LOS ANGELES – When Jason Kilar began his tenure as CEO of Hulu in July 2007, some competitors felt the streaming service was so likely to fail that they dubbed him the Clown Co., yet Mr. Kilar, armed with both the belief that there was a better way to watch TV, and the support of two powerful corporate parents – NBCUniversal and News Corp – locked himself and his team into an office Santa Monica vacuum and got down to business. He covered all the windows with newspapers, stressing that opponents should be ignored.
“Sometimes in life, blocking out outside noise is a really good thing to do,” he said in a recent interview.
Hulu hasn’t failed, and 13 years later, Mr. Kilar (the first syllable rhymes with “sky”) is the CEO of WarnerMedia. Suddenly he has a lot of noise that he has to ignore.
This month, Warner Bros. announced that its 17 films slated for 2021 – including big-budget offerings like “Dune” and “The Matrix 4” – will be released simultaneously in theaters and on the company’s struggling streaming service, HBO Max. The movement, orchestrated to face the persistent challenges brought about by the pandemic, shattered decades of precedent for the way the movie industry does business and sent Hollywood into a frenzy.
Powerful talent agents and theater executives publicly criticized him. Perhaps most importantly, some high profile filmmakers who worked with Warner Bros. – and with whom the studio plans to work again – have been extremely critical. Christopher Nolan, whose ‘Tenet’ is only the last of his films released by Warner, told The Hollywood Reporter: “Some of the greatest filmmakers in our industry and the most important movie stars have gone to bed the night before. think they worked for the biggest movie studio. and I woke up to find they were working for the worst streaming service.
Denis Villeneuve, the director of “Dune,” wrote in Variety that “Warner Bros. could have killed the “Dune” franchise. ” (“Dune” only covers half of Frank Herbert’s novel. The plan was for Mr. Villeneuve to end the sci-fi tale in a sequel.) Neither Mr. Nolan, nor Mr. Villeneuve, nor most of Hollywood, had been told of Warner’s plans prior to their announcement.
Mr Kilar, 49, called the sharp criticisms “painful,” adding: “We clearly have more work to do as we navigate this pandemic and the future alongside them. But he spent his career fighting entrenched systems and was somewhat prepared for outrage.
“There is no situation where everyone is going to stand up and applaud,” he said. “This is not how innovation is played out. It is neither easy nor meant to be easy. When trying something new you should expect and be prepared for some people who are not comfortable with the change. Its good.”
Mr Kilar’s boss John Stankey, chief executive of Warner’s parent company, AT&T, also defended the strategy, calling it a “win-win-win” at a recent investor conference.
Serious and approachable, Mr. Kilar, who took over WarnerMedia in May, comes across more as a greedy benefactor than a ruthless disruptor. The childhood stories he tells about his hasty return from school in Pennsylvania to watch “Speed Racer” and the enthusiasm he shows for upcoming projects – he called the comedy adaptation Lin-Manuel Miranda’s musical ‘In the Heights’ ‘The Affirmation of Life’ – seem aimed at deflecting the growing narrative that he is the evil villain at the center of a plot to dismantle the very act of going. at the theater to watch a movie. (In email exchanges after the interview, he shared a list of movies he had paid to watch in theaters before the pandemic shut things down, writing: “Theaters are where I have had some of my most transcendent experiences. ”)
Mr Kilar positioned WarnerMedia’s decision to release films in theaters and streaming as a reaction to the struggles caused by the pandemic, which has closed the majority of US theaters and prompted most studios to delay releases to the year. next. (A notable exception to the delay is Warner’s “Wonder Woman 1984,” which hits theaters and on HBO Max on Christmas Day.) He also called the move accommodation for the public, more used to watching films in their living room.
But Mr. Kilar joined WarnerMedia just two months before HBO Max’s lackluster debut, and it’s his job to make the service a success.
