Few executives are able to successfully merge their business and creative talents. Alan Horn, current chairman of the Walt Disney Studios, is one of those rare exceptions. Since entering the business nearly 40 years ago, Horn–a recent guest on SFTV’s The Hollywood Masters–has been responsible for some of the most enduring shows and films including Seinfeld, the Harry Potter series and The Dark Knight trilogy. Born in Brooklyn, Horn’s parents stressed the importance of education. His dad was a former boxer turned bartender who told his 10-year-old son, “You don’t want to be on this side of the bar, you want to be on that side.” What follows are some of the lessons Horn learned from being on that side of the bar.
Mentors and Entering the Business
Jerry Perenchio, who worked with Norman Lear and Bud Yorkin on the groundbreaking and iconic show All in the Family, gave Horn his first job in the business. “Jerry interviewed me five times,” said Horn. “I answered ‘no’ to every question he asked me and he said, ‘you’re perfect!’ and I was hired.” Horn cited Perenchio as his mentor. “He knew I had no experience and he took me to every meeting. Find a mentor–someone older, with no agenda and who’s not in competition with you.
The Transition from Business to Creative
In October 1978, Norman Lear asked Horn to run All in the Family while Lear took a break from the show. Horn agreed and went to a table reading. “I told them afterwards that I had a few thoughts, but they ignored me. It was brutal. Everyone was upset with Norman for this decision. This went on for quite some time until finally, Norman called a meeting for 10:00 am on a Wednesday morning and told me to arrive at 10:15. When I walked in, Norman pointed at me, turned to everyone, and said, ‘That’s the head of the company. If you don’t like it, get the fuck out!’ and he left.”
After All in the Family, Horn went to Fox under Barry Diller’s leadership then eventually formed Castle Rock Entertainment with a few friends including Rob Reiner, where they tried to get TV pilots on the air. Reiner’s cousin George Shapiro was Jerry Seinfeld’s manager. “When Jerry came along, we saw something in him that was just really unique,” said Horn. “When something is different or iconoclastic, it has a very hard time finding a place, but if it does and it works, it can be an enormous hit.”
The Shawshank Redemption
Tom Cruise lobbied for the role of Andy Dufresne, but he didn’t want to work with Frank Darabont because he was a first time director. “Cruise wanted Rob Reiner to direct the film. We went to Darabont, told him the situation, and he refused to step aside because he had a contractual right to direct it and he was absolutely right to do that. They say people in the entertainment business are flaky, but I find a lot of integrity, and at the end of a long day when a deal is done, it’s done.”
The Current State of Film
Horn spoke at length about the changing nature of the film business. “Nowadays, when people want to go to the movie theatre, they ask themselves: do I have to see it now, and do I have to see it on a big screen? If the answer to both of those questions is ‘no,’ we have a problem. Additionally, technology and home entertainment used to drive business revenue, but now territories are the big money maker, especially places like China, South Korea and Russia. If you’re going to make a small movie that won’t be competitive internationally, you have to be either very lucky or very, very good.”
As Horn prepares for the upcoming Star Wars Episode 7, he quoted John Lasseter with his advice on how to succeed: “Quality is the best business plan.”
The Hollywood Masters is a new series that examines the careers of Oscar-winning filmmakers and successful executives, with The Hollywood Reporter’s Stephen Galloway and presented by LMU School of Film and Television.