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WarnerMedia CEO Jason Kilar Talks Future of Theatrical Releases, HBO Max, and More

Derek Walborn

WarnerMedia CEO Jason Kilar dropped some soundbites of interest at his virtual appearance at the MoffettNathanson Media and Communications Summit regarding HBO Max, his take on the future of theatrical releases, and the global path forward for streaming services.

Reflecting on HBO Max debuting Warner Bros.’ 2021 films at the same time as their theatrical release dates, Kilar said “In a very tumultuous year, it’s going very well. And I’d argue it can go well in 2022 and beyond as well.”

He’s right. HBO Max’s highly anticipated premiere of “Godzilla vs. Kong,” for example, claimed the largest streaming audience for the service up to that time. The monster flick has taken in $93 million domestically and $423 million worldwide.

The numbers certainly paint a rosy picture for the strategy going forward past stay-at-home orders and pandemic couch potato-ing. HBO Max leads the competition in new subscribers for the first quarter of 2021, adding 2.7 million newcomers to the service.

The notion of popping shows meant for two-story-tall screens and four-ton subwoofers didn’t sit well with a lot of people hesitant to rock the boat both creatively and financially with regard to the Hollywood system we have all grown familiar with. However, Kilar doesn’t feel that cinema runs are a thing of the past just yet and, in fact, thinks that bringing these films to a home audience was a smart move for the future of movie theaters as a whole.

“I’d argue we’ve done more for theaters in 2021 than anyone else in Hollywood, by far,” he said.

“There will be those stories that are so epic in scope and fit a certain sensibility that we feel that an exclusive theatrical release makes sense. … But there will be other stories that are different, that we actually think hew much closer to what we’re seeing this year in terms of movies that are available on HBO Max the same day that they’re made available to exhibition.”

“It’s going to be fascinating to see how that all evolves,” he said, adding “lots of different reasonable people will come to different conclusions” about it.

“The world will change and we all need to change with it, including exhibition,” he said. “We’re committing to navigating that path with theaters, but at the same time not taking our eye off the customer.”

Warner Bros. has opted to restore exclusive theatrical releases beginning in 2022, thus ending this particular deal with HBO Max. It remains to be seen if the streaming platform’s meteoric rise will translate to the same degree of user loyalty that Netflix has enjoyed absent the parade of blockbusters.

With regard to the complaint that HBO Max might have so much content that it paralyzes the user, Kilar was upbeat.

“Well that sounds like a great piece of feedback — ‘There’s too much on there for me!’”

Kilar explained that he feels that the company’s tremendous back catalog and history makes deciding what to present a difficult but exciting task. The temptation to put it all out there has to be tempered by the need for an easily navigable user experience with a focus on curation and discovery.

He went on to reference HBO Max’s streaming of the TCM Classic Film Festival, calling it “a fantastic example of the power of curation” which required “surfacing just the right gems at the right moment, in a wrapper that modernized it in terms of the shoulder programming of film experts who introduced it.”

Kilar did not back down from lodging a few criticisms at Hulu, a company that saw him as its founding CEO and now sees him spearheading the competition. Specifically, Kilar feels that Hulu’s lack of energy towards international streaming is a huge misstep, especially as domestic markets have become saturated and other streamers look outside our borders for new viewers.

“I think it’s totally fair to bash, candidly, Hulu’s lack of global footprint that could have been possible starting in 2008.”

“The one thing that I regret was that I was not able to convince the board members to allow Hulu to go across the globe,” he said. “A head of international was hired at Hulu long before any of the other [streaming services] had even thought about going global.”

When asked about the June launch of HBO Max’s ad-supported tier, Kilar is smitten.

“I think your conclusion when you see it is going to be, ‘Wow, this is elegant. This is unlike any other service in terms of how they have executed this, how thoughtful they have been in terms of ad load and staying away from creative fatigue and just the chrome, the user interface, the pixels. It’s something we’ve been sweating a lot. … We lived up to the brand promise of HBO.”

Kilar is equally enthused about the continuation of the stories of Westeros via HBO’s upcoming “Game of Thrones” prequel series.

“I’m just so excited because the world that exists in Westeros and the broader landscape and the characters,” he said. “The Targaryens are about as crazy as they get. It’s literally the essence of good drama.”

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