Data: How Movies Powered HBO Max 2021 Subscriber Growth 

Data: How Movies Powered HBO Max
Yinchen Niu/Variety Intelligence Platform

WarnerMedia shared updated subscriber numbers Wednesday for HBO and HBO Max, noting that the 73.8 million total exceeded internal projections for 2021. CEO Jason Kilar credited his controversial decision to debut Warner Bros.’ entire 2021 film slate in theaters and on HBO Max simultaneously. 

While the company stopped short of sharing any numbers on how specific movies performed, data from connected TV analytics firm Samba TV gives a sense of how the titles fared on the streaming service. 

Launching Dec. 22, “The Matrix Resurrections” was viewed on HBO Max by 2.8 million U.S. households during the Wednesday-Sunday period following its debut. That total falls short of the 3.6 million households that viewed “Godzilla vs. Kong” during the Wednesday-Sunday following its debut. “Godzilla” and “Matrix” were the only two 2021 Warner Bros. films that released on Wednesdays. 

Samba TV collects viewership data through proprietary content recognition technology on opted-in smart TVs and through partnerships with cable TV providers. Samba uses its dataset to estimate household TV viewership but does not estimate viewership on devices other than TVs. Panel members must watch a title for at least five minutes to be counted as a viewer.   

Of the films that dropped on Fridays, which was the majority of Warner Bros.’ 2021 slate, “Mortal Kombat” by far had the highest opening weekend viewership on HBO Max, per Samba TV. 

And of Warner Bros. films dropping on Thursdays, “Suicide Squad” was viewed by the most U.S. households during the Thursday-Sunday period following debut. 

The number of movie theaters open and COVID cases throughout the year likely played a role in HBO Max opening weekend viewership numbers. For example, New York movie theaters weren’t allowed to open at reduced capacity until March 2021 and by May still only operated at around 30% capacity.  

Tightened restrictions in the first half of 2021 would explain why certain films like “Godzilla vs. Kong” and “Mortal Kombat” were able to rack up such big opening weekend viewership numbers — it was more appealing for some consumers to view films on SVOD then, rather than in a theater. 

The aggressive day-and-date strategy, internally known as “Project Popcorn,” was undertaken with the goal of boosting HBO Max subscriptions in mind. But that was always going to come at the expense of the slate’s box-office returns and caused considerable headaches for Jason Kilar, who was widely criticized for the decision by various profit participants including leading directors like Christopher Nolan and Denis Villeneuve.  

But on the basis of simply helping boost HBO Max subscriptions, “Project Popcorn” seemed to succeed. AT&T senior EVP and CFO Pascal Desroches in April said that day-and date films had “been a great catalyst for subscriber growth at HBO Max.”  

And in July, after more day-and-dates like of “Mortal Kombat” and “Space Jam: A New Legacy” had dropped, Desroches announced that the company had upped its HBO and HBO Max subscriber target for 2021 year-end to 70-73 million, up from the 67-70 million goal it laid out in March.  

Data from subscription analytics firm Antenna in June also showed daily sign-ups for HBO Max notably jumping on the days of previous day-and-date Warner Bros. film premieres. 

Still, it’s possible that some WarnerMedia execs had higher hopes for what “Project Popcorn” could accomplish for HBO Max given the backlash they had to endure to get the plan off the ground. 

For example, the quarter-over-quarter growth rates of U.S. HBO Max subscriptions trended downward between Q4 2020 and Q3 2021. The caveat here is that HBO left Prime Video Channels in September, affecting the number of consumers that had access to HBO Max. Moreover, AT&T’s Q4 2021 results have yet to be reported and could indicate a notable upswing in U.S. HBO Max subscribers (the Jan. 5 WarnerMedia subscriber update didn't mention number of U.S. HBO Max subs in Q4 specifically). 

But even just judging the growth of HBO Max subs in Q1 and Q2 of this year alone, you might expect a more pronounced growth rate during months when films like “Godzilla vs. Kong” and “Mortal Kombat” were dropping. 

Also keep in mind that people were generally staying indoors more at the beginning of the year when vaccines had just started rolling out, giving them even more of a reason to stream video content and perhaps sign up for HBO Max.  

Looking at domestic HBO Max sub counts specifically is important here because “Project Popcorn” only applied to the U.S. — Warner Bros. films opened exclusively in theaters internationally. 

But you might also look at this same data and say that HBO Max’s growth would have been even worse had it not been for “Project Popcorn,” which helped cover up for TV-series production that was delayed by the pandemic.   

HBO and HBO Max chief content officer Casey Bloys hinted at as much when he told Vulture in December that his company’s day-and-date strategy “was great for the service, especially during a time where schedules were not fully populated because of COVID-related production delays.” 

The estimates by Samba are helpful because HBO Max does not regularly provide viewership metrics for its streaming titles like streaming leader Netflix does. WarnerMedia execs have also previously suggested that there are no imminent plans to change course on guarding viewership metrics. 

WarnerMedia is still expected to stick to plans for giving the 2022 Warner Bros. slate a 45-day window exclusive to theaters before they are streamed on HBOMax.