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It’s been a little over a year since Alan Horn took over as chairman of the Walt Disney Studios, which is about to face its biggest test of the summer: On July 3, it releases the mega-budgeted The Lone Ranger, starring Johnny Depp and Armie Hammer, with Gore Verbinski directing and Jerry Bruckheimer producing. The film was put into production before Horn arrived at the studio last June, and though Disney battled to drive the budget down from $250 million to $215 million, the production is said to have gone so far over budget that its cost has exceeded that higher figure. In an exclusive interview with The Hollywood Reporter, Horn addressed the risky Western’s prospects — as well as his approach to the job now that he has received a mouse pin from Disney CEO Robert Iger to mark his first anniversary in his new post.
When Iger hired Horn, 70, who came to Disney after 12 years as president of Warners, his arrival was applauded by those in the industry critical of the troubled two-and-a-half year tenure of Horn’s predecessor, Rich Ross, a newcomer to the movie business who oversaw a broad executive purge at the studio. By contrast, Horn is seasoned, and his taste seemed exactly suited to the Disney strategy of making mostly big-name, branded, family-friendly entertainment – like the Harry Potter series he oversaw at Warners. Horn also found an enviable list of suppliers under the Disney umbrella, including Marvel Entertainment, Pixar and Disney Animation. Additionally, Disney distributes films for DreamWorks. And since Horn’s arrival, Iger added Lucasfilm to the mix, with a new Star Wars film set to open in 2015.
The Hollywood Reporter: Given the studio gets movies each year from Marvel, Pixar and DreamWorks, what is your plan for the films that Disney’s own film studio produces?
Alan Horn: I have five or maybe six [films] from our “umbrella” group, and I have asked [Disney president of production] Sean Bailey for two to three [more films a] year. I prefer three event movies a year. Looking ahead, we have Maleficent [with Angelina Jolie], Cinderella [with Kenneth Branagh directing] and Tomorrowland [from Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol director Brad Bird]. And we’ll have two to three small ones, Like Saving Mr. Banks and [the baseball movie] Million Dollar Arm. So that makes about 11 movies a year, and then we distribute DreamWorks movies, so let’s say they give us three or so a year. For fiscal ’14, which commences Oct. 1, we have 15 releases. That’s a normalized slate.
THR: Obviously, you inherited Lone Ranger from the previous regime. Iger negotiated the budget, but you weren’t there for that.
Horn: When I came in they were a little more than halfway through shooting. I want to assume responsibility. Bob Iger is running a $40-plus-billion gross-revenue operation. He’s got a really big job. So when I got here, the ship had certainly sailed, and it was halfway to shore. You’ll see that it’s entertaining, and we’ll see what happens.
THR: Even in the best-case scenario, it will be hard for it to break even, right?
Horn: A lot depends these days on the international side. I don’t know what it’s going to do. It’s a lot of fun. When you see Johnny Depp in this character, you shake your head and say, “How does he do this?” He’s Willy Wonka, he’s a vampire in Dark Shadows, he’s the Mad Hatter in Alice in Wonderland. He’s very talented.
THR: Would you do this sort of movie, a big Jerry Bruckheimer project that is not a sequel, again at this point? I’m asking about Bruckheimer’s future outside of the next Pirates of the Caribbean.
Horn: I can’t comment on it. He’s on board, he’s just finished Lone Ranger, he’s got a long way to go before his deal is up. I’m not going to comment on his future. He’s a very talented fellow, but every picture needs to justify its green light in this marketplace on its merits. We’ll pick ’em one at a time. But I’m certainly not daunted by the notion of greenlighting big-budget movies.
THR: Let me ask you about stability at the studio. A lot of people would come in and start making significant personnel changes. You haven’t done that.
Horn: I didn’t do it at Warner Bros. either. Over time, some folks left, but I didn’t bring anybody with me when I went there. I come to a situation assuming that everyone is terrific at doing his or her job.
THR: What can you tell us about the new Star Wars?
Horn: We are very pleased that we have J.J. Abrams [producing and directing it]. It’s perfect casting with him at the helm and the anticipation is terribly exciting. I feel we’ll deliver. We have a great team headed by [Lucasfilm president] Kathy Kennedy.
THR: Is it fair to say more than any of the other labels, Marvel is the most autonomous?
Horn: I would say Pixar and Marvel. Each of these entities has its own culture, its own identity. They are part of the Walt Disney Co. and Mr. Iger negotiated their arrangements. They are all treated with tremendous respect because they really know what they’re doing. … Honestly I feel it’s a privilege to have a job where I get to look out over these different companies that Bob Iger has acquired. I see my job as being as supportive of them as I can. It’s never about me.
THR: What’s your feeling about the relationship with DreamWorks?
Horn: I’m a huge fan of Stacey Snider and Steven Spielberg. I like Stacey, I respect her. And he is probably the most famous director in the history of film. They have their own financing, and I’m proud to be distributing their movies and I enjoy the interaction. I enjoy the association with them.
THR: You were supportive of Ben Affleck at Warners. Do you feel that you could make a film like Argo at Disney?
Horn: The Disney logo does signify certain constraints. There’s nothing wrong with the subject matter of Argo, but Ben quite correctly made choices about language and so on — we just can’t have it in a Disney movie. Our fans have certain expectations. I like to say they may not know what they’re going to see, but they do know what they’re not going to see. I loved Argo and had a hand in saying yes to it. [But] we occupy a special place from a brand standpoint with our audience, and that’s hard to get and that’s valuable. We need to respect that.
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