WarnerMedia CEO Jason Kilar leaves the company: ‘I wish I had more time’
Sounding a bittersweet note, Jason Kilar announced that he is leaving WarnerMedia, the company he dramatically reshaped during his nearly two-year run as chief executive, as Discovery prepares to assume control of the entertainment behemoth.
“I wish I had more time,” Kilar told the Los Angeles Times on Tuesday.
Discovery’s takeover of WarnerMedia — which includes such prominent assets as CNN, HBO, TBS, Cartoon Network, Turner Classic Movies and the storied Warner Bros. film and television studio — could be finalized by next week.
When the deal closes, Discovery’s longtime chief executive, David Zaslav, will take charge of the combined operation, Warner Bros. Discovery, and Kilar will step aside. The change in ownership interrupted Kilar’s plans to remake WarnerMedia into a global powerhouse for the digital age.
“I wish that we had more runway because we are working on so many things right now — digital collectibles and [nonfungible tokens], our streaming expansion throughout the globe, and our work in gaming, which has been a huge focus of mine for the past two years,” Kilar said.
Also on Tuesday, the company announced that Ann Sarnoff, chief executive of WarnerMedia Studios and Networks Group, also would be exiting amid the transfer to Discovery. Sarnoff joined Warner Bros. in 2019 as the first female head of the legendary Burbank studio in its nearly 100-year history. In 2020, Kilar expanded Sarnoff’s portfolio to include entertainment television networks, including HBO.
David Zaslav, the CEO of Discovery, has been catapulted into one of the most powerful positions in Hollywood with the $43-billion merger with AT&T’s WarnerMedia.
Industry insiders have long been expecting the moves, recognizing that Zaslav would want his own senior management team. Zaslav also has signaled that he wants to be more involved in the creative aspects of movie-making — unlike his predecessors. In fact, WarnerMedia said Sarnoff’s role would “not be duplicated in the new organizational structure.”
Zaslav will become the fourth CEO overseeing the WarnerMedia assets in five years.
John Stankey, CEO of corporate parent AT&T, who ran the entertainment assets for nearly two years, had recruited Kilar to succeed him as WarnerMedia’s chief in May 2020. Nine months later, Stankey quietly began negotiations with Zaslav to unload WarnerMedia, allowing the phone company to exit Hollywood. The deal was announced in May, and it was clear there wouldn’t be a role for Kilar once Zaslav took control.
AT&T’s ownership marked a turbulent time for WarnerMedia.
Kilar — whose total compensation topped $52 million in 2020 — spent much of his two-year tenure refocusing the company around its streaming services, including HBO Max and CNN+. After a rocky start, HBO Max has become one of Hollywood’s most popular streaming services. CNN+, which launched last week, hasn’t gotten its sea legs.
“We’ve been in the middle of a pandemic, cord-cutting has continued at 5% to 7% a year, and theaters have been closed, or partially closed,” Kilar said. “And we literally just delivered the highest revenues in the 99-year history of the company.”
It’s unclear whether Zaslav will put the brakes on some of Kilar’s initiatives, including continuing with the ambitious business plan that Kilar and his team mapped out for CNN+. The Discovery chief has promised Wall Street billions of dollars in cost savings.
Kilar and his team pushed ahead with the launch of CNN+ even though some had expected him to pause those plans, given the pending Discovery takeover. Such calls intensified after CNN’s longtime leader, Jeff Zucker, abruptly departed the company in February — just weeks away from CNN+’s debut. But Kilar forged ahead.
“CNN+ is the future of CNN,” Kilar said. “Just as HBO Max is the future of the entertainment side of our business.”
Kilar envisioned CNN+ as a bridge to consumers who have cut the cable TV cord; those who have little interest in signing up for a traditional TV bundle but want access to a national news service; and existing CNN linear subscribers who also want to get their news and information through an app on their phones and tablets.
In addition to running Hulu, Kilar was previously an executive at Amazon.
Kilar joined WarnerMedia in the early weeks of the COVID-19 pandemic. At the time, many in Hollywood openly questioned whether AT&T had the fortitude to manage a major media company. The HBO Max launch was widely considered a flop, and Kilar moved quickly to reorganize the company, slashing the jobs of hundreds of workers. Kilar also forced out creative chiefs Bob Greenblatt and Kevin Reilly.
Kilar was the architect of Hulu, which is now owned by Walt Disney Co., and he made it clear that he felt the streaming business would ultimately surpass WarnerMedia’s legacy businesses, including theatrical distribution for its movies.
“Given where the world is moving, we need a robust, scalable, digital subscription-supported business model,” he said.
Kilar and Sarnoff ruffled feathers in Hollywood with their 2020 decision to release Warner Bros.’ entire theatrical slate on HBO Max the same day the titles arrived in theaters. Warner Bros. had to cut deals with agents, producers and big-name stars to avoid lawsuits like the one that Scarlett Johansson filed against Disney for the bifurcated release strategy for “Black Widow.”
AT&T to spin off HBO, other WarnerMedia assets in a huge deal with Discovery. What went wrong?
The companies are expected to announce their proposed joint venture as early as Monday, creating a new company that would reshape Hollywood.
But the strategy worked to help HBO Max get traction as many moviegoers preferred to stay home rather than risk exposure to COVID-19 at their local multiplex. But the arrangement cut into ticket sales.
Despite the impending acquisition by Discovery, Kilar continued his mission to reshape the company. In February, he fired Zucker. Zucker’s exit came after he failed to disclose that he was involved in a romantic relationship with a subordinate, his top communications executive Allison Gollust, in violation of corporate ethics policies.
Zaslav already has tapped veteran producer Chris Licht to run CNN when Discovery assumes control.
On Tuesday, Kilar, 50, declined to say what he plans to do next.
“I’m not hanging up my cleats and retiring,” he said. “I’ve got hopefully two to three more decades of building in front of me, and, of course, I’ll soon be handing over the keys to David.”
Times staff writer Ryan Faughnder contributed to this report.
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