In the spring of 2011, when he got word that he was being fired as president and chief operating officer of Warner Bros. Pictures, Alan Horn was blindsided. He was 68, and while no one said it explicitly, the message was made clear: Time Warner C.E.O. Jeff Bewkes wanted to make room for younger blood.
In the weeks following his dismissal, as Horn flew back and forth from Los Angeles to New Zealand, where he was serving as the executive producer on Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, he tried to talk himself out of the crevasse he felt opening beneath him. “He was so depressed,” says the director Rob Reiner. “He had that insecurity that actors have: I’ll never work again!” Horn had had a breathtaking run. For 7 of his 12 years as head of Warner Bros., the studio led the global box office, knocking out hits such as the eight Harry Potter films, the Ocean’s Eleven series, the second and third Matrix movies, and The Departed. He had plenty of money, a house in Bel Air rigged out with a collection of Western art, a long and happy marriage to climate activist Cindy Horn, two well-adjusted daughters, and a disarming reputation as one of the nicest guys in Hollywood.
“It’s the rarest thing in our business when you meet someone so successful who is also a good guy, honest, decent, and warm,” says Reiner. “And the key to Alan—and it’s endearing, actually—is that he doesn’t know what a prize he is.”
“Alan Horn is so nice he makes Tom Hanks look like an asshole,” Steve Carell said at an awards show.
But Horn was having trouble accepting the Hollywood ending that Hollywood wanted to graft onto his life. So when the Walt Disney Company’s then C.E.O., Bob Iger, called him in the spring of 2012 and asked if he’d be interested in running Walt Disney Studios, he didn’t say no.
“I offered to go to his house,” Horn tells me on a recent afternoon, sitting in his office at Walt Disney Studios, in Burbank. He was wearing a blue blazer and a button-down shirt. “Bob said, ‘No, I’ll come to your house. I’m not being followed or anything.’ We had long meetings, and then he asked me if I wanted to put on the uniform and go back to doing this. Before Bob left my house, after he’d offered me the job, I said, ‘By the way—full disclosure—do you know how old I am?’ Because it had been an issue. And Bob said, ‘I don’t care about that.’ And so that was it.” The blue-eyed former air-force captain and Tae Kwon Do instructor was back in business.
Under Horn, who is now 77, Disney has become the world’s most successful movie studio, leading domestic and global box office since 2015, grossing more than $7 billion globally in 2016 and 2018, and over $11 billion in 2019. Horn oversees the Disney juggernaut of studios including Pixar, Marvel, Lucasfilm, 20th Century Studios, and Searchlight Pictures.
“Alan Horn was the only person I talked to for the job, and we were so lucky that he was a free agent just when we needed him,” says Iger. “That decision has paid exponential dividends for our company both creatively and commercially. He was one of the best hires I’ve ever made, and what I especially appreciate is that he’s also a kind and honest person on top of all that.” Last May, Iger added “chief creative officer” to Horn’s title and promoted studio president Alan Bergman to co-chairman.
Earlier this week, Iger stunned Hollywood by announcing he would be stepping down as Disney’s chief executive after nearly 15 years, and that his replacement, effective immediately, was Bob Chapek, a longtime Disney exec who most recently served as chairman of the theme parks. (Iger will continue to lead Disney’s board and remain with the company as executive chairman until his contract ends on December 31, 2021.) Asked about the executive shuffle, Horn says, “Bob Iger gave me the chance to re-write my ending following my career at Warner Bros., and I will be forever grateful to him for that opportunity and happy that it worked beyond our wildest dreams. He has become a true friend in the process.”
“The Cheapest Money to Me Is the Script Stage”
The blockbusters under Disney’s umbrella—the Avengers franchise, the Star Wars franchise, Frozen, Black Panther, Zootopia, Toy Story 4—get made only after Horn reads early drafts of scripts, often demanding changes or re-writes. “Sometimes things just don’t feel right,” Horn says. “I don’t pretend to be a writer. I have come up with lines, but I don’t pretend to do that. But I can tell when something doesn’t feel right.
“The cheapest money to me is the script stage,” he adds. “Even though you may need millions of dollars for a single script from Bill Goldman and people like that. The screenplay is so important because you can at least affect what is actually shot. Because then you’re talking about $750,000 a day. So I want to get in early. And it’s always the same. If filming starts too early, whether because of actor availability or director availability or other scheduling concerns, the problems that are in the screenplay are the problems you see in the movie.”
Under Horn, who is now 77, Disney has become the world’s most successful movie studio.
“The type of movies we do are event movies,” Horn says. “The criteria are Do I have to see it now? and Do I have to see it on the big screen? If the answer is no, then we have a problem. Now, there’s a carved-out exception, Fox Searchlight, where they’ve defined a niche of working with filmmakers like Guillermo del Toro, making movies like The Shape of Water, and saying, ‘You will have more flexibility and more creative freedom in our company than anybody has elsewhere. We know how to help you make a first-rate movie.’”
