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Disney’s Alan Horn Uses Low-Key Approach, Keen Creative Vision to Find Hits of the Future

If Disney’s Burbank headquarters suggests the look of a whimsical, post-modern Parthenon, with columns styled as giant “Snow White” dwarves, then a sixth-floor screening room might be the building’s most sacred shrine. At least to Walt Disney Studios chairman Alan Horn.

It’s to a modest, three-row theater that the man who oversees Disney’s hit-making factory retreats to get an early look at the would-be blockbuster movies of tomorrow, from “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” and “Captain America: Civil War” to “The Jungle Book” and “Finding Dory.” Horn comes to the theater carrying only two possessions: a totemic brand of pencil (more on that later) and a notepad. “I get to look at the very, very first cut,” he says, pausing to relish the thought. “That is heaven for me.”

The humble trappings belie the status of one of the most powerful figures in media. His position at the forefront of U.S. culture was evident as recently as April 7, when he hosted President Obama at a lavish fundraiser at his Bel Air home. The event, priced at $33,400 per couple, drew heavyweights including Julia Roberts, Gwyneth Paltrow and Horn’s boss, Walt Disney Co. CEO Robert Iger.

Robert Maxwell for Variety

Though Horn is too circumspect to say it, the exhilaration at his achievements must be heightened because of the long and (briefly) fraught path that brought him to this place. The man now celebrated as the rare Hollywood executive who is both successful and beloved almost got run off in his first foray into the creative side of the business more than 30 years ago. Then, after a dozen years Horn spent cementing Warner Bros. as a dominant force in the ferociously competitive film business, Time Warner boss Jeff Bewkes sent him packing in 2011, for no apparent reason other than his age. Horn was 68.

Horn hesitates to dwell much on the loss of his job as Warner president and chief operating officer but recalls it as “painful” and “hurtful.” In a rare break from his usual reserve, he even betrays how the episode estranged him from his longtime colleague, former Warner Bros. chairman Barry Meyer. “I was in partnership with him running the place for almost 12 years, then he went on alone. So good for him,” says Horn, with a dismissive wave of his hand. “He is now retired.”

Believing his time atop the Hollywood ziggurat had expired, Horn was devastated, according to one close friend. But then, a year later, Iger jettisoned studio boss Rich Ross, who had alienated many of those around him, and put Horn in charge.

“I had the good fortune to convince Alan to come out of retirement by sharing my belief that we could form a partnership and a friendship that would not only result in our studio doing well, but also in the two of us having a good time along the way,” Iger says. “And that’s exactly what happened. The studio’s recent success is a result of Alan’s experience, talent and great leadership.”

Horn, the son of a New York bookie, is an Air Force veteran and holder of a Harvard MBA who has overseen a run of box office winners that has made Disney the envy of the entertainment world. “I’m very happy to have had a chance to rewrite my ending, if you will,” says Horn, 73. “I am grateful for that opportunity. It’s been a great four years.”

Underscoring that the job is the coda to a distinguished career: When it was announced April 5 that Disney COO Thomas Staggs, the presumed heir to Iger’s position, would exit in May, Horn’s name was not mentioned as an eventual choice for CEO. It’s thought the job will go to an exec with experience overseeing other areas, such as TV or digital, and who is further away from retirement. (Initial speculation centered around Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg, a Disney board member.)

Horn discusses his life at Disney in a homey office, full of tchotchkes from decades in Hollywood — an Orc-detecting sword, a gift from “Hobbit” director Peter Jackson; a collage honoring his taekwondo teaching days in the 1970s; a sculpture of himself as a “Star Wars” stormtrooper.

Disney hopes “The Jungle Book,” left, and “Captain America: Civil War,” second from left, can hit the box office heights of “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” and “Zootopia.” Courtesy of Disney

Horn won’t begin to talk about himself until he has mentioned many others whom he credits with Disney’s success, including studio president Alan Bergman and, especially, Iger. He describes a devotion so deep, he would “take a bullet” for the chief executive he calls “the commanding general of all allied forces.”

Horn’s job puts him in charge of three powerhouse units — Marvel, Pixar and Lucasfilm — that Iger acquired over the past decade and collectively produce at least five tentpole films a year. Throw in Disney Animation, reinvigorated under the leadership of Pixar’s John Lasseter and Ed Catmull, and the studio can count another couple of films annually that contend for blockbuster status.

