When Jason Kilar began his tenure as chief executive of Hulu in July 2007, some competitors considered the streaming service so likely to fail that they nicknamed it Clown Co. Yet Kilar, armed with both the conviction that there was a better way to watch television and the backing of two powerful corporate parents — NBCUniversal and News Corp — sequestered himself and his team in an empty Santa Monica office and got to work. He covered all the windows with newspapers, emphasising the point that naysayers were to be ignored.
“Sometimes in life, blocking out that outside noise is a really good thing to do,” he said in a recent interview.
Hulu did not fail, and 13 years later Kilar (the first syllable rhymes with “sky”) is chief executive of WarnerMedia. Suddenly, he has a lot of noise he needs to ignore.
This month, Warner Bros. announced that its 17 films scheduled for 2021 — including big-budget offerings like Dune and The Matrix 4— would be released simultaneously in theatres and on the company’s struggling streaming service, HBO Max. The move, orchestrated to deal with the continuing challenges brought on by the pandemic, upended decades of precedent for the way the movie industry does business and sent Hollywood into a frenzy.
Powerful talent agents and theatre executives publicly blasted it. Perhaps most important, some high-profile filmmakers who have worked with Warner Bros. — and whom the studio is counting on working with again — were sharply critical. Christopher Nolan, whose Tenet is just the latest of his movies released by Warner, told The Hollywood Reporter, “Some of our industry’s biggest filmmakers and most important movie stars went to bed the night before thinking they were working for the greatest movie studio and woke up to find out they were working for the worst streaming service.”
Denis Villeneuve, director of Dune, wrote in Variety that “Warner Bros. might just have killed the ‘Dune’ franchise.” (“Dune” covers only half of the novel by Frank Herbert. The plan was for Villeneuve to complete the sci-fi tale in a sequel.) Neither Nolan nor Villeneuve, nor most of Hollywood, had been told of Warner’s plans before they were announced.
Kilar, 49, called the pointed criticisms “painful,” adding, “We clearly have more work to do as we navigate this pandemic and the future alongside them.” But he has spent his career pushing against entrenched systems and was somewhat prepared for the outrage.
“There is no situation where everyone is going to stand up and applaud,” he said. “That’s not the way innovation plays out. This is not easy, nor is it intended to be easy. When you are trying something new, you have to expect and be ready for some people who are not comfortable with change. That’s OK.”
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.
Kilar has positioned WarnerMedia’s decision to release films in theatres and on streaming as a reaction to the struggles caused by the pandemic, which has shut down the majority of American theatres and prompted most studios to delay releases into next year. (One notable exception to the delay is Warner’s Wonder Woman 1984, which will be released in theatres and on HBO Max on Christmas Day.) He has also called the decision an accommodation for audiences, who have become more accustomed to watching films in their living rooms.
But Kilar joined WarnerMedia just two months before the lacklustre debut of HBO Max, and it is his job to make the service successful.
Kilar had never run an organisation the size of WarnerMedia, nor did he deal directly with talent and other artists in his past work experience. For instance, when asked before Nolan’s public criticism how he thought the filmmaker, a fierce defender of the theatrical experience, might react to Warner’s move, Kilar was positive.
“I think he would say that this is a company so thoroughly dedicated to the storyteller and the fan that they will stop at nothing to make sure they are going as far as possible to help both the storyteller and fan,” Kilar said.
Kilar does admit that the company should have been more sensitive to how its announcement would be received by actors and filmmakers. “A very important point to make — something I should have made a central part of our original communication — is we are thoughtfully approaching the economics of this situation with a guiding principle of generosity,” he said.
That blind spot when dealing with creative talent may point to Kilar’s emphasis on serving the audience above all else. When making the announcement about Wonder Woman 1984, he wrote a memo that used the word “fan” or “fans” 13 times. His most recent one, announcing the 17-picture deal, was titled “Some Big 2021 News for Fans.”
Kilar says that this commitment to the customer took hold during a childhood trip to Disney World. As his story goes, Kilar, the fourth of six children, was wowed by the company’s attention to detail, from the pristine landscaping to the lack of chewing gum on the sidewalk.
He sees a direct line from that childhood obsession to his decision as the chief of WarnerMedia to elevate streaming to the level of a theatrical release.
The broader movie industry is not as romantic about it. Kilar’s primary mistake, as the town sees it, is not the deal itself — after all, filmmakers have been making deals with Netflix for years — but rather the nerve to ignore the other stakeholders when making the company’s decision. He is still viewed as an outsider, one who is discussing revolution but, perhaps, really just trying to prop up a faltering streaming product that needs to gain subscribers quickly to earn Wall Street’s approval.
“There are some things that you can talk and talk and talk about, but it doesn’t necessarily change the outcome,” Kilar said. “I don’t think this would have been possible if we had taken months and months with conversations with every constituent. At a certain point you do need to lead. And lead with the customer top of mind and make decisions on their behalf.”
The New York Times
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