In naming film veteran Alan Horn to oversee its troubled movie studio, Walt Disney Co. has tapped an executive who nurtured the blockbuster “Harry Potter” franchise and could bring magic back to the studio that once controlled the family film market.
The former Warner Bros. Entertainment president takes over as Walt Disney Studios chairman June 11, assuming control of the Burbank company whose 1937 “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” heralded a golden age of animated movies and made Mickey Mouse, Ariel and the Lion King an indelible part of the American childhood.
But Walt Disney Studios, once the only Hollywood studio with brand-name identity among moviegoers, has lost its way. Although its “Toy Story 3,” “The Avengers” and “Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides” each surpassed $1 billion at the box office, some recent Disney-brand films failed to connect with broader audiences, such as the flops “Prom” and “John Carter.”
The safe-bet selection of Horn is Disney’s bid to restore lost luster and stability to a division roiled by management upheaval and erratic box-office performance under ousted film chief Rich Ross, who departed in April after less than three years on the job. It also puts the studio back in the hands of a traditional movie executive. Ross, a television industry veteran, failed to make a smooth transition into film.
“Alan not only has an incredible wealth of knowledge and experience in the business, he has a true appreciation of moviemaking as both an art and a business,” Disney Chairman and Chief Executive Robert A. Iger said in a statement. “He’s earned the respect of the industry for driving tremendous, sustained creative and financial success, and is also known and admired for his impeccable taste and integrity.”
The offer was enticing enough to bring Horn out of retirement.
“I’m not a golfer,” Horn quipped. “The Walt Disney Co. has an unmatched reputation, and the opportunity to join this organization was unusual and special.”
As for his new Disney mandate, Horn responded: "[Iger] said, ‘Just make good movies.’”
During his largely successful 12-year tenure at Warner Bros., Horn shepherded such critically acclaimed and lucrative films as the “Harry Potter,” “Lord of the Rings” and revived “Batman” series, as well as “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.”
The new Disney studio chief maintained close relationships at Warner with prickly creative talent like directors Clint Eastwood and “Potter” author J.K. Rowling — experience that will serve him well in dealing with such big personalities as “Pirates of the Caribbean” producer Jerry Bruckheimer, filmmaker Steven Spielberg and Pixar’s and Disney Animation Studios’ creative guru John Lasseter.
Bruckheimer received the news of Horn’s appointment on the New Mexico set of “The Lone Ranger,” a live-action version of the famed radio show that is one of Disney’s major 2013 releases.
“A great choice,” Bruckheimer said. “He’s an executive that ran a big studio for years with a lot of success. He knows movies and he knows the business.”
Horn is known to prefer less raunchy fare, spending more of his time on the “Potter” movies and the animated “Happy Feet” than the R-rated humor of “The Hangover,” a sensibility that should mesh well with the Disney family brand.
Walt Disney once said his company’s films were not for children but rather “for the child in all of us.” But the studio has struggled recently to define a modern “Disney” film, amid changing audience tastes and similar broad-appeal movies from Disney’s Pixar Animation Studios and Marvel Entertainment.
Asked this spring at the CinemaCon movie convention, “What is a Disney movie?” Walt Disney production chief Sean Bailey said, “It’s not an easy question to answer.”
Asked the same thing Thursday, Horn said, “I’m not comfortable saying what a Disney movie is yet. That would be presumptuous and premature.” Family entertainment, he added, is the guiding principle. “We’re not going to make an R-rated horror movie.”
Disney’s upcoming movies reflect the studio’s reliance on familiar brands. In addition to “The Lone Ranger,” next year’s slate includes “Oz: The Great and Powerful,” the live-action prequel to “The Wizard of Oz”; Marvel sequels “Iron Man 3" and “Thor 2"; and Pixar’s “Monsters University,” a prequel to the animation studio’s “Monsters, Inc.”
The number of Disney live-action films falls short of the six to eight releases Iger told investors to expect in the future.
“We’ve got a business that has done well on the animation front and the Marvel front,” Iger said in remarks Wednesday at the Sanford C. Bernstein Annual Strategic Decisions Conference 2012. “But our results on the live-action front have been inconsistent this year, in particular. The goal is to find a management team that is capable of creating live-action films under the Disney banner in a more consistent basis.”
In selecting Horn, Iger repudiated his decision to elevate Ross, an industry outsider who purged many of the studio’s top production, marketing and distribution executives who were loyal to his predecessor, longtime Disney Chairman Dick Cook. In their place, Ross installed fresh blood. Some — such as studio marketing head MT Carney, a New York advertising executive — lacked film experience.
Horn marks a return to the Cook mold of old-style movie executives. He also has broader responsibilities than his predecessor, including the authority to put into production movies from Marvel and Pixar. Pixar’s Lasseter will report to Horn and Iger, and Marvel Studios President Kevin Feige similarly will report to Horn and to Marvel Entertainment’s Ike Perlmutter.
Before joining Warner Bros., Horn co-founded Castle Rock Entertainment, where as chairman and CEO he oversaw the creation of best picture Oscar nominees and hits “When Harry Met Sally…,” “A Few Good Men” and “The Shawshank Redemption.” Horn has also served as president and chief operating officer of Twentieth Century Fox Film Corp. and was chairman and CEO of Embassy Communications.
Times staff writers Geoff Boucher, Ben Fritz and Rebecca Keegan contributed to this report.