In 2015, Disney earned almost half of all profits in the film industry, nearly $2.5 billion of $5.2 billion. “That’s a crazy level of success,” says Cowen and Co. analyst Doug Creutz. Jeff Bock, an analyst with Exhibitor Relations, adds that under Horn, things just keep getting better for Disney, leaving those at the other studios to fight over the scraps. “That has Hollywood in a place that it isn’t used to being,” Bock notes, “saying: ‘How do we get a chance to come in second place?’ ”

It’s a heady affirmation for a studio leader who was among the first to champion the strategy of building revenue around tentpole franchises, with their myriad merchandising spinoffs. So what continues to drive Horn, with two years left on his contract and an anticipated retirement at age 75?

Not content to merely ride the Pixar-Marvel-Lucasfilm rocket ship, as much as he has a solid hand in the subsidiaries’ films, he is also pushing — hard — for Disney’s own big live-action offerings to pull their weight in the company’s rivalrous cinematic universe. And, yes, he believes there’s a need to find hits that don’t necessarily spring from a known fairy tale or comic book.

“The life blood of any company is fresh IP,” Horn says. “And I believe that we have to have the courage to take chances, or we will never come up with anything really fresh.”

Not that the avuncular Horn, dressed in sweater and open-neck shirt for a lengthy interview, is ready to eschew the potential riches that come with built-in franchises. “But I will say that it makes a lot more sense for us,” he adds, “when those things fit within the overall brand identity of the Walt Disney Co.”

What experience has taught him is that films that don’t pass a twin test (Do I have to see it now? Do I have to see it in a theater?) don’t deserve a greenlight. And, given a few recent losses, budgets on small films must be kept even smaller. Horn and many critics liked 2014’s “Million Dollar Arm” and “McFarland, USA” (2015) but, at roughly $30 million apiece to make, the two multiculti sports-based character studies had to gross more than $70 million each to turn a profit, according to one Disney exec. Both films lost money. Consequently, director Mira Nair’s drama “Queen of Katwe,” coming out later this year with Lupita Nyong’o as the mother of a Ugandan chess champion, got a greenlight with a budget of $15 million.

Horn’s urge to find the next Disney hit is as immediate as the April 15 debut of “The Jungle Book.” Yes, it’s a redo of the 1967 animated classic. But, practically since he arrived at studio, he’s pushed for a darker, more “muscular” retelling, one he recalls from his boyhood reading of Rudyard Kipling’s 19th century story. He lured director Jon Favreau to the project, and — inspired by films like “Life of Pi” and “Avatar” — called for the creation of a new world.

“It’s gorgeous,” Horn rhapsodizes about the film, saying he thinks Favreau perfectly captures both Kipling’s menace and Disney’s whimsy. But he adds that he feels tremendous pressure for the film to succeed. “If it doesn’t work, shoot me,” he says, “because I really wanted this version.”

Those who have been in the trenches with Horn say the studio chairman’s imprint can be found on most, if not all, Disney films — including those under the Pixar, Marvel or Lucasfilm labels, renowned for their proud and sometimes insular cultures.

“I think what is unique [about him] as an executive is that he is a storyteller and considers himself a filmmaker,” says Lucasfilm chief Kathleen Kennedy. “You don’t find that very often. That’s what creative people are always looking for — recognizing that someone is a partner and not an adversary. And I think that’s genuinely who Alan is.”

Golden Legacy
Disney’s-five top-grossing films of all time, and 11 of
the top 20, have come during Alan Horn’s four years as studio chief.
$2.1b Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015)
$1.5b Marvel’s The Avengers (2012)
$1.4b Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015)
$1.3b Frozen (2013)
$1.2b Iron Man 3 (2013)
$857m Inside Out (2015)
$806m Zootopia (2016)
$773m Guardians of
the Galaxy (2014)
$759m Maleficent (2014)
$744m Monsters University (2013)
$714m Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014)

worldwide box office SOURCE: BOX OFFICE MOJo

Marvel Studios president Kevin Feige says many entertainment executives “come from a place of fear,” but Horn’s experience and confidence allow him to “come from the audience point of view, which to me is the only point of view that matters.”

For “The Jungle Book,” Horn did much more than just draw up a budget. He asked that many of the computer-generated animals be 20% larger than life, so moviegoers would feel the same awe as the boy protagonist. He also requested lighter moments — including more banter among the jungle creatures juxtaposed against the arrival of the fearsome tiger Shere Khan, voiced by Idris Elba.

