WarnerMedia faces an uncertain future

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(L-R) DP Alice Brooks, director Jon M. Chu, Stephanie Beatriz and Daphne Rubin-Vega on the set of Warner Bros. Pictures’ “In the Heights.” The film is available June 11 on HBO Max, but Chu is pushing viewers to see it in theatres. Photo by Macall Polay

News broke in May that AT&T would spin off WarnerMedia to Discovery and that David Zaslav would run the combined media empire, but that deal isn’t closing any time soon. The merger is subject to federal review, which could take a year or more. That leaves WarnerMedia awkwardly situated and without clear leadership in the midst of the streaming wars. 

When the merger was first announced, it seemed like Jason Kilar, the current head of WarnerMedia, was on his way out the door. But now, details of his contract reveal a $20 million reason he may stick around for another year. 

WarnerMedia has faced a revolving door of executives in recent years, including the ouster of Kevin Tsujihara following a sex scandal. Then when Jason Kilar arrived, he purged much of the film studio’s old regime and made enemies with big time talent and agents when he put all of Warners’ 2021 movies on HBO Max the same day films opened in theaters.  

The Jon M. Chu and Lin-Manuel Miranda movie “In the Heights” opens on June 11, and both Chu and Kilar are encouraging viewers to see it in theaters. Audience members may be eager to return to the movies after more than a year away, but the film probably won’t score its full box office potential because it will also be available to stream on HBO Max the same day. 

Chu’s last movie, “Crazy Rich Asians,” was a huge box office success for Warner Bros. Chu actually turned down an offer for more money from Netflix because the in-theater experience was so important to him, so it’s no surprise he was hurt by the HBO Max announcement late last year.  

In the midst of all this change is the question of whether Warner Bros. film chairman Toby Emmerich will get to keep his job. Even though the decision to put the 2021 film slate on streaming came with a push from AT&T, some  in the creative community blame Emmerich for not telling anyone before the studio announced its decision. 

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