Hollywood’s Most Powerful Woman: Ann Sarnoff Steers Through a Storm

Ann Sarnoff stands contained in the foyer of a theater on the Warner Bros. again lot, observing a wall of males. Earlier than her are 16 black-and-white images of earlier Warner Bros. studio chiefs. Tucked down within the backside proper nook is Sarnoff: blond and beaming, the primary lady to reign over the legendary studio since its founding in 1923. “Seeing this,” she says, “was actually my second of, Oh my God.

As we stroll the lot, Sarnoff reveals me the key door in her workplace the place studio founder Jack Warner used to slide out to play tennis on the garden, then factors out Clint Eastwood’s bungalow and the enduring Pals fountain. She tells me she was a Pals superfan within the ’90s and early 2000s, when she’d come dwelling from the workplace, put her two younger children to mattress, and toil via the night. “Pals was at all times on at 11 at night time in syndication, and it took work off my thoughts,” she says, “so I do know actually each episode.” As we speak, followers lean out of the tour tram to take photos of the fountain. They do not know that the elegant lady within the fitted denim blazer and slim white pants photobombing their photographs is the chair and CEO of WarnerMedia’s studios and networks.

When Sarnoff arrived at WarnerMedia in the summertime of 2019, she was an unknown amount to many in Hollywood—a New Yorker who’d spent many years as an govt at Nickelodeon, VH1, and BBC Studios Americas. What was it prefer to all of a sudden be topped “essentially the most highly effective lady in Hollywood”? Sarnoff shakes her head. “It was extremely thrilling however daunting, as a result of I’m now representing ladies.”

Two years into the job, Sarnoff exudes serene poise—spectacular contemplating that some energy gamers on the town have been dismissive of her as a result of they hadn’t seen her on the vaunted Hollywood social scene. She additionally took over throughout a messy second, changing Kevin Tsujihara, who left WarnerMedia after allegedly arranging film roles for an actress in alternate for intercourse. Not lengthy into Sarnoff’s tenure, WarnerMedia was racing to launch HBO Max, which was essential to its future, within the midst of a worldwide pandemic. As theaters closed, Sarnoff and her workforce made a controversial resolution to place the corporate’s 2021 slate of theatrical movies on their new streamer. Kim Masters at The Hollywood Reporter dubbed December 3, 2020, “a day that may stay in infamy” as a result of many actors and filmmakers didn’t discover out till they learn in regards to the plan within the trades.

Sitting in her grand workplace—dwelling to an electrical piano given to her by J.J. Abrams, which she performs to calm down—Sarnoff talks me via the agonizing dilemmas the corporate confronted due to COVID. After infinite conferences making an attempt to learn epidemiologists’ predictions like tea leaves, she launched Christopher Nolan’s $200 million Tenet on the finish of the summer time of 2020 wherever theaters have been open. It grossed $363 million worldwide, principally from abroad enterprise—a disappointing determine in regular circumstances. By the top of 2020, Sarnoff felt she needed to pull the set off on the remainder of their slate. “COVID stored getting worse and worse, and we mentioned the one method we will afford to open a film is to have one other solution to monetize it,” she says. “So we got here up with the [HBO Max] technique.”

Sarnoff says that they had begun to alert and renegotiate with the individuals behind the affected films, however phrase of “Undertaking Popcorn,” because it was named internally, leaked. “On no account did we intend to have or not it’s a giant shock,” she says. “We have been actually making an attempt to name individuals to inform them. Alternatively, we had 17 films and 181 contributors, so realistically, we knew we weren’t going to get to everyone [before it leaked].” The backlash from inventive companions was brutal, with Dune director Denis Villeneuve raging in opposition to WarnerMedia’s house owners in Selection: “With this resolution AT&T has hijacked probably the most respectable and vital studios in movie historical past.”

A high agent who thinks Sarnoff has carried out wonderful work synergizing the studio and cooling its masculine tradition admits the controversy performed into skeptics’ palms. “While you do one thing like that with all these filmmakers, a degree of belief is damaged,” the agent says. “Ann simply thinks laborious work wins. But when she had relationships [with artists and agents], she might have navigated via this higher.”

Sarnoff notes that they finally did proper by expertise, compensating them and giving them a full international advertising funds and simultaneous theatrical releases wherever cinemas have been open, in addition to a 31-day run on HBO Max. (Disney may need saved itself some drama with Scarlett Johansson if it had paid nearer consideration.) And the brand new movies did enhance subscriptions throughout a scarcity of recent content material: HBO Max and HBO gained 10.7 million home clients in simply over a 12 months. As for the firestorm, Sarnoff says with a rueful chortle, “That was an accelerant for me attending to know fairly a number of individuals!” Has the studio healed its relationships? “I believe so. I actually do. As soon as individuals heard the rationale—, perhaps some individuals disagreed—however you’ll be able to see the outcomes of what it’s been prefer to attempt to open films in a pandemic whereas the theaters have been closed. It’s unattainable to do.”

Sarnoff grew up in Wilbraham, Massachusetts. Her dad was a blue-collar employee who helped construct the native nation membership and later grew to become its groundskeeper; her mother labored at Sears. Sarnoff was a latchkey child from the age of six, however she was sporty and aggressive—captain of three varsity sports activities in highschool—which paved a route to varsity (Georgetown) after which enterprise faculty (Harvard). “There weren’t businesspeople or professionals in my life” to function function fashions, she says. “In case you don’t have anyone main the best way for you, you need to take dangers.”

Earlier than touchdown at WarnerMedia, Sarnoff demonstrated a present for the nostalgia market. At Nickelodeon within the mid-’90s, she seen “basic reveals simply type of sitting on the shelf.” That led to TV Land, a wayback machine for the cable TV period. Later, Sarnoff additionally helped create retro channel VH1 Traditional and Anglophile streamer BritBox. All of which positions her effectively for locating outdated WarnerMedia properties to reimagine.

Sarnoff has additionally labored laborious to get departments collaborating, which she says is “night time and day from what it was, which was type of each division for themselves.” Her workforce now has weekly conferences the place they plot out a spiderweb of films, collection, stay occasions, merchandise, and video video games. The DC Comics franchise, Warner’s rival to Disney’s Marvel Cinematic Universe, has 5 films in manufacturing for subsequent 12 months, plus TV and gaming spin-offs. (Sarnoff’s father-in-law was an exec at Warner for years and helped dealer the DC deal.)

And, after all, Sarnoff stays centered on HBO Max. Early in her tenure, she employed Channing Dungey away from Netflix to run Warner’s TV arm. The studio presently produces collection for different networks and streamers (together with Apple TV+’s Ted Lasso), however Dungey tells me, “The largest mandate she gave me was for Warner Bros. tv to be the premier provider for HBO Max.” Warner Bros. can even produce 10 films for the streamer in 2022 on high of its theatrical slate.

https://www.vanityfair.com/hollywood/2021/09/inventing-content-under-pressure | Hollywood’s Most Highly effective Lady: Ann Sarnoff Steers By way of a Storm


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