“This movie is clearly something that Alan has been mulling over for many years,” recalls Favreau, who initially wasn’t sure he wanted to direct the film, until Horn persuaded him he could stretch technology to create a film of his dreams. “You want to know you have a person who is passionate like that for your partner,” he adds.

Other recent hits bear the mark of the Disney chairman. In “Zootopia,” Horn wanted to drive home the devastation of Nick the fox (voiced by Jason Bateman) when he’s unable to escape his stereotype as a predator. “Just when I thought someone actually believed in me … ” Nick sighs, as he walks away from his erstwhile rabbit ally, Hopps (Ginnifer Goodwin). Producer Clark Spencer says he loves Horn’s addition of the line “because it so beautifully sums up how a character who has always felt the world was against him would feel when the one person he thought believed in him put him back into that box.”

Horn threw himself into the creative process from day one at Disney, even on “The Lone Ranger,” the 2013 Western that was already well under way when he arrived in 2012. The new boss sharply pared back a scene in which villain Butch Cavendish eats his victim’s heart. “I like heart in my movies,” Horn quips, “but not that much heart.”

If Horn has delivered an overriding message on the studio’s biggest bets, it’s that “can’t miss” franchises can miss: They need the proper attention.

“Alan called me into his office one day and said, ‘Here’s the thing. It’s Disney’s ‘Cinderella,’ ” recalls production president Sean Bailey, of the 2015 picture. “ ‘It needs to be the definitive “Cinderella” for generations to come, so if you need to spend a little more, spend it, to make sure it’s one for the time capsule.’ ”

The climatic ballroom scene might have passed muster with only the first row of dancers lavishly outfitted by Disney’s wardrobe department. Instead, the entire ensemble was attired to impress. Others can judge whether it succeeded, Bailey says, but he and Horn had the goal of creating “the most beautiful movie we have ever made.”

That’s not to say Horn gets everything he asks for. In a note to director J.J. Abrams on “Star Wars: The Force Awakens,” he wondered why a newcomer, the droid BB-8, wasn’t larger, and asked for an upsizing of the spherical robot. “He was wrong,” producer Kennedy says with a laugh. “J.J. told him he thought BB-8 was the right size. And Alan was fine with it.”

Robert Maxwell for Variety

Horn welcomes a healthy creative disagreement. What provokes rare flashes of anger is when he feels his input has been ignored. On one fantasy film, a director did not like a Horn dialogue fix, so he simply didn’t answer the chairman. Principals on the film declined to identify themselves or the movie. But Horn has an answer for those unusual moments. “I [tell people]: ‘I’m sorry; I don’t work that way,’ ” he says. “The studio has a right to have a voice because we are paying for it, and there is an elusive partnership between the creative side and the business side.”

The eternal psychodrama around sharing power and credit in Hollywood is nothing new for veterans like Horn. Some skeptics whispered that anyone would have succeeded at Warner Bros. with the phenomenal gift of J.K. Rowling’s “Harry Potter” series.

But those who worked most closely on the eight films over 10 years say Horn led a series of critical decisions that helped assure success: rejecting the idea of combining books and decreasing the number of films; keeping an increasingly popular group of young actors in the fold, despite their expanded opportunities; rejecting powerful directors like Steven Spielberg (whose DreamWorks would have siphoned off a huge portion of the profits); and boldly choosing directors — like Mexico’s Alfonso Cuaron, who had made the artsy “Y tu mama tambien” — to shepherd “Potter” sequels. Horn also vetoed Macaulay Culkin as an early candidate to play Harry.

“The choices he made were really bold,” says former Warners exec Jeff Robinov. “Very few people give him enough credit for maintaining that franchise for that length of time. It’s not easy.”

In dealing with the proud and powerful corporate progeny at Lucasfilm, Marvel and Pixar, Horn employs an easygoing approach. “I have my title, which is helpful,” he says with typical understatement, later adding: “I never talk about what my authority is, whether it’s my decision or their decision. … They are each treated with affection, respect and support.”

He empowers Bailey to push films into development, though Horn jokes he might say, “That’s something we’re not doing” if Bailey proposed “the Saddam Hussein musical.” He gets frequent visits from Marvel’s Feige, who engineered a change last summer that allowed him to report directly to Horn, instead of to Marvel’s famously controlling CEO, Ike Perlmutter.

Feige is still clearly tickled at how an email from Horn helped land Robert Redford (a friend in both business and environmental activism) as an unlikely antagonist in 2014’s “Captain America: The Winter Soldier.” He also praised the chairman’s “daring” move to back an ending of the next “Captain America” installment driven more by character than by pyrotechnics.

