When she made her first visit to the Burbank lot last month, she was touched to find that studio staffers had framed for her a memo her father-in-law, Bill Sarnoff, wrote back in 1977 approving a then-unknown Christopher Reeve to play the Man of Steel in the studio’s first live-action “Superman” film.
Bill Sarnoff, who worked with the legendary Steve Ross in the late 1960s, had orchestrated the acquisition of DC Comics for Ross’ Kinney Corp. in 1968. The superhero troupe became part of Warner Bros. the following year, when Kinney Corp. bought the studio.
Flash-forward 50 years, and the DC trove is more important to the studio’s health than ever.
The weight of her new role as the leader of the industry’s largest studio behind the now combined Disney-Fox is not lost on Sarnoff. In her first extensive interview since being appointed to the post in late June, Sarnoff says she is focused on the big picture of harnessing all of WarnerMedia and AT&T’s resources to deliver high-end content for global audiences. It’s a sizable leap in profile and responsibility for the seasoned executive who was most recently president of BBC Studios Americas.
“It’s a big job. I understand that,” says Sarnoff, whose appointment surprised many inside and outside the studio because her name had never surfaced as a potential candidate. “The creative industries are about making great, high-quality content and bringing in the greatest talent to do that. That’s why I took the job. It’s an amazing studio.”
Sarnoff, 57, is the first woman to lead the studio that will mark its centennial in 2023. She says she had a “goose bumps moment” during her visit to the lot when she walked into the Steven J. Ross Theater and saw the plaque bearing the names of the studio’s past CEOs. Her name is not yet etched there but will be once she formally starts in late August.
“It is meaningful,” Sarnoff says. “I’ve gotten emails from LinkedIn and other places from people saying, ‘Thank you on behalf of my daughters and my granddaughters.’ I mean, they don’t even know me. It makes you feel like you’re paving the way.”
Sarnoff comes into the studio at a time of turbulence for the industry in general and Warner Bros. in particular. The opening at the top came about unexpectedly, after a scandal forced her predecessor, Kevin Tsujihara, to resign amid allegations he used his position as studio chief to help find movie roles for an actress following an affair. Tsujihara has denied playing a “direct role” in getting jobs for the woman.
WarnerMedia and AT&T made a point of recruiting a woman for the Warner Bros. job, in part because of the circumstances surrounding Tsujihara’s exit and also to offset the dearth of gender and ethnic diversity among top leaders of WarnerMedia companies. Regardless of the circumstances, those who know Sarnoff say she is more than equipped for the challenges ahead.
“She’s got a business side and a creative side that is rare to find in one person,” says Geraldine Laybourne, the former Nickelodeon chief who worked with Sarnoff in the 1990s. During her tenure at Viacom, which extended from 1993 to 2003, Sarnoff was executive VP of consumer products and business development at Nickelodeon. She also served a stint as chief operating officer of VH1 and CMT.
“Sarnoff is very good at bringing people together, and she can easily spot good ideas,” Laybourne says. Sarnoff was given the job of leading the cross-company effort to launch the preschooler channel that became Noggin in 1999. Laybourne recalls being impressed at how Sarnoff wrangled executives and resources from Paramount Pictures, Simon & Schuster and other units outside the Nickelodeon umbrella.
“In a company that is as loosely run as Viacom was back then, there’s so much sibling rivalry between divisions,” Laybourne says. “There was no sibling rivalry here. It was all about ‘Let’s go do something great.’”
After her time at Viacom, Sarnoff was handpicked by then-NBA commissioner David Stern to serve as chief operating officer of the Women’s National Basketball Assn. That was a dream job for a woman who grew up outside Springfield, Mass., playing basketball, softball and field hockey in her youth. “I was on a mission with that job” to boost the profile of women’s team sports, she says. “I wanted not only my daughter but my son to have women’s teams to root for.”
Sarnoff segued from the WNBA to becoming president of Dow Jones Ventures as the parent of The Wall Street Journal was moving into the digital arena and the live conference business. She moved to BBC Worldwide North America, the commercial arm of the British pubcaster, in 2010 as chief operating officer.
Sarnoff’s range of business and creative experience is a plus as Warner Bros. faces a period of reinvention under new ownership and amid a fast-changing landscape. She is in for a learning curve on the film side and a cross-country move as she relocates to Los Angeles from New York. But she feels energized by both prospects.
“You have to build a company not by looking in the rearview mirror but by trying to look around corners at how people are going to consume media in the future,” Sarnoff says. “What do smart televisions mean for the way we consume media? What can we do to enhance the theatrical experience to get people out of the house and into theaters? All of those things need to be thought through. The one thing you know for sure is that you can’t always just keep doing things the way we’ve always done them. I’ve taken jobs where I’ve had to learn new industries pretty quickly. I think I bring perspective and a fresh way of looking at the business.”
Sarnoff emphasizes that questions of strategy and priorities will only come into focus after she has had the chance to get her arms around the company and meet with employees. Based on her initial impressions, she believes studio staffers in Burbank, New York and far-flung offices around the world are ready to emerge from a few months of uncertainty after Tsujihara’s hasty exit in March.
“They’re looking for leadership,” she says. “I got a sense of extreme optimism and a readiness to lean in and figure out what the strategy is going forward.”
Sarnoff also is cognizant of the scrutiny that comes with high-profile jobs and the extra layer of responsibility that leaders have to be vigilant about the potential for sexual harassment and other abuses of power. “I lead with my values. I think that’s a super important way to lead,” she says. “You set a tone, you set a mission and you set the values that you expect people to live by. From what I can tell so far, the team is of the same mindset.”
As she prepares for her move, Sarnoff is eagerly awaiting the day when she gets to show one particular VIP around Warner Bros.’ Burbank lot for the first time in years: Bill Sarnoff. “He can’t wait to come visit,” she says. “He’s so proud.”