Warner Bros. has tapped BBC Studios Americas president Ann Sarnoff as its new CEO, a surprise pick that is sure to shake up the venerable studio.
Sarnoff becomes the first woman to head Warner Bros. in its nearly 100-year history. She was under the radar during WarnerMedia’s search for a successor to lead the studio following the forced resignation of chairman-CEO Kevin Tsujihara in March.
At Warner Bros. she will run one of the industry’s largest production operations, spanning film, TV, digital, video games and consumer products. The studio has been through turbulent times in recent months following the hasty exit of Tsujihara and inevitable changes in the integration with new parent company AT&T. Warner Bros. is also at the center of WarnerMedia’s ambitious effort to bundle the former Time Warner assets into a streaming platform to compete in the big leagues of the global platform business.
Sarnoff will report to WarnerMedia CEO John Stankey. She’s set to join the studio later this summer.
“I am delighted Ann is joining the WarnerMedia team and excited to work side by side with such a talented and accomplished individual. She brings a consistent and proven track record of innovation, creativity and business results to lead an incredibly successful studio to its next chapter of growth,” said Stankey. “Ann has shown the ability to innovate and grow revenues and has embraced the evolution taking place in our industry. I am confident she will be a great cultural fit for WarnerMedia and that our employees will embrace her leadership, enthusiasm and passion for our business.”
Sarnoff said she felt privileged to be tapped to join a studio “with such a storied history.” She told Variety in an interview that she hoped to build on the studio’s strengths by fostering collaboration across divisions “to make the whole more than the sum of the parts.”
Sarnoff was recruited for the job through the standard headhunting process; she had no prior connection to Stankey or other WarnerMedia leaders. Warner Bros., with its more than 8,000 worldwide employees, is the largest organization that Sarnoff has headed. She said she’s been lucky in her career to work “with great brands and businesses with a lot of upside,” and Warner Bros. is no exception.
“I think it’s going to be really exciting to work on source content for different generations as their tastes are changing and the way they consume content is changing,” Sarnoff said.
Sarnoff added it was far too soon for her to consider structural changes or other overhauls to the studio’s operations. She plans to spend a lot of time getting to know her colleagues and better understanding its disparate businesses.
“I’m looking forward to seeing how my experiences can be additive for the strong team that is already there,” she said. “The consumers we’re all trying to reach are the same — it’s about how we approach them with different types of media. I think it’s about looking at the world through a new lens.”
Sarnoff has had a range of executive experience, from working for Dow Jones to the WNBA to 10 years as a business and consumer products executive at Viacom, from 1993 to 2003. She joined what was then BBC Worldwide in 2010 as COO and rose to head its global production network. BBC Studios Americas was created in a restructuring last year.
The vacancy at Warner Bros. was created as questions surfaced about sexual impropriety and allegations that Tsujihara abused his power as studio chief to land roles for an actress, Charlotte Kirk, with whom he had an extramarital affair. He was forced to resign as Stankey acknowledged publicly that his behavior had been “inconsistent with the company’s leadership expectations.”
AT&T and WarnerMedia have been criticized for their lack of senior female leaders. When the Tsujihara situation became public, WarnerMedia is understood to have been determined to find a female candidate to lead the studio. Speculation about candidates centered on a number of high-profile industry women, including former Universal and Fox chief Stacey Snider, Disney alum Anne Sweeney and Vice Media CEO Nancy Dubuc.
News of Sarnoff’s appointment was met by surprise on the studio’s Burbank lot. As an outsider, she will face a learning curve in grasping the studio’s business and a culture that has long been distinct even within Hollywood.
Stankey had words of praise for the trio of Warner Bros. executives who were tapped to lead the studio in the interim: Warner Bros. Pictures chief Toby Emmerich, TV Group boss Peter Roth and CFO Kim Williams.
“I want to thank Toby, Peter and Kim for stepping up during this transition and making sure Warner Bros. didn’t miss a beat,” he said. “Their commitment to delivering operationally and creatively is evident in our results over the last several months. It’s clear that Ann becomes part of a team that is second-to-none.”