New WarnerMedia CEO Jason Kilar Talks HBO Max Expansion, Importance Of Tech, Future Of Linear TV & Theatrical Windows

Jason Kilar

Incoming WarnerMedia CEO Jason Kilar said Wednesday that expanding HBO Max internationally and getting the technology right are two takeaways from his time growing Hulu and subsequent launch of a smaller VOD service called Vessel.

WarnerMedia parent AT&T revealed earlier today that Kilar will take the top job starting May 1 — in the midst of the global coronavirus pandemic. In an interview with Deadline, Kilar called the situation “unprecedented” and “sobering” but is confident entertainment will snap back as it has after previous crises. Given the collapsing advertising market, however, he’s glad the ad-supported version of HBO Max wasn’t slated to launch until 2021. Getting that out and right is another priority, and he can draw on Hulu, where he launched subscription-based and free/ad-supported tiers.

Settling on the founding CEO of Hulu, which Kilar led from 2007-2013, to run WarnerMedia’s large portfolio of legacy businesses from Warner Bros to HBO to Turner indicates just how serious parent company AT&T is about streaming as HBO Max preps its launch for later in May, shortly after the new chief executive starts. Kilar said he’ll mostly be taking a back seat at the preparation and launch, praising Bob Greenblatt (CEO of WarnerMedia Entertainment and Direct To Consumer) and the HBO Max team for “the good work they’ve done” and “the incredible decisions they’ve made.”


“I am very much a believer in the product and the service,” he said. “It will be a great day. What I’ll be doing is I will be taking orders for pizzas for the team, drinks for them. Making sure to cool things down if they are too warm in the war room. In that mode, to give leaders [of the project] what they need to do what they do.”

Then, he said, the sky’s the limit. “We are still in the early innings of customers worldwide starting to watch content on demand. There are 200 million paying customers that pay for video services in a 7-to-8 billion population world,” he said. “Under the hood from a tech standpoint, it’s very important to get that [tech] right, invest in it. Those are the two very important things. The tech is hard to do but once you get it right, the cost of distribution in a tech environment like digital, is that variable costs are so small it allows you to go global.”

Kilar launched Vessel after leaving Hulu and then sold it to Verizon, which kept the technology but shuttered the service.

Kilar, 48, will be Los Angeles-based and traveling frequently. He reports to John Stankey, COO of AT&T and CEO of WarnerMedia, who will relinquish the latter role. Reporting to Kilar are seasoned executives including Greenblatt; Jeff Zucker, head of WarnerMedia News and Sports; Warner Bros chief Ann Sarnoff and WarnerMedia chief revenue officer Gerhard Zeiler — several of whom were being considered for the CEO job before the parent decided to favor an outside candidate with a digital resume.
It’s a stark contrast with another CEO transition this year – Disney’s Bob Iger handing the CEO reins to longtime Disney employee and head of parks and resorts Bob Chapek, 60. Disney is a much bigger, more complex company, yet with growing Disney+ as top priority, the decision evoked surprise from Hollywood to Wall Street.
But Chapek noted that running Disney’s home video arm for years gave him insight into the direct-to-consumer business. Kilar, for his part, revealed that in one of his earliest positions at Amazon, “I wrote the business plan for Amazon getting into the video retail business. VHS. Everyone wrote off the VHS business when the DVD showed up on the scene, but the value of VHS business was incredibly robust.”
Kilar mentioned that responding to a query about the future of Turner’s challenged linear networks, led by TBS and TNT. “The reason I bring that up is that I while I am not in disagreement on the challenges faced by the linear TV business, I know it provides a great value for so many people around the world and I don’t see that going away.” He noted — as Stankey has done too — that linear networks’ onscreen mix may change to feature more sports, news and live events.
Kilar said the industry will bounce back from the coronavirus pandemic but may be changed. He would not elaborate how. “I do have faith that people will continue to care about sports, that advertisers will want and need to put their messages before audiences at scale,” he said. “I am also very much a believer that consumer behavior changes in time” and satisfying it “will be our job as leaders and builders.”

On theatrical windows, he said, as others have, that a handful of movies that jumped abruptly from theaters to digital platforms was a function of chains closing and studios needing to keep the films in front of an audiences. “It doesn’t seem like an experiment, more a pragmatic realization that given the situation it was the right thing to do,” he said. But, “I feel strongly that the next 10 years will look very different than the previous 10 years. I do think that every aspect of the WarnerMedia business [and others] will look different.”

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