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Dealmakers Conversation: David Zaslav Hunts for ‘Doers’ to Lead ‘Entrepreneurial’ Warner Bros. Discovery

Jacob Scott

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With the WarnerMedia-Discovery merger under regulatory review and under fire from liberals in Congress, David Zaslav can’t say much about his plans for leading Warner Bros. Discovery if the $43 billion transaction is confirmed, as expected by the middle of next year.

But Zaslav, president and CEO of Discovery, offered a glimpse of his operational vision for enlarged company on Wednesday as part of his wide-ranging Variety Dealmakers virtual conversation with Claudia Eller, Variety Editor in Chief.

“One of the philosophies of the companies is that we’re hiring doers,” Zaslav told Eller. “We need to de-layer as much as possible get as close to the product, as close to the content, as close to the sale as possible. That helps us and will help this new company as we strive to be entrepreneurial and fast, which is going to be critical.”

Zaslav was pressed by Eller about whether the company will combine HBO Max and Discovery Plus into one platform (“The whole thesis is that we’re better together, right?”); how he intends to reach the $3 billion in efficiency savings, as promised to Wall Street (“We feel even more bullish”); and how he views the movie business and Warner Bros.’ new 45-day exclusive theatrical window standard (“The fact that the window has come down is a very good thing”).

More than once, Zaslav asserted that Warner Bros. Discovery will be among the very few conglomerates with the heft to be a global streaming player alongside Netflix, Disney and Amazon. He argued that Warner Bros. Discovery’s cradle-to-grave content offerings, plus its investments in worldwide news and sports in Europe, is a key differentiator that makes it a more compelling offering to the entire family than Disney Plus with its family-friendly patina.

“The creative content that this company has [is] probably the broadest, most comprehensive entertainment menu,” Zaslav said. “The real opportunity for this company is from the youngest kids in the house, to the teenagers, to the parents, to the grandparents — the broad demographic appeal of what Warner Bros. has to offer, the largest movie library in the world, the largest television library, ‘Friends,’ ‘Big Bang,’ HBO, together with all of our local content. I think it’s a larger scale of content than probably any other media company in the world.”

Zaslav’s eagerness to take the reins of Warner Bros. Discovery is palpable. Eller put Hollywood’s new tycoon on notice at the start of the conversation. “We are going to be watching your every move and scrutinizing you,” Eller said. “Are you ready for that?”

Zaslav’s stealthy efforts to pull off the WarnerMedia spinoff with AT&T, which shocked the industry in May, earned him the Dealmaker of the Year nod from Variety. The Dec. 8 cover story and video conversation with Zaslav coincided with the publication of the annual Dealmakers issues examining the year’s biggest mergers and acquisitions and the people behind them.

Other highlights from Zaslav’s interview with Eller:

Zaslav explained the simple math that will fuel Warner Bros. Discovery. If all goes well, the company will reach 200 million or more global subscribers within two years. It’s projected to generate about $8 billion in free cash flow by 2023, a strong base that will allow them to reinvest in content and talent.

“We’re only in the content business. And so as competitive as the market is, we’re competing against a lot of companies that are also in the cable and broadband business, or they’re in the retail business. Or they’re the cloud business,” Zaslav said. “We’re only in the business of creating content, so our goal is going to be really to figure out how we deploy that capital. And how do we do it in a way, in this disrupted environment, that we can become a leader in streaming and [stay] a leader in the motion picture business. I believe we will continue to have a very strong traditional business that generates the cash to fund all that.”

Zaslav built the Discovery empire on the strength of cable TV programming. But he is excited to make a big leap with Warner Bros. into the world of what he calls “makers,” or studio-level film and TV production with global reach, rather than just “pickers,” a.k.a. programming executives who select shows from outside producers.

“As a maker, we’re different, and it gives us great optionality,” Zaslav said. “Do we want to make more for ourselves? Or do we want to continue to get paid a lot of money to make more shows. [Apple TV Plus’] ‘Ted Lasso’ is a Warner Bros. show, right? That makes us different than Netflix and Disney. On the other hand, you know, Netflix is an extraordinary company, and Disney is probably the greatest media company of my generation. But they have self-selected a much narrower approach to entertainment.”

Zaslav emphasized his appreciation for Warner Bros. legacy and industry stature. On movies, Zaslav flatly stated that he finds “motion pictures” to be the most “globally impactful” form of content that reaches around the world. He also noted that the pandemic conditions of the past 18 months have forced Hollywood into a period of experimentation that will be good for the industry in the long run.

