WarnerMedia’s CEO departs in advance of Discovery merger

The Warner Bros studios and HBO merger with Discovery Inc could close as early as April 8, according to a person familiar with the matter. 

Jason Kilar is departing as chief executive officer of WarnerMedia, days before the parent of Warner Bros. studios and HBO merges with Discovery Inc. to form a new media company.

Kilar, 50, who co-founded and led the Hulu streaming service before going on to run WarnerMedia under current owner AT&T Inc., announced his plans Tuesday in an internal memo.

His exits paves the way for David Zaslav, the CEO of Discovery, to begin building his own management team at the soon-to-be-combined companies. The merger could close as early as April 8, according to a person familiar with the matter.

Kilar said in an interview that he hoped his legacy would be that he transformed Time Warner from a media conglomerate with separate divisions into a cohesive company “with a very clear mission and a very clearly articulated strategy to go direct to consumer and go global.”

AT&T appointed Kilar to run WarnerMedia in April 2020, betting that a technology executive with experience in streaming could lead the film and TV company into a new era. AT&T was on the verge of introducing a streaming business, HBO Max, and viewed Kilar, a former Amazon.com Inc. executive, as the right person for the job.

But a year later, AT&T decided to jettison its media business via a $43 billion merger of WarnerMedia with Discovery and return to its roots as a phone company. AT&T bought the former Time Warner for $85 billion in 2018, envisioning at the time that it could prosper by offering movies, TV shows and live sports to its phone and internet customers.

Diversity Gains

Kilar said he is proud of gains the company had made in diversity during his tenure. From the end of 2019 to the end of 2021, the number of employees of color at WarnerMedia in the U.S. increased by 3 percentage points to 41%.

Kilar made waves in the film industry during the pandemic by releasing all of the Warner Bros. movies simultaneously in theaters and on the streaming service. That broke the old rules of distribution, which called for cinemas to have new movies exclusively for 90 days or more.

While the exclusive theatrical window has now mostly settled at 45 days, Kilar predicted that, in the future, movies will take two tracks. “Imax-worthy spectacles” will continue to premiere exclusively in theaters, while movies that are “more nuanced,” like romantic comedies, will be released in theaters and on streaming services at the same time.

“Ultimately, the consumer will decide,” he said.

While Netflix Inc. and Walt Disney Co.’s Disney+ have shown signs of slowing subscriber growth recently, Kilar pointed out that “we’re not seeing that” at HBO Max. He predicted that the number of homes globally that subscribe to a streaming service will eventually top 1 billion.

What Next?

Kilar declined to say what he will do next. Asked who will replace him, he said, “David [Zaslav] is taking my job.”

Kilar was known inside WarnerMedia for his long “walk-and-talks,” taking meetings with employees while strolling the grounds of places like the Warner Bros. lot in Burbank, California.

“Word has gotten around that when Jason calls for a walk-and-talk, be sure to wear comfortable walking shoes!” he wrote in his memo staff Tuesday.

Kilar, an alum of University of North Carolina, was courtside Monday night in New Orleans when his team lost to Kansas in the NCAA men’s national championship game. While maintaining his typical upbeat attitude, Kilar lamented the loss, saying “that part is still stinging.”

(Updates with CEO interview starting in fourth paragraph.)

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