WarnerMedia CEO Jason Kilar on HBO Max, the Restructure, and Whether ‘Tenet’ Will Go the Way of ‘Mulan’ – Variety

WarnerMedia sprung the news Friday of a major internal reshuffling, which translated to the departures of WarnerMedia Entertainment chairman Bob Greenblatt and HBO Max chief content officer Kevin Reilly, and the elevations of Warner Bros. chief Ann Sarnoff and HBO programming guru Casey Bloys. The company also created a new HBO Max operating business unit, and put general manager Andy Forssell — who worked alongside WarnerMedia CEO Jason Kilar after Kilar founded Hulu — at its helm.

In a memo, Kilar emphasized the importance of newly launched direct-to-consumer platform HBO Max to the overall company and said the structural changes are designed to help WarnerMedia operate more efficiently and effectively.

Below is a condensed conversation with Kilar, who spoke with Variety shortly after the announcement was made to break down what it all means:

With Andy Forssell — who, like you, was also at Hulu during its early years — now at the helm of the new HBO Max operation business unit, what does it mean for the streaming platform and will there be a difference in how it is run?

He was very much one of the key architects of what I call over-the-top streaming. This goes back to 2007, when most people were making fun of streaming services, whether it was what was to become Hulu or Netflix at the time. And so that’s the background of Andy Forssell, which I cannot overstate the importance of him as an architect and a business leader in the context of Hulu.

In terms of material changes, there’s two changes that I’ll highlight among a number of them. No. 1 is that he will report directly to me as will his organization under him, which is obviously a change. And that obviously sends a very strong signal, both internally and externally about the importance of direct-to-consumer in the future. That’s one change.

The other change, which is as important, is the global rollout of HBO Max, under Andy now as well… It’s very important in our future that we go global, that we not only go direct-to-consumer, but we also go global… There’s a fantastic executive named Johannes Larcher who actually has taken both Hulu and other over-the-top services to international locales. And Johannes will be reporting to Andy in that role.

Given these changes, does that change your subscriber and revenue targets for HBO Max as you pursue this rollout internationally?

Sorry, are you trying to get me to sign up for new numbers? [Laughs.] Without talking about integers, my team’s ambitions for the opportunity with this structure is certainly very large, as it should be. And I say that in response to consumer demand. There are people that tweet at me all the time that are in Portugal or Spain, or Latin America, or wherever they clearly want HBO Max. It’s our job to take it to them.

Now that Casey Bloys is at the helm of programming for HBO, HBO Max and the Turner networks, how do you see HBO and HBO Max’s originals being further aligned under his leadership?

I think it makes it a lot simpler. Make no mistake, this is a vote of confidence in Casey, which I feel very good about making, given his history. I mean, I think he’s got more Emmy nominations than I’ve got hair. So this is someone who I’ve admired from afar. It’s such a gift to be able to do it alongside them.

And so it makes things simpler. Because Casey, of course, has so much activity going on between his team that this allows him to be able to very quickly make decisions about an HBO sensibility, an HBO Max original sensibility, And then obviously TNT and TBS. And Casey has a long history in programming that’s beyond HBO.

So this is someone who is incredibly talented at programming to different sensibilities. And that’s what I’m so excited about being — is that Casey and his newly expanded team really are going to be able to program for a lot of different sensibilities. Of course, he will always probably be known for HBO because that’s an incredibly powerful sensibility if you take a look at it from an industry perspective, but we got a lot of other sensibilities in this world too, in terms of DC, the material and also sorts of brands and franchises and obviously original IP that we now pipeline.

Should we expect further changes at Warner Bros., or any restructuring of film and TV studios under Ann Sarnoff?

At a headline level, no. Because this really is our move to bring together what was two different studios and content organizations and bring them together as one, and to make the changes that we’re making with Casey, most pointedly. So you shouldn’t expect kind of anything along the lines of obviously what we’re talking about today. I don’t want to ever suggest that any organization on the planet is calcified, and stuck and frozen. So shame on us if we’re not constantly moving forward as an organism, but no, you shouldn’t expect major changes along the lines of this.

What have your conversations with AT&T CEO John Stankey been about the direction for WarnerMedia from here? 

When John and I started talking about WarnerMedia, and this was even before I joined, I look at this as Chapter Two of what was kind of a very clear Chapter One that John put in place. When AT&T purchased WarnerMedia, John did what I think is the most important earth-moving in the story of WarnerMedia, which is — it was three distinct businesses between Turner, HBO and Warner Bros.

