Alan Horn: Can Disney’s new boss reinvent the studio?


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You didn’t need a secret decoder ring to decipher the message Bob Iger sent to Hollywood this week when he announced the hiring of former Warner Bros. studio president Alan Horn as Disney’s new studio chief: Disney is back in the movie business.

For years, many showbiz insiders have viewed Disney as an alien planet, a realm whose ruler — Iger — had little emotional connection to the film industry. In his interviews and earnings call chats with financial analysts, Iger was often dismissive of the movie business, viewing it as an antiquated appendage to Disney’s increasingly forward-looking media empire.


But the arrival of Horn, who was unceremoniously pushed out of his Warners job in April 2011, is a game changer. It’s a sign that Iger, who has spent the last several years hiring (and then firing) untested executive talent, notably the recently departed studio chief Rich Ross, realizes Disney needs a seasoned hand and a soothing presence who can revive its relations with top Hollywood talent.

In the creative community, the reaction to the Horn hiring was nothing short of ecstatic. As one veteran agent put it: “It’s like James Dolan hiring Phil Jackson to coach the Knicks. You feel like Disney is back in the game.”

The analogy is apt. Like the Ross-era Disney studio, the Cablevision-owned Knicks are a storied franchise that has fallen on hard times, a team hobbled by management turmoil and erratic talent choices. For many inside the movie business, Horn is an executive with the same sort of leadership skills exemplified by Jackson, who retired after coaching 11 NBA championship teams but is still such an iconic figure that if he said the word, he could easily land a lucrative contract tomorrow. Horn’s record isn’t quite that dazzling. But having overseen a string of blockbuster hits, notably the “Harry Potter” series, he brings to Disney the kind of gravitas and decision-making prowess that the studio has lacked in recent years. When Horn left Warners, he had a long lunch with me during which, in an unusually reflective mood, he tried to sum up his Warners-era achievements. What he saw as his legacy is exactly what Disney hopes he’ll bring to the party at the Mouse House.

As he put it: “I’d like to think I contributed to creating an environment that made Warners a highly desirable place to work. But I’m also proud of having a role in creating our ‘big event’ strategy. When I came to the studio in 1999, we only had one event film, ‘The Perfect Storm.’ And over the years, we evolved to the point … where we had six or seven each year.”

The operative words: “we” and “our.” Horn is a consensus builder. He’s not into art, which is why Warners was perhaps the first studio to get out of the specialty film business, even passing up a chance to distribute “Slumdog Millionaire,” which won a best picture Oscar after being picked up by Fox Searchlight.

But today’s studios, especially Disney, don’t see themselves as Oscar factories. As Horn said, they’re in the business of creating Big Events that can be rolled out all around the globe, full of the kind of family appeal and visual excitement that is just as easily understood in Seoul, St. Petersburg and São Paulo as in St. Louis or Spokane.

It’s not exactly showbiz rocket science. In fact, it’s — ahem — largely what Dick Cook was doing at Disney before he got the heave-ho from Iger in 2009. Let’s call it a moviemaking approach that relentlessly aims for the mainstream, which is probably why one of Horn’s old studio rivals once joked that “the kind of movie Alan most likes to make is the four-quadrant movie.”

It’s telling that the top films listed on Horn’s Warners’ résumé — notably the “Harry Potter” series, “The Dark Knight,” “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory,” “Happy Feet,” “Sherlock Holmes” and the “Oceans 11” trilogy — were virtual replicas of the kind of audience-friendly pictures that could’ve just as easily come off the Disney assembly line.

Of course, they didn’t, which is why Iger sought out Horn. The Warners films worked because they had A-plus talent involved, especially behind the camera, something that has been a tradition at Warners dating to Horn’s predecessors there, Bob Daley and Terry Semel.

In Hollywood, a town whose culture is almost entirely built around creativity, you’d think schmoozing talent would come easy. But at Disney, especially since Cook’s departure, it hasn’t. The studio’s acquired brands have done it effortlessly; Pixar has nurtured a generation of dazzling animators and filmmakers while Marvel has made a series of astute, often adventuresome choices with its filmmakers (Joss Whedon doing “The Avengers” is simply the most recent example).

But at Disney proper, the pickings have been slim. Expect Horn to woo talent in a hurry. The only big question is whether Horn, at 69, will be a short-term fix or end up as a studio fixture. After all, Iger is slated to leave the studio in 2015, which gives Horn a small window to work his magic before a new Disney czar takes charge.

This much is for certain. Horn is a throwback. In an era in which most executives are devoted to nurturing their own press clippings, Horn is a company man. At Warners, he saw himself as the keeper of the studio’s grand traditions. He admitted to having grave reservations about making a raunchy comedy like “The Hangover,” worried that it might damage the studio’s image.

Of course, at Disney, worrying about the studio’s image comes with the territory. With Horn at the helm, when it comes to change, no one will have to worry about Disney ever moving too fast. The real question will be whether the studio can move fast enough.


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-- Patrick Goldstein

Follow me on Twitter @patrickbigpix