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About two years after AT&T named him CEO of WarnerMedia, Jason Kilar told staff at the entertainment giant on Tuesday that he was leaving when the company’s merger with Discovery closes.
The executive’s tenure featured innovation, such as the launch of HBO Max and hybrid movie releases, but also drama and heated debate. He faced particular scrutiny for his “Project Popcorn” day-and-date HBO Max and theatrical streaming experiment and the decision to change the leadership at CNN, including CNN head Jeff Zucker, who departed after failing to disclose a personal relationship with the brand’s marketing and communications chief, Allison Gollust, who then also exited.
After sharing his decision to leave WarnerMedia with staff on Tuesday, Kilar discussed takeaways from his tenure and his take on the future of streaming and disruption in an interview with The Hollywood Reporter.
Given his past experience as CEO of Hulu and at such companies as Amazon, Kilar’s next career move will attract a lot of attention, but he says he doesn’t have specific plans yet beyond one thing. “There’s no retiring in my plans,” Kilar says. “In terms of where you should expect to see me: building. Because ultimately, I just love to build, it will be most likely at the intersection of storytelling and technology. Where media and technology meet tends to be where I have been most fulfilled. And so I just think there is so much to be done still.”
How will he look back at his time at WarnerMedia? “I absolutely adored this adventure here at WarnerMedia,” Kilar emphasizes. “I love the company. I love the team. I love the mission. But there is a transaction with Discovery, and my job is to turn the keys over to [Discovery CEO and future Warner Bros. Discovery CEO] David [Zaslav] when he comes in.”
Kilar thinks Zaslav and his team get to take charge of the WarnerMedia businesses at a good time. “WarnerMedia is in such incredible shape,” he says, noting “the record revenues last year and HBO Max and all the streaming at CNN+ and the gaming business.”
Kilar adds that the Discovery team can’t wait to hit the ground running. “Discovery is quite excited about the prospects of coming into WarnerMedia and to be able to wrap their arms around it. And so, one of the things I have shared with David over the course of the last year has been, as excited as he may be prior to the merger closing, I think he is only going to be more excited post-closing because of how great things are here,” he notes. “And I say that because of the momentum of the business creatively, I say it because of the momentum of the business streaming wise and momentum on the gaming side as well. So, I think the Discovery crew is only going to be more excited once they are able to actually lift up the hood and have full visibility into the business.”
With Hollywood giants and others all-in on streaming, what are the key challenges for streamers now? “There are a couple of challenges I see,” he tells THR. “At the end of the day, the most important thing is you have to delight customers day in and day out, and that does require scale, because it requires heavy investment to be able to entertain people each and every day. For those companies that are not able to get to scale, I do think that they will be left behind. Right now, the companies that are at scale, in storytelling, are WarnerMedia, Netflix and Disney. I’m setting aside Apple and Amazon because they have different businesses in terms of hardware and retail, but in terms of the media companies, the storytelling companies, I think it is challenging if you’re not one of those three scale players.”
Asked about criticism of CNN’s leadership shake-up and whether in retrospect the ouster of Zucker was handled the right way, Kilar offers: “The most important thing [was] to make decisions. As I mentioned in a memo that I shared with the team in January, there were violations of our standards and practices, and therefore we accepted the resignations of a number of folks.”
Recalling that time, Kilar shared a potential leadership lesson, adding that “I stand [by this] today.” The executive explains: “We made decisions, and oftentimes, as a leader, you make decisions that may not be warmly received widely. But yet it is important as a leader to make those decisions.” He adds: “And I would argue that CNN is in a very good position today, given the launch of CNN+, and obviously, the over 3,000 people that work incredibly hard each and every day. If you take a look at the last, let’s say, six weeks in Ukraine, it is probably some of our finest journalism, and it is literally shaping the world. And so there is a lot to be excited about with regard to CNN.”
“Project Popcorn,” releasing films on streaming and in cinemas during the coronavirus pandemic, was another much-criticized decision during Kilar’s tenure. Again, though, the executive says it was about making the call on a path that ultimately others also followed. “We were the first ones over the wall,” Kilar elaborates. “And the rest of Hollywood followed us. It is funny, I have been in this industry for decades now. And I know it is sort of a fun narrative to think of me as not, but between the birth of Hulu, writing the business plan for Amazon getting into video, literally having warm relationships with every studio going back to 1997. It has been fun to kind of push the boundaries of this industry, I would argue, from within.”
He continues: “It was something that we felt very strongly about and ended up being a very, very good decision. And others followed us. And, obviously, it worked out very, very well in terms of the combination of box office performance in the middle of the pandemic and streaming performance.”
And The Batman’s run is a reason for joy. “It certainly feels nice to know that we are sitting on a movie that is headed toward $800 million at the box office and is going to be showing up on streaming services as well. So, we feel very good about where things sit right now,” Kilar says.
Will the box office window evolve further from here? The outgoing WarnerMedia CEO expects that to be the case. “I do think it is going to evolve. I think what you will see is exclusive theatrical windows for what I will call Imax-worthy spectacles. And clearly, The Batman is one of those. And Aquaman is one of those, and The Flash is one of those and the Marvel movies are certainly that,” Kilar explains. “But I also think what we are going to see happen is that the romantic comedies, the nuanced dramas, you know, these motion pictures that we are very interested in financing and obviously are aggressively doing right now. I suspect what you are going to see is those movies will not just be available on streaming, but they will be made available to exhibitors worldwide on a nonexclusive basis. It will start with the independent cinemas. And then eventually I suspect the chains will play a part. You will see screen inventory being given to those types of movies as well. I actually think it is going to be a very, very diverse slate of motion pictures. But the exclusivity, I suspect, will be different for the smaller and more intimate movies.”
When queried about the next big disruption, Kilar notes: “I think one of the biggest trends, maybe not even trend, but I would say if you look around a digital corner of sorts, I think that the blockchain is going to have a material impact on Hollywood and it is going to have a material impact on creators. The reason why is that it allows for immutable, clear ownership of digital assets, and it also allows for distributed financing. And I think those two things that the blockchain enables are very, very powerful in any intellectual property business, which ultimately is what Hollywood is about. So I think, you know, kind of looking over the next decade, the blockchain is going to weigh very heavily in where the industry goes. You are going to see it in digital collectibles. And I also think you’re going to see it in the financing of the creation of new stories.”
Asked about his current or recent favorite shows, Kilar warns that “we could be on for hours,” before sharing some recommendations for HBO Max shows. “One that I think is about as heartwarming as it gets is Julia. We just premiered it last Thursday night. And I adore it. I have seen the whole season. And it is joy. Julia equals joy in my book. And of course, I love Winning Time, I love The Gilded Age and, as painful as it is as a parent to watch it, Euphoria is next-level storytelling. But if you are looking to smile, if you are looking to have a tear or two, you got to watch Julia.”
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