Jason Kilar, CEO of WarnerMedia, revealed that his biggest regret from his time helming Hulu was being unable to convince the board to let the company launch Hulu service globally.
“I think it’s totally fair to bash, candidly, Hulu’s lack of global footprint that could have been possible starting in 2008,” said Kilar, speaking Thursday at MoffettNathanson’s Media & Communications Summit. He was Hulu’s CEO from 2007-13.
“This is ultimately a global business,” Kilar continued. Back in 2008, “I think it was very hard for the board members of Hulu… to feel that this new, small thing called Hulu was going to disrupt their existing businesses across the globe. Now, that happened anyway because of Netflix and others, so that’s why I regret it.”
Hulu, now controlled by Disney, remains a U.S.-only streaming service. Under Kilar, the company had launched a Hulu-branded service in Japan but that was sold in 2014.
Kilar noted that SVOD is largely a fixed-cost business — i.e., the cost of programming — and that distribution expenses are “de minimis,” so the logical strategy is to amortize content spending globally.
The good news, Kilar said, is that WarnerMedia is going global with HBO Max.
AT&T is planning to launch HBO Max in 39 Latin American countries next month, followed by 21 European markets in the back half of 2021. The company expects to end the year with between 67 million and 70 million HBO/HBO Max subscribers worldwide, up 10%-15% from the end of 2020.
For WarnerMedia, the percentage of spending for localized programming regionally “will inch up” from where it is today, but the bulk of the spending will continue to be on a global basis, Kilar predicted.
Also next month, WarnerMedia plans to launch a price-reduced ad-supported version of HBO Max. The AVOD tier will not include the day-and-date Warner Bros. movie premieres throughout 2021 but otherwise will be the same as the $15/month product. HBO Max with ads will not run commercials in HBO original programming.
WarnerMedia has not announced the pricing of the ad-supported HBO Max. Per a CNBC report, it will cost $9.99/month, or $5 less than the ad-free package at $14.99.
Kilar said that WarnerMedia will make the same amount of margin whether someone chooses the full ad-free HBO Max or the lower price tier. “I’m not at all worried” about cannibalization of the higher-priced service, he said. It wouldn’t even matter, he asserted, if 100% of HBO Max’s existing subscribers choose to take the ad-supported tier.
As of the end of March, HBO Max and HBO combined had 44.2 million domestic customers, up 2.7 million from 41.5 million at the end of 2020. That included 9.69 million retail HBO Max subscribers, up 2.8 million sequentially, helped by a Q1 film lineup that included “Godzilla vs. Kong,” “Zack Snyder’s Justice League” and “Judas and the Black Messiah.”
“We have the wind in our sails,” said Kilar, who joined WarnerMedia in May 2020, just a few weeks before HBO Max’s U.S. debut. “Consumers are responding to HBO Max.”
Regarding the decision to release all of Warner Bros.’ 2021 films day-and-day on HBO Max and in theaters simultaneously, Kilar commented, “I’m very, very happy with the decision we made… We were absolutely considering exhibition, which was being starved of Hollywood product.”
In terms of the future, “you should expect us to lean into theatrical experience for decades and decades,” Kilar said. While theatrical windows will change — “and in many ways we are leading that” — there will continue to be major tentpole film releases for Warner Bros. where an exclusive theatrical release is the only path that makes sense, Kilar said.
Kilar acknowledged that movies are driving higher HBO Max engagement — averaging about 2.8 hours per account per day — but he also called out original series like “The Nevers” and “Mare of Easttown” starring Kate Winslet as contributing to increases in time spent viewing.
Asked about WarnerMedia’s seven-year deal with the NHL, Kilar confirmed that the company has rights to carry the hockey games on HBO Max. There are no plans to distribute NHL on HBO Max this year but “we could absolutely see that down the road,” Kilar said. CNN’s linear distribution model will stay in place in the pay-TV ecosystem, which reaches about 85 million U.S. homes. About maintaining the large but declining pay-TV business while investing in HBO Max, Kilar said, “We can walk and chew gum at the same time.”
Near the end of the session, Kilar was asked by the MoffettNathanson analysts, in all seriousness: Why is HBO Max part of AT&T? Some pundits believe WarnerMedia would be better served by being separate from the telco, Craig Moffett said, asking rhetorically: “Can AT&T really invest aggressively to keep pace with Disney and Netflix?”
Kilar suggested that the structural changes need to break down the silos at the legacy Time Warner — where HBO, Warner Bros., Turner and CNN each operated as independent businesses — would not have happened unless AT&T had closed the deal to acquire the media company in 2018. AT&T also brought in new executive leadership, including Kilar himself, which he said “I’d argue that was not the organic road” Time Warner was on in 2016.
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