The Champagne was flowing. HBO had just capped off another triumphant night at the Emmys, and it was time to party in the courtyard of the mammoth Pacific Design Center.
At every turn, there was another show celebrating Sunday night. The cast of "Game of Thrones" convened for one last time to toast another win for best drama, its Emmy record-tying fourth victory in the category. John Oliver's "Last Week Tonight" overwhelmed his late-night competition to win best talk show for a fourth straight year. "Chernobyl," HBO's unexpected gem of a limited series about the 1986 nuclear reactor disaster, took home best limited series. And the network topped Netflix for most Emmy wins overall, reclaiming sole bragging rights after tying with the streaming service last year.
"Unparalleled," said John Stankey, chief executive of Warner Media, HBO's parent, as he stood right in the middle of the party. "Absolutely unbelievable."
Now comes the hard part. HBO, after years of dominance, is at a crossroads.
With fierce competition from the likes of Netflix, Disney and Apple and a relatively new parent company with no track record in entertainment, can it possibly maintain the hegemony it has held over the television industry for so long?
Stankey wanted none of that.
"That's a narrative I don't subscribe to," he said. "We invested more money in HBO because we believe it's a mainstay cornerstone of what we're doing going forward. It's going to be critical to the service. Our commitment this year, our commitment next year, is going to continue to demonstrate that."
Still, "Game of Thrones" and "Veep" are both off the air. Many of HBO's top executives, including its chief executive, Richard Plepler, have left in the last year. The top producers for "Game of Thrones," David Benioff and Dan Weiss, the last people to give a speech from the Emmys stage Sunday night, are leaving, too. They signed a nine-figure deal last month to go to Netflix.
There are other issues. Warner Media has a streaming app, HBO Max, that will enter the marketplace next year with a monthly price — at least US$15 ($23.84) — more than double what competing services from Disney, Apple and others will cost.
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Then there's the drama surrounding HBO and Warner Media's parent company, AT&T. This month, investor Elliott Management issued a blistering 24-page report that was critical of the "alarming executive turnover" at Warner Media and questioned the company's foray into the entertainment space. It does not help matters that AT&T also has US$149 billion in net debt.
Not far away at the Amazon party, a rival in the battle for streaming supremacy was celebrating.
It was a boisterous, loud and sweaty affair at the Chateau Marmont. There was Jon Hamm accidentally stumbling into the photo booth area. Stephen Colbert, Jane Lynch and Amy Sherman-Palladino, creator of "The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel," made the rounds. The man responsible for the entire operation, Amazon's chief executive, Jeff Bezos, was sequestered in a reserved corner of the party space. He stood with his son and a stream of well-wishers who needed permission from the two bodyguards manning the area to get through to shake his hand.
But he was not the star of the night. The '90s hits blaring from the DJ booth were no match for the applause that erupted when Phoebe Waller-Bridge, star and creator of "Fleabag," made her way into the party with her boyfriend, writer-director Martin McDonagh, in tow. From the second she walked in, Waller-Bridge was so besieged by well-wishers that she could barely get a bite of food or even light her cigarette.
No wonder. "Fleabag" upset HBO awards show juggernaut "Veep" for best comedy, and Waller-Bridge claimed three Emmys overall. She beat Julia Louis-Dreyfus to win best actress in a comedy, the first time in the show's seven seasons that Louis-Dreyfus did not win.
"We had a great night," McDonagh said. "I was hoping for one. Who knew?"
Amazon has had the reputation in Hollywood for being a sleeping giant. It spends plenty and has seemingly infinite resources, but, despite the earlier success of shows like "Transparent," its overall effect has been muted.
Now, between "The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel" and "Fleabag," it has back-to-back Emmy comedy winners. And it is a sign that there are plenty of competitors — particularly from the tech world — ready to go toe to toe with HBO.
With all that, HBO is not pushing the panic button just yet.
"I have the benefit of being here for 15 years, so I've heard this over and over again," said Casey Bloys, HBO's president of programming. "This is the world we live in, and our formula of curation and betting on people we believe in and doing the hard work, it pays off.
"I'm not going to say I'm not worried," Bloys continued. "You can't do this job without being worried. But I feel really good about the future."
Indeed, predicting HBO's demise has been an entertainment world parlor game for years. After "The Sopranos" went off the air in 2007, rival executives called the network "HB-Over."
And the network has maintained its habit of finding more hits. Even without "Game of Thrones" and "Veep," the cupboard is not bare. The second season of "Succession" has received a rapturous response from critics.
Next month, HBO will premiere "Watchmen," an adaptation of the comic book series from Damon Lindelof, a co-creator of "The Leftovers." In November, the network will debut "His Dark Materials," based on the popular Philip Pullman books. There are also series from J.J. Abrams and "Avengers" director Joss Whedon, as well as spinoff series from the "Game of Thrones" universe. And HBO has placed a series order for a comedy that will be produced by none other than Waller-Bridge, who will also have a recurring on-screen role.
Executives listed many of these series when discussing HBO's future. And despite all the AT&T messiness and all the tech competitors, HBO is still HBO.
"Obviously there's a lot of competition," Bloys said. "Clearly. It's harder fought, and so it's nice. It's nice. I'm going to enjoy it for one night, and then tomorrow I'm going to go back to anxiety and all the things that come with it."
Written by: John Koblin and Nicole Sperling
© 2019 THE NEW YORK TIMES