How has/will entertainment transform? CES offers a glimpse into the future…

Moderator Michael E. Kassan, CEO of MediaLink and Ann Sarnoff, Chair and CEO of WarnerMedia Studios and Networks Group (Photo: CES 2021)

How has the entertainment industry transformed during COVID-19? What will it look like once this pandemic is over? Those are some of the questions that CES 2021 hoped to answer with a keynote presentation this year.

Karen Chupka, EVP of the Consumer Technology Association, introduced the “Entertainment Transformed” panel discussion. Each year, the CTA produces the CES Show.

“For the first time in the show’s 50-year history, we’re all digital,” Chupka said. “We’re not the only ones changing how we communicate, engage and inform. Our phones, tablets and TVs are our portals to the best in entertainment. We’re leaning into online gaming like never before. We’re connecting by video chat for celebrations and holiday gatherings. Our living rooms are our new sports arena as we cheer for our favorite teams from home. Marketers, creators and content agencies have had to pivot to this new reality fast. At the same time, they’ve had to be willing to look ahead to what consumers will want as we move forward past this pandemic.”

Medialink Chairman and CEO Michael E. Kassan interviewed Ann Sarnoff, chair and CEO of WarnerMedia Studios and Networks Group. She is in charge of Warner Bros. Pictures, HBO and HBO Max.

“2020 had a massive impact on how people live, work and play,” Kassan explained. “But very few industries have been impacted as profoundly as entertainment. New platforms and shifting consumer behaviors have dramatically altered the entertainment landscape requiring innovation and fresh thinking from every player in the ecosystem. I’m thrilled to welcome Ann Sarnoff, the chair and CEO of WarnerMedia Studios and Networks to join me in exploring how this brave new world for entertainment will impact us.”

Q: Ann, let me start with your industry background. When you were named to your current role at Warner Bros., people said, ‘Gee, Ann’s from outside the entertainment industry.’ Well, that’s not true. You’ve spent most of your career in all things entertainment. Especially in times like these when playbooks had to be rewritten, maybe that fresh perspective is exactly what the entertainment industry needed. How did that prepare you for this role?

Ann Sarnoff: “I do think it’s the collection of all of them that helped prepare me for this position–first at Warner Bros., now at WarnerMedia Studios and Networks. One of the things that all of those positions had in common is working with incredible franchises and content. I’m a huge fan of amazing brands and brands that can be built into franchises. Starting at Nickelodeon, I was able to build out the businesses around the core television network and working with the movie division and built out a franchise business in kind of a 360 branding business. That’s very much what I’m bringing to the position today in terms of our incredible IP with the DC Universe, Harry Potter and Wizarding World, “Game of Thrones” and a lot of the amazing content on HBO. Now, a lot of that coming onto HBO Max. Superserving fans in a different way in kind of a future-facing streaming service.”

Michael Kassan: I would characterize you as the Wonder Woman of 2021. I will tell you that I spent Christmas Day watching “Wonder Woman 1984” and my guess is millions of others joined me in that qwest. I think the treatment of Wonder Woman in the unusual circumstance that we found ourselves in 2020 and continue to find ourselves in 2021, really you rose to the occasion. I think you did the right thing which was what the consumer and fans really wanted. Can you talk about fandom and how that played out and the results that you got?

Ann Sarnoff is the Chair and CEO of WarnerMedia Studios and Networks Group (Photo: CES 2021)

Sarnoff: “We started thinking about what we could do for our DC fans this past year. The marketing teams and our DC franchise team came up with this idea of a 24-hour super event for our fans and very much connected to our talent creators as well. I think we had over 500 talent appear throughout DC fandom. It was really about engaging them in a way that respected everything that they love about DC and brought it to life in a new and different way and didn’t let the pandemic get in the way of that. We were able to connect virtually and celebrate the amazing movies we have had and those coming up like the ‘Batman’ as you probably saw, clips from ‘Suicide Squad’, ‘Wonder Woman 1984’ etcetera as well as our great shows on the CW. As well as consumer products we had Venus Williams design a whole line around ‘Wonder Woman 1984’. We talked about new interactive games that would be coming out. It really was a tribute about the things fans love about DC and bring it all together in one place in one point in time. We had over 22 million fan interactions at DC Fandom in August.”

Michael Kassan: Ann, let’s talk about content–obviously at the center of what you do. WarnerMedia and Warner Bros., the various divisions within the company historically like many large entertainment companies tended to be silo. HBO over here and Turner over there. One of the things you’ve kind of done is kind of brought it all together. How is that working out in terms of bringing all of that collective energy together to tap into that creativity and have that unique WarnerMedia point of view?

