John Stankey, the man tasked with integrating WarnerMedia into the AT&T family, tried to sell employees at the company’s film and television studio on the virtues of being part of a global telecommunications giant. He promised to enhance cellular service on Warner Bros.’s studio lot during an hour-long presentation to staffers on Wednesday, receiving sustained applause from a group of Valley-toilers who have long been frustrated by dropped calls and dodgy signals.
The meeting is one of a series of sit-downs that Stankey, the newly minted WarnerMedia CEO, is doing this week in the wake of AT&T’s $85 billion purchase of Time Warner. The company has been rechristened WarnerMedia, but so far AT&T has taken pains to stress that it wants its new employees to continue making movies, shows, and other entertainment products despite having new corporate parents.
Stankey did just promise that Warner Bros. staffers will be able to make and receive calls, he also acknowledged that the corporate changes have caused some anxiety. He noted that the merger “might create some discomfort,” but said the deal will be seen in retrospect as “a time of accelerated learning and career growth.”
“Prepare yourselves mentally,” he urged the audience. He was joined on stage by Warner Bros. CEO Kevin Tsujihara and communications chief Dee Dee Myers, who moderated the “no holds barred” discussion.
Stankey also proved he’s able to make fun of himself. After Tsujihara noted that every profile of Stankey mentions his hulking 6 foot, 5 inch frame, the WarnerMedia chief rose to his feet and jokingly stared down the assembled staff and Tsujihara. He stressed that despite his size, he should not be seen as intimidating, telling staff that he likes ask lots of questions and can handle robust debate.
He also noted that the lengthy approval process — AT&T had to battle a Justice Department anti-trust suit — meant he had time to have hip replacement surgery. As Stankey gets his hands around a business that includes not just Warner Bros., but also HBO and Turner, he had a message for staff.
“You have a job to do — keeping the plane flying while you’re changing the engine,” he said.
Tsujihara also sought to comfort employees worried that AT&T will institute a set of layoffs and cost-cutting measures, stating that the “assets of Warner Bros. are our people.”
“It all begins and ends with the quality of the content we create,” he added.
Before Stankey took the stage, Warner Bros. played a sizzle reel narrated by “The Big Bang Theory’s” Kunal Nayyar, showing clips from film classics such as “Casablanca” and “North By Northwest,” as well as upcoming releases like “A Star is Born.” There were also clips from the studio’s gaming and television division, which produces the likes of “Arkham Asylum” and “Two and a Half Men.” The sizzle reel closed with the tagline “The Future Looks Epic”
Stankey’s first question came from someone dubbed as the studio’s most “senior employee,” and up popped Bugs Bunny on the screen.
“What’s up, John?,” Asked Bugs. “What’s your favorite thing about Warner Bros.?”
Stankey answered by saying, “I love the history and have a strong degree of respect for the legacy… It’s a tremendous honor to be part of the future.”
The charm offensive appeared to work. Stankey noted that most cuts will come at the corporate level, and won’t impact employees at the studio. He was described by two people in the room as “impressive” and “articulate.”
But Stankey also alluded to a media landscape that remains in flux. He noted that even before buying Time Warner, AT&T considered investing in developing its own shows and movies as a way of differentiating itself from other phone companies like Verizon and device makers such as Apple that aspire to create premium content. It is important to move early and move fast since “the battle lines are being drawn” in the industry, he noted.
Part of that coming clash for consumers began to take shape on Wednesday, as Disney increased its bid for much of 21st Century Fox’s media empire to $71.3 billion in an effort to outflank Comcast. Both companies are trying to strengthen their arsenal as they, like AT&T, eye a future that’s being driven by Silicon Valley disruptors.