Warner Bros. once stood as the citadel of Hollywood, a mighty fortress of moviemaking.
Today, the studio is bracing for its third massive executive shake-up in as many years. The special aura that always seemed to hover around the sprawling Burbank lot looks more like a dense fog these days.
The mood at the studio can only be described as grim following the bombshell news on May 16 that AT&T had secretly orchestrated a deal with Discovery that will once again alter the playing field. Now, Warner Bros. and the rest of WarnerMedia will be in limbo for at least a year while a fleet of lawyers and bankers complete the transaction with Discovery. In the shorter term, a rival offer could emerge, further complicating the process.
The steady stream of restructuring and reinvention announcements issued since AT&T first agreed to buy Time Warner in 2016 has left executives across WarnerMedia exhausted and cynical. Department heads responded to the first whispers of the Discovery deal on Sunday with groans at the idea of having to yet again attempt to reassure their teams that the future is still promising. One source described the prospect of hearing yet another new group of leaders outline their “vision” as nausea-inducing. That sentiment represents an enormous leadership challenge for Discovery CEO David Zaslav when he ultimately takes over the combined company.
For Hollywood’s creative community, Warner Bros. has always been viewed as a special place. It was, for decades, as if life on the beautifully preserved lot and its adobe-style bungalows was somehow insulated from the harsher realities outside the studio’s many gates.
Paramount Pictures was one of the first factory-style studios to take root. MGM had stars and legends to spare in its Golden Age heyday. But in the modern era, Warner Bros. has embodied Hollywood muscle and was the fabulously successful studio that delivered commercial hits. In the 1980s and ’90s, the formula boiled down to big stars, flashy cars and huge profits.
Warner Bros. was also part of the conglomerate-ization of Hollywood in the late ’80s and ’90s. Deals with Lorimar-Telepictures and Time Inc. created Time Warner in 1990 as the world’s largest media company. A decade later, the first big dent in the Warner Bros. shield was inflicted by the disastrous merger with AOL.
But even during the AOL years and the recovery that followed, the Warner Bros. studio stood tall amid the chaos. It remained essentially an autonomous operation from the rest of Time Warner.
The AT&T interregnum has been particularly hard on the Warner Bros. troops because the studio’s structure and focus has changed so dramatically, amid broader market shifts. Warner Bros. is turning inward and devoting more resources to producing content for in-house platforms like HBO Max. That’s a big change for the TV group that prided itself on a high volume of shows sold to buyers far and wide, as well as for the movie division that reaped huge box office returns from its theatrical blockbusters.
AT&T’s ownership of Warner Bros. also brought significant layoffs and a mass exodus of long-serving executives. AT&T leaders came in the door talking about their respect for the studio’s success and tradition, only to then proceed to blow out almost everyone who’d been around long enough to remember when seasoned Hollywood executives like Barry Meyer, Bob Daly and Terry Semel ran the place.
Warner Bros. staffers and alumni are most angry about the fact that all of the upheaval and terminations were seemingly for naught. AT&T, it turned out, didn’t have the balance sheet or the courage of its convictions to stick with its strategy of marrying WarnerMedia content with AT&T wireless and data services to get to the promised land of strong free cash flow.
Zaslav has made it clear that he appreciates the uniqueness of Warner Bros. If the new boss wants to lead the studio to a brighter future, he needs to start by finding a way to make it feel special again.