Sarnoff: “It is something that I’m most proud of in terms of the progress we’ve made over the last year. When I was talking to John Stankey who hired me a year plus ago about the position, he talked about breaking silos. I knew the old time Warner was a siloed company. What I didn’t know how siloed Warner Bros. was in of itself. My background kind of creating and building franchises and building bridges. My job at the BBC, I was the only executive at the BBC Studios who wasn’t sitting at the table in London. I had to be a collaborator and somebody who knew how to work across the aisle or in this case across the oceans. I am proud of the work we’ve done in the past year. DC Fandom being a good example because we had movies, games, products, television, streaming, everything was represented there. Since I joined in August of 2019, we’ve had weekly meetings on our big franchises talking about how we can collaborate together, how we make the whole more than the parts, how we bring the amazing characters and stories to life in a new and different way. They can see that the movie has nothing to do with the TV series and etcetera. Everything is connected now and we’re building a DC Universe plan that is a much more centrally-connected but universally-executed. I think it’s really upstream in the planning that all has to come together so people can still feel a pride in their individual efforts. I’m really excited about the plans ahead.” 

Michael Kassan: Ann, we’re living in a world where everybody has to be focused on so many things. You’ve heard me describe Medialink as living at the intersection of marketing, media, advertising and technology. Well, so are you. We’re also living in an intersection where diversity and inclusion are so high on everybody’s list. You broke a pretty thick glass ceiling to be the first woman to be running the Warner Bros. Studio. How important is that to all of us being a trailblazer?

Sarnoff: “It’s a huge issue for me. I’ve tried to blaze trails my whole career. I don’t know if I had a particular goal in mind but I certainly in every job I’ve had try to do my best and break whatever glass ceilings I could. I actually started in strategy consulting. Back in the day, I had to pay down a lot of educational loans and make a lot of money early on. Then, after I did, I got into media. In terms of being a woman in this industry, it hasn’t been easy. In most industries, you had to confirm to sort of the male culture. I would say about diversity and inclusion…often times you have to check some of your bags at the door when you walk in. You can’t bring your full self to work…you have to hide parts of yourself, your female characteristics. At Nickelodeon, it was the first time I felt I could bring my full self.  The staff was 60 percent female. I did a 180 from a male-dominated and led consulting firm to a much more forward-facing organization. I saw that as an example of get a seat at the table and then make a difference. Jerry was running that company and she made sure over 50 percent of the staff was women. As you said, there was a diversity of thought. You know, we weren’t kids and so we couldn’t think in our own bubbles. We had to be very researched, very consumer-focused and kid-focused. Have the teams be diverse so we could be the most creative versions of ourselves. If you have a team that’s only finishing your sentence and not shaking it up, being provocative then you’re not going to grow. You’re going to be beaten by the competition. My general journey was to get a seat at the table and then to make a difference. If you look at some of the changes on our exec team recently, you’ll see much more diversity than there was previously and more to come on that front.”

Michael Kassan: I want to go back to another part of your career and talk about changes. Your stint as the COO of the WNBA, there were not as I said at the opening, two industries that were more upset than sports and pure entertainment in the movie business. In the one case, we saw basketball played in a bubble. We saw what the bubble did and how it worked. You’ve had your own kind of bubble with distribution of films. What’s your view on that? There is a clear statement right now that you’re going to make the content available during this period of time where the fans can enjoy it in a broader base on HBO Max. I’ve heard your leadership say this is not calling this the death of the theater industry. 

Sarnoff: “First, we were able to release some movies in the pandemic. You saw our release of ‘Tenet’ at the end of August, early September, which we were very happy to do and happy with the results. We have grossed over $360 million globally. But I have to say that is a pretty good result for what we did with ‘Tenet.’ We said it is going to be a marathon, not a sprint. It is really hard to spend the marketing you need to spend when certain cities are opening, certain cities are closing. As you know, you are booking your marketing eight weeks in advance so you are shooting a moving target–how much of a market is going to be open or not. So we just decided to be in it for the long game and open the movie. There were more international markets open in the summer towards the end of summer. We knew that ‘Tenet’ would play well overseas so we took a bet and I think the bet really paid off for us. In terms of our strategy with HBO Max, we’re pivoting to be able to adjust to the environment we live in. Do I wish the pandemic would be over? Of course I do. But I have some amazing movies that I’d like to able to see. Because so much of the market–especially in the U.S. and now Europe is closed down–I think 60 plus percent of theaters are closed right now. Again, you can’t do it by just launching in theaters. We needed an alternative, a platform if you will. We decided to have fans watch ‘Wonder Woman 1984’ and our entire 2021 slate on HBO Max for 31 days while these movies are playing in theater. But remember this is a global theatrical release and HBO Max is U.S. only for that 31 days. We’re making what we think is the best decision.”

