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WarnerMedia’s ex-boss says you should be happy you’re getting Batman at theaters and rom-coms at home

A chat with Jason Kilar on his two-year tenure, the future of movies, and more.

The Batman against a hazy sky.
A scene from The Batman, a WarnerMedia movie that opened exclusively in theaters in 2022.
Warner Bros.

Some endings are surprising. This one is not: Jason Kilar, who has run WarnerMedia for the past two years, is leaving the company — because it 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 — to cable TV programmer Discovery Inc. And more specifically, at a press conference announcing the deal, when Discovery CEO David Zaslav had nothing to say about Kilar’s future in the combined company.

There was tangible glee in some corners of Hollywood when Kilar’s departure-to-be became apparent because Kilar had become a stand-in for resentment about the way tech giants were treating Hollywood. And specifically because Kilar had moved all of WarnerMedia’s 2021 movies, including big-budget spectacles like Dune, to a streaming-first model.

Kilar said he made the move because of the pandemic that closed theaters around the world. But plenty of folks I talked 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 also ended up using: Put your biggest stuff in movie theaters and stream everything else to people’s phones and homes. I talked to Kilar about that decision and what it means for the future of movies, the prospect of future Big Media consolidation, his handling of former CNN boss Jeff Zucker’s departure, and what he’s doing next. Spoiler: He didn’t answer the last one.

Peter Kafka

You’re leaving after two years. Was there one thing that in retrospect you could have seen coming, that you could have forecasted?

Jason Kilar

There are some things I don’t think anyone could have predicted: that we’d all be in lockdown for five months, with no film or TV production anywhere around the world. I don’t think anybody would have predicted that people would all 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 very much part of expectations.

Peter Kafka

Without using the word “storytelling,” can you point me to something that you’re proud of that’s inside the company, that people maybe couldn’t see on the outside?

Jason Kilar

Focus on the customer. The 99-year history of the company has been largely one of being a wholesaler. We create motion pictures, TV series, 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 over the last two years, it has been a dramatic change in the company and the strategy and even the culture, to be very focused on the customer and to ultimately serve them directly.

Peter Kafka

In the past we’ve talked about your movie release strategy — moving all of your films to streaming in 2021, and this year to a mixed model, where some movies open in theaters first and some stream right away. Do you think there’s going to be room in theaters for non-superhero, non-event movies? Or do you think you’ll go to theaters for Marvel and Batman and Fast and the Furious and everything else you’ll watch at home?

Jason Kilar

I think there will be room in mainstream theaters, but non-exclusively. I think that the biggest, IMAX-worthy spectacles will have exclusive theatrical runs, albeit shorter than the industry is used to. But I do think there will be ample room in the theaters for romantic comedies, for nuanced dramas, but those motion pictures will not be exclusively distributed in theaters.

Peter Kafka

I’m wondering, if I’m running a theater chain, how I convince myself to make room for a romantic comedy, when I know the most consistent audience is going to be for these event movies, and maybe horror as well. It seems like ultimately I’m going to give that real estate over to the big franchises.

Jason Kilar

I think you’ll give your first real estate over to the big spectacles. No doubt about that. But keep in mind a lot of these theaters have 12, 20, 20-plus screens. So I do believe not every screen is going to be given to a superhero movie. The theaters are going to act in their own interest, and I do think their best interest is going to be leading with spectacle … but I do believe the future of the industry is going to entail romantic comedies and nuanced dramas on a non-exclusive basis, on some screens.

Peter Kafka

If I’m a fan of dramas and romantic comedies, should I feel bad that it’s going to be harder to see those things in theaters? Or should I feel good that it’s easier to see that stuff 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 the choice I think is ultimately a good thing. And for those who are invested in the theatrical experience — I believe they’re going to have that. And for those that prefer the convenience of the couch, they’re going to have that too.

Peter Kafka

You’re leaving WarnerMedia as 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 themselves to someone else?

Jason Kilar

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

Peter Kafka

What was the top thing on your to-do list that you didn’t get to do?

Jason Kilar

I don’t know if there is. I’ve always tried to think long-term, and the stuff that we’ve done for the last two years has been all about not just 2021 or 2022, but it’s also been about the next decade. We’ve got 10-year plans.

Peter Kafka

Did you offer any advice to David Zaslav and his team about what to do with the team and plans you’ve set up?

Jason Kilar

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

Peter Kafka

Do you have any regrets over the way you handled [former CNN head] Jeff Zucker’s departure at 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 have any regrets. As I mentioned publicly, decisions were made with regards to CNN and I feel good about them.

You be the judge of CNN+, but when you look at what’s happened, just in the last couple of weeks, you’ve got what I think is the strongest news franchise in the world, firmly embracing a paid, robust, scalable business model. And I do think 10 years from now, that’s going to be the difference-maker for CNN. So I don’t have any 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

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

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