‘We Were Their Lifeline’: Why WarnerMedia CEO Jason Kilar Believes HBO Max Saved Theaters

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“We’re the only company for the last year-plus that has delivered 18 movies. Nobody else has done that,” Kilar tells TheWrap

Jason Kilar Warnermedia Dune
Warner Bros./Warnermedia

A year ago, WarnerMedia CEO Jason Kilar and the famed Warner Bros. studio were the talk of the town… for all the wrong reasons.

But 10 months into Kilar’s bold decision to release Warner Bros.’ entire 2021 film slate — including big-budget tentpoles like this weekend’s “Dune,” available day-and-date on HBO Max — he has no regrets. After ruffling some very big feathers last year (including longtime Warner Bros. collaborator Chris Nolan, who took his next film, “Oppenheimer,” to Universal), Kilar is showing off some feathers of his own.

“We were the first one over the wall with this. So we took a position of leadership,” Kilar told TheWrap during a lengthy interview in Los Angeles on Wednesday ahead of parent company AT&T’s Q3 earnings report. “We’re the only company, for the last year-plus, that has delivered 18 movies. Nobody else has done that, nobody else has come even close. If you take a look at what the exhibitors have been saying, we were their lifeline in their period of greatest need.”

Not bad for a guy who most assume won’t have his job this time next year, when Discovery and its chief executive David Zaslav are expected to take over a spun-off company, Warner Bros. Discovery.

But meanwhile, Kilar is laser-focused on maximizing his time leading Warner. HBO Max has seen the boost of having big-budget films like DC Comics’ “The Suicide Squad,” LeBron James’ “Space Jam” sequel and Legendary’s “Godzilla vs Kong.” Worldwide, HBO and HBO Max have more than 67.5 million subscribers, which is up 12 million over last year. The company expects more than 70 million by the end of the year as it ramps up its international presence (and probably hopes to score its own “Squid Game” in the process).

TheWrap caught up with Kilar, General Manager of Direct to Consumer Andy Forssell, and Warner Studios and Networks Group CEO Ann Sarnoff to talk about the unexpected lessons of their COVID year-plus, and the outlook on theatrical in 2022. The following conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Are you happy with the results of your decision to go day and date with HBO Max with all your theatrical? Did it turn out the way you thought?

Jason Kilar: It’s not over yet. We’ve got “Dune” this Friday, then “King Richard” in November, and then “Matrix: Resurrections” in December. At this point, we’re absolutely happy with the decision. We were the first one over the wall with this. So we took a position of leadership. We thought long and hard. We talked to our partners, we obviously thought very carefully about exhibition. We’re the only company, for the last year-plus, that has delivered 18 movies. Nobody else has done that, nobody else has come even close. If you take a look at what the exhibitors have been saying, we were their lifeline in their period of greatest need.

We treated every film as though it was a hit in terms of the way that we treated all of our partners, economically. In the middle of the pandemic, when you think about it, I wish I could tell you that everybody’s comfortable going back to theaters just yet. It’s taking time.

When you look at the results for the business, what we were able to do for our talent participants, what we’re able to do for audiences and fans, what we’re able to do for exhibition, and also for ourselves, we felt very, very good about it.

Jason Kilar
Jason Kilar (Photo: WarnerMedia)

You don’t feel that there were some movies that could have gone full theatrical exclusive? Like maybe having a more curated approach?

Kilar: In order to be able to pay those 181 [talent] partners in the manner that we did very generously, we had to take an approach that was over the course of the year. In order to be able to know that we could generate revenue through HBO Max, we needed to be able to signal [that] to consumers.

We wanted to provide the visibility, because in a subscription business, you make a decision not just based on what’s there that you want to watch in that moment, you’re also doing it based on what you believe is coming.

But you wish you would have done it differently, you wish you would have approached it differently, wish that you could have gone second instead of first.

Kilar: We feel very good about the decision. Okay, we feel really good about what we’ve done for our partners for exhibition. And for audiences around the world.

Ann Sarnoff: We didn’t like the surprise of it. We didn’t intend for it to be a surprise, but because there were so many participants once we got a few hours into the calls it leaked. So would we have liked to have spoken to everyone first? Yeah.

Is it fair to say that as somebody who was brought on as a digital leader to help transform a legacy studio, that without the pandemic, you probably wouldn’t have felt that you could take as bold step as you did a year ago?

Kilar: I think it’s fair to say that the pandemic has accelerated changes that were already afoot, and by changes already afoot. I mean, consumer behavior change.

But you have to battle a lot of legacy forces to impose a decision like that.

Kilar: There is no doubt that a pandemic, for anyone that’s leading a company, whether it’s an entertainment company, whether it’s a technology company, whether it’s a medical company, the pandemic absolutely provided a sense of urgency towards decisions that probably would not have been made in non-pandemic times. Decisions that we’ve made as a company, that I’ve made as a leader, have been somewhat unique, given the backdrop of the pandemic.

Is it your sense that in the industry, that whatever feathers were ruffled and relationships strained over that decision, that it’s pretty much behind you?

Sarnoff: That’s true. We really treated them with respect and paid them fairly. Talent is everything to us. That’s the beginning and the most important part of everything we do.

dceu movies ranked the suicide squad (1)
“The Suicide Squad” (Warner Bros.)

The value you guys got from the day and date release for HBO Max, are you worried that you might lose some of that value next year when there’s a 45-day theatrical window?

Kilar: No. Let us share our sizzle reel for 2022 and make our case as to why you should be an HBO Max subscriber.

Andy Forssell: Part of that is episodic is coming back. It was a little thinner this year because of the production shutdowns. The popcorn from the day and date films were obviously a great counterpoint to that. But those gloves have kind of come off because programs are coming back.

About the differences between HBO and HBO Max. Does it matter to you if someone doesn’t know that “Succession” is HBO and something like “Hacks” is HBO Max? Or do you look at them all the same?

Kilar: We’re 16 months into the birth of a new studio sensibility, which is Max Originals. In time, if we do what we’re capable of doing, it’ll become very clear what’s an HBO show, what’s a Max Original series, what’s a DC Comics series. That’s the job that we need to do.

Sarnoff: It’s its own version of the cable bundle, housed within the banner of HBO Max We’ve got tremendous brands and franchises to bring to that and HBO will stand for something within that broader ecosystem.

So like it’s almost like HBO was more of a brand than a TV channel?

Kilar: Yes, just like Marvel and Pixar are anchors for Disney+, HBO is our anchor.

How do you decide when it comes to movies — what goes to theaters and what goes to HBO Max. How did you decide, for example, that “Batgirl” would be on HBO Max?

Sarnoff: We’re gonna want to spread the love and spread the wealth. Some movies will be directed at theaters, because we think those stories are best on the big screen. But we also want to satisfy the Max audience, and given the full range of our franchises, we’re taking different routes to be able to open up the franchise and have different access points, not just on the big screen.

Can we talk about the Discovery deal? Jason, you are not behaving like somebody who is leaving the company.

Kilar: I’m focused on my role. And my role is to lead this company. And that’s my focus, and it’s going to be my focus until at some point in 2022, I will think about [my future] and I will come back to this team. And I’ll come back to you and others who ever want to have a conversation about it. But now’s not the time, I’ve got a really, really important job to do, I love what I do.