Insiders are speculating about the future of all these key execs at Discovery-WarnerMedia

  • Talk is turning to the question of who will help run the planned Discovery-WarnerMedia venture.
  • Future head David Zaslav is expected to favor top movie and TV talent with strong Hollywood ties.
  • Insiders are speculating about what that means for execs including Ann Sarnoff and Toby Emmerich.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

Figuring out who will join Discovery chief David Zaslav to become the new power brokers in Hollywood at the WarnerMedia-Discovery venture is Topic A among West Coast agents, headhunters and consultants.

One Hollywood source familiar with plans suggested that the people closest to Zaslav would be first in line for more responsibilities post-merger. Those C-Suite executives include his CFO Gunnar Wiedenfels, who drove the Scripps integration; J.B. Perrette, president and CEO, international; Bruce Campbell, chief development, distribution and legal; Adria Albert Romm, chief people and culture officer, and David Leavy, chief operating officer and one of Zaslav’s closest confidants. 

Zaslav is set to take over AT&T’s WarnerMedia unit as part of a deal to spin-off WarnerMedia into a new, still-unnamed company that’s part-owned by Discovery shareholders. The deal is expected to close in 10-14 months, pending regulatory approval. 

Overall, the mandate is to bring back Warner’s magic while cutting back-office costs. Others say they don’t expect Discovery to draft any temperamental egomaniacs. One Hollywood source familiar with plans said Discovery wants to invest in the Warner Bros.’ creative community in a way that hasn’t happened since before AOL took charge 20 years ago.

Another Hollywood source said Warner Bros. badly needs executives who understand the relationship business, after the once-creator friendly studio damaged some of its relationships under AT&T’s reign and WarnerMedia CEO Jason Kilar sent theatrical releases to streaming without giving filmmakers a heads up. Zaslav already said he plans to take an office on the lot that has turned out classics from “Casablanca” to “Harry Potter.” 

Here’s what Hollywood sources believe might happen next, starting with current execs.

Ann Sarnoff: The chairwomen and CEO of Warner Bros. joined not from the tight-knit Hollywood community but from the tiny BBC Studios in 2019. Many of the people who spoke to Insider suggest Sarnoff won’t stay in this high-powered role, partly because she backed boss Jason Kilar’s controversial plan to release new theatrical movies on HBO Max and partly because she was hired by AT&T CEO John Stankey, who won’t be in the driver’s seat post-merger. Others think she’ll stay, but in a smaller role. Others said the studio ultimately needs someone at the helm with both a movie and TV background, given Discovery’s lack of experience in feature film making, and some people wonder if Zaslav will eye other female film talent such as Universal’s Donna Langley or Stacey Snider, who is working with Liz Murdoch’s production company, Sister. 

Toby Emmerich: the chairman of Warner Bros. Pictures Group is a known quantity to Zaslav and is widely believed to be safe. However, The Hollywood Reporter reported (before the Discovery-WarnerMedia merger news) that music impresario David Geffen floated Emmerich’s name to Netflix for a role there ahead of his contract renewal talks with Warner Bros. Others shot down the idea of him going to Netflix, however.

Channing Dungey: The chairwoman of Warner Bros. TV Group recently joined from Netflix, after an illustrious run at ABC where she oversaw hits from Shonda Rhimes and brought back “American Idol.” Not much has been written about Dungey, who just drafted a new power publicist, Rebecca Marks, from NBCUniversal. Few think there’ll be a change in direction here, although one Hollywood veteran wondered if former president Warner TV chief, Bruce Rosenblum, might return to the division should Dungey opt for new pastures. 

Richard Tom: The chief technology officer at WarnerMedia who Kilar drafted along with other tech-focused execs appear to be on a firm footing in the new structure, according to one Hollywood source. How streaming services Discovery+ will mesh with HBO Max is still a large question, though. Executives are weighing whether to supercharge HBO Max or to keep Discovery+ separate or offer them in a bundle. The two companies will not need two tech stacks. And Discovery already has its own technology chief at its streaming unit, former Amazon Marketplace VP Avi Saxena. But reliable TV tech guys are few and far between. 

Christy Haubegger: Her job as WarnerMedia’s executive vice president of communications and chief inclusion officer runs far beyond communications, but reporters and insiders have criticized the AT&T unit’s handling of media relations as it’s faced upheaval and M&A speculation. During a company town hall earlier this month on the pending merger, Haubegger’s frustrations with the media were on display where she called out press coverage as being overly negative about AT&T and its stewardship of WarnerMedia. Some wonder if Haubegger, who joined from CAA will remain the role especially given that the Discovery COO, Leavy, oversees communications and is a Zaslav confidant. 

It’s worth noting that Haubegger is a power player beyond WarnerMedia, though; the former founder of Latina Magazine just joined the board of TripAdvisor. 

Jason Kilar: It’s widely believed that Kilar isn’t long for WarnerMedia. The New York Times had reported that Kilar, who was left out of the loop on the merger deal, had hired entertainment attorney Allen Grubman to negotiate his exit from WarnerMedia. But Kilar told staffers he plans to remain as CEO at least until the merger closes, The Wall Street Journal reported. Zaslav, for his part, called Kilar a “fantastic talent” during the company’s post-merger press conference and didn’t signal plans to remove him.

Jeff Zucker: The CNN Worldwide CEO’s current contract runs through the year end. Since, the Discovery/WarnerMedia transaction process will run into 2022, it seems likely that Zucker will re-up for another year to see the parts come together with Discovery in news and sports, where Turner’s relationship with the NBA demands consistent leadership and attention. Zucker told the CNN team in a Town Hall this week that he would be holding talks soon to determine what’s next.  

Kevin Mayer: There’s been lots of talk about the former chairman of Disney Direct-to-Consumer, International, now at sports platform DAZN, being the perfect executive for the new Discovery/WarnerMedia, given his background in streaming. He exited Disney after the board favored Bob Chapek to run Disney. This rumor doesn’t appear likely to become reality, though. Mayer is known as a hard-charging guy with not much emotional quotient, something that’s been needed at WarnerMedia. Plus, Discovery’s own team has launched it into the streaming realm without hiccups thanks to J.B. Perrette, a former NBCUniversal executive who was on the Hulu launch team. 

Richard Plepler: The former HBO honcho who coddled writers, actors, producers and directors like no one else is firmly ensconced in his Apple production deal. So far, there have been no hits on par with his former HBO home, but that may have more to do with Apple than Plepler. While there’s been a lot of speculation about the Time Warner C-Suite band getting back together, it seems unlikely Plepler will be playing maestro again at HBO or on the Warner lot anytime soon.

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