Michael Kassan: I grew up in this town of L.A. You know the mantra in this town, ‘Instant gratification isn’t quick enough. How do I get it faster?’ One of the things we’ve kind of lived our life and live and die by that opening weekend box office. That metric doesn’t seem to make sense in the current moment as a gauge of the success or lack of success. Netflix is notorious tight lipped about viewership and what have you. Do you see any move in the industry in terms of transparency in numbers and is there a need? Are the number of eyeballs necessary–other then the economics of them to determine the success or failure?

Sarnoff: “I think it’s a good question, Michael. I think what opening weekend is and was is a proxy for the success of a movie because there were formulas you could apply to project the ultimate for what your movie was likely to do. Sometimes those formulas worked and sometimes they didn’t but on average, I think, it was a good proxy for the success of something. You have other examples like ‘Joker’ which opened to $60 million and went on to do over a billion. So nobody called that one. In the streaming world, and having launched Britbox, it is a completely different set of criteria. Unless you’re serving ads, the eyeballs in that day-to-day world are less relevant to the overall engagement of the service. The amount it costs to acquire a subscriber, the churn level every month–how many people leave the service, what you can do to reduce the churn, reduce your cost of acquisition. It’s a completely different set of metrics that the industry is not geared to measure. The long winded answer to your question is, yes, I do think that will change over time. When more of the world is looking at streaming and looking for proxies of success, my guess is there will be things we will learn sooner in the equation including Netflix. Because the talent will want to know how they are doing. Everybody wants a barometer. How am I doing coach? I do think things will kind of shift over time.”

Marketers from GM, Nike and SpringHill weigh in on pivoting

The second panel of the “Entertainment Transformed” keynote (Photo: CES 2021)

The “Entertainment Transformed” keynote continued with three new panelists: Maverick Carter, CEO of The SpringHill Company; Deborah Wahl, global chief marketing officer at General Motors; and Adrienne Lofton, vice president of North American marketing at NIKE.

Michael Kassan:  What I’d love to do is dig in for what this means for your brands, your fans and your communities. I’d love to start with a general question, one that’s using one of the most overused words of 2020 and that’s pivot. Maverick, I’m going to start with you. You’ve had to make pivots this year across so many aspects of our business and personal lives.  Is there one particular pivot or change of perspective that you’ve really had to kind of double down on?

Maverick Carter: “The main thing that we’ve had to figure out is if you can’t touch and be around and see your people, then how do you continue to be creative and continue to empower people. I think, obviously, for everything that happened to black and brown people in the U.S. going back to George Floyd up until now, that idea seems like it’s finally hitting home for many individuals and big companies. But for us, the big pivot for us was how do we continue to be creative through Zoom meeting and Microsoft Team meetings and all of these meetings through a screen, which has not been easy. What we discovered is that you still can bring people together, you still can be social and you still need some layer of connectivity and connected tissue. Staring at each other on screens all day you lose some sense of connectivity. The only way to bring that back is to talk about what you are dealing with personally. We would make each other talk about one or two things. Literally, our background would be people’s kids, sometimes it would be their cars, wife or husband or whatever. We found that to be very, very helpful and people got to know each other better.”

Michael Kassan: It’s so true. I have a couple of case studies about relationships that started during the pandemic and have blossomed into true friendships. Deb, from your perspective as a marketer, when was the pivot from purpose-driven particular from the pandemic back to traditional marketing which is buy this on sale now, come in and get it. Did that get back to where it was? Have we moved beyond the need to say, we care, we’re here. Do we need to be saying that in every commercial, marketing message?

Deborah Wahl: “I think the whole point of that Michael is that it brought everyone to a whole different focus. What are messaging? Who are we talking to? How we are working together? I think that full concern expanded. It brought everyone to…let’s get much closer to the consumer. Then, the other key point that has come in, which I think is going to continue, it got everyone laser-focused on our purpose and what we were doing. We’re right in the middle of launching a campaign called ‘Everybody In’ about our collective future and where we go, how we all work together to make something big happen for the world. Turning to an all-electric future is really important for all of us as we all deal together. So I think what’s been really interesting is that first push where we did Chevy Cares. Each brand really focused on its customers. That led us to a real laser-focused on purpose which we started building ventilators. The whole company kind of changed its mode and its focus of operation. You’re going to see that going forward.”

