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HBO Max CEO Stands By Controversial Movie Strategy, Cites Subscriber Growth & Retention

Lauren Forristal

After the bold decision was made to release the entire 2021 Warner Bros. slate on HBO Max the same day the films debuted in theaters, everyone looked at CEO Jason Kilar like he poured his milk in before his cereal (because that is just as crazy). Now that fists are unclenched and people can relax, it’s time to look at why this was such a surprising success.

During the fourth quarter, WarnerMedia pumped out movies like “Dune” and “Godzilla vs. Kong” the same day they hit theaters, causing a frenzy of filmmakers desperate for that box office hit cash. Kilar’s response? “We’d make the same decision again,” he told Insider.

And his instincts were right because 13 months later, WarnerMedia has cut hundreds of millions of dollars in checks to appease clients, and the day-and-date strategy (a.k.a Project Popcorn) supercharged subscriber growth for the latecomer streaming service.

What seemed like a move that made “no economic sense,” according to Christopher Nolan, doesn’t seem so bad after looking at the numbers that HBO brought in. At the end of 2021, the 20-month-old streaming service had a total of 73.8 million global subscribers, which was an added 4.4 million global subscribers in the fourth quarter and nearly 12.8 million in 2021. It is still smaller than Netflix, which has 214 million subs as of September, and Disney+ with 118 million.

HBO Max, known as an underdog in Hollywood, became the most downloaded entertainment app in the US last year, per data firm Apptopia. The platform had 45 million downloads between December 21, 2020 and December 20, 2021, whereas both Netflix and Disney+ fell off the chart.

The dramatic pivot with Project Popcorn was “critical,” said the head of HBO Max, Andy Forssell, noting that the streamer’s original programming calendar was lacking in the beginning of 2021 as a result of production delays during the pandemic. “We knew we were going to be lean, so the movies were immensely valuable in a year where we needed content.”

Forssell added, “It worked for us. It helped drive retention. Did some people come in and leave after a month? Absolutely. That happens with any cohort of subscribers that you get under any circumstances. But the good news for us is that we did manage to skew it the other way.”

Another decent strategy that worked well for WarnerMedia was choosing to have a 30-day deadline. Each of the Project Popcorn films was available on HBO Max for only 30 days after its initial debut, such as “Wonder Woman 1984”. However, they will all eventually make their permanent home on HBO Max.

That strategy caused viewing to spike at the beginning and end of the streaming window, said Forssell. “People may know they want to watch something but we need to give them a reason to choose today as the day they’re going to watch it versus all their other choices, and that 30-day deadline tended to do that.” He also admitted that it would be a better consumer experience if the films never left in the first place.

In 2022, WarnerMedia’s new strategy will include a 45-day window for films that debut exclusively in theaters and a direct-to-HBO Max release for around 12 films. While upcoming features like Robert Pattinson starrer “The Batman” and comic book sequel “Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom” make their way to the service following a shortened theatrical window, new subscribers will be drawn to the service and HBO Max can retain this growth with series releases in between. Forssell commented, “in the most wild outcomes of success, you’re still going to have more people that have not seen the film than have, and that’s a huge opportunity to harness for HBO Max.”

HBO Max

HBO Max is a subscription video streaming service that gives access to the full HBO library, along with exclusive Max Originals. It is The Streamable’s choice for Best Streaming Service of 2022.

HBO Max has two tiers, an ad-supported plan for $9.99 and ad-free plan for $14.99. HBO Max without ads also includes features like the ability to download offline and 4K streaming.

Subscribers will have access to hit HBO series like Succession, Mare of Easttown, Curb Your Enthusiasm, and more.

All HBO Max subscribers will get the full libraries of shows like “Friends”, “The Big Bang Theory”, “South Park”, “Fresh Prince of Bel Air”, “The West Wing”, and more.

They also will get Max Originals that aren’t available to HBO channel subscribers, like “The Flight Attendant” (Kaley Cuoco), “Love Life” (Anna Kendrick), as well as reboots to “Sex In The City” and “Gossip Girl.”

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