From Elmo to Tony Soprano: HBO Max's Game Plan as Told By Two of Its Creators

Sam Blake

Sam primarily covers entertainment and media for dot.LA. Previously he was Marjorie Deane Fellow at The Economist, where he wrote for the business and finance sections of the print edition. He has also worked at the XPRIZE Foundation, U.S. Government Accountability Office, KCRW, and MLB Advanced Media (now Disney Streaming Services). He holds an MBA from UCLA Anderson, an MPP from UCLA Luskin and a BA in History from University of Michigan. Email him at samblake@dot.LA and find him on Twitter @hisamblake

From Elmo to Tony Soprano: HBO Max's Game Plan as Told By Two of Its Creators

HBO Max, the new streaming service from AT&T's WarnerMedia, launches Wednesday. Advertised as the place "where HBO meets so much more", HBO Max will debut with over 10,000 hours of content from a range of brands including HBO, Warner Bros., Cartoon Network and Turner, with characters as diverse as Elmo and Tony Soprano. This marks a culminating milestone in AT&T's massive integration that began in 2016 when it agreed to acquire Time Warner for $85.4 billion.

Widely viewed as both a streaming offering for content-hungry viewers, and as a value-add for AT&T's customers, HBO Max will hope to effectively absorb the 30 million or so current HBO customers into its initial subscriber count. Despite the head start, and the track records of a century-old studio and TV's most prestigious channel, industry onlookers have highlighted several challenges facing the new service.

HBO Max launches with over 10,000 titles across a range of content brands

One is its price. At $15 per month, HBO Max will cost more than any of its competitors in the video streaming space. That takes on greater weight given the number of competitors, including Netflix, Disney+, Amazon Prime Video, and NBCU's Peacock – all of which charge less than HBO Max. Then there is the fear of brand dilution. To grow the plateauing HBO subscriber base, HBO Max is staking out a competitive position built upon a broad mix of content ranging from upscale HBO series to more middlebrow fare like Big Bang Theory.

dot.LA caught up with two HBO Max leaders to learn about the key decisions leading to today and to explore the path ahead. Tony Goncalves oversees HBO Max's product, performance marketing, and data & analytics. Reporting to chairman Bob Greenblatt, Goncalves also runs Otter Media, a WarnerMedia subsidiary that houses several digital content companies. Goncalves spearheaded AT&T's acquisition of Time Warner and formerly led DirecTV's expansion into mobile content. Sarah Lyons, senior vice president of HBO Max's product experience, provided additional comment.

dot.LA: To stand out in this competitive space, it obviously helps to have good content, good data, and a good user experience. But what can you do if everyone else has those, too?

Goncalves: I think it's a misnomer that we're all competing to be the one platform that consumers go to. A variety of us are going to offer these platforms and consumers will have more than one. These new "super-networks" are emerging, in the form of an app that aggregates lots of content, and you stand out by what stories you're aggregating, and how you're curating and presenting them. The data tells us that consumers have 2-3 services today and are willing to pay for up to 4-6 — so our goal is to be one of those 4-6.

HBO Max users will be able to browse by "hub"

Lyons: We looked at research into consumer sentiment and saw that consumers value the experience just as much as they do the content. There's a common problem among customers with finding something to watch, because there's a sea of content out there. They're not quite confident that when they start a new show, it will be time well spent. We talked to them about that and learned on average it takes about nine minutes to find something to watch — and that 20% of them abandon it altogether because they get frustrated and give up. When we asked about recommendation engines, they started to kind of recoil; they had a visceral reaction. They'd say, 'How could a robot purport to know who I am or what I want?' They felt boxed in. So we kept all of that in mind as we were creating the product experience, and we felt like we had an opportunity to create a sweet spot with a service that blends the human touch in curation with underlying data for personalization.

Goncalves: We believe the opportunity is to present consumers a clean, clutterless experience and get away from that endless scroll by giving consumers the confidence that when they press on a tile, they'll be taken into a great story — which is not necessarily the case in the marketplace today. That's a real opportunity for differentiation.

In developing your launch slate of content, how did you decide how much original content you needed, how much catalog content you needed, and what kind of each?

Goncalves: If there were a formula, I'd be happy to walk you through that. But the reality is we had to

step back and define what we wanted to be when we grew up. We started with this incredibly valuable anchor of HBO. We were extremely fortunate that the service had garnered over 30 million paying subscribers over the years, but it had essentially peaked. So we started with the demographic we had — higher-income households, a bit more male — then morphed our programming to grow around that.

Lyons: The conundrum was how do you take those existing users and give them a new experience while keeping them comfortable, and at the same time target a new set of subscribers that are millennials, Gen Z, families, females, kids of all ages. How do you add them and keep the experience fresh and add all the content that goes along with it, yet keep it premium while not alienating subscribers? It was all a balance.

