After 48 hours of industry rumors, speculation, and panic over HBO Max, a clearer picture is starting to form. Fans of Hacks can let out that breath they’ve been holding—but movie lovers may want to second-guess their loyalty to the service which has, arguably, been the No.1 must-have streamer for cinephiles for the past two years. Despite previously announced plans to send all Warner Bros. 2022 movies to HBO Max after 45 days in theaters, Decider has been told by a source that the company will now use a “case-by-case basis” approach to determining when their theatrically-released films will land on the streamer.
The big news out of the company’s second-quarter earnings call on Thursday afternoon was the impending combined HBO Max and discovery+ streaming service, set to launch in Summer 2023. But Warner Bros. Discovery CEO David Zaslav also shed some light on what he called a “strategic shift” away from releasing expensive direct-to-streaming films on HBO Max, signaling an end to the “Project Popcorn” era, which found all of Warner Bros. theatrical movies simultaneously streaming “day and date” on HBO Max in 2021, and then streaming after a 45-day theatrical window for the first half of 2022.
The project, which was internally referred to as “Project Popcorn,” was the brainchild of former Warner Media CEO Jason Kilar, and it enraged filmmakers and industry professionals at the time. Audiences, however, viewed it as a blessing, especially as the COVID-19 pandemic dragged on in waves. And for HBO Max, it proved to be an indispensable asset to getting the fledgling service off the ground after a difficult and delayed launch in 2020. Subscriptions jumped to 73.8 million global subscribers by the end of 2021, with over 11 million new subscribers in 2021 alone. (It’s not clear how many subscribers HBO Max has added since then; yesterday’s call reported 92.1 million subscribers to the newly-merged Warner Bros. Discovery, which includes both HBO Max and discovery+.) Left and right, analysts were declaring HBO Max the winner of the streaming wars.
With the new year, HBO Max kept the movie momentum going, sending blockbusters like The Batman and Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore to the streaming service after 45 days in theaters, with promises of exciting HBO Max original movies like Father of the Bride and Batgirl. This was intended to continue through the 2022 film slate. But, then, in April, came the Warner Media and Discovery Inc. merger, ending Kilar’s reign. The Batgirl release was canceled. Multiple HBO Max original movies have disappeared from the service (although they are still available for purchase and rental on VOD services). Project Popcorn is, it seems, completely done.
It’s not clear what the company’s home entertainment release strategy will be moving forward. Elvis—which was scheduled to release on HBO Max next week, per the 45-day window—will be available to buy and rent on digital platforms for a premium price on August 9, but it will not be on HBO Max. Decider reached out to WBD and a source confirmed that Elvis would, eventually, come to HBO Max, but that a release date could not yet be announced. Decider was further told that the HBO Max release of theatrical films moving forward would be determined on a case-by-case basis, rather than the strict 45-day window.
In the earnings call on Thursday, CEO Zaslav said, “This idea of expensive films going direct-to-streaming, we cannot find an economic case for it. […] We’re making a strategic shift. As part of that, we’ve been out in town talking about our commitment to the theatrical exhibition and the theatrical window. A number of movies will be launched with shorter windows.” Perhaps the studio will follow in the footsteps of Universal, which sends some films like this The Northman to Peacock after 45 days, but keeps big office winners like Jurassic World Dominion in theaters and on PVOD for much longer.
Where does that leave the movie-loving HBO Max subscribers who came on board in 2020 to watch Godzilla Vs. Cong, and have stuck around for the easy access to recent blockbusters? In March 2022, a subscription to HBO Max meant a guarantee that you could stream The Batman from your living room, free of charge, a little over a month and a half after it opened in theaters. For many, that makes the $14.99/month price more than worth it. There was also the allure of HBO Max original movies, including, this year, the new, critically-acclaimed Steven Soderbergh thriller Kimiand the Andy Garcia-led Father of the Bride remake.
Now, subscribers who were waiting for Elvis will still find themselves waiting for an as-yet-to-be-determined amount of time. HBO Max’s original movies are either no longer being made, or being drastically scaled back, based on Zaslav’s distaste for direct-to-streaming and the Batgirl cancellation. (House Partyan upcoming remake starring Jacob Latimore, was also quietly removed from the WB release schedule a few weeks before it was meant to debut on HBO Max in July.) And the impending combined streaming service with discovery+ doesn’t offer much in the way of movies, unless you’re holding out for the Guy Fieri feature film.
Furthermore, Film Twitter is up in arms after Zaslav’s Powerpoint presentation failed to make mention of TCM, Criterion, and Studio Ghibli, three beloved assets that currently have “hubs” on HBO Max. The future of these brands in the combined HBO/Disco product is, as yet, unknown.
All that said, there are still plenty of movies currently available in HBO Max’s extensive library, including a backlog of classic Turner movies, which will no doubt keep many subscribers on board through the Summer of 2023 when the new service launches. But one thing seems certain: Moving forward, HBO Max will not be the must-have streamer Project Popcorn subscribers signed up for.