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How Jason Kilar Became Hollywood’s Most Feared CEO

How Jason Kilar Became Hollywood's Most
Cheyne Gateley/VIP

It’s only fitting that Variety Intelligence Platform closes the year on the same note on which we opened: Jason Kilar.

When VIP launched at the beginning of April, AT&T’s WarnerMedia had just made the bold move to bring in a new CEO. We noted then, “Surely AT&T knows that Kilar is not the kind of executive who is going to stay in his place and mindlessly toe the line … he amply proved that at Hulu, and that rebel streak may be more responsible for his mystique than anything else.”

Eight months later, no one should be surprised by the dramatic moves Kilar has made. If anyone suspected he had come aboard to play it safe, surely they were disabused of that notion in August, which marked the first of several rounds of layoffs at WarnerMedia that even claimed some of the TV industry’s most respected execs in Bob Greenblatt and Kevin Reilly. Since then, an entire generation of senior leadership at the company has been excised.

But none of that could have prepared anyone for the shock to come earlier this month when Kilar announced what will go down as either one of the boldest or most bonkers decisions the media business has ever seen: releasing Warner Bros.’ entire 2021 movie slate on HBO Max for a 30-day period the same day each title is scheduled to arrive in U.S. theaters.

Weeks after the announcement, a sense of shock still lingers. But even if you have just a passing familiarity with Kilar’s history, it really shouldn’t come as much of a surprise.

Think back to his time as CEO of Hulu, when he was so frustrated with the conservative approach of his company’s multiple traditional-media owners he lashed out at them in a public blog post. This is a guy who will not tolerate what he sees as the path to innovation getting blocked.

With the Warner Bros. pivot slate, he’s simply making good on a mandate he’s had long before he took the job, which doesn’t guarantee success, of course. As 2020 draws to a close and “Wonder Woman: 1984” becomes the first title to get the dual-platform release on Christmas Day, Kilar finds himself in a unique moment that will begin to fade as soon as the new year commences. The uncertainty regarding whether his daring decision represents genius or lunacy will meet reality.

But there’s bold, and then there’s bananas. In so many ways, one can quibble with Kilar on his film strategy: Why not have waited until after “Wonder Woman” came out and assessed its dual-distribution performance before loading up the rest of the slate for the same treatment? Why load up the entire 2021 slate when even conservative estimates see theaters returning to operation at some point in the back half of the year? Why give a very disparate group of films a uniform 30-day period on HBO Max when that window could have been varied or at least uniformly shortened?

You can argue that in his effort to be radical, Kilar shot past bold and ended up in “what were you thinking?” territory.

But the criticism Kilar is facing has been less focused on the strategic particulars and more on the manner in which he did what he did. And while I understand and empathize with where they’re coming from, I see the other side of the story as well.

Do all of Kilar’s critics believe for one second that there could have been a scenario when WarnerMedia negotiated with hundreds of profit participants prior to making such a massive move and not get bogged down in endless negotiations? That would have also meant losing control over the messaging to the marketplace about the move, which would certainly have been leaked.

I’m not justifying what WarnerMedia did in a legal or even moral sense; I’m just explaining what went down from a tactical perspective. Shoot first, ask questions later isn’t irrational. Kilar must have calculated that the cost of settling or losing multiple lawsuits was worth the end run it made.

2021 will be a tough year for Kilar, but he no doubt knew that when he made his decisions. In the longer term, he’s betting WarnerMedia will figure out its future before anyone else does.