A Studio Chief's Exit Interview
After almost 12 years at the helm of Warner Bros., Alan Horn reflects on his hits, the gambles that paid off and the passing of a storied baton.
After an extraordinary run of nearly 12 years at the helm of Warner Bros. Entertainment, Alan Horn retired as president and COO on April 1. His track record is enviable: He’s overseen a string of successes including the Harry Potter series, The Dark Knight, The Hangover and Inception. Last year, Warners broke the industry worldwide box-office record with receipts of $4.814 billion, beating the record it had set the previous year.
Horn is largely credited for Warners’ strategy of focusing on big, event movies, which perform well in the critcial overseas market. Warners had already optioned the Harry Potter novels when he first arrived at the studio, but he oversaw the carefully nurtured franchise and says one of his best decisions was to resist pressure to bring in a partner to help defray the costs. As a result, the studio has pocketed all of the considerable profits from the franchise, which has grossed $6.3 billion at the worldwide box office.
Just before surrendering the reins, Horn sat down with The Hollywood Reporter to reminisce about his adventures in the movie business and the lessons he’s taken away from the legendary studio. If he takes credit for anything, it’s working hard and supporting filmmakers — even in those cases where the merits of a particular project weren’t immediately apparent to him.
Horn held executive posts at Tandem Productions, Embassy Communications and 20th Century Fox before co-founding Castle Rock Entertainment in 1987. There, he was involved in such films as When Harry Met Sally …, A Few Good Men, The Shawshank Redemption and City Slickers. In 1993, Ted Turner decided to buy both Castle Rock and another independent film company, New Line Cinema.
I found myself flying to Atlanta to meet with Turner. He had a giant, round table because he wanted to be like King Arthur in Camelot, where every knight is equal. But he was Ted Turner. I was thinking, “This is so funny” — because every seat was turned to face Ted Turner. We would go quail hunting. Ted was very into bonding. I didn’t know anything about it, but I’m going along for the ride. [New Line co-heads] Bob Shaye and Michael Lynne were there, too, because he wanted Castle Rock to be closer to New Line. At some point, I said to him, “Why did you buy Castle Rock and New Line?” — waiting for some strategic, well-thought-out response. And he goes, “Well, hell — I didn’t know both deals would close.”
In 1996, Turner sold his company to Time Warner, and Castle Rock became part of the Warner Bros. studio, with Horn reporting to then co-chairs Bob Daly and Terry Semel. Three years later, they departed, Barry Meyer was named chairman and CEO, and Horn joined him as president and COO, with responsibility for running the film studio.
At Castle Rock, we did a movie every three months. Now it was one every two weeks. Barry Meyer handed me the film program and said, “I trust you to run this.” I took that very seriously. I was very detail-oriented, very on the case. … I didn’t want him to be embarrassed. I didn’t want him to walk into a room with [Time Warner CEO] Jeff Bewkes and have him say, “I hear you are having trouble with MGM on the Hobbit thing” and have Barry say, “What are you talking about?”
We decided we needed to make The Perfect Storm right away. It was a big-budget picture for the studio. We didn’t have a partner. Clint Eastwood was shooting Space Cowboys at the time. I remember walking over as he was filming with Jim Garner and Tommy Lee Jones and then walking 30 steps onto the set of Perfect Storm and thinking, “This is the big time.”
Horn became widely respected within the industry, but one of the early raps on him was that his taste was too conventional. Asked once what kind of movies he likes, Horn replied, “A four-quadrant movie.”
When I committed to a tentpole strategy, they are, by definition, expensive. So you want the biggest audience you can get. So when I said I love four-quadrant movies, it was consistent with my commitment to big movies. But I would object to a characterization of that as not loving movies. I would submit that there is no studio executive who loves movies more than I do. I love movies. I love the docs. I’m sitting there watching Restrepo, Inside Job. I saw King’s Speech three times. I would like not to be misunderstood about one thing: The same person who says “I am committed to a tentpole strategy and want global movies” said yes to North Country with Charlize Theron, Contagion with Steven Soderbergh. When I see a movie and it moves me, I’m gone.
Horn initially had misgivings about Clint Eastwood’s Million Dollar Baby, the 2004 film which won Oscars for best picture, director, actress and supporting actor. But in the end, he didn’t say no.
Clint came to me in his low-key way. He had not cast anybody. I read it and I thought, “Well, I just don’t see it.” I thought, “I don’t know if women want to see a woman fight.” He said, “I wouldn’t want the studio doing anything that it’s not comfortable with.” So he took it around town and did not get a taker. He came back through his agent, Leonard Hirshan, who said, “Would you kindly take another look at this?” Lakeshore Entertainment said they would come in for half the budget. So I said, “I’m just not saying no.” The movie killed me. I said, “Does she have to die in the end?” Clint said, “I’m afraid so.” I said, “Does she have to bite her tongue off?” He said, “That’s the way we have to go.” I said, “Does she have to lose the fight?” But it shows that William Goldman was right: No one knows anything.
Another movie that Horn did not want to make at first was the 2006 hit 300. “We had done Troy and Alexander, and I said, ‘I don’t want any more arrows and swords,’ ” he says. But after meeting director Zack Snyder, he changed his mind. Then Snyder wanted to cast Gerard Butler as King Leonidas.
Butler had done The Phantom of the Opera for us. I said, “I don’t see him for the role.” To me, he was the Phantom. A few days later, I get a call from this Gerard Butler. He says, “Can I come and see ya?” Scottish. So he comes to see me, and he’s really physically imposing. I knew from Phantom that he smoked, and I thought I smelled it on him. So I said, “OK, you can have the part on one condition: You have got to stop smoking.” He said, “Are you serious?” I said: “Yes. Give me your word, and it’s yours.” And he said, “I give you my word.” I feel these guys and ladies are role models. And I believe the jury is in on smoking. No question — forget it. It’s bad.