How do you approach the role of original versus licensed content?

Goncalves: You tend to see in the data that originals are the titles that drive people to subscribe, whereas the licensed content is what garners the engagement thereafter and keeps consumers on these platforms.

There's some concern that customers may be confused about the various HBO options – HBO, HBO Go, HBO Now, HBO Max — and, on top of that, people may be unclear about what they're entitled to based on their current HBO situation. AT&T is still negotiating with Comcast, as well as Amazon and Roku – which together control nearly 70% of the streaming device market – but as of today there are no agreements to bring HBO Max to those users. To what extent are you hopeful about resolving those negotiations?

Goncalves: I can't get into specifics of the negotiations themselves. But as we go forward, we want to bring everything together. We need to work with our distribution partners in order to do that, and I think you'll see that come to life, where we do come together and align on objectives. You'll see a lot of HBO Now apps turning into HBO Max apps overnight. As far as the folks that we're not aligned with, our hope and expectation is that we'll continue working with them and in the days and weeks to come, we'll come to an agreement. But the consumer has other options.

Tony Goncalves oversees HBO Max and is also CEO of Otter Media

In the sprint to launch, you had teams collaborating remotely across Los Angeles, Seattle, New York and Atlanta. How were they able to work together and meet the launch date target?

Goncalves: I wish you could see the big smile on my face right now. This could've turned out bad. We were uncomfortable two and a half months ago, until we saw these folks rally. We became proficient in Slack and in video calls. The tech teams in particular became proficient at coding at home, doing quality checks of the apps from home and doing quality control left and right — we had to put devices in people's homes and be really flexible. Then you look at the marketing team that had a marketing plan ready to go, anchored on things like March Madness, and all of a sudden those went away. But you saw a team showing up with a sense of purpose and working remotely and getting comfortable with needing to change the way they were operating and I think we're the better for it. I'm really, really proud of what we've done here and I think this pivot is something that I'm most proud of.

Speaking of pivoting, you've been involved in a lot of big, future-oriented business decisions. What have you learned about navigating a business transformation on a scale like this?

Goncalves: Business transformation at scale, in any business, is really, really tough. I think the only way that businesses succeed is if they have a clear definition of a goal – the beacon – and then a path to get there. It became really clear (for AT&T) that as a core connectivity company, being purely a pipe wasn't the path that the company needed to go. The question then became what value-add was needed to put on top of that. Video happens to be the most trafficked content over the network, so I think the clarity of the fact that the network and content needed to come together has really helped this company put a beacon out there as to what it ultimately needs to be. The hardest part is bringing the hundreds and thousands of employees along for the ride and getting them committed, and I think we've done that by articulating this marriage of content and connectivity.

You've been either in L.A. or traveling to L.A. for much of your career. How have you seen it evolve over the years as a business and tech hub?

Goncalves: If you just look at Playa Vista, and what it was and what it is, that alone gives you the answer, when you have a variety of more tech-oriented companies anchoring in and around Playa and Culver. I think it's fascinating, because the primary reason that that happens is talent acquisition. All these companies need talent, so these hubs tend to emerge out of the need for talent and that's what I've seen pop in L.A. A funny anecdote: I was doing a lot of traveling back and forth earlier in my career at DirecTV and I was looking to potentially buy a condo or house. I looked in Playa and I scratched my head as to why anybody would pay $500k for a place there. But today if you can find one apartment even for sale at anything under three-times that, you'd be lucky.
From Pitch Meetings to Power Lunches: LA’s Exclusive Membership Clubs 🗝️

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Summer's here, so it's time to zhuzh up your work environment. Discovering the best membership and social clubs in Los Angeles for meetings can boost networking and collaboration, offering exclusive venues and premium amenities tailored for professionals and creatives to thrive amidst the city's vibrant backdrop. These clubs provide a sophisticated setting for productive gatherings and meaningful connections in LA. Here are some top private member clubs perfect for meetings and productive work sessions.

The Jonathan Club

Club Details: The Jonathan Club, one of Los Angeles' original membership clubs, has been a cornerstone of the city's elite social scene since its founding in the mid-1890s. Its legacy is intertwined with the growth and development of LA itself, most notably through a pivotal meeting held at the club that sparked the idea for a southern campus of the University of California—what would eventually become UCLA. Today, the Jonathan Club continues to offer its members an unparalleled experience of exclusivity and refinement. With locations in both DLTA and Santa Monica, members enjoy access to premium amenities and spaces and a calendar with hundreds of social events and workshops throughout the year, providing ample opportunities for networking, personal growth, and leisure activities.

Membership Details: Initiation fee is around $50,000, and admission typically requires that you be invited or know someone who is already a member.

