WarnerMedia CEO Jason Kilar addressed the media conglom’s controversial move to release Warner Bros.’s full 2021 movie slate on HBO Max day-and-date with theaters — he said theatrical releases are still a key part of the studio’s strategy, but also acknowledged that the industry’s approach to windowing has likely permanently changed.
“I think we’re still in the experimentation mode” on theatrical/streaming movie release windows, said Kilar, speaking Thursday at the 2021 Morgan Stanley Technology, Media & Telecom Conference.
The WarnerMedia chief also talked up plans for HBO Max’s release of a price-reduced, ad-supported tier, currently set to launch in the second quarter of 2020.
“I get so excited about it,” he said of the forthcoming ad-supported HBO Max version, noting he has experience in the ad-supported VOD business as the first CEO of Hulu. “It turns out most people on this planet are not wealthy,” he added, and said the advertising experience in HBO Max will be implemented “elegantly.”
“I think once they see it, people are going to be so excited about how thoughtful we’ve been about advertising,” Kilar said.
Kilar noted that WarnerMedia made the day-and-date film release decision for 2021 largely because of the pandemic. After COVID-19 restrictions lift, he asked rhetorically, “Is theatrical going to see a crazy resurgence? I could easily see that happening.” If and when that happens, he said, “we will be there to serve them.”
“We absolutely are developing and producing movies for theatrical distribution,” Kilar said, nodding to Warner Bros.’ stable of “event-worthy” franchises, including DC Entertainment, Harry Potter and the Matrix.
Regarding Harry Potter, Kilar hinted that more movies set in the Wizarding World are in the pipeline: “We are incredibly thankful to be partnering with J.K. Rowling on that,” saying there is “lots of fun” and future potential in the fantasy property.
The decision to put films simultaneously in theaters and on HBO Max was about giving consumers choice, according to Kilar. He noted that “Tom and Jerry” topped the box office this weekend, even as it premiered on HBO Max at the same time.
As for when theatrical releases might return in a big way, Kilar said, “It’s too early to say — it’s so dynamic… People are absolutely experimenting.” In the second half of 2021, he added, “you’re going to see more visibility into 2022.”
That said, at a high level, Kilar said he agreed with comments made earlier this week at the conference by Disney CEO Bob Chapek, who said he’s “not sure if there’s going back” to pre-pandemic theatrical windows.
“It sure feels like it’s not going to go back to 2015,” Kilar said, adding, “I can only speak for ourselves.”
As of the end of 2020, HBO Max had 17.2 million active accounts, more than double from 8.6 million in the third quarter. WarnerMedia reported 41.5 million combined HBO Max and HBO U.S. subscribers, up 20% from 34.6 million a year prior.
Asked about HBO Max’s $14.99 price point — and whether WarnerMedia is at a disadvantage to cheaper rivals — Kilar said, “The short answer is, the customers have spoken,” citing subscriber gains for HBO Max and HBO in Q4. But, he pointed out, there’s also a big opportunity for HBO Max’s lower-price AVOD version to attract customers unwilling or unable to pay full freight.
HBO Max is set to launch in 39 countries in June across Latin America, and the streamer plans to roll out in Europe this year as well.
There will be only a “handful” of streaming services “that can ultimately get to scale with hundreds of millions of customers around the world,” Kilar said. “I feel very good about [HBO Max] being part of that small group being able to get to scale.”
Kilar didn’t provide updated numbers on HBO Max or any new details on the ad-supported HBO Max tier, but noted that he will participate in AT&T’s analyst and investor day set for Friday, March 12.
Regarding Turner’s cable networks, WarnerMedia is prioritizing investment in news and sports, while the company will continue to produce first-run originals like “Snowpiercer” on TNT, Kilar said.
“We need to lean in to those things people care about,” he said. CNN is now the No. 1 cable news network in the 18-54 demo. “CNN, that’s a great business,” Kilar said. To date, it’s largely been a wholesale business alongside the ad-supported digital side of CNN, and “there’s an opportunity to do even more,” Kilar said.
Kilar is now 10 months into the job, having joined WarnerMedia just a few weeks ahead of the May 2020 launch of HBO Max. The former Hulu CEO has made a number of significant changes to WarnerMedia. That included at least two waves of layoffs and a management shakeup under which HBO Max content bosses Robert Greenblatt and Kevin Reilly were let go and Warner Bros. CEO Ann Sarnoff assumed expanded oversight over content operations.
Separately, AT&T last week announced that it reached a deal to spin off DirecTV and other U.S. video operations in a deal with TPG Capital. The “New DirecTV” company will not include HBO Max.