WarnerMedia CEO Jason Kilar said the company’s day-and-date movie release strategy has boosted the fortunes of HBO Max but also helped movie theaters eager for new titles during their emergence from Covid-19.
“I’d argue we’ve done more for theaters in 2021 than anyone else in Hollywood, by far,” Kilar declared during a newsy, virtual appearance at the MoffettNathanson Media and Communications Summit. Among other topics, he discussed the upcoming Game of Thrones prequel, June’s launch of an ad-supported tier of HBO Max, and also took a shot at his alma mater, Hulu.
Asked numerous times during the 50-minute session about theatrical strategy, Kilar noted, “Lots of different reasonable people will come to different conclusions” about it.
For WarnerMedia, he continued, “There will be those stories that are so epic in scope and fit a certain sensibility that we feel that an exclusive theatrical release makes sense. … But there will be other stories that are different, that we actually think hew much closer to what we’re seeing this year in terms of movies that are available on HBO Max the same day that they’re made available to exhibition. It’s going to be fascinating to see how that all evolves.”
Kilar, who came to WarnerMedia in 2020 after stints at Hulu, Amazon and start-up Vessel, added a note reflecting his tech background. “The world will change and we all need to change with it, including exhibition,” he said. “We’re committing to navigating that path with theaters, but at the same time not taking our eye off the customer.”
Kilar pointed to strong results in 2021 for day-and-date releases like Godzilla vs. Kong, which has managed to take in $93 million domestically and $423 million worldwide. “In a very tumultuous year, it’s going very well,” Kilar said. “And I’d argue it can go well in 2022 and beyond as well.”
AT&T said HBO Max and HBO together had 44.2 million subscribers as of the end of the first quarter, with 2.7 million additions in the period credited largely to the movie strategy. When the plan to put the entire 2021 slate on streaming day-and-date was first announced late last year, it prompted a storm of outrage among filmmakers, agents and exhibitors alike. Warner Bros has since announced an agreement with Regal Cinemas that will restore an exclusive theatrical window starting in 2022.
Both partners in the research firm, Craig Moffett and Michael Nathanson, shared the moderating chores. Both have had their criticisms of WarnerMedia and parent AT&T in recent years, and Kilar at one point in the 50-minute session acknowledged that both analysts would continue to have their takes. “That’s the way the free market works,” he shrugged. Nathanson early in the session mentioned being an HBO Max viewer but said despite “a lot of great content,” the user experience leaves him feeling that “there’s too much on there.”
Kilar replied sunnily, “Well that sounds like a great piece of feedback — ‘There’s too much on there for me!'” Nathanson came back with, “Well, there is! … It’s the paradox of choice. So how do you improve the user interface and discovery on it?”
Because the session was streamed with audio only, Kilar responded, “Michael, I’m smiling and I’m so glad you asked the question because I’m a product person at heart and this is the kind of stuff I love. I spend a lot of late night studying every pixel.”
He cited the recent streaming via HBO Max of the TCM Classic Film Festival, which was “a fantastic example of the power of curation.” The company’s 98-year pedigree, he said, puts a burden on curation “beyond just algorithms.” In the case of the TCM fest, he said, the feat was “surfacing just the right gems at the right moment, in a wrapper that modernized it in terms of the shoulder programming of film experts who introduced it.” The experience, he said, created the feeling of “when you’re a film lover and you go to film festivals. It’s more than just the film. It’s the environment, it’s the curation.”
Known for his stint at Hulu, where he was founding CEO and scaled the streaming service under the aegis of multiple corporate parents, Kilar did not hold back when his alma mater came up. In a discussion of international streaming, as HBO Max gets set to enter Latin America and dozens of territories in various parts of the world next month, Kilar was asked why Hulu has stayed domestically focused since 2007. “I think it’s totally fair to bash, candidly, Hulu’s lack of global footprint that could have been possible starting in 2008.”
Kilar said he’s proud of his work in creating Hulu, whose value he said had reached about $28 billion. “The one thing that I regret was that I was not able to convince the board members to allow Hulu to go across the globe,” he said. “A head of international was hired at Hulu long before any of the other [streaming services] had even thought about going global.”
Now fully controlled by Disney, Hulu has put a pin in international plans given the primary role of Disney+ as a global streaming brand and the recent expansion of Star.
Streaming is “ultimately a global business,” Kilar added. “Because this is largely a fixed-cost business. The cost for distribution is diminimus. All of the investment is in the upfront, fixed costs of the stories that we get to tell. Once you do that, it’s far to your advantage to amortize those costs across the globe.”
As far as the ad-supported tier of HBO Max, which is launching in June, “I think your conclusion when you see it is going to be, ‘Wow, this is elegant. This is unlike any other service in terms of how they have executed this, how thoughtful they have been in terms of ad load and staying away from creative fatigue and just the chrome, the user interface, the pixels. It’s something we’ve been sweating a lot. … We lived up to the brand promise of HBO.”
Asked about upcoming programming headed to HBO Max, he noted LA Lakers drama Showtime and the long-awaited prequel to Game of Thrones, which just began production in the UK.
“I’m just so excited because the world that exists in Westeros and the broader landscape and the characters,” he said. “The Targaryens are about as crazy as they get. It’s literally the essence of good drama.”