Spring Place

Image Source: Spring Place

Neighborhood: Beverly Hills

Club Details: A mix between co-working space and social club, this Beverly Hills hotspot is a more exclusive version of similar clubs. Spring Place Beverly Hills spans three floors and offers a stunning art collection. The interior is filled with tons of natural light and has an intentional design that fuels members to harness some of their best work. Members also have access to luxurious dining and nightlife pop-ups that happen at Spring Place.

Membership Details: There is a non-refundable initiation fee of $500 and then local membership for people under 30 starts at $300 per month, while monthly membership for locals over 30 is $600.

Griffin Club

Image Source: Griffin Club

Neighborhood: Cheviot Hills

Club Details: Located in Cheviot Hills, Griffin Club LA is a sporty club with ample shared workspace. Following a $20M renovation in 2020, the club now boasts seven LED-lit tennis courts, four LED-lit pickleball courts, two recreational lap pools, a 25-meter family pool for kids, an adults-only resort pool, and childcare services. It's the ideal destination for a clientele looking to mix work with competitive sport.

Membership Details: Membership is by invitation only and is subject to approval. Membership prices at the club vary. A family membership entails a $12,000 initial fee plus a $450 monthly fee, while a junior membership only entails a $2,000 initiation fee and a $205 monthly fee.

Soho House West Hollywood

Image Source: Soho House West Hollywood

Neighborhood: West Hollywood

Club Details: Soho House West Hollywood provides a stylish and exclusive work and meeting destination, featuring chic meeting rooms and workspaces with panoramic views of Los Angeles. Combining luxury amenities with a creative atmosphere, it offers an ideal setting for networking, collaboration, productive sessions, and an amazing Sunday brunch!

Membership Details: Two current member referrals are needed, plus an online application, and a recent photo to confirm your identity. Quarterly memberships start at $675.25, but if you’re under 27, you can pay $337.75 quarterly. However, if you want access to every house, membership costs $5,250.00 annually, or $2,650.00 if you’re under 27.

Little Beach House Malibu

Image Source: Little Beach House Malibu

Neighborhood: Malibu

Club Details: The Little Beach House Malibu is a small, local club for the creative community of Malibu and the surrounding coastal areas. The club is known for its magnificent dining room, bar, sitting room and terrace. It is the perfect place for a truly memorable work meal.

Membership Details: Malibu Beach House is not included in the Soho House membership. If you are an existing member, you can apply for “Malibu Plus” for an additional $2,190 a year, or $1,095 if you’re under 27.

San Vicente Bungalows

Image Source: San Vicente Bungalows

Neighborhood: West Hollywood

Club Details: San Vicente Bungalows is an exclusive, members-only social club located in West Hollywood, California, offering a luxurious and private environment for its high-profile clientele. The club is renowned for its strict privacy policies, elegant decor, and high-end amenities, catering to celebrities (and royals) and industry elites seeking a discreet space to unwind and socialize.

Membership Details: You must be nominated by a current club member to apply. Applications are evaluated monthly and annual dues start at $4,200 plus a $1,800 initiation fee.

The Aster

Image Source: The Aster

Neighborhood: Hollywood

Club Details: The Aster, located at the iconic intersection of Hollywood Boulevard and Vine Street, redefines the modern members' club with its emphasis on warmth and hospitality, blending public hotel amenities with private club exclusivity. Featuring bright, airy spaces and top-notch facilities such as an outdoor pool, recording studio, and rooftop bar, it offers a fluid environment for work, relaxation, and socializing.

Membership Details: Memberships start at $3,600 per year and be acquired by filling out an application. In addition to uploading a photo, hopeful members also have to write a small bio while highlighting their interests, skills, profession, and hobbies.


Image Source: NeueHouse

Neighborhood: Venice/Hollywood/DTLA

Club Details: NeueHouse in LA is a chic private workspace and cultural hub designed for creative professionals, offering sophisticated workspaces, a dynamic calendar of cultural programming, and luxurious amenities. Situated in three bustling neighborhoods across LA, it provides a collaborative environment where members can work, network, and unwind in style.

Membership Details: You have to apply for the Salon membership, which includes questions like “dream dinner guests (dead or alive?)." Annual dues for Salon memberships are $3,000 plus a $200 joining fee. You can also inquire about the Gallery membership for flexible workspaces and offices for individuals or teams, starting at $595 per month, with various options depending on your needs.

🧬🔬AI-Driven Drug Discovery

🔦 Spotlight

Terray Therapeutics is at the forefront of AI-assisted drug discovery and development, operating a cutting-edge laboratory in Monrovia, California. The facility, roughly two-thirds the size of a football field, functions as a data powerhouse, generating over 50 terabytes of raw data daily, which is an amount of information equivalent to 12,000 high definition movies, through its miniaturized automation processes.

