Warner Bros. and the End of the Macho Era

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

In hiring Ann Sarnoff as CEO, the studio breaks with its decades-old, male-centric culture, writes Hollywood Reporter executive editor Stephen Galloway.

Around the turn of this century, everything looked so promising for women. Twenty years after Sherry Lansing had broken the glass ceiling — well, one of many glass ceilings — when she became the first female production president at a major studio (20th Century Fox), other women were all around, their names popping up in any conversation about leadership roles.

Stacey Snider was named chairman of Universal Pictures in 1999; Amy Pascal got a parallel job at Sony Pictures in 2003, four years after she had become chairman of Columbia. Their gender, just like that of the other women who started to run networks and cable companies and production houses, didn’t seem to matter.

Then something went wrong. Rather than see a wave of women join them at the top, the movie business, at least, took a step back. Brad Grey replaced Lansing at Paramount and in turn was succeeded by Jim Gianopulos; Tom Rothman walked into Sony when Pascal walked out; and suddenly only one woman was left running a studio: Donna Langley at Universal, and even she had to report to a man, Jeff Schell.

For every leap forward, it seems, Hollywood feels compelled to take a leap back. For every giant wave that carries it toward a more egalitarian future, a monstrous undertow sucks it toward the past.

Change has taken place, for sure; but at the summit of the industry, it’s moved at a glacial pace. The moguls who make the critical decisions may like to have women working for them — but put the emphasis on for, not with.

Nowhere has that been truer than at Warner Bros. Like so many other studios, it has retained a distinct culture over the years, almost regardless of who’s in charge. It’s operated as a fortress, impregnable and often impervious to the shifts coursing through society at large.

That’s been the case ever since its earliest days, when it was founded by four warring siblings — all brothers, in case you didn’t remember — and it’s continued through the imperial reign of Steve Ross and on through the monarchical era of Bob Daly and Terry Semel. Even under the relatively enlightened leadership of Alan Horn and Barry Meyer, the studio had trouble shedding an identity that had defined it for decades: as an empire of men, with only a few select women invited to sit in the private dining room where the studio chiefs held sway, but never at the head of the table.

Now, overnight, that’s over. With the June 24 appointment of Ann Sarnoff as chair and CEO (replacing the ousted Kevin Tsujihara), this bastion of testosterone is on the point of undergoing a chemical shift.

“It’s hard to overestimate what this does to arguably the most masculine studio ever,” says a producer who knows Sarnoff well. “This is the studio that thrived on making gangster movies and the Lethal Weapon/Joel Silver era. This is 1,000 percent a groundbreaking change.”

An unexpected instigator, John Stankey, the AT&T executive who now runs WarnerMedia, enlisted Sarnoff. This stranger to Hollywood, this interloper brought in by AT&T to take over one of the citadels of Hollywood power as WarnerMedia CEO, this man eyed warily by most of the entertainment community, has done what nobody dared do before him: hired a woman as CEO. And not just a woman, but an outsider like him.

Her performance now will depend on many things: how she defines her role in relation to key executives already in place; how skillfully she manages her most important task, the transition to streaming; and how openly she’s embraced by an industry long hostile to outsiders.

Many Hollywood insiders remember when Coca-Cola hired David Puttnam as chairman of its subsidiary, Columbia, in 1986. He didn’t stand a chance. He may have won an Oscar for producing Chariots of Fire, but he wasn’t part of the boys club, the club that would have guaranteed him access to the best scripts, the top stars, the most coveted projects. He was fired in 1987.

Gail Berman and Rich Ross didn’t fare much better when they were brought in to run the movie divisions of Paramount and Disney, even though both were longtime TV executives. Berman left two years later; Ross was ditched after a couple of the biggest bombs in Disney history, 2012’s John Carter and 2013’s The Lone Ranger.

Sarnoff, a former president of BBC Studios Americas and chief operating officer of the WNBA, makes these executives look like the ultimate insiders.

But they got their jobs before the entertainment business was swept into an era of revolutionary change. And revolutions need revolutionaries, people who can take a fresh look at the landscape, bring in new talent and new ideas. They need people who don’t just bend the mold but break it.

Sarnoff has already broken one kind of mold in coming in as a woman; now she’ll have to break others. But which ones?

If her judgment is shrewd, she’ll realize the studio still has some of the most capable executives around, veterans like Toby Emmerich (chair of the Warner Bros. Pictures Group) and Peter Roth (president and chief content officer of the Warner Bros. TV Group), experts at the manufacturing side of the business, at creating product and seeing it safely through the pipeline. It’s not at their level she should be looking but above, at the blue-sky picture, at the role Warners needs to play in the streaming environment and even beyond.

The studios have gone through radical change before, but nothing like this. They’ve gone through the transition from silence to sound, from cinemas to TV, from theaters to video and DVDs. But they’ve never gone through a time when their very existence was called into question.

Sarnoff’s success won’t come from thinking small but from thinking big. Which is just what Stankey did when he hired her.