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HBO Max hits subscriber goal two years ahead of schedule

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Thanks in part to the release of Wonder Woman 1984, claims parent company AT&T

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The HBO Max logo against a dark background with white circles around it. Illustration by Alex Castro / The Verge

HBO Max has nearly 40 million US subscribers, AT&T disclosed in its first quarter earnings report on Wednesday. Combined with traditional HBO subscribers, the platform has surpassed a 41 million subscriber milestone the company says it didn’t expect to hit for two more years. Globally, AT&T says HBO now has more than 60 million subscribers.

There are a few caveats worth mentioning. For one, AT&T has different metrics for different levels of its subscriber base. Total subscribers includes not only people who pay for a standalone subscription, but also those with access to HBO Max either through an existing HBO subscription through a cable company or through a promotion via AT&T’s cell carrier business, regardless of whether they’ve even downloaded the app. That total subscriber number for the US market is the more than 41 million figure AT&T is touting today.

But of the 37.7 million HBO Max domestic subscribers out there (the remaining few million being pay TV subscribers), about 17.2 million subscribers are considered “activated,” AT&T’s term for someone who has downloaded the app and either signed up independently or upgraded an existing subscription (or claimed a free one via promotion). Still, it’s a strong number compared with the end of September, when HBO Max boasted 28.7 million subscribers, of which only 8.6 million had been activated.

For context, Disney Plus hit more than 86 million subscribers in a little over a year, though it costs less per month than a standalone HBO Max subscription and released without a bogged-down rebrand of an existing, cable-driven service.

In unsurprising fashion, AT&T is crediting the growth to its controversial decision to release the films of its subsidiary, Warner Bros., on HBO Max on the same day they release in theaters. “The release of Wonder Woman 1984 helped drive our domestic HBO Max and HBO subscribers to more than 41 million, a full two years faster than our initial forecast,” said AT&T CEO John Stankey in a statement.

The Wonder Woman sequel is just the first of many planned film releases on HBO Max that were once scheduled for exclusive theatrical windows — until the coronavirus pandemic upended Hollywood. High-profile film directors, including of Warner Bros. releases like the upcoming Dune adaptation and Tenet, have voiced their extreme disapproval of the decision.

But AT&T, which owns parent company WarnerMedia that oversees both HBO and Warner Bros., claims this strategy is paying off, for now. There’s no telling yet how the huge investment in streaming will affect Warner Bros.’ relationship with directors like Denis Villeneuve and Christopher Nolan going forward, and whether the HBO Max subscriber growth AT&T is attributing to Wonder Woman 1984 will continue onward through the rest of this year’s release slate.