Terray Therapeutics exemplifies a new wave of innovative companies harnessing artificial intelligence to revolutionize drug discovery and development. The key to their approach lies in generating vast amounts of high-quality experimental data to train their AI systems. This data-driven strategy enables rapid experimentation and pattern recognition, allowing the AI to make informed predictions about potential treatments. Terray's generative AI can digitally design drug molecules, which are then synthesized and tested in their high-speed automated laboratory. The platform measures the interaction between these molecules and target proteins, with both successful and unsuccessful results feeding back into the AI system.

This iterative process creates a powerful feedback loop, continuously refining the AI's predictive capabilities and accelerating the drug discovery process. Terray's tNova platform integrates chemical experimentation and computation at an unprecedented scale, producing massive amounts of precise, purpose-built data that becomes increasingly valuable with each cycle of design and experimentation. This unique blend of experimentation and computation allows Terray to efficiently explore a vast molecular space, potentially solving complex problems in drug discovery faster and more effectively than traditional methods.

🤝 Venture Deals

LA Companies

  • Fuze Technology, a provider of rentable portable phone chargers, has raised a $11.5M Series A led by Beverly Pacific and joined by Palm Tree Crew, Bain Capital Ventures Scout Fund, Dream Ventures, Live Nation, ASM Global, SCIENCE Ventures, Haslem Sports Group, and Simon Ventures. - learn more
  • Stanly, a platform that offers fan-to-fan and artist-to-fan communication and commerce, raised an $8M Funding Round led by C Capital and joined by AppWorks, Goodwater, and Palm Drive Capital. - learn more
  • GrayMatter, an industrial robotics company, raised a $45M Series B led by Wellington Management and joined by NGP Capital, Euclidean Capital, Advance Venture Partners, SQN Venture Partners, 3M Ventures, B Capital, Bow Capital, Calibrate Ventures, OCA Ventures, and Swift Ventures. - learn more

LA Venture Funds

LA Exits

  • Webtoon Entertainment, an online cartoon company based in LA carved out of South Korea's Naver, set IPO terms to 15m shares at $18-$21. It would have a $2.6b fully diluted market value, were it to price in the middle, and plans to list on the Nasdaq (WBTN). - learn more
  • EV maker Fisker has finally filed for bankruptcy. - learn more
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Sony Pictures Experiences Division Formed After Alamo Drafthouse Acquisition

Christian Hetrick

Christian Hetrick is dot.LA's Entertainment Tech Reporter. He was formerly a business reporter for the Philadelphia Inquirer and reported on New Jersey politics for the Observer and the Press of Atlantic City.

Sony Pictures Experiences Division Formed After Alamo Drafthouse Acquisition

🔦 Spotlight

Sony Pictures Entertainment has acquired Alamo Drafthouse Cinema in a groundbreaking deal that marks the first time in over 75 years a major Hollywood studio will own a movie theater chain. This acquisition signals a potential shift towards vertical integration in the film industry, with Sony gaining more control over the distribution and exhibition of its films.

The deal allows Sony to expand its presence in experiential entertainment, aligning with its vision of engaging audiences outside the home through unique offerings. Alamo Drafthouse's innovative dine-in movie experience, devoted fanbase, and curated programming like Fantastic Fest make it an appealing acquisition target. Sony stressed that Alamo will continue operating its 35 locations under CEO Michael Kustermann, who will head the new Sony Pictures Experiences division.

While the move provides financial backing for Alamo after its bankruptcy struggles, questions remain about whether the chain can maintain its independent spirit and personality under Sony's ownership. Alamo is renowned for creative programming like themed events, interactive screenings, and a strict no-talking policy that has cultivated a passionate community of moviegoers. Balancing this distinct identity with Sony's corporate interests will be a key challenge moving forward.

From a technological standpoint, this move opens up possibilities for Sony to enhance the moviegoing experience at Alamo Drafthouse locations through integration of advanced audiovisual systems, immersive technologies, and projection/sound solutions. In addition, Sony could create a more seamless and connected experience for moviegoers, such as through integrated ticketing platforms, mobile apps, and personalization driven by data analytics. While specific technological plans are not detailed, the combination of Sony's resources and Alamo Drafthouse's innovative approach could foster synergies and drive the development of new technologies to differentiate the theatrical experience further.

🤝 Venture Deals

LA Companies

  • Apex, a satellite bus maker, raised a $95M funding round co-led by XYZ VC and CRV joined by Upfront Ventures, 8VC, Toyota Ventures, Point72 Ventures and others. - learn more
  • Regard, a developer of AI tools to help medical providers synthesize patient data, raised a $30M Series B led by Oak HC/FT at a $350M valuation. - learn more
  • Daisy, a small business tech installation startup, raised an $11M Series A co-led by Goldcrest and Bungalow. - learn more
  • Pyte, a startup that allows companies in highly regulated industries like finance and healthcare to perform computations on encrypted data without ever decrypting it, raised a $5M Funding Round led by Myriad Venture Partners. - learn more

LA Venture Funds

LA Exits