According to employees who attended the hour-long session, it offered a dose of positive energy for a company that has had a fairly arduous 2019. When one employee asked the new boss why risk-taking has traditionally not been rewarded in the Warner Bros. culture, she drew applause with her brisk reply, “They will be now!” Creating an environment where workers can learn from failure without blame or finger-pointing will be a central goal, Sarnoff added, so that Warner Bros, founded in 1923, can thrive for another century.
Sarnoff, a Viacom and BBC veteran who was named as Kevin Tsujihara’s replacement in June, spoke one-on-one onstage with studio communications chief Dee Dee Myers at the packed Steven J. Ross Theater on the Burbank lot. Employees also watched and participated via streaming video from various offices around the world.
The sudden exit of Tsujihara last spring, who has conceded to feeling “regret” over his interactions with actress Charlotte Kirk, did not surface as a topic in any employee questions chosen by the company, attendees told Deadline. Instead of looking backward, Sarnoff offered her vision for the future of the studio and shared some of her own stories from climbing the industry ladder.
While leading BBC Studios Americas, Sarnoff expanded the horizons of Doctor Who and Top Gear as well as the BBC Earth natural history brand. (Her career has also included executive stints at the NBA and Dow Jones.) During a 10-year run at Viacom, she was EVP Consumer Products and Business Development, helping build a multibillion-dollar business with the likes of Blue’s Clues and Rugrats. She also led teams that developed the TV Land and Noggin networks and also served as COO for VH1 and CMT.
Sarnoff told Myers her management style is characterized as “leading, motivating” and being “in it for the long game,” adding that “transparency, honesty and integrity” are other values she has emulated from her past bosses.
One major theme for Sarnoff and top studio brass is the stewardship of AT&T, which took over Time Warner in 2018 and has been dramatically restructuring WarnerMedia throughout the past few months. Gone is the former silo approach that long defined Time Warner as a loosely affiliated group of nation-states. Cross-department collaboration is now the order of the day.
John Stankey, who has led the entertainment and media content unit since 2017, got a big promotion Tuesday to the newly created role of president and chief operating officer. In addition to WarnerMedia, he will also oversee the company’s pay-TV, telecom and advertising units and is considered to be the heir apparent to AT&T CEO Randall Stephenson.
Sarnoff told Myers that during the interview process she had a “meeting of the minds pretty quickly” with Stankey, according to one account. “He was looking for the kind of media experience I have; looking at different businesses, breaking down silos, building franchises.” She told Myers she is excited about Stankey’s new role and think’s it’s great news for WB as we’ll have more expedient ways to make cross-organizational decision and reach our goals.”
One major initiative, of course, is HBO Max, the subscription streaming offering set to launch next spring. Disney, Apple and NBCUniversal are among the major media and tech players also mounting major new challenges to longtime streaming kingpin Netflix. At Warner Bros., though, the effort has raised questions about the future output of the studio’s powerhouse TV production division as well as how film projects will be hived off from the main studio slate. Film chief Toby Emmerich and TV boss Peter Roth are key figures in that mix.
“We need a compelling offering in SVOD and Toby and Peter will be making content for Max as well as continuing to supply the outside world, and we will gear our production accordingly,” Sarnoff said.
The comments followed sentiments offered by Sarnoff last month, when she officially assumed her new post. In a memo to employees, she acknowledged the challenging times for the company but emphasized the need to innovate.
One light moment during the “lightning round” at the end of the town hall signaled Sarnoff’s intention to not follow the status quo. Asked to choose between the studio’s DC Comics standard-bearers Batman or Superman, she opted for a different superheroine: “Wonder Woman!”