Ann Sarnoff, who has held a top film and TV studio role at WarnerMedia for nearly three years, is departing the company as it gets set to merge with Discovery.
News of her exit spread quickly Tuesday and then was confirmed in a press release. It will take effect upon the close of the $43 billion merger, which is something of a moving target but getting closer to becoming reality. Regulators will determine the exact timeline of when the transaction can be officially consummated, but indications are that it will happen Friday.
News of her exit follows that about WarnerMedia CEO Jason Kilar, who told employees that Friday would be his final day. Also exiting is HBO Max head Andy Forssell.
Sarnoff joined the company in mid-2019 and was promoted to Chair and CEO, WarnerMedia Studios and Networks Group the following year. She was the first woman to serve as chairman of a film and TV at a studio.
Since Discovery and AT&T first proposed the spun-off combination with WarnerMedia in May 2021, there had been questions about Sarnoff’s role in the exec structure given the number of execs in the mix across both companies.
With Discovery CEO David Zaslav taking charge of the combined entity and the pure-play nature of the new company, there are expected to be fewer layers in the new executive structure. Discovery has also pledged to extract $3 billion in cost savings from the new venture in order to reduce its debt load.
Prior to her arrival at WarnerMedia, Sarnoff had been an executive at Viacom, Dow Jones, the WNBA and BBC Studios Americas. Sarnoff’s surname is, of course, familiar to media mavens. Her husband’s great-uncle, David Sarnoff, was the trailblazing chairman of RCA and one of television’s founding fathers, presiding over the early years of NBC and broadcasting itself.
“I want to thank Ann for all of her leadership during a transformational period for the company and our industry,” Zaslav said in a press release. “She has been a passionate and committed steward of the world’s most formidable creative engine and has led with integrity, focus and hard work in bringing WarnerMedia’s businesses, brands and workforce closer together. There is a lot of exciting momentum at the company and I appreciate all of her counsel and partnership the last few months putting us in a position to succeed as we launch Warner Bros. Discovery. We all wish her great success in the future.”
In his own statement, Kilar called Sarnoff “a world-class executive and the definition of a selfless leader. It has been remarkable to watch Ann bring together formerly disparate creative teams, invest in those teams, resulting in creative excellence and business results unlike this company has seen before. Ann is a first-tier human being and I am honored to work with someone of her caliber.”
Sarnoff shared the news of exit in an internal memo to employees. Here is the memo in full:
While I’ve sent you notes for the last few years keeping you updated on our successes and changes at our company, this note is different, as it will be my last in this role. I will be leaving the company upon the close of the WarnerMedia/Discovery transaction.
It’s never easy stepping into a leadership role, whether it’s at a 96-year-old studio or a newly formed business group, but in both cases I was confident in our ability to succeed because I was surrounded by the some of the smartest, most creative and most innovative teams I’ve ever worked with. Your passion for what you do is remarkable and palpable.
Looking back over my time here, from the first year heading up Warner Bros. and then almost two years leading the Studios and Networks Group, I can’t help but feel extreme pride about everything that we have accomplished. And I’m not going to qualify that success in terms of the pandemic or switching to remote working, because we succeeded by every measure – thanks to all of you.
Our mission is to be the world’s best storytellers, and we have delivered on that mission in the best of times and in the most challenging of times. Here are some examples: last week, we received 7 Oscars — more than any other studio. Over the awards season year to date, we have also won 18 Critics’ Choice, 6 Screen Actors Guild, 9 Writers Guild, 5 Producers Guild, 3 Directors Guild, 8 AFI, 9 Golden Globe, 11 NAACP Image and 6 BAFTA Awards — that’s over 80 awards across these key industry organizations. And none of our peers are even close! I am so proud of our amazing creative partnerships and our fantastic leadership team, which together have proven time and again that the talent and storytelling of the Studios and Networks Group is truly our superpower and second to none.
Perhaps what I’m most proud of, and something that was a focus of mine from my first day on the job, is creating a collaborative culture across our entire organization and leveling the silos that our divisions used to operate in. I’ve heard from colleagues around the world that that they’re working more cross-divisionally than at any other time in our company’s history. Whether it’s the Pictures Group making movies for HBO Max, HBO Max and WBTV creating spin-off series like Peacemaker and The Penguin, the TNets showcasing Max programming on their newly created “Front Row” programming block, the KYAC team working seamlessly with Max to build a critical mass of kids and family programming across linear and streaming, or the Global Brands team galvanizing the incredible efforts across the whole company to create DC FanDome – the largest virtual fan event in history – you all are working together in innovative and unprecedented ways and have proven that the whole is truly more than the parts. And the results speak for themselves – we have created and are delivering on long-term plans that are generating remarkable fan engagement across our franchises. Finally, our fans can no longer see our org chart! I’m proud to have played a part in helping us to realize this potential and create an enduring asset for the company going forward.
In addition to this amazing cross-divisional work, you have all hit it out of the park over the past year-plus with stellar performance across our businesses. It would take three or four pages to list everything we’ve accomplished, but I would like to mention a few highlights:
First of all, we had record financial performance in 2021 with the Studios and Networks Group as the leading contributor to WarnerMedia’s bottom line. Second, we know how important HBO Max growth was to the company. We asked and you answered — every division of the Studios and Networks team had a hand in supporting the accelerated growth of HBO Max through world-class programming and promotional partnerships. We finished the year up over 13 million subs — well beyond plan — and undoubtedly as the buzziest streaming service. Our colleagues programming HBO and HBO Max set and then raised the creative bar with their series, limited series and longform programming like Euphoria, Succession, And Just Like That…, The Gilded Age and Last Week Tonight with John Oliver, just to name a few. Our Pictures Group literally kept the theatrical business alive in 2021 releasing 17 films to theaters (to support our partners in exhibition) and on HBO Max (to provide first-run films to subscribers while helping grow the service). WBPG is off to a stellar start this year with The Batman, which just crossed $700(!) million globally. Warner Bros. Television Group continues to lead the industry, producing more than 100 fan-favorite series like Ted Lasso, Abbott Elementary, Maid, You, Young Sheldon and the Friends reunion, for both internal and external partners across broadcast, cable and digital platforms. The TNets’ TBS and TNT remain at the top of the cable charts, creating noteworthy series which help to draw more than 200 million viewers annually. We brought together Cartoon Network, Adult Swim, Warner Bros. Animation and TCM to create the Kids, Young Adults and Classics group (KYAC), and the teams quickly coalesced with ambitious plans, including launching a preschool programming block, Cartoonito. We have supercharged the DC brand and businesses across film, TV, publishing, consumer products, and experiences, with fan engagement as a key goal. We drove our franchise focus with major growth initiatives around the Wizarding World, including the launch of the amazing Harry Potter store in New York, our reimagined WB Hollywood Studio Tour, and the groundbreaking of Warner Bros. Studio Tour Tokyo – The Making of Harry Potter.
While these are just the highlights, you can see why I’m so proud of – and so grateful to – all of you. You’re all incredible and have done such amazing work over the past few years.
I want to offer all of you my heartfelt thanks, not only for your many contributions to the company’s success, but also for everything you’ve done, large and small, to make my time here so special and rewarding. I have truly loved being in this role. It has been an honor and a privilege to work with you, and I will be rooting for you all and for Warner Bros. Discovery to continue to reach great heights for many, many years to come!