Update on this story below.
On Wednesday, HBO Max will have its splashy debut. So far, much of the messaging (and a majority of the advertising) of this new direct-to-consumer streaming platform from Warner Media has been centered around big hit shows from the company’s vast archive (things like Friends, Doctor Who, The Big Bang Theory) and classic film from their storied library (everything from The Wizard of Oz to Wonder Woman). But noticeably absent from their launch is arguably the franchise feather in WarnerMedia’s cap – the Wizarding World of Harry Potter. That’s right, folks. On day one you won’t be able to take in any Quidditch matches or hunt for a single Fantastic Beast. And the reason behind the Boy Who Lived’s absence from the platform might surprise you.
In 2016, well before the Streaming Wars began, Universal signed a deal, suggested at the time to be “one of the largest movie franchise rights agreements of all time,” to the exclusive rights to the Harry Potter franchise. The deal gave digital and on-air rights to the Wizarding World films, including the eight Harry Potter movies and now two Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them films. The deal started in the summer of 2018 and is supposed to run until 2025. (Disney lost the broadcast rights on January 1, 2018, meaning that its seemingly endless string of marathon weekends on ABC Family/Freeform was cut short.)
Since summer 2018, the Wizarding World films have been mainstays of Universal-owned networks like SYFY and USA, and the broadcasts have become a key component of the company’s rollout of new Wizarding World attractions at Universal parks worldwide (like Hagrid’s Magical Creatures Motorbike Adventure, which opened last summer). The first phase of the Wizarding World in the parks opened in 2010 in Orlando and has been a mainstay in Universal theme parks ever since, with similar lands opening in Hollywood and Osaka.
In fact, the broadcast and digital licensing deal, which gave Universal rights until 2025, was set to introduce a number of new attractions to viewers, including several marquee rides slated for the upcoming Universal park Epic Universe in Orlando, Florida. But with everything in flux thanks to the coronavirus, the plans for Epic Universe are in flux and the next phase of Universal’s Wizarding World expansion is in question. Still: Universal wanted the rights in large part due to their ability to effectively introduce new Wizarding World products into the parks and promote them once they are open.
Not that HBO Max isn’t trying to win them back.
In an interview with Business Insider, HBO Max content chief Kevin Reilly said that there is potential that HBO Max will get the rights back sooner than 2025. While admitting that there’s no “timetable” as of yet, Reilly said: “I’ll just say there is active engagement around that discussion. In terms of the marketplace, there’s a lot of opportunities for horse trading.” Reilly added: “The marketplace is shifting, with the impact of COVID and different companies launching different services, and it creates a lot of opportunities for horse trading. We’re seeing that across the board.”
And he’s right – there is. There were a number of notable omissions during the launch of Disney+, with Disney having to pay out licensees to return product. They even had to run ads for Starz on the service to get some rights back. And this kind of maneuvering is still the reality today. Avengers: Infinity War will be hitting the service later in June but Disney couldn’t even advertise in their “coming in June” messaging thanks to preexisting licensing agreements.
Reilly is right – HBO Max could totally secure Warner Media’s crown jewel before 2025, especially given the complex maneuvering surrounding the various streaming services and the jockeying for content. And this could become even more likely if, say, there aren’t any new Universal theme park attractions to promote before 2025. There are a lot of variables to this situation but just know that because you won’t get to participate in the Tri-Wizard Tournament on day one of HBO Max, doesn’t mean you won’t get to very, very soon.
Update: As of the morning of Wednesday, May 27, the HBO Max launch has revealed all eight Harry Potter movies are actually available to stream. You can get our full report on this news here.