Jason Kilar, the head of WarnerMedia, who came on board with ambitious plans for the company’s standalone streaming service and effectively spent half of his tenure as a lame duck, announced Tuesday that he is leaving the company.
The much-anticipated departure comes days before WarnerMedia will complete a merger with Discovery Inc. and a new team will take the lead.
“Leading this team has been the honor of my life,” Mr. Kilar wrote in a memo to employees. “My heart is so full and I am eternally grateful to each and every one of you. There is no better team on the planet and I will savor every last step as I wander the Burbank grounds a few more times this week with that team in mind.”
Mr. Kilar was hired by John Stankey, CEO of AT&T, WarnerMedia’s parent company, in April 2020, just weeks after a pandemic began and a month before the launch of HBO Max, the company’s streaming service.
Mr. Kilar, a founder of Hulu and an Amazon veteran, focused on putting the company’s streaming service on a stable footing. Months into his tenure, he set about implementing a plan called Project Popcorn, his most controversial decision. As the pandemic raged, Mr. Kilar announced in a December 2020 post on Medium that the Warner Bros. 2021 film slate would be released simultaneously in theaters and on HBO Max, a decision that caught most filmmakers and their proxies off guard.
Streaming analysts welcomed the decision, and HBO Max had a strong year. HBO and HBO Max ended 2021 with more than 70 million subscribers worldwide, exceeding internal expectations, according to AT&T.
But the decision landed with a bang in creative circles in Hollywood. Richard Lovett, co-chair of the Creative Artists Agency, called it the “quintessential self-serving corporate maneuver designed to benefit your business while wreaking havoc in the industry.” Filmmakers such as Denis Villeneuve, Christopher Nolan and David Chase have criticized it.
Just as Mr. Kilar was making his vision a reality, his AT&T bosses were secretly plotting their exit from the entertainment business. In February 2021, a month after Project Popcorn, Mr. Stankey began discussions with Discovery chief executive David Zaslav about a merger, a conversation that lasted through March and April.
Mr. Stankey kept Mr. Kilar in the dark about the deal until days before the May announcement. Mr. Zaslav will acquire the combined Warner Bros. Discovery company once the merger is complete.
Mr Kilar also oversaw the departure of CNN CEO Jeff Zucker in February, a departure that made headlines for weeks. Mr. Zucker said he was leaving because he was romantically involved with a subordinate, Allison Gollust, and failed to disclose it to the company. Mr. Kilar offered few details and no alternative explanation, which angered much of the CNN staff.
Two weeks later, Mr. Kilar told employees that Mr. Zucker and Ms. Gollust had committed “violations of company policy,” including CNN’s news standards and practices, a charge both denied.