Three months after Warner Bros. was rocked by a sex scandal, the nearly century-old movie and television studio is getting its first female chief executive.
BBC executive Ann Sarnoff has been named chairwoman and CEO of Burbank-based Warner Bros., parent company WarnerMedia said Monday.
Sarnoff replaces Kevin Tsujihara, who stepped down in March after allegations that he had an extramarital affair with an actress who later got roles in Warner Bros. movies. (Tsujihara, through his lawyer, denied having any “direct role” in the actress’ hiring.)
The appointment comes as a relief to a studio that has operated under a cloud of uncertainty since Tsujihara’s departure. John Stankey, CEO of AT&T-owned WarnerMedia, has been under pressure to find a respected female executive to stabilize the company, which is one of the biggest producers of movies and television programming. WarnerMedia, which owns businesses including HBO, CNN and Turner Networks, has been criticized for its lack of female leadership.
As head of Warner Bros., Sarnoff, 57, will instantly become one of the most powerful women in Hollywood, overseeing a vast array of entertainment properties including DC superheroes Batman and Superman, Looney Tunes, the Harry Potter universe, TV shows including “The Bachelor” and “Young Sheldon,” video games and consumer products.
The company is also in the midst of a key transition in order to compete with growing streaming video giants including Netflix and rival studios such as Disney that are launching their own online subscription services. WarnerMedia, formerly known as Time Warner, was acquired by AT&T about a year ago after a long regulatory battle.
WarnerMedia is preparing to create a streaming service that will use its popular brands, including Warner Bros. and HBO, to draw subscribers. WarnerMedia has been aggressively trying to lock down high-level producers, including J.J. Abrams and John Wells, to arm the company with more content as it joins the streaming wars.
Sarnoff, who is president of BBC Studios Americas, will be based in Los Angeles and will start the job later this summer, WarnerMedia said. In the interim, Burbank-based Warner Bros. has been led by the studio’s film chief Toby Emmerich, TV leader Peter Roth and Chief Financial Officer Kim Williams.
Sarnoff is currently based in New York with her husband. She has two adult children.
The choice of Sarnoff was somewhat of a surprise. The Georgetown University and Harvard Business School alumna has had a roughly three-decade career in business and media, holding major roles at companies including Nickelodeon, the Women’s National Basketball Assn. and Dow Jones before joining BBC. But hers was not among the names bandied about in the entertainment industry as a likely candidate to head Warner Bros. What’s more, her expertise is in business strategy, not making films.
However, Warner Bros. already has experienced executives in Emmerich and Roth leading the creative direction of the studio. WarnerMedia said Sarnoff’s skill set and experience leading varied businesses will serve Warner Bros. well as it tries to adapt to rapidly changing viewer habits.
At BBC, for example, she led the broadcaster’s efforts to grow properties such as “Doctor Who,” “Top Gear” and BBC Earth, and also guided the creation of BritBox, a streaming service targeting Anglophiles in the U.S. and Canada.
Speaking by phone, Sarnoff said she wants to bring that same sense of collaborative leadership and innovation to her new position.
“My first job is to get out there on the lot and start hearing people’s thoughts about the future,” Sarnoff said. “I’m a collaborative person by nature. I tend to see opportunities that cross divisional lines.”
Sarnoff, who began her professional career as a business consultant, joined BBC in 2010 as chief operating officer of BBC Worldwide North America, where she helped grow distribution of BBC America to 80 million subscribers. Before that role, she served as an executive at news company Dow Jones, where she led new ventures and oversaw corporate strategy. She was also chief operating officer of the WNBA, recruited by NBA commissioner David Stern.
Her media experience also includes a decade at Viacom Inc., from 1993 to 2003, where she served as Nickelodeon’s head of consumer products and business development, leading the group that created the channel Noggin and helped boost franchises such as “Rugrats” and “Blue’s Clues.” After Nickelodeon, she became COO of VH1 and CMT and launched VH1 Classic.
“There’s a through line [in my career] of figuring out businesses quickly,” she said. “I like to be an entrepreneur within larger media companies and try to find opportunities to create new assets.”