“It doesn’t turn into ‘My Dinner With Andre,’ but we definitely hinge more on the personal conflict than we do on any global or galactic melee,” describes Feige, saying it was “incredibly moving” to find a studio chief who said “different is good … outside the norm is good.”

As he had with his other powerhouse labels, Horn made a detailed study of Lucasfilm. He impressed Kennedy with his ability to recall obscure plot elements of past “Star Wars” installments, not to mention his dead-on impression of Jedi grand master Yoda. The first-time the low-key Horn fell into Yoda-speak, Kennedy recalls, “It pretty much brought the house down.”

When she’s in London working on “Star Wars,” Horn calls within hours to offer feedback on dailies. “He is not one of those who will keep his filmmakers waiting,” Kennedy says. “He gives it that sense of urgency, which is really what it requires.”

It would be easy to say that the semi-autonomous businesses, with Pixar and Lucasfilm based in Northern California, run themselves. But director Rob Reiner, Horn’s old friend and former partner at Castle Rock Entertainment, suggests that even the best talent needs guidance. “It’s like when Phil Jackson had great success with [the NBA’s] Bulls and Lakers,” Reiner says. “He had Michael Jordan, he had Shaq, he had Kobe. But you can still not do as well if you don’t know how to manage them.”

“I never talk about what my authority is, whether it’s my decision or their decision. … They are each treated with affection, respect and support.”
Alan Horn, on his dealings with the top creatives at Marvel, Pixar and Lucasfilm

Pixar’s Lasseter agrees, calling Horn the rare executive with the confidence to assert his viewpoint — and to give it up when he’s persuaded there’s a better way. “Anyone could have those brands under one roof, from Marvel to Lucasfilm to Disney live action and animation, but when you look at the quality of films under each of those, it’s fantastic,” Lasseter says. “It has to come back to him.”

While his long winning streak puts him in the conversation of most admired executives, it’s the way Horn conducts himself as the town’s uber-mensch that has people lining up to praise him.

He takes responsibility, even for films that lose money. The failure of “The Finest Hours,” the 1950s-set ocean-rescue drama, still seems to weigh on the chairman more than a month after its release. The movie lost $75 million. People “just did not want to get up, leave their house and go see it,” Horn acknowledges, the sort of bald admission that makes him a Hollywood outlier.

He is beloved in a town of bloviators because “with Alan, everything is straight lines and decency,” says Norman Lear, who promoted Horn as his successor at TV-hitmaker Embassy Communications. Steve Carrell quipped at an awards function that “Alan Horn is so nice he makes Tom Hanks seem like an asshole.” Emma Watson appreciates that Horn pushed to make sure she could attend Brown University as she finished the “Potter” films. “He’s a listener — kind, intelligent and considered,” notes the actress, via email. “In a room full of people, he is one of the few I will actively seek out.”

While Horn has long been a fixture in Hollywood, his deep immersion in the creative community was not always a given. But just as he was starting his industry career, he avoided a potentially crippling obstacle.

In 1981, when Lear stepped away from TV to launch People for the American Way, he told his stable of writers that Horn, known as a Harvard MBA grad and Procter & Gamble veteran, would take over his Embassy Communications. Many of the writers insisted they didn’t want an Ivy League bean-counter sitting in judgment of their artistry. Horn became so uncomfortable with the conflict, he recalls, that he had to “force my hands onto the steering wheel” to drive to work each day.

At what was supposed to be a private showdown, Lear surprised the writers by inviting an unannounced guest: Horn. “See this guy?” Lear told the rebellious scribes, in an episode that has never been reported before. “He is the creative leader of this company. Anybody who doesn’t like it can get the f*** out.”

Lear walked out of the room, but no one else did.

A year later, Horn knew he had gained a measure of acceptance when “All in the Family” executive producer Mort Lachman presented him a Blackwing 602 pencil. Writers from Vladimir Nabokov to John Steinbeck swore by the brand, whose pencils bear the motto “Half the pressure, twice the speed.”

Horn keeps a ready supply of Blackwing 602s, including one vintage set, 60 years old, that he would like to use at the end of his career. He expects, though he is not certain, that he will retire in 2018, when his contract expires. He says he feels blessed at the path he has traveled and where he has ended up, allowing, “One thing I like about being older — and it’s a short list — is that no one says, ‘Well, what do you know?’ ”

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