By tapping Jason Kilar — the co-founder of Hulu and an Amazon veteran — to be its new CEO, AT&T-owned WarnerMedia is sending a signal that its future will be streamed. In a conversation with Variety just hours after the announcement, Kilar himself says as much.
Kilar has known AT&T COO and current WarnerMedia CEO John Stankey, whom Kilar will succeed, for the better part of a decade, when Hulu was but a startup. But it wasn’t until earlier this year that the pair “started getting serious about conversations” that would lead to this appointment, says Kilar, with Stankey and Kilar finding themselves in agreement about the future of direct-to-consumer entertainment services and the importance of technology.
“My belief on the future of media is that in some ways there’s an element of scale that’s required, because it’s a very capital-intensive situation, and there’s also relatively few organizations on the planet that actually have what I think is required to invent that future,” says Kilar. “I very much believe WarnerMedia is one of them. So it’s easy to get excited about it when you realize, ‘Wow, we’re in this unique moment of time where it’s never been more important to lean into the future and invent that future, combined with a company that’s filled with unbelievable leaders across the board.”
Kilar’s background in Silicon Valley didn’t prevent him from seeing the opportunity in joining a legacy media player like WarnerMedia, which owns the Warner Bros. film studio, premium cabler HBO and Turner cable brands such as CNN, TNT and TBS.
“For me, this is more about what the next 10 years looks like, as opposed to what the last 85 years have looked like,” he says. “I actually believe this isn’t about WarnerMedia; it’s as much about Disney and NBCUniversal and others. I actually think these companies are going to look so different within the next decade out of necessity and out of opportunity.”
WarnerMedia is going all in on digital video. The media conglomerate is pinning its hopes on the upcoming launch of HBO Max as it attempts to elbow into a business dominated by the likes of Netflix and Disney Plus.
“With the traditional TV access business in decline and streaming in ascendancy, putting a forward looking experienced streaming executive in charge of Warner is clearly the right move,” said Brahm Eiley, president of Convergence Research.
Kilar may be joining WarnerMedia armed with a wealth of digital video experience at a time when the company is pivoting into streaming, but other aspects of the sprawling media giant will be more foreign. He has little experience in traditional cable or movie-making, two major focuses of the company. He will also be tasked with overseeing veteran executives such as WarnerMedia News and Sports Chairman Jeff Zucker and WarnerMedia Entertainment Chairman Robert Greenblatt, both of whom have arguably more experience than Kilar.
“I think the learning curve is going to be large,” says Kilar of the film and cable businesses at WarnerMedia. “But the greatest blessing I have are great leaders, like Jeff Zucker and Bob Greenblatt and [Warner Bros. chairman-CEO] Ann Sarnoff. To me, those are the people who are running those businesses and that doesn’t change.”
Kilar’s management style is one of a detail-oriented executive who nevertheless allows managers in other departments to run their own initiatives, according to one industry executive who worked with Kilar at Hulu during the streamer’s early days. This person calls Kilar a “positive” and “inspirational” person who “likes people to understand why the company’s doing what it is doing” with regards to its strategy, goals and bigger picture, and is likely to bring a Silicon Valley mindset of acting quickly and decisively in response to consumer needs.
Time is of the essence. The coronavirus pandemic has sent the economy into free-fall and impinged upon WarnerMedia’s movie business by forcing the mass closure of theaters. A likely recession will put an even greater strain on the company’s profits. It could accelerate cord-cutting, as consumers who have lost jobs or been furloughed try to find ways to tighten their belts. That’s bad news for a company that derives a great deal of revenue from cable re-transmission, ad sales on TNT, CNN, and TBS, and subscriptions to HBO.
Per MoffettNathanson analyst Craig Moffett, “Transitioning the business to a streaming-first media company is a wonderful aspiration, but longer-term planning will have to take a back seat to the triage of dealing with a crisis that has left movie theaters closed, studios shut down, the NBA off the air on TNT, and advertisers on the brink of entering their own lockdown. This is going to be a brutally difficult stretch.”
At Hulu, Kilar is credited with introducing Hulu Plus, the company’s subscription-based offering, as well as with pushing the platform to begin making original programming. Subscriptions rose steadily while Kilar was at the helm, but he bumped up against a chaotic corporate governing structure. At the time, Hulu was owned by three competing media companies — Comcast, Disney, and Fox (which later was sold to Disney) — and they often disagreed about strategy and flirted openly with selling the service.
“I think he felt frustrated that the owners were not more supportive or forthcoming with the kind of programming budget that he wanted,” said Tuna Amobi, an analyst at CFRA.
Meredith Kendall Maines, who worked with Kilar as Hulu’s head of communications, said he excelled at managing competing interests and also engendered strong loyalty among employees. “He was the type of leader I would have followed over the edge of a cliff,” she says. “He is one of the most high-integrity – and therefore demanding – leaders I’ve ever had the pleasure to work with… He’s an inspiring person.”
Kendall Maines, now a partner at venture-capital firm Lightspeed Venture Partners, said that in her current job, “everything that informs my viewpoint today comes from Jason’s example of running a founder-led, mission-centered company.” She worked at Hulu from 2011-14, and “there were many moments when the future path for Hulu weren’t clear… He led the company through uncertainty, and I’m reminded of how important it is to have a strong leader at the helm during a time of turmoil.”
WarnerMedia’s forthcoming HBO Max will offer access to previous hits such as “Friends” and “Game of Thrones,” as well as original programming ranging from a “Grease” musical show to “Tokyo Vice,” a crime drama with Ansel Elgort. It’s a broad array of offerings, but one that comes with a steep price tag. HBO Max’s $14.99 subscription price dwarfs the $8.99 it costs for a month of Netflix and the $6.99 required for Disney Plus.
“Price is going to be a problem for them,” said Hal Vogel, CEO of Vogel Capital Management. “People do not have a lot of discretionary income right now. They’re struggling to play rent. They’re not going to pay for a lot of premium entertainment services.”
There’s also the matter of premiering a new paid subscription service amid a worldwide pandemic.
“The challenge, I think, is that in May, there’s not likely to be a very robust out-of-home advertising industry,” Kilar says. Fewer drivers on the road passing by billboards, fewer sporting events that offer ad opportunities. That likely means a need for Greenblatt’s team to adjust its marketing plans. But the opportunity is that viewers, cooped up at home while they shelter in place, is likely creating a “greater need for “entertainment and diversion in the evenings than we normally have,” he believes.
The timing of the announcement is perhaps peculiar in that WarnerMedia is bringing on board an exec with a wealth of streaming experience after it has already built the infrastructure of the HBO Max platform and set the wheels in motion for its launch in May, the same month that Kilar officially boards. It’s unclear to what degree Kilar has had a chance to dig into the infrastructure of HBO Max and examine its parts, and whether he will have objections to what he discovers.
For now, he believes his role amid the launch should be a supportive one.
“My job — what I’ll be doing with regards to HBO Max — is to order pizzas and to go get beverages for the team,” says Kilar. “The product has been baking and is in the final stages of launch. And having run many, many launches that are predicated on technology, when somebody comes in the building the same month that it’s launching, the biggest impact you can have is to order pizzas and get beverages and that’s what I intend to do.”