HBO Max Might Have Outsmarted the Streaming Wars

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Almost exactly one year ago, Warner Bros. made a rather startling announcement: In 2021, all of the movies on its slate would be released on HBO Max the same day they hit theaters. Suicide Squad, Godzilla vs. Kong, Dune, The Matrix Resurrections—all of them. Cinephiles all but revolted. Dune director Denis Villeneuve published a letter in Variety calling HBO Max’s launch a “failure” and the decision by Warner Bros. parent company AT&T to “sacrifice” the 2021 lineup to the streaming service “a desperate attempt to grab the audience’s attention.” In many ways, Villenueve was right—it was a move intended to boost subscriber numbers in a market slowly becoming saturated with streaming services. But also, it worked.

Back when the company first announced the day-and-date HBO Max movie plan—internally code-named Project Popcorn—HBO and HBO Max had about 61 million subscribers worldwide. Today, that number is closer to 70 million. (For context, Netflix has somewhere near 214 million subscribers, while a smaller cable network like Starz has around 30 million.) Meanwhile, the streaming service has bolstered up a certain level of cool by being the destination for original programming like Hacks, HBO’s critical juggernaut Succession, and this week’s Sex and the City spinoff And Just Like That … “All things considered, HBO Max has had a good year,” says Sarah Henschel, principal analyst in media and entertainment at Omdia. “Their strategy to release blockbuster films like Dune directly day-and-date on HBO Max has kept the service relevant throughout 2021.”

In other words, HBO Max may have found a way to hack the streaming wars. Subscriber growth is stagnating across streaming services, but HBO Max has been able to slowly, strategically gain a toehold in a business that, when the service first launched, didn’t look like it had much room for new players—and has only gotten more since then. (Hello, Peacock! Welcome, Paramount+!) And it’s serious about holding on to the position it’s achieved. One of the reasons for the service’s lackluster subscriber numbers in the third quarter of this year was because HBO Max parted ways with Amazon Prime Video to prioritize direct subscriptions to the service rather than those that come through Amazon. “While this might slow growth in the short term this quarter,” Henschel notes, “it is strategic for growing revenues in the long term.” She also points to HBO Max’s ad-supported tier, which costs $10 as opposed to the standard $15, as a way to broaden its appeal in the crowded market.

Make no mistake, this was all a bit of a gamble. Putting millions of dollars worth of marquee films on a streaming service in the hopes that they would attract, and retain, a few million subscribers is a big bet. It could have easily failed. It also is the kind of play that could maybe only have worked during a pandemic. Many folks are still leery of theaters, and HBO Max provided a good alternative for those who still wanted to watch big blockbusters. It also helped Warner Bros., which had a few movies ready to go and sitting idle but was not necessarily able to produce more at its usual volume. “It was great for the service, especially during a time where schedules were not fully populated because of Covid-related production delays,” HBO chief content officer Casey Bloys recently told Vulture. “It was just a great steady source of movies that people loved.”