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Warner Bros.’ CEO Surprise: Ann Sarnoff Represents Unexpected Choice for Studio in Transition

It’s been a tough few months at Warner Bros.

But on Monday, months of uncertainty ended for the thousands of employees at the company’s Burbank headquarters as well as New York City offices and other global outposts with the appointment of Ann Sarnoff as Warner Bros. CEO. Her hire represents a new day at a company that is still reeling from its acquisition by AT&T, the impending launch of a streaming service and the shocking dismissal of Sarnoff’s predecessor as the studio’s chairman-CEO Kevin Tsujihara after reports emerged that he used his position to secure auditions for a woman with whom he was romantically involved. Tsujihara denied that he played a “direct role” in securing work for the actress. Sarnoff’s selection was alternately stunning and comforting, employees said, and one that Warner Bros. watchers suggest signals a great deal about how the company intends to navigate a shifting entertainment landscape.

“Ever since Tsujihara had to resign, the company has been strategically adrift,” said Hal Vogel, head of Vogel Capital Management. “All of this has happened at a time when the company is subject to tremendous changes in management and strategy. Warner Bros. needs somebody who has a definitive vision of where to take the studio at a time when it is under pressure from all different angles.”

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The stakes, as Vogel paints them, couldn’t be higher, and that’s cast a pall over the offices and backlots that comprise AT&T’s new entertainment empire. Staffers have been feeling worried and beaten down by the tectonic corporate shakeups unfolding around them as well as the dismissal of the popular Tsujihara, but many expressed optimism over Sarnoff’s hire. They were particularly pleased that her resume, which includes stints as president of BBC Studios Americas and COO of the WNBA, is heavy on operational experience. It complements the creative skills of film chief Toby Emmerich and television group head Peter Roth — a particularly important quality, as there were concerns that either executive might have felt undermined if Tsujihara’s replacement was seen as infringing into their areas of expertise. Staffers were also hopeful that Sarnoff’s experiences working with brands such as “Doctor Who” and “Top Gear” at BBC would prove useful as Warner Bros. tries to grow and expand its Harry Potter and DC Comics franchises.

“People feel pretty good,” said one executive. “They’re relieved the uncertainty has gone away.”

One insider at Warner Bros. Television said they were happy about the hire. They noted that they are not expecting any significant changes to their day-to-day operations under Sarnoff on the TV side. That is due to Roth’s tenure atop the Warner Bros. Television Group as well as the recent promotions of Susan Rovner and Brett Paul to co-presidents of WBTV just one month ago.

Still, some expressed surprise over the choice. Sarnoff’s name had not been raised in the weeks leading up to the announcement. Other executives, such as Anne Sweeney, former Disney Media Networks co-chair and ex-Disney-ABC TV president, and former Yahoo chief Marissa Mayer had been names that had popped up more frequently in the rumor mill. Sarnoff is better known in the television world, but she has very little visibility in the film community.

“It struck us as strange because we don’t know much about her,” said one top talent manager, whose sizable firm pitches writing and acting clients for gigs at Warner Bros.’ film and TV studios. “It’ll be ‘getting to know you’ for a bit but who knows, maybe that works to her advantage.”

Her selection may have raised some eyebrows, but people who have worked alongside Sarnoff were quick to praise her chops.

“Ann was an extraordinary, very young executive 30 years ago,” said Geraldine Laybourne, co-founder of Oxygen Media and a colleague of Sarnoff’s from her time working at Viacom. “I knew then that she could run any creative enterprise: she has both a creative and a business brain. Most impressive is her ability to hold multiple constituents in her brain at once: consumers, shareholders, talent and employees.”

In a note to staff, John Stankey, the veteran executive that AT&T installed as head of WarnerMedia in 2018, made it clear that he views Sarnoff as a businesswoman who has the skillset necessary to lead the company into the streaming age.

“Today’s marketplace requires that we anticipate and meet ever-changing consumer habits with new and innovative ways to engage them with our content,” Stankey wrote. “With more than 30 years of experience across the media and entertainment ecosystem, Ann’s impressive breadth of expertise, and her drive towards the continuous need to innovate, make her exactly the type of leader who will position Warner Bros. for long-term success.”

Wall Street analysts agree that WarnerMedia’s streaming service, which is expected to launch in 2020, will consume a lot of Sarnoff’s time and energy. Her task is daunting. Not only will WarnerMedia be grappling with Netflix, it will also have to contend with Disney Plus, the Walt Disney Company’s upcoming foray into the world of digital video.

“She’s not a clear-cut slam-dunk selection because she didn’t cut her teeth in a traditional studio, but it’s hard to find someone with the right skillset,” said Tuna Amobi, an analyst at CFRA. “She’ll need to make sure that all the pieces are in place to launch a competitive streaming service and she’ll have to move quickly because of how fast things are changing in the space.”

Matt Donnelly contributed to this report.

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