How Warner Bros.’ HBO Max Experiment Led to Mixed Box Office Results

2021 Box Office Report Card: Warner’s top execs stand by their day-and-date experiment that saw a surge in streaming subscribers but little success in theaters


At the start of 2021, Warner Bros. was the talk of Hollywood for its decision to start a year-long experiment that would come to define its box office performance: The legacy studio would release 17 films simultaneously in theaters and on its nascent screaming service, HBO Max — though none finished in the top 10 top-grossing films of the domestic box office.

The experiment proved to be a double-edged sword. While Disney, Sony, Universal and even MGM found big blockbuster success in spite of the pandemic, HBO Max likely put a ceiling on Warner’s ticket sales. Only two of the studio’s films grossed over $100 million in North America — “Godzilla vs. Kong” and “Dune” — and overall domestic grosses reached $646 million, fourth among all studios, according to data from The Numbers. This story will be updated with revised data from Comscore when the analytics firm publishes its final end-of-year count.

But the dual-release strategy offered other advantages — particularly for struggling theaters. Warner Bros. locked in the release dates for its films at a time when it was unclear how fast the initial COVID vaccination process would take and how long it would take for theaters to fully reopen. That gave cinema owners solid hope for the March 31 release of “Godzilla vs. Kong” as the first big-budget tentpole film of the year to lure back film lovers.

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Jeremy Fuster

Box Office Reporter • jeremy.fuster@thewrap.com • Twitter: @jeremyfuster