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On the eve of AT&T’s earnings, outgoing WarnerMedia CEO Jason Kilar and two of his top lieutenants, WarnerMedia Studios and Networks Group chair-CEO Ann Sarnoff and HBO Max executive vp and general manager Andy Forssell, met with The Hollywood Reporter and other outlets Oct. 20 at the Warner Bros. lot to discuss the company’s strategy in broad strokes.
One topic was Netflix, which revealed Oct. 19 that it added 4.4 million subscribers in its third quarter for a total of 214 million paid global subscribers. As the fight for subscribers escalates among top streaming services, viewership data remains a key marker in determining which shows and films are resonating with users. And for Forssell, Netflix’s viewership data acts as a “scoreboard” to compare with his own streamer’s success — even though HBO Max has no plans to publicly release numbers of its own.
“I wouldn’t expect to put those numbers out,” Forssell told THR on Wednesday. “I’m not surprised to see Netflix do it. I wouldn’t expect us, or other players, to put numbers out just because it’s really hard to understand apples-to-apples comparisons. So we labor over it. We know exactly how well these shows are doing, we pay attention to the numbers Netflix puts out because that’s the scoreboard for us to matter in that.”
In a letter to shareholders earlier this week, Netflix said it would base its future viewership metrics on the total hours viewed within the first 28 days of a show or film’s release, rather than counting views based on the number of viewers who watched at least two minutes of a show. The streaming giant also said it would “more regularly” release this data publicly while also touting that Squid Game had 142 million views over its first 28 days, beating out previous records set by Extraction and Bridgerton.
On the topic of transparency, or lack of it, for streaming viewership figures, Kilar signaled that metrics would become more standardized once a few services dominated the marketplace. “I think probably a later stage is once people get to a steady state where I think there’s going to be a short list of folks that get to scale, then I think you’ll probably see a bit more transparency because we all know what we’re dealing with, and you can build businesses and frameworks and other things on top of it,” noted Kilar.
It’s Netflix’s current market dominance, Forrsell said, that helps the streamer get seemingly impressive numbers, even if some shows are what he described as “mediocre” in quality. “I say this with great respect: They are the global leader,” Forrsell said of Netflix. “They were aggressive as a first entrant, they’ve got more subs than anybody else. They can put up a mediocre show and pretty impressive numbers because they are in 197 countries…. We try to estimate, for instance, how we’re doing versus Netflix and the ability in the U.S. to try and look at apples-to-apples numbers, and we feel very good about where we are there, even though they’re probably 20 million subs ahead of us in terms of total penetration.”
Kilar, meanwhile, has spent months trying to make good with Hollywood following his controversial decision late last year to make Warner Bros.’ entire 2021 theatrical slate available simultaneously in theaters on HBO Max. The executive is expected to depart the top gig once Discovery’s $43 million bid for WarnerMedia is approved by regulators, but signals he’s no lame duck. “What you do is you get up every day and you come into this great lot and you provide leadership,” Kilar said. “I’m really proud of the job that we’re doing as a team, which is to provide that focus and context to the nearly 30,000 people [who work here] as to what we’re here to do, why we’re here to do it.”
Sarnoff, continuing on this theme, said she discovered a culture of silos and “a bit of every person for themselves” when arriving at the studio several years ago. “And it just doesn’t feel that way anymore. And I don’t know if it’s a sexy thing to write about, but it’s truly something that’s bringing people a lot of joy and motivation in these very difficult times.”
When asked about the dual theatrical-HBO Max release strategy, Kilar reaffirmed that “Project Popcorn” — as it’s known internally — will cease in the new year. He also pumped up the cinematic experience and encouraged consumers to see Denis Villeneuve’s sci-fic epic, Dune, “on the biggest screen possible.” The sci-fi epic launches Friday in U.S. theaters and on HBO Max.
Pamela McClintock contributed to this report.
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