There are serious challenges. HBO Max is more expensive than other streamers ($ 15 per month) and has been criticized for its lack of “must see” content. (The miniseries “The Flight Attendant” recently created some buzz.) Its marketing has confused customers when trying to determine the difference between it and platforms like HBO Go and HBO Now. The total subscribers stand at 12.6 million, far behind Netflix (195 million subscribers worldwide) and Disney + (87 million). Only 30% of HBO subscribers signed up.
On top of that, AT & T’s balance sheet is nearly $ 170 billion in debt, causing some in Hollywood to question whether the company can invest enough in content to achieve its goals.
So it’s helpful that beneath that “Ah, shit, I’m just a Pittsburgh kid” veneer is a relentless and ambitious leader who in 2011 wrote a widely read manifesto on a Hulu blog that criticized the television industry – and this is very likely played a significant role in securing his current job. In no time, Mr. Kilar restructured WarnerMedia, laid off around 1,000 employees, and began ridding the company of decades-old strongholds.
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Some employees appreciate his clear direction and focused approach, while others resent what they see as a lack of respect for Hollywood tradition. He became known to send long emails, often late at night or on weekends, explaining his thinking.
“If you were to design a framework for this day and age on paper, Jason Kilar is the perfect fit for the job,” said Jeff Shell, CEO of NBCUniversal, in an interview. The two got to know each other last year while making a deal on the “Harry Potter” film series that Warner produced and Universal got a license for its various channels.
“Although he is well known to have knowledge of the technology,” added Shell, “I think he has both a respect for content and a relentless desire to continue where the consumer is going. It was refreshing to see him do such a daring thing.
Mr. Kilar had never led an organization the size of WarnerMedia, nor dealt directly with talent and other artists in his previous work experience.
For example, when asked before Mr. Nolan’s public criticism how he thought the filmmaker, a fierce advocate of the theatrical experience, might react to Warner’s decision, Mr. Kilar was positive.
“I think it sounds like this is such a dedicated business to the storyteller and the fan that they will stop at nothing to make sure they go as far as possible to help both the storyteller and the fan,” Mr Kilar said.
Mr Kilar admits the company should have been more sensitive to how his ad would be received by actors and filmmakers. “A very important point to make – something that I should have made a central part of our original communication – is that we approach in a thoughtful way the economic aspects of this situation with a guiding principle of generosity,” he said. declared. This blind spot when it comes to creative talent may indicate that Mr. Kilar emphasizes service to the public above all else. During the announcement of “Wonder Woman 1984,” he wrote a memo in which the word “fan” or “fans” was used 13 times. His most recent, announcing the 17-photo deal, was titled “Some Big 2021 News For Fans.”
Mr. Kilar says this commitment to the customer took root during a childhood trip to Disney World. As his story goes, Mr Kilar, the fourth of six children, was impressed by the company’s attention to detail, from the pristine landscaping to the lack of chewing gum on the sidewalk.
“It moved me in a way I had never been moved before,” he said.
From there, Mr. Kilar became an expert on all things Walt Disney. He read biographies, scoured libraries for more material, and eventually landed an internship with the company after drawing a comic book when his letters generated no response. He was particularly interested in Mr. Disney’s entrepreneurial spirit, a quality Mr. Kilar defines as “the relentless search for better ways.”
He sees a direct line from that childhood obsession to his decision as head of WarnerMedia to elevate streaming to theatrical release level.
The film industry in general is not so romantic about it. Mr Kilar’s main mistake, as the city sees it, is not the deal itself – after all, filmmakers have been making deals with Netflix for years – but rather the courage to ignore other parties. stakeholders in the company’s decision. He’s still seen as an outsider, discussing revolution but maybe just trying to support a failing streaming product that needs to quickly gain subscribers to gain Wall Street approval.
“There are some things you can talk about and talk about and talk about, but that doesn’t necessarily change the outcome,” Mr. Kilar said. “I don’t think it would have been possible if we had taken months and months with conversations with every voter. At some point you have to lead. And lead with the customer in mind and make decisions on their behalf. “