Warner Bros. CEO Exit Sets Off Race for Top Job

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WarnerMedia CEO John Stankey

In the wake of Kevin Tsujihara's departure, WarnerMedia's John Stankey promises to appoint interim leaders while he searches for a permanent replacement.

The race is on for one of the most prized jobs in Hollywood. 

Just two weeks after WarnerMedia CEO John Stankey handed Kevin Tsujihara additional responsibilities, Stankey now must find a replacement for the Warner Bros. chairman and CEO, who resigned Monday in the midst of an investigation into whether he intervened in the casting process on behalf of a young actress with whom he had an affair.

With Warner Bros. already dealing with the uncertainty of a new owner in AT&T, Stankey plans to move quickly to put in a place an interim team to steer the studio while he looks for a permanent replacement for Tsujihara. In a studio-wide memo announcing Tsujihara’s departure, Stankey wrote, “You have my commitment to work diligently and quickly to minimize any disruption in the day-to-day operations of the studio as a result of this leadership transition. I will share an interim leadership structure with all of you tomorrow.” Toby Emmerich, who oversees the studio’s movie operations as Warner Bros. motion picture group chairman, and Peter Roth, who supervises TV as Warner Bros. television group president and CCO, are widely expected to be tapped, along with a third executive — possibly, Carolyn Blackwood, co-president of Warner’s New Line Cinema unit.

But finding a permanent replacement for Tsujihara is a much more complicated proposition. Tsujihara oversaw film and TV as well as games, digital distribution and new media. And as part of Stankey’s recent reorganization of WarnerMedia, Tsujihara had just been put in charge of a new kids and young adults business that includes Cartoon Network, Adult Swim and Boomerang. Digital content creator Otter Media, Turner Classic Movies and licensed consumer products development for all WarnerMedia properties were also added to his portfolio.

Tsjujihara’s exit, which came in the wake of a March 6 Hollywood Reporter article on his relationship with actress Charlotte Kirk and his efforts to secure her work in Warners films and TV shows, leaves a rare opportunity for an experienced executive to hop into a studio chairman job. While Stankey is said to have not yet come up with a job description for the role, several industry veterans have been the subject of chatter around town.  

Stacey Snider is being mentioned as a top candidate to head Warners, since she will be stepping down as chairman and CEO of 20th Century Film Film once Disney takes over Fox this week, though two sources say Snider has not yet been approached. Thomas O. Staggs — who was once groomed as Bob Iger’s successor as the head of Disney, but who resigned as COO in 2016 — is another possible candidate, although he is reportedly also being courted by CBS Corp. for its top job.

Stankey is said to be especially interested in hiring a woman for the Warners job, since his other recent moves — tapping Bob Greenblatt to head WarnerMedia Entertainment, giving CNN president Jeff Zucker authority over news and sports and elevating Turner International president Gerhard Zeiler to WarnerMedia chief revenue officer — have all involved men. At the same time, “he’ll do what’s good for business, regardless of gender,” predicts one source close to the process.

Other names that could also be on that list include former CBS network chief Nancy Tellum, who is currently serving as executive director in the office of the CEO at MGM, looking at long-term strategies; Donna Langley, chairman of the Universal Film Entertainment Group; and Gail Berman, who served as president of Paramount Pictures from 2005 to 2007 and who is currently chairman and CEO of The Jackal Group, an independent production entity formed in partnership with Fox Networks Group.

The executive search, no matter how quickly it is resolved, is likely to result in a setback for Stankey's larger plans says Hal Vogel, CEO of Vogel Capital Management. "Tsujihara was just settling into a broader strategic role, and any replacement, whether from inside or outside, will likely require at least a half a year to set the direction and to place their own people into compatible roles and relationships," he says. "In my opinion, AT&T doesn't have the native knowledge that will be needed to do any of this quickly and efficiently. As recent changes at HBO management suggest, quite a few veteran execs who knows the nuts and bolts are no longer at the revamped company."

If Stankey can’t find one exec equally at home in film, TV and digital, suggests one Warners observer, he could split up the top job, hiring a CEO to oversee film and bringing in another executive, reporting to the CEO, to manage television, including the cable networks that were just handed to Tsujihara. “Television will be more than 50 percent of the profitability of the division, and there is no current executive who could oversee the expanded television business,” that source says, noting that Warners has a tradition of similar arrangements. When Barry Meyer, whose background was in TV, was named Warners chairman and CEO in 1999, Alan Horn was brought in to oversee movies as president and COO. Another option could be to give film and TV to the same executive (after all, talent largely migrates between the two mediums these days) and pair him or her with a second exec overseeing games and other interactive media. 

“Toby and Peter are incredibly talented. There is no vacuum or lack of management already there,” observes Rich Greenfield, a media analyst at BTIG Research. “But if you want to build and consolidate a direct-to-consumer service, everything in film and TV should be folded into one entity and then everything should be folded into Greenblatt. With one content entity, everything would roll in the same direction. Netflix doesn’t have a separate film and TV division from its streaming division. Part of the problem with Warners and Disney is they have separate entities.” 

If Stankey opts for putting a triumvirate in place, for the time being, there is Warners precedent for that, too. When Jeff Robinov departed as studio chief in 2013, Meyer and Tsujihara created an operating triumvirate that included Emmerich, then running New Line; then-Warners production exec Greg Silverman; and then-marketing exec Sue Kroll.

Emmerich, who began his career at New Line, was promoted to Warners president in 2016 and has been chairman of the motion picture group, overseeing production, marketing and distribution since early 2018. Roth — who spent 10 years at ABC, before joining Fox where he was eventually named president, Fox Entertainment in 1996  — has been at Warners since 1999 and was promoted to head of the TV group in 2013. 

Blackwood, who joined New Line as a production attorney in 1999, currently serves as New Line co-president, alongside Richard Brenner. In addition to serving as a liaison between New Line and Warners’ other divisions, she also oversees Warner Bros. Theatre Ventures, the company’s live stage play division. 

Despite Stankey’s promise to move quickly, the events of the past two weeks — on March 8, Tsujihara issued an apology amid the misconduct probe — have already been disruptive. Last week, Warner Bros. canceled a town hall scheduled for March 15 that was to have been led by Tsujihara in something of a victory lap after his recent promotion. The move was so abrupt that flyers for the event still could be found on the Burbank lot a day before it was to have taken place. The town hall has since been rescheduled for April.

Observes Vogel, "These sorts of upheavals have a long history of happening in large entertainment companies but not so much in the relatively more staid telecom industry. My guess is that AT&T undersestimated these types of risks when they made their bid."

— Pamela McClintock and Kim Masters contributed to this report.