WarnerMedia’s ex-boss Jason Kilar says you should be happy with the decline of movie theaters

Some endings are surprising. This one isn’t: Jason Kilar, who has run WarnerMedia for the past two years, is leaving the company because he has a new owner who wants to run the entertainment conglomerate behind HBO, CNN and Warner Bros.

This resolution has been clear since last May, when AT&T announced that it was spinning off WarnerMedia —which it had bought three years earlier— from the cable television programmer Discovery Inc. And, more specifically, at a press conference announcing the agreement, when Discovery CEO David Zaslav had no say in Kilar’s future at the combined company.

There was tangible joy in some corners of Hollywood when Kilar’s future departure became apparent because Kilar had become a stand-in for resentment at the way the tech giants treated Hollywood. And specifically because Kilar had moved all of WarnerMedia’s 2021 movies, including big-budget shows like Duneto a streaming model first.

Kilar said he made the change due to the pandemic that has closed theaters around the world. But many people I spoke to interpreted it as an example of a tech guy: Kilar started at Amazon, before running Hulu in its early days, disrupting an industry just for the sake of disruption.

Now WarnerMedia has settled on a hybrid model that most of Hollywood has come to use as well: Put your most important stuff in theaters and stream everything else to people’s phones and homes. I spoke with Kilar about that decision and what it means for the future of movies, the prospect of Big Media’s future consolidation, his handling of former CNN boss Jeff Zucker’s departure, and what he’s going to do next. Spoiler: He didn’t answer the last one.

Peter Kafka

You’re leaving after two years. Was there anything that, in hindsight, you could have seen coming, that you could have predicted?

Jason Kilar

There are some things that I don’t think anyone could have predicted: that we would all be locked up for five months, with no film or television production anywhere in the world. I don’t think anyone would have predicted that people would be working from home for the better part of two years. But when it came to the business and the things we needed to do and focus on, that was a big part of the expectation.

Peter Kafka

Without using the word “storytelling,” can you point me to something you’re proud of that’s inside the company that people might not be able to see on the outside?

Jason Kilar

Focus on the customer. The company’s 99-year history has largely consisted of being a wholesaler. We create movies, TV shows, documentaries, and sometimes TV channels, but then we hand those things over to other companies and they interact with the customer, the audience, the fan. And in the last couple of years, there’s been a dramatic shift in the company and the strategy and even the culture, to being very customer-centric and ultimately serving the customer directly.

Peter Kafka

In the past, we talked about their movie release strategy: moving all their movies to streaming in 2021 and this year to a mixed model, where some movies open in theaters first and others stream immediately. Do you think there will be space in theaters for movies that are not superheroes or events? Or do you think you’ll go to theaters for Marvel and Batman and Fast and the Furious and everything else you’ll see at home?

Jason Kilar

I think there will be space in conventional theaters, but not exclusively. I think the biggest IMAX-worthy shows will have exclusive theatrical runs, albeit shorter than the industry is used to. But I do think there will be ample room in theaters for romantic comedies, for nuanced dramas, but those films will not be exclusively distributed in theaters.

Peter Kafka

I wonder, if I run a chain of theaters, how do I convince myself to make room for a romantic comedy, when I know the most consistent audience will be for these event movies, and maybe horror movies as well. It seems that ultimately I am going to cede that property to the big franchises.

Jason Kilar

I think he will give his first real estate to the big shows. No doubt about that. But keep in mind that many of these theaters have 12, 20, 20+ screens. So I think not every screen will be given to a superhero movie. Theaters are going to act in their own best interest, and I think their best interest is going to be to lead with the show… but I think the future of the industry will involve romantic comedies and nuanced dramas not exclusively. , on some screens.

Peter Kafka

If I’m a fan of dramas and romantic comedies, should I feel bad that it will be harder to see those things in theaters? Or should I feel good because it’s easier to watch those things at home?

Jason Kilar

I think it’s a very positive development, for two reasons: 1) it’s a model that allows for more aggressive investment in romantic comedies and dramas, and 2) giving the consumer choice which I think is ultimately a good thing. And for those who are involved in the theatrical experience, I think they’re going to have that. And for those who prefer the comfort of the sofa, they will have it too.

Peter Kafka

You are leaving WarnerMedia when it merges with Discovery. Do you think that combination will be big enough to compete? Or will they have to buy more stuff or sell to someone else?

Jason Kilar

I will speak at a higher level about the industry in general. I think it’s fair to say that there are more players in the streaming world right now than I think the industry will support at scale. So I think there will be additional chess moves that are going to happen.

Peter Kafka

What was the first thing on your to-do list that you couldn’t do?

Jason Kilar

I don’t know if there is. I’ve always tried to think long term, and what we’ve done in the last two years is not just about 2021 or 2022, but also about the next decade. We have 10-year plans.

Peter Kafka

Did you offer any advice to David Zaslav and his team on what to do with the team and the plans you have set?

Jason Kilar

At the end of the day, I’m handing over the keys to David, so he can go and lead as he sees fit. That’s the way he should function in this situation. The way the transaction was set up was that Discovery would be in control and therefore David can make those decisions.

Peter Kafka

Do you regret the way you handled [former CNN head] Jeff Zucker leaving CNN, firing him, and the aftermath of that?

Jason Kilar

I accepted Jeff’s resignation [Note: Both the New York Times and Wall Street Journal have reported that Kilar told Zucker he would have to leave his job after learning Zucker had failed to disclose a relationship with Allison Gollust, CNN’s chief marketing officer]. But to answer your question: No, I don’t regret anything. As I have mentioned publicly, decisions have been made regarding CNN and I feel good about it.

You be the judge of CNN+, but when you look at what’s happened, in the last two weeks alone, you have what I believe to be the strongest news franchise in the world, firmly embracing a solid, scalable, paid business model. And I think 10 years from now, that will make a difference for CNN. So I have no regrets. [Disclosure: Recode and Vox Media created Land of the Giants, a documentary series now streaming on CNN+; my editor Samantha Oltman and I were executive producers for the project.]

Peter Kafka

What’s next for you?

Jason Kilar

Good question. That will be for the next conversation you and I have.

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