WarnerMedia CEO Jason Kilar, who is stepping down this week before the company’s merger with Discovery closes, takes pride in being “first over the wall” with a day-and-date streaming movie strategy.
The company stunned the industry at the end of 2020 by announcing the entire 2021 Warner Bros slate would stream on HBO Max at the same time it hit theaters. Rival companies like Disney and NBCUniversal took a more case-by-case approach despite widespread movie theater closures and other disruptions due to Covid.
“History is already looking at it quite favorably,” Kilar said in an interview with Deadline on Tuesday, when his exit was made official. “It worked. We were the first over the wall.” he said.
Ann Sarnoff Departing As WarnerMedia Studios And Networks Chief
Discovery and WarnerMedia are expected to close their $43 billion merger as soon as Friday, completing a spinoff of the entertainment company less than three years after it was acquired by AT&T.
Proof of the effectiveness of the streaming initiative, which bore the internal nickname “Project Popcorn,” can be seen in WarnerMedia’s record 2021 revenue of $35.6 billion, Kilar contends. HBO Max, strengthened by the influx of theatrical releases, ended the year with 73.8 million global subscribers when combined with HBO, exceeding internal projections.
The talent community let out a collective howl after the Popcorn move, with top agents, filmmakers and others expressing their bitter frustration. Christopher Nolan, who had revitalized the Batman franchise for Warner Bros in addition to making hits like Inception for the studio, decamped for Universal after lambasting the HBO Max shift. Over time, though, financial arrangements were reached with a number of parties and the furor quieted. Estimates for those payouts were in the range of $200 million. One party was not mollified by any attempts to smooth things over: Village Roadshow, which filed a lawsuit earlier this year over the day-and-date release of The Matrix Resurrections. The suit is still pending, though the plaintiff lost the first round in the legal battle.
HBO Max Head Andy Forssell Is Out Ahead Of Discovery Merger
“I have empathy for how hard change is,” Kilar said. “It’s never easy to reassess your business in such a short span of time, especially when circumstances around you are changing so much.” The exec has previously conceded that the message was not communicated with the utmost care, perhaps a function of how many other plates were spinning.
More recently, Kilar made the difficult decision to cut ties with longtime CNN chief Jeff Zucker after revelations of a personal relationship with one of his key lieutenants, marketing and communications exec Allison Gollust. While that relationship was cited as Zucker departed, the company has also probed Zucker’s conduct in regard to former primetime host Chris Cumo’s efforts on behalf of his brother, disgraced former New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo. Asked about the status of Chris Cuomo’s $125 million arbitration claim against CNN, Kilar would not comment.
He did hold forth on a different CNN topic: last week’s launch of CNN+. The idea of a stand-alone streaming launch goes against the grain of recent WarnerMedia moves to consolidate former stand-alone properties. Discovery intends to merge HBO Max with Discovery+, meaning the future of CNN+ as its own property is not a certainty. “I do believe there is a market for people who only want to subscribe to a digital news service, as we have seen with the New York Times,” he said. As to whether it will be bundled, he said, “The vision has always been to have CNN+ as part of the HBO Max subscription.”
Asked for highlights of his two years at the helm, Kilar responded that what “matters most decades from now” is the increased inclusiveness of WarnerMedia as a company. “The global team is made up of 41% people of color and 27% women. That’s one thing that makes me smile a lot.”
Continuing the work of integrating HBO, Warner Bros, Turner and CNN, which started in 2018 under John Stankey, who is now CEO of AT&T, is another key part Kilar leaves behind. “It wasn’t so long ago that WarnerMedia was Time Warner, and it was a holding company with four different businesses. Those companies operated as silos, sometimes they competed with each other. That was just the way of the world.” Today, he continued, “we really are one company, with a really carefully articulated strategy.”
In part because of the melding of formerly balkanized business units, he added, “Creatively, we are in a groove unlike any other company in the industry right now.”
Asked about regrets, Kilar replied, “I wish I had more time.” He explained that there are two meanings to the comment – first, that he wished there were more than 24 hours in a day. In addition, he wishes he had more “runway” for the activity to come, with HBO Max’s growth and forays in gaming, NFTs and other emerging areas.
Discovery has promised Wall Street $3 billion in cost synergies once it comes together with WarnerMedia. Achieving that target will entail a significant amount of layoffs, further rounds of cuts on top of what company veterans experienced in 2018 and 2019 under Kilar, when dozens of seasoned execs left the fold. Asked what advice he would offer Discovery CEO David Zaslav, who will run the combined entity, Kilar noted that WarnerMedia is a “much larger” company than Discovery. “I would advise them to lean into the storytelling of this business and continue to invest in services.”
Kilar was founding CEO of Hulu and co-created a YouTube rival, Vessel, which he sold to Verizon, after a lengthy early-career stint at Amazon. As far as his next act, he said it will likely be something “at the intersection of entertainment and technology.”
The media, entertainment and technology landscape will continue to see consolidation, he predicted, long after the formation of Warner Bros Discovery.
“I do believe that we’re going to see change,” he said, “a material amount of change in the next 36 months.” Currently, only Netflix, Disney and WarnerMedia, in Kilar’s estimation, have the resources and intellectual property to exist as fully scaled streaming players. “There are a number of streaming services with the ambition of getting to scale,” he said. “But if you’re not in that circle [of three] right now, I think it’s a challenge.”
Must Read Stories
Subscribe to Deadline Breaking News Alerts and keep your inbox happy.