Streaming video visionary or Hollywood heel? Your opinion of WarnerMedia CEO Jason Kilar may depend on which side of the screen is most important to you. For cord cutters, Kilar’s bold HBO Max moves have been revolutionary. For directors, actors, and creative types, Kilar has been something of a villain. Now, the man at the top of HBO Max may be making his way out.
The New York Times reports Kilar is already negotiating his departure after AT&T announced it would be merging WarnerMedia with Discovery. This morning’s bombshell rocked the media world, but it may have also blindsided Kilar himself. The Times reports Kilar was “kept in the dark about the deal until recent days.” Not exactly a vote of confidence.
Kilar’s tenure appears to be a short one. He joined AT&T just a month before HBO Max launched in May 2020. His boldest move will go down in Hollywood history. With the pandemic dragging on, Kilar decided the best move for the company was to release its movies in theaters and on HBO Max simultaneously. You can still feel the aftershocks of that decision today.
In the media rounds this morning, Discovery CEO David Zaslav made repeated statements about the importance of forging and maintaining relationships with the creative community. That was his way of publicly announcing Kilar had burned too many bridges.
When the same-day release strategy broke, all hell broke loose in the filmmaking community. AMC CEO Adam Aron exploded. “Clearly, Warner Media intends to sacrifice a considerable portion of the profitability of its movie studio division, and that of its production partners and filmmakers, to subsidize its HBO Max start up,” Aron said. “As for AMC, we will do all in our power to ensure that Warner does not do so at our expense. We will aggressively pursue economic terms that preserve our business. We have already commenced an immediate and urgent dialogue with the leadership of Warner on this subject.”
Director Christopher Nolan also hit the ceiling. “Some of our industry’s biggest filmmakers and most important movie stars went to bed the night before thinking they were working for the greatest movie studio and woke up to find out they were working for the worst streaming service,” Nolan said. “Warner Bros. had an incredible machine for getting a filmmaker’s work out everywhere, both in theaters and in the home, and they are dismantling it as we speak. They don’t even understand what they’re losing. Their decision makes no economic sense, and even the most casual Wall Street investor can see the difference between disruption and dysfunction.”
Kilar disagreed with the assessment. “I’d argue we’ve done more for theaters in 2021 than anyone else in Hollywood, by far,” he said. And he might have a point. “Godzilla vs. Kong” arrived in theaters and on HBO Max on the same day and the creature feature still managed to score at the box office, with $95 million domestically and a global total over $427 million.
“Wonder Woman 1984” was the first film to go out under the strategy, and it was a substantial driver of HBO Max subscriptions. Those subscribers also stuck around at a higher rate than those drawn into streaming services by other titles.
As time wore on, Kilar seemed to recognize he might have done some damage with his decision. He says he had more than 700 conversations with the creative community in the days surrounding the announcement. “Change is hard,” Kilar said. “And people don’t like change in many cases and surprises are also hard for people. And so these are all careful needles that we’re trying to thread and continue to try to thread and I’m incredibly happy with where we’re at today. But there’s no doubt that it was bumpy back in early December of last year.”
After this morning’s merger announcement, Kilar composed an email to his staff. “I want to stress how important I believe it is in this moment for us to continue to keep our focus and to live up to our potential as a team,” Kilar wrote. “As I shared last month in the context of our first quarter’s results, there is so much wind in our sails. This kind of momentum is hard earned but easily lost.”
Much like the characters in HBO’s “Game of Thrones,” Kilar’s short-lived success may have laid the groundwork for his ultimate undoing. Or maybe this is just the kind of thing that always happens when one company combines with another.
Either way, Kilar’s tenure made a mark.