Horn acknowledges that he was baffled by Inception at first, which he admitted to director Christopher Nolan after first reading the script. Still, he gave it the go-ahead because he believed in Nolan.
I said to him, “What is the third dream thing, and you get shot in the head when you’re in limbo in the fourth dream level — what happens?” I found it to be very complicated. My notes usually relate to the character arc and whether I care or not. But I remembered being on the set of Batman Begins and we were on some giant building; there were hundreds of extras, cars, trucks, and there’s Chris with his black sports coat and black pants — the most unassuming guy. And I remember thinking, “This guy is brilliant.” By the way, [Warner Bros. Pictures Group president] Jeff Robinov was a big supporter of the project. So I asked Chris 20 or 30 questions. And I said to him, “You did Insomnia, Prestige, Batman Begins, Dark Knight — I know you.” So I said, “I don’t entirely see it, but this guy’s a genius. He’s also a collaborative, responsible, levelheaded, fair-minded director.” I thought, “This is the guy we’ve worked with for five years, and I’ll make the bet with him.” I have to say, it was a little scary — it was a lot of money.
Inception went on to gross $826 million worldwide and was nominated for best picture.
When The King’s Speech was a best picture nominee against Inception, I thought: “Why don’t we say, ‘Let’s have a best animal contest and have a gazelle against an elephant?’ They just couldn’t be more different.” King’s Speech was great. I saw it three times. But Inception to me is brilliant filmmaking. King’s Speech was best picture — no problem. But these are different categories.
In 2009, Time Warner CEO Jeff Bewkes gave Horn and Meyer short two-year extensions on their contracts. Last fall, he extended Meyer’s contract — but not Horn’s. It’s a subject on which Horn chooses not to linger.
I don’t want to go back there. I like Jeff Bewkes. These guys made their decisions. And no one can say that the record doesn’t speak for itself. I feel like a guy who’s been running full out for almost 12 years in a relay race. Bob and Terry handed the baton to me, and now I’m passing the movie baton to Jeff Robinov, and I will be his friend and support him. I feel I can pass the baton without having slowed up or tripping. I didn’t drop it.
ALAN HORN ON SEINFELD
In 1987, Alan Horn co-founded Castle Rock Entertainment, which made When Harry Met Sally, A Few Good Men, The Shawshank Redemption and City Slickers. But the big score for Castle Rock came in television with Seinfeld — a show that struggled for a few seasons after NBC put it on the air in 1989.
Recalls Horn: “I called [co-creator] Larry David and said: ‘I’ve got great news. They’re going to move the show from Wednesdays to Thursdays, following Cheers — the most coveted time slot on the network’s schedule.’ He says, ‘What do you mean?’ I say, ‘It’ll be great for the show because we’ll have this wonderful lead-in.’ He says, ‘I don’t want those people! If they don’t want to watch us on Wednesdays, I don’t want them on Thursdays because we’re following Cheers!’ ”
Seinfeld moved to Thursday nights and was finally taking off in 1993 as Horn was selling Castle Rock to Ted Turner.
“We were getting ready to sell the company,” Horn recalls, “so I called Sony, our distributor, and said, ‘I need to have a valuation for Seinfeld per episode. They call me back a day later and say $750,000 per episode.’ I said, ‘We need a more aggressive number, but it still has to be defensible.’ They said, ‘Let us think about it for three days.’ They called back and said, ‘$750,000.’ I said, ‘You have got to be kidding.’ To date, it’s worth $20 million an episode.”
THE BIG HITS UNDER HORN'S WATCH: His strategy: Go for the tentpoles at home and abroad
The Perfect Storm, 2000
Horn’s tentpole strategy of producing big, event movies first took shape with this true-life adventure in which George Clooney battled the elements off the Massachusetts coast. Gross: $328.7 million
Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, 2001
J.K. Rowling’s wizarding series became a veritable annuity. With the final film coming in July, the franchise has done $6.3 billion worldwide. Gross: $974.7 million
Ocean’s Eleven, 2001
Under Steven Soderbergh’s direction, Clooney and his modern-day rat pack took on Las Vegas and came up with a winning trilogy. Gross: $450.7 million
Although this Brad Pitt sword-and-sandals spectacular disappointed stateside, foreign audiences flocked to theaters. Gross: $487.4 million
Million Dollar Baby, 2004
Even though Warners was initially resistant, Clint Eastwood’s boxing drama was a bargain at $30 million and won a best picture Oscar. Gross: $216.8 million
Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, 2005
Tim Burton and Johnny Depp teamed up for a reworking of the Roald Dahl novel that found the sweet spot with moviegoers around the world. Gross: $475 million
The Departed, 2006
Martin Scorsese’s Boston-accented crime drama, with its A-list cast that included Leonardo DiCaprio and Jack Nicholson, copped a best picture Oscar. Gross: $289.8 million
Happy Feet, 2006
In this George Miller-directed song-and-dance movie, penguins helped Warners find its footing in the animation arena, where it had been lagging. Gross: $384.3 million
The Dark Knight, 2008
Christopher Nolan relaunched a franchise with 2005’s Batman Begins and took the saga to new, and darker, heights with this operatic sequel. Gross: $1 billion
Sherlock Holmes, 2009
Pairing Robert Downey Jr. and Jude Law as Holmes and Watson partly solved the mystery of where Warners’ future franchises might come from. Gross: $524 million
Nolan, along with DiCaprio, solidified his reputation with this brainy blockbuster that defied the skeptics who thought it was too smart for the summer crowd. Gross: $825.5 million