WarnerMedia laid off hundreds of employees Monday across Warner Bros., HBO and DC Entertainment. That came after a major management shakeup under new CEO Jason Kilar, under which HBO Max content leaders Robert Greenblatt and Kevin Reilly were let go and Warner Bros. CEO Ann Sarnoff assumed additional oversight over content for HBO Max and basic cable networks. Andy Forssell, general manager of HBO Max, was put in charge of a new HBO Max business group and will oversee international expansion.
“This is a transformation of making things better, not because we needed to adjust anything but rather because we’re aspiring to get even better than the [HBO Max] launch was, to get even better than WarnerMedia has traditionally performed,” said Stephens, speaking Tuesday at the Oppenheimer Virtual Technology, Internet & Communications Conference.
Stephens said about the restructuring, “It’s a natural progression of getting real focus, as I said, on our [direct to consumer] business, on our HBO Max business.” But he also acknowledged, “these transitions are tough and there are a lot of good people that have been involved in this.”
The layoffs will save WarnerMedia money, Stephens said, by allowing for “some streamlining of support services” as well as back office and general and administrative functions. “[W]e can take that and invest that money into continuing to provide the best content out there,” the CFO said.
With the new structure, WarnerMedia’s content operations are consolidated under “one leader,” said Stephens, referring to Sarnoff’s expanded role, and the HBO Max business is being run by Forssell. Stephens voiced support for the decisions by Kilar, the ex-Hulu CEO who took over the reins in May. “Jason’s a really good leader, he knows his business,” Stephens said.
For the second half of 2020, “the most exciting thing for us is HBO Max,” Stephens said, claiming the launch was “really successful.” He noted that WarnerMedia grew HBO customers overall with the launch of HBO Max, with 4.1 million activations of HBO Max in the first month after launch, although that means the majority of existing HBO customers had not yet accessed the new streaming product.
Regarding the overall impact of COVID-19, Stephens said the AT&T wireless and broadband businesses have shown “resilience” and performed well despite the challenges. For WarnerMedia, the pandemic “really shut things down” by halting productions and with the cancellation of the NCAA basketball tournament and delay in the NBA season.
As people work remotely, “that connectivity into people’s homes is really important… that really was, you know, a tailwind for us,” he said. On media side, “it’s forcing us to look at new ways to distribute content,” as with Warner Bros.’ “Scoob!” direct-to-digital release.
Given uncertainty about when theaters will be reopening, Stephens added, there “may be further delays in some of the titles we release and some of the big theatrical activity.” Warner Bros. is releasing Christopher Nolan’s “Tenet” in 70 overseas territories starting Aug. 26 ahead of the U.S., where it will be released in select cities over Labor Day weekend starting Sept. 3.