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Help Wanted: Warner Bros.’ New CEO Will Need Deep Digital Chops

Warner Bros.
Chris Pizzello/Invision/AP/REX/Shutterstock

Warner Bros. Entertainment is suddenly in the market for a new CEO. The hunt is taking place at a moment when that job description is in a state of massive flux due to the corporate upheaval implemented in the past few weeks by new parent company AT&T.

The stunning downfall of Kevin Tsujihara as the studio’s chairman-CEO came amid an investigation into misconduct involving an extramarital affair with British actress Charlotte Kirk. Allegations that Tsujihara used his clout to help secure roles for Kirk left his function as studio chief untenable in the #MeToo era, despite Kirk’s assertions that the affair was consensual.

Tsujihara’s permanent successor (or successors) will come into the role at a fraught time of expansion and reorganization for the studio and its former sibling divisions — HBO and Turner — under the WarnerMedia umbrella. Warner Bros.’ new leadership will need to be able to deftly balance the old and the new in Hollywood. The studio has to keep turning out popular TV shows and movies, but it also must navigate the digital distribution landscape and the new focus on “transmedia” franchise management to make the most of its IP-rich vaults, such as the DC Comics trove. Warner Bros. also has a big business in video games and digital content that Tsujihara helped build before he got the CEO job in 2013.

“The new person needs to be open, flexible and deeply versed in the new media landscape,” said Peter Csathy, founder of Creatv Media. “Setting a positive tone is job one, because so much change has been happening at Warners. The new person must have a concrete vision of what lies ahead for them.”

The new marching orders for Warner Bros. include working much more closely than it has in the past with HBO to produce high-quality series. The studio is also expected to deliver content for the nascent WarnerMedia streaming platform. And now the Warner Bros. charter encompasses managing the cable channels Cartoon Network and Turner Classic Movies, which were previously housed under Turner, as well as spearheading all consumer products activity across the WarnerMedia brands.

Tuna Amobi, an analyst with CFRA Research, said there are not a lot of obvious candidates with the kind of résumé that WarnerMedia would find attractive. Executives with one foot firmly planted in new technologies and in traditional media, such as NBCUniversal film and entertainment chairman Jeff Shell or Disney Media Networks co-chair Peter Rice, already have top jobs. “You need someone with deep expertise who has cut their teeth across various studio verticals, not only because Warner Bros. is a sprawling studio but because the business itself is going through major changes,” said Amobi.

The changes within WarnerMedia are the result of the reorganization unveiled last month by AT&T that spurred the abrupt departures of longtime HBO chief Richard Plepler and Turner president David Levy. Both Plepler and Levy bolted after learning their authority would be curtailed with the restructuring and the appointment of former NBC Entertainment chairman Bob Greenblatt in an über-oversight role as chairman of WarnerMedia Entertainment.

AT&T began making those structural changes last month, the day after the last obstacle to fully integrating the Time Warner companies was removed when a federal appeals court denied the Justice Department’s appeal in the antitrust battle against the $85.4 billion merger. Ironically, Tsujihara was the only one of the three leaders who was poised to see significant portfolio gains in the shake-up. He had ambitious plans to build a kids and family content operation that the studio has long lacked.

AT&T’s dismantling of the old Time Warner structure is a signal that the new owners will not be beholden to tradition. The ouster of Tsujihara is a sign that executives will be held accountable for behavior that might have only brought a scolding in the past.
The willingness to upend the old order has raised speculation that Greenblatt and his new regime might assume oversight of TV production.

Another candidate known to be under consideration is Stacey Snider, the former chair of 20th Century Fox Filmed Entertainment. But despite Snider’s long résumé, having headed Universal Pictures and DreamWorks before she came to Fox in 2016, her experience is limited to assembling film slates. It is no secret that WarnerMedia is under pressure to bring women into a top leadership echelon that is now entirely dominated by white men following Tsujihara’s departure.

Whoever takes the reins will have to navigate some tricky office politics as the famously insular studio grapples with the mandates of a parent company that comes to the business with a very different worldview.

“They have to win the confidence of the troops,” said Joe Pichirallo, a professor at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts and a former studio executive and producer. “You have to show that you can listen and understand the corporate culture while also moving the business forward.”