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Ann Sarnoff, the chair and CEO of WarnerMedia Studios and Networks Group, is exiting the company as AT&T spins off its entertainment division to Discovery in a $43 billion megamerger.
“I want to thank Ann for all of her leadership during a transformational period for the company and our industry,” said David Zaslav, incoming CEO of the newly named firm, Warner Bros. Discovery. “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.”
Warner Bros. noted in a statement that Sarnoff’s role will not be filled with an exact replacement when the combined firm unveils its new leadership after the deal officially closes in April. As Zaslav looks to hit the ground running at Warner Bros. Discovery, speculation has intensified about which executives may be enlisted to be his top lieutenants.
Sarnoff, formerly president of BBC Studios Americas, was named to the role of Warner Bros. chief in June 2019 as the Dallas-based AT&T aimed to find a successor to Kevin Tsujihara. Sarnoff became the first female CEO of Warner Bros. in the Burbank studio’s history and also oversaw a portfolio that included HBO Max, DC, Warner Bros. TV, linear channels like TNT and TBS, along with consumer products units and studio operations.
“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,” Sarnoff wrote in a note to staff on Tuesday.
Sarnoff added: “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.”
The pandemic, and the launch of WarnerMedia streaming service HBO Max in May 2020, changed the trajectory of the studio’s release plans.
After launching Christopher Nolan’s Tenet in theaters in September 2020, where it grossed $363 million globally, Warners’ leadership pivoted to send titles direct to consumers at home. Late that year, WarnerMedia launched “Project Popcorn,” an experiment that sent Warners’ entire film slate to HBO Max on the same day as those titles — including Wonder Woman 1984, Dune and The Matrix: Resurrections — hit theaters.
“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),” Sarnoff noted in the memo to employees.
The “Project Popcorn” effort did help boost HBO Max and HBO to a combined 73.8 million global subscribers by the end of 2021. This year, Warner Bros. returned to exclusive theatrical runs of 45 days, including for the Matt Reeves-directed The Batman, which has grossed $712 million globally.
Also exiting in the leadership shuffle is WarnerMedia CEO Jason Kilar, who sent a memo to staffers on Tuesday bidding farewell and touting the growth of the division since he joined in April 2020. “I will savor every last step as I wander the lot in Burbank several more times this week,” Kilar wrote in the note to employees. Kilar also added of Sarnoff: “Ann is a world-class executive and the definition of a selfless leader.”
The departures arrive as AT&T, led by John Stankey, gets set to formally spin off ownership of its WarnerMedia division to Discovery, which is expected to install a new leadership team under Zaslav. The spinoff of WarnerMedia, unveiled in May 2021, avoided any challenge from U.S. and European Union antitrust regulators and was formally approved by Discovery shareholders this March.
The combined firm — which will bring together assets like HBO Max, Warner Bros. and CNN with HGTV, Food Network and Discovery Channel — is looking to find about $3 billion in cost synergies from the merger. The eventual streaming combination or bundle of HBO Max with Discovery+, which launched in January 2021, is also expected. (Discovery has about 22 million paying streaming subscribers globally to its offerings.)
“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,” Zaslav added in his Tuesday statement, noting of Sarnoff: “We all wish her great success in the future.”
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