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Harvey Weinstein, former mayor Michael Bloomberg and other New York media power players gathered over baked eggs to hear Disney chairman Alan Horn speak at the Bloomberg Business of Entertainment Breakfast on Tuesday morning. In a far-ranging conversation, Horn touched upon a number of Disney’s most prized franchises. At the top of that list was Disney’s breakout Frozen, now the highest-grossing animated film of all time. Horn told his audience that Disney’s sole focus at the moment was getting the Frozen musical ready for Broadway and that a sequel hadn’t even been discussed.
In response to a question about Jerry Bruckheimer’s recent speculation that he is hoping to start production on the next Pirates of Caribbean film as early as this fall, Horn replied, “It’s possible. We haven’t seen a screenplay yet that I’ve been able to sign off on.… There’s a lot of variables that affect the final outcome once it leaves the studio lot, so we are very careful.”
Not surprisingly, many of the questions were focused on Star Wars: Episode VII as moderator and Bloomberg correspondent Jon Erlichman tried to pry loose any detail he could. Horn was reluctant to say much, but he did clarify that some second-unit shooting had begun in Abu Dhabi and other places, “because we have all these locations we have to film and we have to give it that ‘Star Wars‘-ian look.”
Horn also confirmed that Star Wars casting is almost complete. In being asked to respond to a long list of Internet rumors, including Girls‘ Adam Driver being cast as a villain, Horn replied, “You know I really can’t. I want to save that for the Star Wars filmmakers, it should be their announcement.” Horn will be heading to London tomorrow to meet those filmmakers, including director J.J. Abrams and Lucasfilm president Kathleen Kennedy, to go over the script and production design plans.
Horn also clarified that the trilogy films will be released in 2015, 2017 and 2019, but that it had not yet been decided if Episodes VIII and IX would be December releases. Plans are also still in place to release Star Wars spinoff films in 2016 and 2018, though Horn and his team have not yet settled on which of the many spinoff ideas they will greenlight.
A large focus of the morning’s discussion surrounded tentpole filmmaking and the return Disney was seeing on its sizable investments in these films. While the budget for Star Wars hasn’t been completed, Horn speculated it would be in the Marvel-like range of $175 million to $200 million. As he did with the Harry Potter films during his tenure at Warner Bros., which were budgeted for approximately $75 million before Horn came on board, the studio chief is a big proponent of blowing up these tentpole films into larger and more spectacular films to give the audience what he refers to as a “full meal.” Horn explained this approach was being driven in part by the extraordinary growth being seen in the international market.
“The trick is that international [markets] are under-screened,” Horn detailed to his fellow media execs, “So for example, in China, there’s 1.35 billion people, they have 18,000 screens. We’re 44,000 screens for 350 million [people].… The point is when you have lots and lots of people, but they are under-screened and they can see The Avengers for the same cost as Saving Mr. Banks, they have to be selective because you have fewer screens available.” As a result, Horn chronicled how films like Avengers and Frozen were making a large portion of their money abroad, while smaller films like Banks were still dependent on domestic ticket sales.
The ripple effect, according to Horn, is that the non-tentpole films need to be made for less money. “I like the fact that we also made Million Dollar Arm even if it’s very daunting when you look at those home video numbers,” the Disney boss explained. “It means the process of greenlighting a film like that is more challenging for us than it ever has been before. The answer to that is you have to make them cheaper.” As a side note, Horn took the opportunity to let the audience know just how well the baseball film starring Jon Hamm was scoring with test audiences.
Horn, who is 71 and was semi-retired when Bob Iger brought him on board at Disney in 2012, told the breakfast crowd that he would like to stay on at Disney. Asked about a succession plan, Horn said he would find it preferable to promote from within, but that a successor had not yet been tapped.
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