Will Alan Horn miss Warner Bros. as much as the studio misses him?
It's no secret that Hollywood is an industry dominated by latte-sipping, Prius-driving, Obama-supporting liberals. But at most film studios, the executives usually check their politics at the door, happily making movies that are loaded with as much violence and foul language as any NASCAR race. But during most of Alan Horn's nearly 11-year tenure as president of Warner Bros. -- a reign that will come to a close in April when he passes the torch to Jeff Robinov -- there has been little doubt about how much the studio's movies have reflected Horn's personal values.
In the Horn era, smoking in films was largely verboten. Bad language was kept to a minimum. Violence was always under scrutiny. After Horn saw Martin Scorsese's first cut of "The Departed," he told the filmmaker how much he admired the movie, but quickly turned the conversation toward a couple of particularly violent scenes that the studio chief wanted toned down. Horn was not shy. He even once called up John Travolta to ask why the actor had to chain-smoke in one of the studio's thrillers.
When I had lunch with Horn one day I asked if it was really true that he'd blown a gasket when he read a script for one of his action films that had one of its heroes driving a Hummer. Well, he hadn't exactly blown a gasket, since Horn is a soft-spoken guy who rarely raises his voice. But yes, Horn said, it was true that he'd called one of his production execs and suggested they find another car. In a classic example of Horn's concern for balancing art and commerce, he didn't insist that the hero drive a Prius. After all, it was an action movie. So the hero drove a Porsche.
In the last couple of years, Horn, who is in his mid-60s, began to back off, deferring a little more to the sensibilities of his younger executives. He was not a huge fan of the raunchy humor in "The Hangover," but it was a film Robinov pushed hard to make, and one, Horn freely admits, that led to a huge financial windfall for the studio. To Horn, running the studio has always been a balancing act. He wanted to do the right thing but he also saw himself as a corporate steward of the Warner Bros. brand, so doing the right thing has to be somehow in harmony with contributing to the bottom line.
Perhaps that's why, if Horn leaves a legacy at the studio, it will be one largely reflected by the array of Big Event movies the studio released. When we talked Thursday morning, he spoke of having dual accomplishments.
"I'd like to think I contributed to creating an environment that made Warners a highly desirable place to work, because a big part of the joy in making movies is the pleasure of working with so many good people," he said. "But I'm also proud of having a role in creating our Big Event strategy. When I came to the studio in 1999, we only had one event film, 'The Perfect Storm.' And over the years, we've evolved to the point where we first had two or three a year and now to the point where we have six or seven each year."
Horn has never been comfortable with cutting-edge movies. One studio rival liked to joke that "the kind of movie Alan most likes to make is the four-quadrant movie." In a way that's true, since if you pressed Horn to name his favorite Warners films, they'd largely be PG-13 comedies, thrillers and family-oriented entertainment, be it the hugely successful "Harry Potter" and "Ocean's Eleven" series, the Chris Nolan-directed Batman films, "Get Smart," "Sherlock Holmes" or family films like "Happy Feet" and "Charlie and the Chocolate Family."
In a word, Horn was always looking for crowd-pleasers. He was perhaps the first studio chief to get out of the specialty film business, closing down Warner Independent Films, largely because WIP, with the exception of "March of the Penguins," made dark, often downbeat movies he didn't like. When I asked Horn about his biggest regrets, they were virtually all examples of more problematic films that were out of his taste range. He initially passed on "Million Dollar Baby," forcing Clint Eastwood to find outside financing for the film that went on to win the Oscar for best picture.
"I didn't embrace it," he admits. "We eventually made it, but I wish I'd seen it as clearly as Clint did." Horn also passed on making "Traffic," another Oscar-lauded film that was directed by Steven Soderbergh, who later became a fixture at Warners, making its popular "Oceans Eleven" series, along with films like "The Informant!" "It was a mistake," Horn says. "If we'd done 'Traffic,' we would've had a relationship with Soderbergh even earlier."
But Horn's mistakes were few and far between. Over the past decade, Warners has been the most consistently profitable studio in the business. In 2009, its domestic division has its best year ever, earning a record $2.13 billion at the box office. It takes a lot of Big Event pictures to make that kind of money, but under Horn's stewardship, no one has none a better job of making Big Event pictures than Warners.
Horn was, at heart, a businessman who grew to appreciate the craft involved in picking, nurturing and making good movies. He was always leery of veering too far from the mainstream, because he believed that his customers -- the moviegoers -- were most comfortable with mass appeal entertainment. When I'd sometimes call to complain about a particularly dreadful film -- like this summer's "Clash of the Titans" -- Horn would always remind me of how much money it had made around the world. If it was so bad, he'd say, why did so many people flock to see it?
Still, the movies Horn loved the best were the ones that earned critical plaudits -- and made a lot of money too. He was always concerned about what he called "the shield," the logo that people see at the beginning of a Warners film.
"We don't have a brand like Pixar that instantly grabs people," he told me Thursday. "But I'd like to think that the shield stands for quality of product. If we make a drama, it should be compelling. If we make a comedy, it should be funny. All we've really tried to do while I've been here is make first-class entertainment."
Photo: Clint Eastwood with Cindy and Alan Horn at a Geffen Playhouse gala dinner. Credit: Alex J. Berliner / BE Images