When HBO Max debuted at the end of May, it had a strong initial draw: All eight “Harry Potter” films. Despite the “HBO” in its title, the service is actually part of WarnerMedia, which also owns Warner Bros. But fans hoping their HBO subscription will grant them access to the Potterverse will find their luck has already run out. The movies left HBO Max on Aug. 25.
The “Harry Potter” vanishing act is certainly annoying for anyone who paid extra for Max with those films in mind.
The “Harry Potter” vanishing act is certainly annoying for anyone who paid extra for Max with those films in mind. But it’s also a high-profile reminder of how this streaming explosion has created a chaotic mess, as production studios desperately shell out to get back their own content for their own newly launched services.
Moreover, “Harry Potter” is far from the only franchise bouncing around, available one minute and absent the next. Trying to figure out where anything is in the new landscape of SVOD (subscriber video on demand) is a disaster. What’s worse? The streamers themselves don’t seem intent on clarifying things.
The “Harry Potter” case is unique in that it’s a relatively recent franchise whose path has been easy to track. The films, produced by Warner Bros. since the first movie debuted in 2001, were leased to Disney for the TV rights. Warner can still get a lot of money for the franchise long after it has left theaters by licensing it for the small screen. The movies wound up on ABC Family (later renamed Freeform) and proved so popular that the channel became famous for “Harry Potter Weekend.”
When the contract with Disney was close to expiring, in 2016, NBCUniversal (which owns NBC News) stepped in and outbid the House of Mouse, gaining the rights to the rebranded “Wizarding World Weekends,” on Syfy and USA, through 2025.
As HBO Max’s debut date grew closer, Warner executives openly bemoaned this decision and the inability to get “Potter” back for another five years. Articles ran as little as a week before HBO Max’s launch explaining to fans why “Harry Potter” would not be among the streamer’s offerings.
Yet, whatever expensive deal was cut, it was only for 90 days. In that time, NBCUniversal launched its own service, Peacock, and the new streaming service proudly boasts that the films will be making their debut there come October. But custody of the films will be shared in an industry practice known as "windowing." "Potter" films will stream on Peacock for at least 30 days before exiting again — until 2021, when they will stream in new windows.
What happens in between? “Potter” will be continue to be available on Syfy and USA, via cable subscriptions. But it won’t be found on any streaming services, part of an ever-growing mass of films currently in limbo, some relatively obscure, some famous. TV critic Mike Ryan recently wrote of his own failed hunt for “Cocoon,” once a box-office smash, but now lost somewhere in the red tape of rights ownership with no complete explanation for why it cannot be found.
At least the “Harry Potter” moves are being publicly covered, via the monthly missives from Warner and NBCUniversal detailing what’s going and coming from their services. We can thank Netflix for these updates, a legacy of its Silicon Valley approach to content management. Netflix didn’t seem to think such information was necessary; once users highlighted a few favorites, the algorithm would do all the work — or so the thinking went. That gave rise to an entire cottage industry of Netflix-centric sites (many now expanded to cover the new streamers as well) that exist solely to tell you what to watch and where to find it.
This led to Netflix eventually releasing a monthly list of what’s coming and what’s going, which other companies now dutifully replicate. But the technocrat anti-customer-service mindset remains, leaving it up to the ever-more frustrated consumer to work out what’s available when and who owns what and where it all is at any given time, if it is even available at all.
Disney will happily give you a list of new arrivals, but the list of what’s disappearing is left up to eagle-eyed industry watchers.
Moreover, not all the companies are willing to be so forthcoming. Disney will happily give you a list of new arrivals, but the list of what’s disappearing is left up to eagle-eyed industry watchers. This is likely because, more than any other company, Disney’s streamer brands itself on the idea that it is a walled garden of all-Disney content all the time. It would rather you not notice the “Pirates of the Caribbean” movies have come and gone (some multiple times already).
Ultimately, a lot of this could have been avoided if production studios had prepared for this transition better. There was no way the untangling all of the deals and rights would happen in two or even three years. Less than a decade ago, Hollywood was a world where content creation and distribution were still mostly regarded like church and state, divided by the now-defunct Paramount decrees. Now, the race to create an ever-more-streamlined delivery system not only changes the way viewers watch. It also demands consumers think about their entertainment differently, requiring them to know which studio is behind what TV show or film and who they’re owned by to trace which service to sign up for.
Viewers need time to make this mental switch. If the landscape remains stable for the next five to 10 years and contracts continue to streamline, users will eventually speak of content via brand as if it were the natural order of things. But it doesn’t have to be, though current government policies make no sign of stopping it. But until then, viewers will find themselves in an ever-growing morass of titles flowing from one streaming service to the next, until the new world of entertainment finally settles.