's intent to lead with contemporary programming over archival content. Scott's series is the filmmaker at his most interesting, offering a mixture of the spectacle and techno-religious philosophy that has marked his career from its earliest days. This was a different kind of worldbuilding from shows like The Sopranos and Six Feet Under, and it demonstrated a desire to be more than just another variation of an HBO streaming package.

Take a show like Warrior, which HBO Max recently picked up for a third season. This is not a series whose moment has come and gone; this is a show that exists in the current moment, with a cast that continues to come into their own as lead actors and action icons. There is still the sense that something special is happening with the series, which makes it easier to draw new audience members to the show. The pendulum between weekly episodes and season releases may swing back in forth in the television industry, but new shows will always drive social conversations.

And while HBO may still set the tone with high-profile shows like Watchmen and Lovecraft Country, HBO Max has become a haven for ambitious genre shows that might have otherwise fallen through the cracks of our fragmented streaming landscape. Warrior found its audience when freed from the standalone subscription requirements of Cinemax. Snowpiercer, a surprisingly solid reimagining of the Bong Joon Ho film, was always an awkward fit for a basic cable network still associated with syndicated reruns than original programming. And this says nothing of the international lineup of genre shows – titles like 30 Coins and The Head – that have quickly become a core part of the platform's content mix.

Moving Beyond the Algorithm

Then again, a good show is nothing if audiences have trouble finding it. Each of the major streaming platforms has struggled with discovery—how to help users pick out quality programming from an endless sea of titles and images—but few streaming catalogs are as deep as that of WarnerMedia. In theory, Meredith Gertler, Katie Soo, and their respective teams have an embarrassment of subsidiaries and partner networks available to draw on. Scroll down to the HBO Max Hubs buttons on the home screen, and you are effectively given ten unique platforms—Turner Classic MoviesCartoon Network, and more—to explore. So it is no accident that Gertler and Soo strive to find a balancing act between analytics and programming that gives users a curated experience.

Research has shown that an abundance of options can make it more difficult for consumers to make up their minds; therefore, a platform like HBO Max needs to simplify the selection process. "One of the things we focus a lot on is human curation," Soo explains. "We recognize the value of having that bespoke human touch to [bring] forward stories that actually matter to fans like ourselves." Compared to a platform like Amazon Prime, the home screen for HBO Max might suggest fewer options—but fewer options can be better, especially if you have a human hand guiding the algorithm.

One place where humans shine is the ability to anticipate trends based on unproven properties. Gertler and her team take a holistic approach to their editorial work, looking for key moments in a year of entertainment that might inspire fans to crave a particular type of content. She points to the release of Raised by Wolves an example of an important title for the streaming platform to program around. "It seems obvious," she says, "but that is a key moment to bring additional sci-fi content, genre content, across the ecosystem within Max."

The Power of Curation

The two departments have also begun to dabble with guest curation, an approach already used to great effect by smaller streaming platforms like Shudder and the Criterion Collection. Mortal Kombat featured two such playlists: one by Joe Taslim—who wisely did not miss an opportunity to plug seasons 1 and 2 of Warrior—and one by Lewis Tan, who found space on his list for both Wong Kar Wai and Steven Soderbergh's The Knick. In casting a wide net within HBO Max, these two playlists serve as a welcome reminder of the full breadth of options available in the Warner Media catalog.

Without commentary by the performers, these lists also feel like a feature with room for growth—it would be great to hear a Chinese-British action star like Tan wax poetic about the enduring influence of samurai films on the genre. But Soo hopes that they will further enhance trust with audiences. The goal of these lists is to people discover "genre-based content, stories, and characters through the eyes of someone who is influential in your world," she says. "Someone you follow, somebody you trust, somebody that you believe could give you a list of content that you're like, wow, I really wanna watch that."

International Success

And if domestic content did not present viewers with enough options, the teams at HBO Max are not shy about dipping into some of the shows available to international audiences. HBO has long produced original programming in markets outside of North America; divisions like HBO Asia and HBO Europe provide HBO Max with a pipeline of international storytellers to supplement their existing lineups. One such standout is 30 Coins, the religious horror series from acclaimed Spanish filmmaker Álex de la Iglesia. Iglesias has long been known for his kitchen-sink approach to horror, and his HBO Europe series fits nicely among the domestic programming on the platform.

According to Gertler, the popularity of shows like 30 Coins and The Head is part of an increasing demand for international content, which she describes as "very important" to the success of their platform. It also doesn't hurt that some of these shows are a masterclass in genre storytelling. "We screened 30 Coins," Gertler recalls, "and it was – I mean, talk about wild, crazy, great content." For those unfamiliar with films like The Day of the Beast or Witching and Bitching30 Coins is a welcome introduction to Igelsia's preoccupation with violence and religious iconography.

If HBO Max represents a platform to some showrunners, it might just be a lifeline to others. While the renewal of Warrior for Season 3 was unconfirmed at the time of our interview, both Gertler and Soo did note that the success of Cinemax shows—another cousin in the Warner Media extended family—was a very encouraging development so far. "It is the culmination of art and science," Soo explains. "We look for those signals to say, 'You know what, fans actually really like this show. We should promote more of it." This sentiment bodes well for shows like Snowpiercer, which—freed from a premium cable package—may find a new level of excitement among HBO Max subscribers.

An Evolution

Perhaps the narrative here is that HBO Max's original programming is the culmination of its influences, the kind of ambitious, expansive storytelling you can only get when you are the child of HBO and DC Films. But in crafting a service that is as much about curation as creation, the HBO Max team continues to make the kind of exciting decisions that will drive their streaming platform into its second year and beyond. "It always feels like it's this living and breathing and evolving thing," Gertler notes. Perhaps we aren't doomed to endlessly scroll our streaming platforms after all.