CES: WarnerMedia Chief Ann Sarnoff on Entertainment Shifts

MediaLink chair and chief executive Michael Kassan held a conversation during CES 2021 with WarnerMedia Studios and Networks Group chair and chief executive Ann Sarnoff on the impact of COVID-19 on the entertainment industry. Sarnoff, a 30+ year industry veteran, heads the Warner Bros. Pictures Group, HBO and HBO Max, the Warner Bros. Television Group, DC, and other WarnerMedia networks, channels and products. “When [AT&T Communications chief executive] John Stankey hired me a year and a half ago, he talked about breaking down the silos,” she explained of the organization’s new strategy.

“I’m proud of the progress we’ve made this year,” she noted. “Since August 2019, we’ve had weekly meetings among all the franchises about how we can collaborate together, bringing stories to life in a new and different way. The organization chart is much more centrally connected now, although people can still feel a pride of individual effort at the same time.”

The introduction of DC FanDome is a potent example of that new focus. “We started thinking about what we could do for DC fans,” said Sarnoff. “The marketing teams and DC franchise team came up with a 24-hour super event, connected to talent and creators. Five hundred talent showed up in that 24 hours, virtually connecting everything they love about DC from ‘Wonder Woman 84,’ from consumer products designed by Venus Williams to new interactive games.”

Kassan asked Sarnoff about the importance of diversity, especially given her role as a trailblazing female studio head. “It hasn’t been easy being a woman in this industry — you had to conform to the male culture,” she explained. “Nickelodeon was the place where for the first time I felt like I could bring my whole self in,” said Sarnoff, noting that company president Geraldine Laybourne created a 50 percent female workforce.

“By having the teams be diverse, we could be the most creative versions of ourselves,” she added. “In homogeneous cultures, people finish each other’s sentences.  If you’re not shaking it up, you’re going to be beaten by the competition.”

As to the day-and-date distribution strategy for HBO Max, Sarnoff noted that, although the studio has released movies such as “Tenet” into theaters, “we’re pivoting to the environment we live in.” “Sixty percent of theaters are closed in the U.S. and Europe,” she said. “We needed an alternative platform to theaters and decided to have fans watch ‘Wonder Woman 84’ and the entire 2021 slate on HBO Max.”

To Kassan’s question as to whether the opening weekend box office is no longer a relevant metric, Sarnoff noted that it is “a proxy for success.” “In the streaming world, it’s a completely different set of criteria, like subscriber numbers and churn,” she said. “The eyeballs are less relevant than the overall service, and the industry isn’t geared to measure it. But everyone wants a barometer, and things will shift over time.”

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