Michael Kassan: Adrienne, Nike has always had from my reconciliation, a purpose-driven message. A social purpose really rose to the top of that this year for sure. How do you continue to manage that–which is core, I think in most consumers minds, to what Nike stands for. Beyond ‘Just Do It’, which it still means that to me. In a year in which purpose and social justice and things have become so relevant and so hyper-focused, there’s a balance you need to have. 

Adrienne Lofton is the Vice President of North American marketing for NIKE. (Photo: CES 2021)

Adrienne Lofton: “As we moved from spring into summer, a couple of things became true, right? So COVID hit, we were confined to our homes, not just in working to the point Deb made. How do we move to 100 percent digital in how we’re working and connecting to our consumers. Nike is a brand that believes in the experience. We always talk about experience in relationships over transactions. So it’s never about selling the shirt or the shoe. It’s about the experience we bring to the consumer. That was enough–thinking about how we go from experiential to digital overnight. Then, if you compound racial injustice and the deaths we experience inside of our company and outside of our company with our families, it was compound on compound on compound. The first thing I’d say, making sure that we celebrated our team through the lens of kind of imperfection and progress over the perfection idea is really important. You can’t get to being purpose-driven unless you’re comfortable being uncomfortable and potentially making mistakes. Nike has never been afraid of leaning in and potentially making a mistake if it’s what we believe in. When you go back to our core values, one of the values of the company has always been, do the right thing. It is something we say in meetings and don’t even know it. When we found ourselves in the middle of racial injustice, and this idea that we needed to redefine the conversation, the first thing we knew is we believe sport has the power to change the world. Our brand is a leader in the space of sport. If we began the conversation, we knew our competitors would follow and we hoped that would pull every industry forward into the right conversation which was change and change now. We built something called a purpose playbook for North America. That was really talking through how we speak to social injustice, how we think about civil inequality and it helped us lean into spaces like registration to vote. I remember calling Mav. Mav used to work at Nike way back when. He’s also been my personal Board of Director to say ‘Hey, I’m thinking about this, what do you think?’ We talked about registration to vote. Nike’s not been in that space before. But now was the time more than any to stand in the gap, have the right conversations and move our consumers forward.”

Michael Kassan: Guys, as you heard in my conversation with Ann, the very concept of entertainment has changed for us all this year. What kind of expected or unexpected things have consumers turned to for that entertainment or that diversion? Has it become less important?

Maverick Carter is the CEO of the SpringHill Company (Photo: CES 2021)

Maverick Carter: “I would say that I totally agree, I still love watching sports. I try to watch news in the morning but it’s difficult. I flip between all of them and it’s hard to watch. I look forward to the evening with sports. The idea of entertainment has always been for all of us is what we’re looking for on a day in, day out basis. I think how we get entertained and what are the distribution pipes that brings it into our homes is what’s changing the most. Obviously, there is lots of conversation about all of the big streaming companies: Netflix, Apple, Amazon, Disney’s in it now. All of them coming into the market. The truth is, as we all know, quality content is always going to rise to the top. Real, quality content that has very relatable stories. The idea of how and who entertains is what is going to change, right? Adrienne and Deb run gigantic organizations for gigantic brands and they now have to figure out how to connect with consumers in ways that weren’t thought about 10 or 15 years ago. I think the job of the advertiser and the marketer is going to change from kind of selling things to consumers to more engaging them, entertaining them and keeping the consumer connected to their brand. How they do that, they’re going to have to create amazing content–not just ads and commercials for 30 seconds. They’re going to have to tell amazing stories. It’s going to have to be more frequent, more of them. The second thing they have to figure out is the distribution of that content. I think the pandemic has sped it up tremendously. Really, what it is… is how you engage and connect consumers and ultimately entertain them to keep them connected to your brand.”

Lofton: “At the end of the day, the consumer wants content on demand as they want it. We have to be the brands that understand real-time data to understand where they are in the journey and serve up the right body of content that is as interactive as it is informative. Mav said it beautifully. It’s a combination of realtime content, for us it could be live workouts, which we launched for the first time during COVID. It could be free NTC workouts in our apps that we launched during COVID. It could be using our influencers like LeBron, like Megan Rapinoe, like Travis Scott, to actually sit down and tell the consumer what they are thinking on a random Tuesday at 7 because they’re stuck inside as well. How do we inform and inspire with this content instead of being passive in the conversation in the way that brands may have been in the past.”

Michael Kassan: Deb, I know you’ve got a distinct point of view on entertainment and how it relates to corporate transformation. You are certainly in the middle of a corporate transformation as you create that environment around electric vehicles. Can you chat about how you see that relative to influencers and the content you’re looking at to help be a part of a massive transformation of General Motors?