What John did was tremendously earth-moving, to break down those walls and those silos and really introduce the notion of a single company, which is WarnerMedia. And I am so thankful for the work that he does, because it is the hardest work, and most important, more candidly, because it’s the foundation. And so what I’m doing in Chapter Two of that, which is tightening our focus so that we can go from historically a wholesaling business, like all media companies have been over the last hundred years, and really moving into the future, which is becoming a consumer business… which means going direct to consumer and going global.

I don’t mean to suggest that we’re not already global today. We have a lot of revenue that’s outside the U.S. But when I talk about going global, I think the opportunities that we could have 70% or more of our customers and our revenue outside the US. — and that really is a change from where we are today.

Given your background in Silicon Valley, what philosophy are you bringing with you from your Hulu days through the present? It certainly seems very prescient, what you knew and what you were working on back at Hulu in 2007, versus the industry’s focus on streaming now.

Thank you for the question, because it’s humbling… I think one of the things that is so important for WarnerMedia and how I’m thinking about it is a couple of things. Number One, we have to start with the customer [and] what are we doing to serve them?

At the end of the day, what we’re trying to do is we’re trying to move the world through stories. We’re trying to move consumers through stories, and I think if we start there. And then ask ourselves, how can we do the best job that we can do in terms of narrative storytelling, interactive storytelling… and then work our way back from that, that’s when the magic happens, for lack of a better phrase. And so that’s one thing that I’m bringing to the table, which is a very, very focused consumer orientation and sensibility.

The other thing that I hope to be able to bring to the team — I think it’s very important that we feel empowered to take risks in serving customers. And when you take risks, a natural inevitability is you’re going to fail plenty. Because when you take risks, you know you’re experimenting, and not all experiments go the way you want. So I want to empower this team, to act boldly, to to lean into the future, take risks… knowing that, yes, sometimes we will fail. But I believe in the fullness of time, given how talented this team is, that we’re going to do great work for customers.

The internet, I think, is the single biggest gift that could be given to any media company. Because what the internet allows you to do is to go direct to consumers all over the planet, and media companies for the last hundred years never had that opportunity. And so I am so excited about our opportunity to do that, but it means that we have to do two things. We have to be consumer oriented. And we have to be willing to take risk and to lean into the future.

Amid the ongoing pandemic, we’ve seen Universal, and this week Disney, make decisions about windowing and putting movies straight to streaming. I wonder what your thinking is around that, given the ongoing pandemic that has no clear return to normalcy at this stage.

It’s a great question. As you can imagine, I spend a lot of time, obviously, with medical experts, and trying to get as close as I can to where the pandemic is heading — vaccines, research and all those other things.

I’d say a couple of things. I think in the fullness of time, we will get back to sports stadiums, we will get back to theaters, we will get back to restaurants. I think that will happen — it’s a question of when and in what countries and what cities and towns, because I think it really is going to be very surgical in terms of the differences.

So I believe that… because we’re humans and we’re resilient and we solve these problems together. The second thing is: Does the presence of a pandemic do things that cause changes in this industry? And the answer is absolutely. I think it accelerates changes that are probably already afoot.

I think it’s fair to say that from a theatrical perspective, some of the things we’re seeing, including “Mulan,” they’re very pragmatic executions given that it is what is is. That said, I think it’s also fair to say that there will be changes in a theatrical distribution. We’re going to lean into the actual distribution incredibly aggressively going forward. But I also think that — is the window going to stay at 130 plus days? I don’t think so. But I don’t think anybody else thinks so.

So the question is going how do we get from here to there, and that obviously is big for a lot of good copy, as they say in the press.

So you think you’d be open to making a similar move that Disney did with “Mulan” this week?

So I don’t have any comment on that specifically. I think with “Tenet” we should judge this based on our decision-making on “Tenet,” which is: We believe in the theatrical business. We’re excited to partner with Chris Nolan to get “Tenet” out in theaters first and foremost.

And then of course, it will be in another formats, in other venues, that are not theatrical. But I think, if you look at our behavior, we’re believers in the theatrical experience, and are also of course in very close communication with everyone in the exhibition industry, about the topic of windows and about how we can collectively serve consumers in the best way possible going forward.

So I know it’s a pretty provocative topic, and I get that and it’s very understandable. But at the end of the day, I’m excited about it, and I’m leaning into it.

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