WarnerMedia CEO Jason Kilar Talks Fan-Forward Strategy and Warner Bros.’ HBO Max Deal at Variety’s Dealmakers Elite Event

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WarnerMedia CEO Jason Kilar’s love for film started at the age of six.

“My youth forever changed in 1977 when my dad took me on a Sunday morning to the movie theater that was across from Monroeville Mall, and I got to see ‘Star Wars: A New Hope,'” Kilar said during his keynote at Variety‘s Dealmakers Elite event. “That forever changed my life when I got into that darkened room and saw a galaxy far, far away.”

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Flash forward about four decades and Kilar is at the helm at one of the largest legacy entertainment companies, WarnerMedia. After working at Amazon and Disney and co-founding Hulu, Kilar officially took over the position in May and has made waves ever since. In conversation with Variety Editor-in-Chief Claudia Eller, Kilar offered insight on his fan-forward strategy, the company’s restructuring and, of course, the game-changing deal between Warner Bros. and HBO Max that many believe will change the film industry forever.

When speaking about his management style and past experience, Kilar emphasized that he believes in thinking through decisions from a fan’s perspective.

“The common thread in all of those experiences was starting first and foremost with the customer, with the audience, with the fan and inventing on their behalf,” Kilar said. “How can we move the world through story, which of course is very focused on the fan. And what we want to do is leverage every single tool in the arsenal to be able to do a better job each and every day and that includes technology.”

Accompanying this fan-forward strategy was a shake-up at WarnerMedia that saw Warner Bros. CEO Ann Sarnoff expand her purview to include oversight of content for HBO, HBO Max and the linear Turner networks; as well as the sudden departure of WarnerMedia executives Bob Greenblatt and Kevin Reilly.

For Kilar, the decision was a tough but necessary one.

“I felt that the right thing to do in service of the fan and in service of the customer was to have one group of studios and networks rather than what was two. I had a tough decision to make, which was who was going to lead that, and I chose Ann Sarnoff,” Kilar said. “But it wasn’t for performance reasons in terms of Bob or Kevin doing a bad job at all, and I was very vocal about saying that in early August when that was communicated…. But I agree, anytime you have beloved leaders like that who are so good at what they do being impacted like that, that is going to send a shockwave through an organization.”

Another tough decision that Kilar feels was imperative: Warner Bros.’ recent deal with HBO Max to release the rest of its 2021 film slate simultaneously in theaters and HBO Max. As movie theaters have been struggling during the pandemic with countless release delays and minimal audiences, the decision has been criticized by many in the industry as one that may kill the movie theater business entirely.

In response to the critcism, Kilar said: “I’m not out to kill anything, I never have been in my life… I’m a builder and a nurturer, I’m not a killer.”

He then explained the decision further, clarifying that each film in Warner Bros.’ slate is receiving a full global theatrical release and that he feels it was the right call.

“We think this pandemic is going to have some long-lasting effects. And so, we had a decision to make, which is what do we do in the context of a pandemic and how can we be thoughtful of not only the fans – which is where it starts and ends – but also the partners we work with, whether it’s a director, a producer, an actor, whether it’s an exhibition community, which we care deeply about,” Kilar said. “And I will say that I feel very good about what we announced last week, which is… being able to give fans the choice – they get to make the choice – in the middle of a pandemic, whether they go to theaters or whether they go to HBO Max or both.”

Though some directors, agents and theater executives said they were blindsided by the decision, Kilar contended that they reached out to everyone before making the announcement and are continuing to have “real, honest” conversations with them after the fact.

“At the end of the day, we all want a healthy industry. We all want storytellers to be compensated fairly and ideally generously, and we ultimately want studios to be healthy too,” Kilar said. “So this is all of us doing the best we can, and we can still do better.”

Watch Kilar’s full keynote above.

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