The April Fool’s Day announcement that Hulu alum Jason Kilar had been named CEO of WarnerMedia surprised many within the company. In his new role, Kilar will oversee all of the entertainment units acquired by AT&T in its 2018 deal for TimeWarner — including Warner Bros., the Turner cable channels, and HBO.
Kilar’s experience at the intersection of technology and entertainment — he was a senior VP at Amazon prior to a five-year stint atop Hulu, after which he founded the streaming service Vessel — would appear to match AT&T’s needs as it prepares for the May launch of SVOD play HBO Max. But the timing of Kilar’s announcement raised some eyebrows internally. One insider told Variety that expectations had been that a replacement for John Stankey, who was promoted in September to AT&T president and chief operating officer, would not come until later this year.
“I think people are looking at the timing odd,” the exec said. “They’d said they weren’t doing this right now.”
The same exec pointed out that Kilar does not officially start his new role until May, potentially awkward timing, as that’s the same month that the company plans to launch HBO Max — meaning Kilar won’t have any ability to shape the product pre-launch. And although AT&T is sticking with its May target for the service, Kilar will have to deal with all of the complications of launching a new product amid the unprecedented disruption being caused by the coronavirus pandemic.
The exec also likened the Kilar hire to that of Ann Sarnoff, who emerged from outside the circle of rumored contenders last year to be named head of Warner Bros., and has since emerged as a well-liked leader for the studio (and who will report to Kilar). They also noted that although Kilar won’t have the ability to shape HBO Max pre-launch, he will be positioned to develop and implement an ad-supported version of the service that Stankey has said will be critical to the long-term success of the product, but has not yet been developed. Overall, they said, internal reaction to Kilar has been largely neutral — neither strongly negative nor strongly positive — and that though the exec is unknown to many inside the company, those who do know him tend to speak well of him.
A source inside Warner Bros. told Variety that everyone at the studio is hyper-aware of the importance of HBO Max to the future of WarnerMedia — and thus unsurprised that AT&T turned to an exec well versed in building digital-media platforms. The same source added, however, that Kilar’s lack of creative experience developing film or television has not gone unnoticed by studio personnel.
But another Warner Bros. source who worked in the past with Kilar insisted that the new chief exec has a better understanding of the creative business of film and television than many who don’t know him well might realize. Both Warner Bros. sources said that it was unlikely that leaders inside the studio would bristle at the hiring of Kilar, who is not seen as someone expected to meddle in creative decisions.