The conversation turned to the dustup last fall when Martin Scorsese compared Marvel movies to theme-park rides and wrote an op-ed for The New York Times in which he lamented that today’s movie franchises lack “revelation, mystery or genuine emotional danger.”
“To me, it’s literally much ado about nothing,” Horn says. “If you look at a theatrical motion picture that grosses $2.2 billion and think about the number of theatergoers that represents, that’s a lot of people who went to see that movie. If you say to them, ‘What did you do?,’ do you think they’re going to say, ‘I was at a hockey game’? They’re going to say, ‘I was at a movie.’”
When Horn was a child, his family moved eight times before settling near Riverhead, on Long Island, as he started ninth grade. “I was always a little unsure about being in a new environment and getting to know people,” he said. Horn became best friends with the quarterback of the high-school football team, a burly kid named Howard Gassert. “He was the captain of the football team, basketball team, baseball team,” says Horn. “His friendship was a great thing for me because he was like the big jock, the accepted guy, and I wasn’t.”
Horn’s family weren’t movie buffs. “We didn’t know anything about anything,” he tells me. “My parents were always working, working two jobs. But I remember going to Bambi. And I’m not saying that just because I’m here. Bambi killed me. I cried. ‘Mother, mother?’ Fantastic. I loved those early Disney movies. But then you got older and saw things like The House of Wax in 1954. Warner Bros.’ first 3-D horror movie. It was the scariest thing I’d ever seen in my life. I was in my mid-40s before I got past it. I still remember it vividly.”
At Union College in Schenectady, New York, Horn studied electrical engineering. “In my junior year the professor came to me, in lab on Saturday, and said, ‘What are you doing?’ And I said, ‘Well, I’m trying to hook up the—’ And he said, ‘No, I know what the lab is about. What are you doing in this program? You seem like a nice enough fellow and you must be good at something, although nothing comes to mind. But it isn’t this.’ And I quit the program that Monday and transferred to economics. I was happier doing that.”
Horn oversees the Disney juggernaut of studios including Pixar, Marvel, Lucasfilm, 20th Century Studios, and Searchlight Pictures.
His next stop was the air force, where he learned to fly, only to find that a medical issue with his eyes meant he wouldn’t be flying for the air force. He rose to captain, then enrolled in Harvard Business School. M.B.A. in hand, he went to work for Procter & Gamble, where he became a brand manager for Ivory soap. “It was my lowest financial-job offer,” Horn says. “Which was hard because I owed Harvard a bunch of money and I owed Union a bunch of money. I borrowed everywhere to get to school. And it took me 15 years to pay it all off. I went with Procter & Gamble because the man interviewing me told me, ‘I know a secret about you that only you know—I know that you know that you don’t really know anything, because you’re a freshly minted M.B.A. And we will teach you how to run a business.’”
Next stop: Hollywood. It was the early 1970s. Horn was talking to a friend from the military who mentioned that a guy named Jerry Perenchio was working with Bud Yorkin and Norman Lear in an entertainment outfit called Tandem Productions. “‘Maybe you’d like to meet Jerry Perenchio,’ my friend says.
“During my interview, Perenchio asks me, ‘Have you ever wanted to be in the entertainment industry?’ And I say, ‘No, Mr. Perenchio, I can’t say that I have.’ He says, ‘Do you watch television?’ I say, ‘No, sir. I’m working pretty hard.’ He says, ‘Movies?’ ‘I’m pretty busy, Mr. Perenchio.’ He says, ‘Do you know anyone in the entertainment industry?’ I say, ‘May I count you?’ He says, ‘No.’ I say, ‘No, sir. I don’t.’ ‘Ever been to Los Angeles?’ ‘No, Mr. Perenchio.’ He says, ‘You’re perfect. You’re hired.’ And he changed my life.
“Jerry never talked about himself,” says Horn. “Never bragged. He had that sign on his desk: There’s no limit to how far a man will go if he doesn’t mind if he gets the credit.”
How to Make an Impression
Horn learned the TV business and found himself attending the live tapings of groundbreaking, progressive sitcoms such as All in the Family, Sanford and Son, Maude, and Good Times, which Tandem was producing. “The networks, of course, threatened to not put them on,” says Horn. “You can imagine what the standards-and-practices people were thinking when they picked up the script and read these things. And Norman threatened to leave. He threatened to walk, and he threatened and threatened, and they caved.”
“Norman, he’s now 97,” adds Horn, “and he just signed a three-year deal with Sony. True story.”
