New WarnerMedia CEO Jason Kilar Wants to Help the AT&T Division "Lean Into the Future"

Cody Pickens
Jason Kilar at the offices of his former startup, Vessel

The former Hulu executive says he's in "awe" of CNN's coronavirus coverage, will need to familiarize himself with the many brands at his new company and believes HBO Max is the service "the world needs right now."

Jason Kilar knows a thing or two about launching a streaming service. He did it once, with Hulu, at the dawn of the online video boom. Now, he'll be leading the charge at WarnerMedia as its new CEO when it debuts HBO Max this spring. 

Though Kilar — who was announced as John Stankey's successor on Wednesday morning — is quick to point out that he has little to do with HBO Max, which WarnerMedia has been building for the better part of two years, his appointment speaks to the service's importance within the AT&T-owned media company. And observers see Kilar as an experienced, steady hand who can help guide the long-term strategy for the service. 

Still, the media world looks a lot different today than it did when Hulu launched in 2008. There are more competitors than ever before, with Disney, Apple, Amazon and, soon, NBCUniversal all chasing the streaming Goliath Netflix and its 167 million global subscribers. Meanwhile, the coronavirus pandemic, which has forced people indoors and shut down most of Hollywood, has led to a moment of economic uncertainty around the world, prompting new questions about how HBO Max and other forthcoming streamers will perform at launch. 

And Kilar — who once penned a withering blog post about the legacy media business, writing, "History has shown that incumbents tend to fight trends that challenge established ways and, in the process, lose focus on what matters most: customers" — is now set to run a 30-year-old company that rose to prominence during the cable TV boom. He spoke with The Hollywood Reporter on Wednesday about why he went to work for WarnerMedia. 

What attracted you to the WarnerMedia job?

When you think about the world's greatest storytelling companies, WarnerMedia is literally among the top three by any definition. And it’s not just the things that WarnerMedia has done in terms of the library, it's also what they're doing right now. That only happens with folks like Bob Greenblatt and Jeff Zucker, Ann Sarnoff and Kevin Reilly and Casey Bloys and Sarah Aubrey. So that was a huge appeal for me. I do believe there's this unique, time-sensitive moment to lean into the future, which is to think about different ways to entertain consumers — whether it's through distribution or different formats. I just get so excited about that opportunity, and HBO Max is clearly the most important example of that. And so those were the things that really got me excited, which is an amazing storytelling expertise and the amazing personnel and leaders that are already in the business, combined with that unique opportunity to lean into the future through technology.

When did you first start talking with John Stankey about joining the company?

John and I have known each other, this goes back to the Hulu days. So I’ve known John for a long time. I think that it's fair to say that there's just a lot of mutual respect. I certainly have a lot of respect for him. And so, in the first quarter of this year, that’s when our conversations got serious. You know, is this something that makes sense for him and does it make sense for me? And, obviously, the short answer was a resounding yes.

You’re taking over a broad portfolio of businesses. What are you looking forward to digging in on?

I didn't have one that sort of sticks out, and I’ll tell you why. I was talking to Jeff Zucker last night about CNN, and I'm just in awe of what he and that team have done historically and what they're doing right now. I'm just so thankful for that service, that brand. More people in the world are getting their news and information from CNN than any other place right now. And so, it’s easy to get super excited about being a cheerleader, because Jeff is running that business and certainly doesn't need my help in any way there.

But then again, I feel just as excited about the incredible work that Bob Greenblatt is doing from a content perspective, from the HBO Max perspective. And then, Ann, it’s just amazing to see what’s going on in her organization between these amazing franchises like Wonder Woman and Aquaman and Batman. In a way, it's like a kid in a candy store. But I also want to be very candid that these are world-class leaders. The world doesn't need two Anns or two Bobs or two Jeffs or two Kevins or two Caseys.

My job is going to be quite a bit different than any of those jobs. My job is to think about strategy. My job is to think about resources and making sure that people have what they need to do the best work of their lives, to remove friction and to try and 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.

What will be the biggest learning curve for you?

I wish I could come with just one. I'm candid when I say that I'm not aware of all the different businesses within WarnerMedia. So the list is long in terms of what I need to get up to speed on starting in May.

How are you feeling about launching HBO Max given the current climate?

In this current environment where people are not driving on the highways and out-of-home billboards are not a real big marketing tool at this point in time, then the question becomes, how agile and nimble are you as an organization to basically adjust your plans? And from what I understand — and, again, I don't start until May — under Bob's leadership, the team has done a fantastic job being very adroit and resilient in the face of this so that they can get their marketing out in front of consumers. And from what I understand, the product is absolutely there. The reason why I have a lot of excitement about this is that it’s a service the world needs right now, more than ever, because of the way we're living our lives in in the middle of COVID-19.

You were pretty vocal when you ran Hulu about the challenges of innovating within the legacy media infrastructure. Do you still feel that way?

The thing that's fascinating to me about 2020 is that you've had such dramatic change from, say, 2007, which is when we wrote the first line of code for the launch of Hulu. We’ve had people selling companies based on what the internet has done to media. So, I would say that 2020 is a very, very different situation. 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. That’s what gets me excited, to be able to work with world-class people, with world-class franchises and content, and to then marry that with an appropriate sense of urgency and leaning into the future. To me, that’s a very interesting recipe.

Interview edited for length and clarity.