Deborah Wahl is the global chief marketing officer at General Motors (Photo: CES 2021)

Wahl: “As we’ve all seen, it’s a completely different way of engaging with the consumer. Almost much more direct than we’ve did and also completely different. We used to do reveals of vehicles that were in presentation style. We’ve had all of our corporate people come in and explain the technology. When we launched the HUMMER this year, we did it in a completely different way. We partnered with Maverick and LeBron. I really think this year is the age of companies doing that and really having to fill that void that we see out there in terms of entertainment. Then, the exciting part. We had the most people attended the GMC HUMMER EV reveal than one in history we’ve ever seen before. I think that was because it was done in an entertaining way and it’s also almost class in a different way. We talked about the EV technology and batteries and what they can power and what they can do in a way that people engaged incredibly. We had our own people at different levels, not just the most senior people, all of the people doing the work and creating the amazing technology, they’re coming forth and engaging with people too. I’m excited about it, not what marketing was, but what marketing can be. We’re pursuing that and the response is amazing. We’ve gone from exponential engagement, just as a result of that, from what we saw two years ago when I thought I was doing great work. Now, I’m looking at going, wow, that wasn’t good at all. But now we’re really learning. We called Maverick and said, how do we do this differently? How do we have totally different conversations about this from what we can do because I do believe that companies should own up to their role of having a lot of influence. Adrienne, what Nike has done, has always been motivational for all of our teams. I think we need to own that responsibility and deliver these conversations in a really different way. Let’s have real talk, real change. How do we get people really discussing and engaging on these issues that are super important to all of us so we can all have better lives and that we’re making the world a better place. That’s what all of our goal is.”

Michael Kassan: Maverick, SpringHill is the way I would put it an unapologetic media company. You’ve gone after giving voice, in my view, to those who have not had voice before at the center of some of the content whether it’s the creators, the consumers, etcetera. Can you talk about that for a moment?

Carter: “I would say that we try to do and what we strive to be, we wake up everyday… is that we are a company with a mission, a vision and we have values and we strive to build a community around that mission. At the heart of our mission is empowering greatness in every individual that comes in contact with anything that we do. We work to build a community around this idea around empowerment. If you look at some our taglines as far as sports brands ‘uninterrupted, more than an athlete.’ It’s not for every athlete but its for athletes who really care and want to be seen and do more for the world and do more for their team and their people. It’s really more than just being an athlete. Then, we built content, we sell consumer products, we do brand collaborations. But we built the community first and engaged that community through content. We built it first and foremost by empowering the people who work at our company first. If we don’t empower them, how can we empower creators and consumers?”
Michael Kassan: Is there anything you’ve seen in marketing or entertainment that just jumps off the page at you that kind of was a game changer in our marketplace? 

Carter: “The thing that jumped off the page for me was a cross-marketing discipline and execution which was the NBA bubble. All of the things that had to come together for that to happen. How good it was for home to have that sport back. If you think about, they were in the middle of their season up until March, they only had a quarter of their season left. To stop it for three months, collaborate with Disney, all of the players had to be on board. All of the players had to be willing to stay down in a bubble. Of 2020, of all the things that went on, that’s the one that kind of jumps off the page…I will forever remember my whole life.”

Lofton: “On our end, it really was sport. I keep coming back to the various moments that we had as a brand that released into the world. The Last Dance is one of them. You realized over the course of several months, there were moments were the world seemed to stop and rejoice through the lens of sport. I think it was our reminder that sport is bigger than sport and when the world needs to be reinvigorated and find a reason for being and keeping going for that next day, sport is the reason. The moment that I remember most is our team launching a simple social post that said, ‘Play Inside and Play for the World.’ Black-and-white, very simple copy and it was our highest-engaged post in too many years to mention. It was so simple and the insight was right.”

Wahl: “All of those examples show when a group or a collective focus on what was most meaningful and what was most important, all of a sudden all of these incredible things happened. At GM, as a company, we went through this incredible transformation. We have a vision of zero crashes, zero emissions and zero congestion. This was the year, despite all of these challenges going on, everyone inside the company said, ‘we are going to build to actually realize that vision and no matter what, we’re not going to get distracted even as dollars were crazy and everything came out, everyone refocused.’ We said, we are going to build an all-electric future and this company is going to transform to do that. We did that. We completely reassessed how we launched the GMC HUMMER EV and how we engage with people. That’s what 2021 is going to be about. Everybody’s in and we’re going to make really significant changes.”

There’s no doubt the entertainment industry changed during COVID-19. I never thought I’d see the day when new movies that opened in theaters would also be available to watch on the same day at home. Where will we go from here? That’s anyone’s guess but it sure will be interesting to find out…


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