“We’re all a lot smarter now having seen what happens when you open a motion picture and open it at the same time on a streaming service,” Zaslav said. “What happens when you market a movie and you tell consumers, ‘Go to the movie, or you could see it right now in your home.’ What impact does that have? Each of the studios is experimenting now and trying to figure out what we learned,” he said.

As for the specifics for Warner Bros. plan to implement a 45-day exclusive theatrical window for most movie releases starting next year, Zaslav begged off calling it a work in progress. But he said the shortening of what has traditionally been a 90-day exclusive theatrical window was a positive step. He stressed that the decision will rest with the Warner Bros. movie team.

“They might decide, ‘Let’s be variable. Some movies should be 30, some should be 90, you know, or the 45 days is really working well but it doesn’t work well for all movies.’ So I think this is a work in progress,” he said.

(Pictured: Claudia Eller and David Zaslav)

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‘Moon Knight’ Took Marvel in a Different Orbit, but It Didn’t Rise to the Occasion

Jacob Scott

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Before anyone writes that off as an anomaly, “Eternals” tackled a similar introduction of a dense mythology on the bigger screen, with equally mixed results. It’s a reminder that while film-goers have had more than a decade to get to know characters like Iron Man, Captain America and Thor, introducing some of these lesser-known heroes can pose a more formidable challenge beyond catering to the most ardent fans.
For Marvel, there are warning signs in that, since “Moon Knight” will be followed by several series based on second-tier characters, although the next two on the horizon, “Ms. Marvel” (which is due in June) and “She-Hulk,” at least have the benefit of sharing franchises and name recognition with existing Avengers.
Ultimately, “Moon Knight’s” murky storytelling appeared to squander its principal assets, which included the cool look of the character — a costume that was too seldom used — and the presence of Isaac, who possesses additional genre credentials via the “Star Wars” sequels.

Taking its time in peeling back the layers of the character’s complicated backstory, “Moon Knight” took a weird plunge into the Egyptian mythology behind it, in ways that became increasingly confounding and surreal.

By the time the protagonist’s two halves, Steven Grant and Marc Spector, wound up in a psychiatric hospital talking to an anthropomorphic hippo in the penultimate chapter, the question wasn’t so much being able to keep up with the story as whether bothering to do so was worth the effort.

The sixth and final episode brought the plot to a messy close, seeking to stop the goddess Ammit from proceeding to “purify the souls of Cairo, and then the world.” In the customary credit sequence, the producers capped that off by introducing a third personality, Jake Lockley, also rooted in the comics. While that seemingly spelled the end for the show’s villain (Ethan Hawke), the finish — giving the god Khonshu the protégé he sought — paved the way for further adventures should Marvel so choose.

That last twist might be cause for celebration in narrower confines of the Marvel fan universe, but “Moon Knight” too often felt like it was one long Easter-egg sequence, conspicuously preaching to that choir.

Granted, Marvel has made clear that Disney+ offers the chance to explore different kinds of stories, but “Moon Knight” feels at best like a quirky showcase for Isaac and at worst a failed experiment in terms of execution and tone.

That doesn’t mean this “Moon” won’t somehow rise again, if the closely held streaming data justifies it. But the promise that surrounded this property has faded, providing further evidence that even Marvel isn’t immune from setbacks as it moves into its next phase.

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Start-up Pony.ai says it’s the first self-driving company to get a taxi license in China

Jacob Scott

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Autonomous driving start-up Pony.ai can collect fares for robotaxi rides in parts of two major Chinese cities as of Sunday.

Pony.ai handout

BEIJING — Self-driving start-up Pony.ai announced Sunday it received a taxi license, the first of its kind in China.

The license allows Pony.ai to operate 100 self-driving cars as traditional taxis in the Nansha district of the southern city of Guangzhou, the company said.

The Chinese start-up, which is backed by Toyota, received approval from Beijing city late last year to charge fees to operate a commercial robotaxi business in a suburban district of the city. It is not the same as a taxi licence.

Baidu’s Apollo Go also received approval in the same Beijing district last year.

Pony.ai was valued at $8.5 billion in early March. The company said its Nansha taxi license required 24 months of autonomous driving testing in China and/or other countries, and no involvement in any active liability traffic accidents, among other factors.

The start-up said it plans to launch commercial robotaxi businesses in two other large Chinese cities next year. The company is already testing self-driving cars in those cities and in California. 

