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Can biz live with tentpole tensions?

While several majors are backing away from pricey extravaganzas, Warners’ Alan Horn defends the brave new world of mega-pics.

A cautious, conservative man who has occupied a variety of perches on the Hollywood power pyramid, Alan Horn surely never imagined he’d become the Titan of the Tentpole.

Yet as he nears the end of his initial five-year stint at Warner Bros., it is Horn who champions the new cycle of studio mega-movies and who places the biggest, boldest bets. And if Horn’s deal is renewed at year’s end, as everyone seems to expect, his philosophy will doubtless be perpetuated, if not embellished.

Horn’s resolve is to foster four or five tentpoles a year, an ambition that far surpasses that of his rivals. Indeed, a couple of the major studios, intimidated by this summer’s box office results, are backing away from this high-risk game plan.

After studying the shaky reception to “Van Helsing” and the outright rejection of pricey family films like “Around the World in Eighty Days” or “Peter Pan,” they’ve concluded that the brave new world of $150 million-to-$250 million mega-pics is not yet at hand.

To be sure, the astonishing opening of “Spider-Man 2” will stir a wave of hubris among Hollywood’s power players. Here was history’s most expensive movie being launched amid history’s most extravagant ad campaign: the resulting box office numbers were also extravagant.

All this proves his point, Horn feels. Namely, that the most productive business plan for a studio would be to build a varied program of pictures around an ambitious core of tentpoles.

And he has scored big-time with his “Harry Potter” and “Matrix” franchises and even with “Troy” — a nail-biting exercise that ultimately hit pay dirt in Europe (“Troy” and “The Last Samurai” ran up almost identical numbers overseas, totaling in the $450 million-$475 million range internationally).

Now he’s mobilizing everything from “Catwoman” to “Batman” to “Superman” in an effort to proliferate his tentpoles.

Some of his peers believe his bets are too rich. In their view, the “Harry Potters” and “Spider-Men” represent freaks of history rather than the start of a new genre, that there are not enough “miracle properties” around to justify his optimism.

Hence Disney last week declared it was going to cut overall spending on film production, neither Fox nor Paramount seem willing to exceed a conservative $100 million milestone and Universal, too, is trying to refocus, not on big budgets but on big stories

Talk to Horn about all this and you find he’s anything but strutting. Taciturn, measured and impeccably polite, he’s the mirror opposite of oldtime rainmakers like Joe Levine or Mike Todd. Tentoples are good business, he explains quietly. You have to be careful about scripts, and wary about profligate veteran filmmakers, but if you do so, you’ll win the day.

To be sure, Horn intends to surround his tentpoles with more modest projects, many of them co-funded. He boldly greenlighted “Polar Express,” a $165 million Robert Zemeckis-Tom Hanks project that embodies a new filmmaking technology, only to lay off half his action on Steve Bing, a bright young filmmaker-philanthropist. Horn desperately sought to become Fox’s partner in “The Day After Tomorrow,” but was turned down.

No one understands the downside realities of the business better than Horn.

His first studio stint at Fox under Barry Diller was a short-lived failure. For years he was a principal of Castle Rock, the production company that started off like a rocket only to bog down in its later years.

He knows that his parent company, Time Warner, has suffered through a turbulent recent history and that he has several savvy bosses — including Barry Meyer, Jeff Bewkes and the ever-demanding Richard Parsons — looking over his shoulder.

He also knows that the movie universe as a whole shows signs of contracting. Attendance is down from last year in the U.S. and in Western Europe and, while DVD has delivered a jolt of adrenaline, the cloud of piracy looms ever larger.

Even as “Spider-Man” rolls up giant numbers, its dicey history reflects the innate problems of the tentpole business. Its star, Toby Maguire, demanded a greatly enhanced deal at the 11th hour. Writers came and went, as did story concepts. The budget ballooned. Hungry for marketing partners, the studio pulled in everyone from Dr. Pepper to Sprint to Kellogg.

Nonetheless, the end result was surprisingly felicitous — strong reviews and banner box office business, which seemed to justify the fact that studio executives had aged 10 years in the process.

Horn insists he’s steeled for future ordeals.

Already, the geeks of the Internet are spreading nasty rumors about “Catwoman.” “Superman” has resisted the efforts of several directors. His talented production staff, headed by sage, soft-spoken Jeff Robinov, struggles fiercely to find new grist substantial enough to serve as under-pinnings for these formidable projects.

Alan Horn is convinced they’ll succeed. And if he’s right, the Titan of the Tentpole will play a major role in reshaping the future of the film industry.

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