"Product Geek" Jason Kilar Brings Streaming Focus to Top WarnerMedia Role

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The former Hulu chief is known as a firebrand who's attentive to user experience on direct-to-consumer platforms.

On April 1, only an hour after WarnerMedia revealed that Jason Kilar had been named its new CEO, Netflix chief Reed Hastings sent a tweet congratulating the former Hulu chief on his new gig, writing, “Scary for us to have you there.”

When Kilar was the CEO of Hulu from 2007 to 2013, he turned a legacy media idea with a ridiculed name into Netflix’s biggest competitor, all while managing the complex politics that resulted from a business owned by three corporate rivals. At WarnerMedia, he arrives as the AT&T division prioritizes streaming with soon-to-launch, direct-to-consumer offering HBO Max.

“The people that I talk to, they’re very eyes-wide-open and very much believers that there needs to be a lean into the future, there needs to be a sense of urgency to do that,” Kilar tells The Hollywood Reporter.

Kilar — who will be based in Los Angeles — says he has known his WarnerMedia predecessor (and new boss) John Stankey since his Hulu days. He also got to know his new owners as a member of the AT&T Technical Advisory Council. Talks about a role at the company heated up earlier this year after Stankey, a veteran AT&T executive, was promoted to president and chief operating officer at the telecom company in 2019. Though sources say former Disney executive Tom Staggs and recently departed Hulu CEO Randy Freer were also considered, the job was largely Kilar’s to lose.

Although he’s well known in entertainment and tech circles, Kilar’s hiring caught some Hollywood insiders off guard. Despite a résumé that includes time as a senior vp at Amazon and two years leading video startup Vessel, which struggled to catch on with users and ultimately sold its technology to Verizon, Kilar, 48, has never run a large media organization. And the one he is set to take over May 1 is still closely tied to legacy cable and theatrical businesses, which have both been significantly impacted by coronavirus-related shutdowns. “He can inspire great ideas, but it is a challenge to manage a big company like that,” says a source who worked with Kilar during his Hulu days.

To top it off, Kilar will have a number of big personalities to contend with at top-heavy WarnerMedia, including recently installed WarnerMedia Entertainment chairman Bob Greenblatt, who also oversees HBO Max, and WarnerMedia News & Sports chairman Jeff Zucker, who ran NBC during the early days of its Hulu joint venture with Fox. Both were seen as contenders for Kilar’s job. 

And there have been tensions at some of the divisions — including HBO and Turner, where several longtime leaders have departed — as AT&T has sought to streamline operations and implement changes following their acquisition.

In interviews, Kilar has praised the work of executives like Greenblatt, Zucker and Warner Bros. chair and CEO Ann Sarnoff. "These are world-class leaders," he says. “My job is going to be quite a bit different than any of those jobs." 

People who know him well say that the skills he honed at Hulu, including rallying his employees behind him while adeptly managing competing objectives from corporate owners NBC, Disney and Fox, will serve him well as he navigates his new role at WarnerMedia. “That was a very tough spot for him to be in,” says an executive at a WarnerMedia competitor. “He did a pretty good job given that unwieldy cast of characters.”

Kilar describes his new role as focused on strategy and giving WarnerMedia’s leaders the resources they need to “sort through some of the gnarly things that are going to be confronting any company on the planet — particularly media companies — with regards to consumer behavior changes.” But LightShed Partners media analyst Rich Greenfield says his hiring also signals that WarnerMedia is prioritizing HBO Max, which for $15 per month will offer a combination of originals and library programming from HBO, Turner and Warner Bros. “He has a really unique background,” Greenfield says. “This is the type of executive who is going to think outside of the box.” 

In his six years at Hulu — during which time he helped grow the business to nearly $700 million in revenue and 3 million subscribers — Kilar earned a reputation as a firebrand passionate about product and customer satisfaction. He would have heated debates about every aspect of the Hulu experience, down to the font selection. “This is an impulse business; you need to make it easy,” he said in a keynote at the 2008 NAB show.

But his focus on the consumer also made him a sharp critic of Hulu’s legacy media owners. In a 2011 blog post, he dinged media companies for relying on advertising to the detriment of the user experience. “Our journey at Hulu involves significant risk,” he wrote. “That is the nature of innovation, particularly the business of re-inventing television.”

Though that style could cause some friction with his new corporate bosses, Kilar appears to have mellowed in the seven years since he ran Hulu. Innovation today, he says, is much easier than it was when streaming was first getting started. “I can’t imagine he took the job without some degree of comfort that he was going to have the ability to push boundaries and break a little glass,” Greenfield notes. 

Jason Hirschhorn, the CEO of media site REDEF who was president of Hulu rival Sling during Kilar’s tenure, notes of the executive: “He is a product geek at heart. And I think that is a key part of the soul of the next generation of media leaders. He’s as much a part of the audience as he is leading them.”

A previous version of this story misstated John Stankey's title at AT&T. He is chief operating officer, not chief content officer.

Kim Masters contributed to this report.

A version of story first appeared in the April 8 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.