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HBO Max Plan Makes WarnerMedia Chief A Hollywood Villain

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LOS ANGELES – When Jason Kilar took office as CEO of Hulu in July 2007, some competitors thought the streaming service was so likely they called it the Clown Co. Yet Mr. Kilar, armed with the belief that there was a better way to watch TV, and the support of two powerful corporate parents – NBCUniversal and News Corp – confiscated himself and his team from an empty Santa Monica office and got to work . He covered all the windows with newspapers and made the point that naysayers should be ignored.

“Sometimes in life blocking out outside noise is really good,” he said in a recent interview.

Hulu didn’t fail, and 13 years later, Mr. Kilar (the first syllable rhymes with “heaven”) 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 planned for 2021 – including big budget offerings like “Dune” and “The Matrix 4” – will be released simultaneously in theaters and on the company’s difficult streaming service, HBO Max . The move orchestrated to address the ongoing challenges of the pandemic Decades of precedents for the way the movie industry does business and drives Hollywood into a frenzy.

Powerful talent agents and theater managers have publicly blown it up. Perhaps most importantly, some of the high profile filmmakers who worked with Warner Bros. – and whom the studio plans to work with again – were harshly critical. Christopher Nolan, whose “Tenet” is just the latest of his films released by Warner, told The Hollywood Reporter, “Some of the greatest filmmakers and stars in our industry went to bed that night before they thought they were working for the biggest studio and woke up to find out they were working for the worst streaming service. “

Denis Villeneuve, the director of “Dune,” wrote in Variety that “Warner Bros. may have killed the” Dune “franchise.” (“Dune” only covers half of Frank Herbert’s novel. It was planned that Mr. Villeneuve would complete the science fiction story in a sequel.) Neither Mr. Nolan, nor Mr. Villeneuve, or most of Hollywood was off been told of Warner’s plans before they were announced.

Mr. Kilar, 49, called the targeted criticism “painful” and added, “We clearly have more work to do in managing this pandemic and the future alongside them.” But he’s spent his career cracking down on entrenched systems and was somewhat prepared for the outrage.

“There is no such thing as a situation where everyone will stand up and applaud,” he said. “That’s not how innovation works. This is neither easy nor should it be easy. When trying something new you have to expect and be ready with some people who are not familiar with change. That’s okay.”

Mr. Kilar’s boss, John Stankey, the managing director of Warner’s parent company AT&T, also defended the strategy, calling it a “win-win-win situation” at a recent investor conference.

Serious and approachable, Mr. Kilar, who took over WarnerMedia in May, acts more as an avid doer than a ruthless disruptor. Both the childhood stories he tells about returning home from school in Pennsylvania to see “Speed ​​Racer” and the enthusiasm he shows for upcoming projects – he named the adaptation of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s musical “In the Heights ”“ life-affirming ”- seem purposeful in distracting the growing narrative that he is the evil villain at the center of a conspiracy to dismantle the act of going to the theater to watch a movie. (In the email exchange after the interview, he shared a list of films he paid to see in theaters before the pandemic stalled things and wrote, “I have a few in theaters my most transcendent experiences. “)

Mr Kilar has positioned WarnerMedia’s decision to release films in theaters and streaming in response to the fighting caused by the pandemic, which has closed the majority of American theaters and caused most studios to postpone release until next year . (A notable exception to the delay is Warner’s “Wonder Woman 1984,” which hits theaters and HBO Max on Christmas Day.) He also referred to the decision as “a” Accommodation for the audience that has got used to watching movies 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 successful.

There are serious challenges. HBO Max is more expensive than other streamers ($ 15 a month) and has been criticized for not having “must see” content. (The miniseries “The Flight Attendant” caused quite a stir recently.) Marketing has puzzled customers trying to tell the difference between it and platforms like HBO Go and HBO Now. The total number of subscribers is 12.6 million, well behind Netflix (195 million subscribers worldwide) and Disney + (87 million). Only 30 percent of HBO subscribers signed up.

Additionally, AT & T’s balance sheet has nearly $ 170 billion in debt, which leaves some in Hollywood to wonder if the company can invest enough in content to achieve its goals.

So it helps that beneath the veneer of “Ah, shit, I’m just a Pittsburgh kid” is a relentlessly ambitious manager who wrote a well-read manifesto on a Hulu blog in 2011 that criticized the television business – and most likely played it played a significant role in landing his current job. In his short time, Mr. Kilar has restructured WarnerMedia, laid off around 1,000 employees and started to free the company from decades of fiefdom.

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Some employees appreciate his clear direction and focused approach, while others rub against his lack of respect for Hollywood tradition. He has become known for sending long emails, often late at night or on the weekend, to explain his thoughts.

“If you wanted to design an executive for this time on paper, Jason Kilar is the ideal person for the job,” said Jeff Shell, executive director of NBCUniversal, in an interview. The two met last year when they signed a deal on the Warner-produced and channel-licensed series of films “Harry Potter”.

“While he is known to be a technology expert,” added Shell, “I believe he has both a respect for content and a relentless desire to follow where the consumer is going. It was refreshing to see him do such a bold thing. “

Mr. Kilar had never run an organization the size of WarnerMedia or dealt directly with talent and other artists in his previous work experience.

For example, Mr Kilar was positive when asked before Mr Nolan’s public criticism how he believed the filmmaker, a fierce defender of theatrical experience, might react to Warner’s move.

“I think he would say that this is a company that is so dedicated to the storyteller and fan that they stop at nothing to make sure they go as far as they can to both the storyteller and the fan to help, “said Kilar.

Oops.

Mr. Kilar admits the company should have been more sensitive to how its announcement would be received by actors and filmmakers. “A very important point – something I should have made a central part of our original communication – is that we are thoughtfully approaching the economics of this situation with a guiding principle of generosity,” he said. This blind spot in dealing with creative talent could indicate Mr. Kilar’s emphasis on serving the audience above all else. When announcing “Wonder Woman 1984” he wrote a memo in which the word “fan” or “fans” was used 13 times. Its most recent to announce the 17-picture deal was titled “Some Big 2021 News for Fans”.

Mr. Kilar says that commitment to the customer caught on during a childhood trip to Disney World. As his story tells, Mr. Kilar, the fourth of six children, was impressed with the company’s attention to every detail, from the pristine landscaping to the lack of gum on the sidewalk.

“It moved me in a way I had never done before,” he said.

From there, Mr. Kilar became an expert on all that Walt Disney has to offer. He read the biographies, searched the libraries for more material, and eventually got an internship with the company after drawing a comic when his letters got no response. He was most interested in Mr. Disney’s entrepreneurship, a quality that Mr. Kilar defines as “the relentless pursuit of better ways.”

He sees a direct line from this childhood obsession to his decision, as head of WarnerMedia, to take streaming to a theatrical level.

The broader film industry is not that romantic. Mr. Kilar’s main mistake, according to the city, is not the deal itself – after all, filmmakers have been doing business with Netflix for years – but rather the nerve of ignoring the other stakeholders in the company’s decision. He’s still seen as an outsider discussing revolution but maybe really just trying to endorse a stalled streaming product that needs to get subscribers quickly to get Wall Street approval.

“There are some things to talk about and talk about and talk about, but that doesn’t necessarily change the outcome,” Kilar said. “I don’t think this would have been possible if we’d spent months and months talking to every voter. At a certain point you need to lead. And run with the customer in mind and make decisions on their behalf. “

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Robert Dunfee