While Lear and Yorkin were teaching Horn how to make TV, Perenchio was teaching him how to make an impression. “One morning Mr. Perenchio asked me to pick him up at his house and drive him to work, because his car, a powder-blue 1967 Mercedes, was in the shop,” says Horn. “I remember thinking, Maybe he doesn’t have that much money—he can’t afford a new one. I didn’t know it was a classic car. I was driving a 1964 Austin-Healey 3000. It was aging, it had rust, the muffler had come off, it was unbelievably loud. After work Jerry said, ‘You’ve got to drive me home. My car’s not ready yet.’ As I’m leaving his house, we’re having a glass of wine, and he says, ‘One more thing. Tomorrow go out and buy any car in the world. Don’t get a Rolls-Royce or a Bentley. That wouldn’t embarrass me, but it would embarrass you. And just have them call me.’” Horn chose a dark-gray Mercedes 450SL convertible with black upholstery.
Perenchio, who would become a multi-billionaire before he died in 2017 (his 10-acre Bel Air estate, Chartwell, was listed for $350 million), “taught me the business side and Lear taught me the creative side,” says Horn. “I made mistakes along the way. I negotiated a deal for an actor, whom I shall not name, but it was an important deal. And I made a serious mistake in that actor’s compensation that would have gotten that actor compensation in perpetuity. I realized it after the agent left. And I called the agent, Jack Gilardi, and he said, ‘I told my client I’m not changing it. Why should I change it?’ And I said, ‘Nobody does what you just heard me do, and obviously I made a mistake,’ blah, blah. And he said, ‘Are you in the power to make the deal?’ And I said, ‘Yes, but … ’ He said, ‘Then I’m through talking,’ and hangs up.
“I go to see Mr. Perenchio,” continues Horn, “and I say, ‘I made this mistake.’ He calls Jack Gilardi on speakerphone. And the conversation is like, ‘Jack, you know, this kid’s 31 years old. He’s been in the business for two years. He’s just learning it. You know damn well you took advantage of him.’ ‘I didn’t take advantage of him.’ Back and forth. And then Gilardi says, ‘Give me one good goddamned reason that I should call my client and renegotiate this.’ And Perenchio says, ‘Because I’m Italian.’ And Gilardi says, ‘O.K.’” Horn smiled. “Fantastic.”
Every weeknight and Saturday, Horn was teaching Tae Kwon Do at a studio he’d opened with an instructor from Korea. In 1982 he married his wife, Cindy—then a model and actor—and in 1987 he founded Castle Rock Entertainment with Rob Reiner, Martin Shafer, Andrew Scheinman, and Glenn Padnick. “Alan had the business sense—he was the guy who could go meet with the bank,” says Reiner. “But he also has great creative instincts.”
They went on to make films such as When Harry Met Sally, Misery, The Shawshank Redemption, and A Few Good Men. Horn suggested they get into television, and they took a chance on a stand-up comedian named Jerry Seinfeld who had an idea for a sitcom; Seinfeld would earn Castle Rock a reported $1.5 billion.
Warner Bros. hired Horn as president in 1999. “At Castle Rock we were very close, all of us. It wasn’t me. It was us,” says Horn. “We’d sit around together and decide to make movies. With Warner Bros., I knew I was going into a big, corporate major-studio situation. So I had a legal clause put in that said I had the right to say yes or no to a movie. I didn’t want to have that debate with someone I didn’t know. And they had to think about that for a few weeks. And [chairman] Barry Meyer said, ‘It’s O.K. with me.’
“They were great about it. I remember in V for Vendetta, they blow up Parliament. And I thought, You know, this could be a sensitive issue. So I went to Barry Meyer and I said, ‘Look, you may get letters about this, and I want you to know about it, and if you think it’s going to be a problem for the company, I won’t do it.’ And he said, ‘No, do it. Do what you want to do.’”
Knowing the Environment
Outside of the studio, Horn devotes a great deal of energy to environmental causes. In a town notoriously filled with Oscar-winning climate enthusiasts, Horn directs the behind-the-scenes movement as chair of the Natural Resources Defense Council.
“Alan was the critical person to break us into Southern California,” says N.R.D.C. co-founder John Adams. “He made it his business to meet me. He took me to meet with every studio head in town. And our work is growing so fast—we’ve got 100 lawsuits against Donald Trump—and Alan is with us all the way. In terms of leadership on the climate issue, I would rank Alan with Redford, Leo DiCaprio, and Laurie David. And another thing about Alan: he keeps friends.” In 2014 and 2016, Horn and his wife hosted Democratic fundraisers featuring Barack Obama and studded with the likes of Julia Roberts, Jeffrey Katzenberg, Barbra Streisand, J. J. Abrams, and Julia Louis-Dreyfus at their home.
Inside of Disney, Horn says, his long run has given him an edge in meetings with Disney’s array of directors.
“We can argue for days on different creative matters,” he says. “And in that argument, the heat rises, and sometimes people can get extremely upset, and they can disagree, and they can tell me that they hate the idea, or why my take on it is wrong. But what they can’t say is ‘Well, what do you know?’” He points at his chest. “Because too many years. They can’t say that. They can’t say, ‘Well, what do you know?’”
Peter Stevenson is a writer based in Los Angeles