Robotaxis in China currently have a human driver present for safety.

— CNBC’s Arjun Kharpal contributed to this report.

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How to watch Timberwolves vs. Grizzlies: TV channel, NBA live stream info, start time

Jacob Scott

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Who’s Playing

Memphis @ Minnesota

Current Records: Memphis 2-1; Minnesota 1-2

What to Know

The Memphis Grizzlies’ road trip will continue as they head to Target Center at 10 p.m. ET this past Saturday to face off against the Minnesota Timberwolves. Memphis will be strutting in after a win while Minnesota will be stumbling in from a loss.

The Grizzlies are hoping for another victory. They beat the Timberwolves 104-95 this past Thursday. The victory came about thanks to a strong surge after the first quarter to overcome a 39-21 deficit. Memphis’ success was spearheaded by the efforts of power forward Brandon Clarke, who had 20 points in addition to eight rebounds, and shooting guard Desmond Bane, who shot 7-for-15 from beyond the arc and finished with 26 points and six boards.

Barring any buzzer beaters, Memphis is expected to win a tight contest. They might be worth taking a chance on against the spread as they are currently on a two-game streak of ATS wins.

Memphis’ win brought them up to 2-1 while the Timberwolves’ defeat pulled them down to a reciprocal 1-2. A couple offensive stats to keep in the back of your head while watching: The Grizzlies come into the game boasting the second most points per game in the league at 115.6. But Minnesota is even better: they rank first in the league when it comes to points per game, with 115.9 on average. Tune in for what’s sure to be a high-scoring contest.

How To Watch

When: Saturday at 10 p.m. ET Where: Target Center — Minneapolis, Minnesota TV: ESPN Online streaming: fuboTV (Try for free. Regional restrictions may apply.) Follow: CBS Sports App Ticket Cost: $76.96

Odds

The Grizzlies are a slight 2.5-point favorite against the Timberwolves, according to the latest NBA odds.

The oddsmakers had a good feel for the line for this one, as the game opened with the Grizzlies as a 3-point favorite.

Over/Under: -110

See NBA picks for every single game, including this one, from SportsLine’s advanced computer model. Get picks now.

Series History

Memphis have won 19 out of their last 28 games against Minnesota.

Apr 21, 2022 – Memphis 104 vs. Minnesota 95 Apr 19, 2022 – Memphis 124 vs. Minnesota 96 Apr 16, 2022 – Minnesota 130 vs. Memphis 117 Feb 24, 2022 – Minnesota 119 vs. Memphis 114 Jan 13, 2022 – Memphis 116 vs. Minnesota 108 Nov 20, 2021 – Minnesota 138 vs. Memphis 95 Nov 08, 2021 – Memphis 125 vs. Minnesota 118 May 05, 2021 – Memphis 139 vs. Minnesota 135 Apr 02, 2021 – Memphis 120 vs. Minnesota 108 Jan 13, 2021 – Memphis 118 vs. Minnesota 107 Jan 07, 2020 – Memphis 119 vs. Minnesota 112 Dec 01, 2019 – Memphis 115 vs. Minnesota 107 Nov 06, 2019 – Memphis 137 vs. Minnesota 121 Mar 23, 2019 – Minnesota 112 vs. Memphis 99 Feb 05, 2019 – Memphis 108 vs. Minnesota 106 Jan 30, 2019 – Minnesota 99 vs. Memphis 97 Nov 18, 2018 – Memphis 100 vs. Minnesota 87 Apr 09, 2018 – Minnesota 113 vs. Memphis 94 Mar 26, 2018 – Memphis 101 vs. Minnesota 93 Dec 04, 2017 – Memphis 95 vs. Minnesota 92 Feb 04, 2017 – Memphis 107 vs. Minnesota 99 Nov 19, 2016 – Memphis 93 vs. Minnesota 71 Nov 01, 2016 – Minnesota 116 vs. Memphis 80 Oct 26, 2016 – Memphis 102 vs. Minnesota 98 Mar 16, 2016 – Minnesota 114 vs. Memphis 108 Feb 19, 2016 – Memphis 109 vs. Minnesota 104 Jan 23, 2016 – Minnesota 106 vs. Memphis 101 Nov 15, 2015 – Memphis 114 vs. Minnesota 106

Injury Report for Minnesota

No Injury Information

Injury Report for Memphis

Dillon Brooks: Game-Time Decision (Foot) Santi Aldama: Out (Knee) Killian Tillie: Out (Knee)

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