How Warner Bros.' First Female CEO Ann Sarnoff Says She'll Navigate "Shape-Shifting" Studio Future

Ann Sarnoff attends the 32nd Annual WP Theater's Women of Achievement Awards Gala-Getty-H 2019
Mike Pont/WireImage

The executive's talks with WarnerMedia chief John Stankey about the job centered on the dramatic changes in consumer behavior facing the media giant, which will launch its own streaming service later this year.

When Ann Sarnoff steps onto the Warner Bros. lot as its new chair and CEO later this summer, she’ll be the first woman to hold the job in the 96-year history of the studio. Even in an industry that has been rocked by the #MeToo movement, Sarnoff, who is currently president of BBC Studios Americas, will face an unusual cultural challenge — she’ll be taking over the job previously held by Kevin Tsujihara, an executive who was ousted following a Hollywood Reporter story in March that depicted him allegedly trying to get acting roles for a woman with whom he was having an affair. (Tsujihara says he had no direct role in the hiring of the actress).

“I’ve worked in many different companies with many different cultures,” says Sarnoff, speaking by phone Monday morning to THR after WarnerMedia unveiled her hiring. “I don’t know the details and the inside story of the [Warner Bros.] culture.... But I look forward to bringing my style and my perspective into the culture at Warner Bros., a style that’s collaborative, respectful of talent, of knowing of who’s smart and who to listen to.”

Though Sarnoff, 57, will be a new face to some in Hollywood, the Massachusetts native comes to the role with decades of experience in media and entertainment companies. Prior to joining BBC Worldwide, she was president of Dow Jones Ventures, COO of the WNBA and executive vice president for consumer products and business development at Nickelodeon.

Sarnoff says her conversations with WarnerMedia CEO John Stankey about the job focused on the dramatic changes in consumer behavior facing the media giant, which will launch its own streaming service later this year.

“We talked about all the shape-shifting happening, the disruption of how people are consuming media and the new routes to market,” says Sarnoff, who participated in the launch of a streaming service called Britbox at the BBC, for people who love British programming but can’t find it on more traditional media. “How do you take an amazing set of assets and continue to evolve and address the dynamics in the business?”

Warner Bros. motion picture and television chiefs Toby Emmerich and Peter Roth will report to Sarnoff. Having worked at Nickelodeon in the '90s, she brings an expertise on an audience all the studios hope to better reach. “I was at Nickelodeon when millennials were born, and I know a lot about them, because they were our audience,” Sarnoff says. “I’ve watched them grow up, and I know a little about how they consume media.”

At Warner Bros., she will face the politically delicate task of helping to determine which properties ought to be distributed on WarnerMedia’s forthcoming streaming service and which should remain with more traditional distribution models. Asked how she’ll navigate that, Sarnoff points to a parallel process she participated in at the BBC, where BBC Studios produced for both the BBC public service as well as for third parties. “You look to see what the objectives are and what the content priorities are,” Sarnoff says. “[At Warner Bros.] we’ve got enough capacity to do both, to serve the outside world and our own streaming service.”

Though Nickelodeon produced movies during Sarnoff’s time there, including Harriet the Spy and The Rugrats Movie, film is the area to which the executive brings the least experience. Warner Bros.’ film studio has had some box office wins in the last year, including Aquaman and Crazy Rich Asians, but it has taken a backseat to Disney.

“Toby's done a great job running the movie side of things,” Sarnoff says. “I’m looking forward to learning more about it and adding my experiences. At the end of the day it's all the same consumer, whether they're watching television or going to the movies.” (She cited the studio’s recent production of A Star Is Born as a favorite).

Sarnoff declines to answer questions on the studio’s role in chasing large deals with talent, including its recent $500 million courtship of J.J Abrams, or on what direction she sees for the DC Extended Universe. “It’s early days, so no, but I'm making notes of the questions I need to answer, so thank you.” She says the question of how to integrate the studio with Warner Bros’ new corporate parent, AT&T, “wasn't a focal point” of her conversations with Stankey.

Among those who have worked with her, Sarnoff has a reputation for being a dextrous leader, able to push a company to tackle thorny issues internally. At PayPal, where she serves on the board, “She’s always pressing to be sure we understand the pain points for consumers,” says CEO Dan Schulman. “She asks good, tough questions that make us better.”

A competitive golfer, Sarnoff holds a B.S. from Georgetown University’s McDonough School of Business and an MBA from Harvard Business School. “She came with a fancy business degree, but she didn’t act like it,” says Geraldine Laybourne, who was president of Nickelodeon when Sarnoff was a young executive there. “When she left, it was a tremendous loss to Viacom. She’s a leader with a backbone, and she uses that backbone to do the right thing.”

Sarnoff has been living in New York City with her husband and has two adult children, including a daughter who just finished medical school and will be doing her residency at UCLA.