Will David Zaslav help save Hollywood or ruin it?

Months before the COVID-19 pandemic struck, David Zaslav spent $16 million to purchase the Beverly Hills estate of the late filmmaker Robert Evans and began renovating the dilapidated 1970s Hollywood building.

Two years later, Zaslav undertook a grand renovation. His cable programming company Discovery took control of the famous Warner Bros. film and TV studio in Burbank, as well as HBO, CNN, TBS and TNT. Zaslav had run Discovery for 16 years, but now he had finally arrived in the major leagues. He proudly took on the self-appointed role of the Superman of Warner Bros. Discovery, brimming with ambition to bring the luster back to the century-old studio — and to Hollywood.

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But he's been avoiding kryptonite ever since.

The streaming bubble burst after the merger in April 2022. The $43 billion acquisition of previous owner AT&T created a mountain of debt, forcing Zaslav and his team to lay off thousands of employees and look for cuts. More than $1 billion worth of programming was canceled, including a nearly completed $90 million “Batgirl” movie that was shelved for tax cuts.

Then last year's historic labor strikes brought film and TV production to a virtual standstill, further disrupting Warner Bros. Discovery's programming pipeline.

Despite releasing last year’s biggest movie blockbuster, “Barbie,” which grossed more than $1 billion at the box office, Warner Bros. Discovery’s financial struggles have Wall Street worried. Its stock plunged after posting disappointing earnings, and now, the company’s value is down to about a third of what it was when Zaslav took over.

One of America’s highest-paid executives, the 64-year-old Brooklyn, N.Y., native has nonetheless struggled to reverse the decline. His success or failure could determine the future of Warner Bros. studios and the famous television brands. Analysts predict that smaller media companies will be swallowed up by bigger rivals in a wave of consolidation, pushing Warner Bros. Discovery into a “Game of Thrones”-like battle for survival.

'What has worked for me throughout my career is that I never shy away from doing hard work.'

– David Zaslav

“This is a moment of real disruption. This is a pivotal moment for our businesses,” Zaslav said in an interview in December in his Art Deco office on the Burbank lot where Warner Bros. founder Jack Warner once made decisions. “It's exciting and scary, but we have to chart a new path in the industry.”

So he has shaken things up. He ordered CNN to move toward the political center, a strategy that will be tested as the network deals with another divisive election year. His first attempt backfired when former President Trump stormed into a town hall to spread falsehoods, enraging CNN's newsroom and contributing to Zaslav firing his first CNN chief, Chris Licht. Former New York Times executive Mark Thompson has been tasked with leading the turnaround.

And Zaslav will have to make the streaming service Max more popular with consumers and win over skeptics who decried the idea of ​​mixing HBO’s prestige quality with shows like “Flea Market Flip.” Apparently recognizing that his company’s offerings might not be strong enough on their own, Zaslav has agreed to offer Max as part of a Disney bundle for Hulu and Disney+. And his Turner networks are set to be part of an upcoming streaming sports venture, Venu.

“When you make decisions, some don't work out,” Zaslav said. “But what has worked for me throughout my career is not shying away from doing the hard thing. Sometimes the hard thing means you have the best chance to win.”

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