WarnerMedia CEO Jason Kilar on Why He Stands by the Decision to Release 2021 Theatrical Slate on HBO Max

Jason Kilar

To make sense of all that has transpired in 2020 and what it portends for the media and entertainment sectors going forward, Variety spoke with a cross section of industry leaders about the broad theme of change. For more, click here.

The pandemic is absolutely accelerating change because consumers are changing.

In the case of WarnerMedia, this means that we need to talk about the fan. Let’s talk about the customer. And let’s talk about the amazing things that we can do on their behalf. That really is what our business comes down to, which is how can we move the world through story, which, of course, is very firmly focused on the fan. And what we want to do is leverage every single tool in the arsenal to be able to do a better job each and every day.

Unfortunately, we don’t think that the world will snap back to the way it was on a magic date, in April, or June, or September. We think this pandemic is going to have some long-lasting effects. So we had a decision to make, which is what do we do [to release movies] in the context of a pandemic? And how can we be thoughtful about not just the fans, which is where it starts and ends, but also the partners that we work with, whether it’s a director or a producer or an actor, whether it’s an exhibition community, which we care deeply about? I feel very good about the decision [to offer day-and-date streaming and theatrical releases for Warner Bros.’ 2021 film slate], which is about being able to give fans the choice. In the U.S. market, they get to make the choice in the middle of a pandemic whether they go to theaters, or whether they go to HBO Max, or both.

In order for this to work [financially for WarnerMedia], either the box office needs to be there or clearly HBO Max needs to carry some weight there. I feel very good about that because, again, if we’ve done nothing else, we’ve kept our ear to the ground in terms of fans and fan behavior.

It’s our job as leaders to lead. And that means being very clear about why we’re doing what we’re doing, being very clear about the vision for the company, and then setting and sharing context, so that no matter what role you have inside WarnerMedia, you can appreciate what we’re doing and why. And then ultimately, hopefully, you feel in your heart and in your brain, “Sign me up. This is a mission that I believe in, and boy, do I believe in that strategy.”

The first and probably most important aspect of the decisions I made with regards to how we [restructured WarnerMedia operations] was how we organized ourselves specifically around content. I felt that the right thing to do in service of the customer was to have one group overseeing studios and networks, rather than two.

Much like every other aspect of all of our businesses, not just at WarnerMedia but for anybody who’s in the storytelling business, marketing is going to change on the road ahead. And I think that it should because when you think about the role of marketing and what it ultimately needs to do, which is to influence someone, to shake them out of their slumber, to be excited about a story, and to come and spend time with us, I think that technology provides so many great things that candidly were not available two years ago or five years ago in terms of what we can and should do.

So whether that’s the targeting of marketing, whether it’s the measurement of marketing, or whether it’s doing things creatively that weren’t possible, you should expect all of those things in our future. I do get excited about the future of how we think about marketing because it should be ever more ambitious. We tell really big stories, and I think the marketing needs to be as big to be able to match the tone of the storytelling.

Based on all that I’ve seen [since joining WarnerMedia in April] people absolutely believe in the vision for this company. They believe in the mission of this company, which is to move the world through story. And when you think about the 97-year history of this blessed sandbox, we’ve got such an amazing opportunity in front of us, thanks to decades and decades of innovation and investment by others before us. And we also have this wonderful blessing called the internet, and we’re going to take advantage of that too.

This is beyond media. We are in a moment of accelerated change. Our response is to take a deep breath, to be thoughtful about our partners, to be thoughtful about the fans, most importantly, and to be thoughtful about the business that we need to responsibly run. And to do all those things by leaning into the future as opposed to being afraid to do so.

As told to Claudia Eller