The Big Picture

Patrick Goldstein and James Rainey
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Alan Horn on leaving Warners: They offered me a going-away party but I didn't want it

March 31, 2011 |  2:03 pm

Alan_horn It's the beginning of baseball season, but it's the end of a long Hollywood season for Alan Horn, who ends his 12-year reign as head of the Warner Bros. motion picture group this week. When we sat down to talk the other day, Horn, 68, was clearly feeling ambivalent about his exit, which is usually the way top executives feel when the big corporate boss -- in this case, Jeff Bewkes -- tells them their time is up.

"It wasn't my decision," he told me. "They wanted to have a succession plan in place, so the timing was theirs -- meaning Jeff Bewkes and Barry Meyer. At the end of the day, I'm just an employee. Every dog has his day and I had a very good run. They offered to throw a going-away party, but I didn't want it. As I like to say, and I say this with a smile, they wanted younger and arguably better-looking management. I helped give Jeff Robinov a lot of responsibilities and now it's his time to run things."

When you gauge a studio chief's record, you usually just look at the movies he made. But Horn also had a big effect when it came to what you might call his films' social content. An ardent environmentalist who prodded the studio into converting much of its diesel truck fleet to Priuses and installed solar panels on a number of buildings across the lot, Horn gave the thumbs-down to characters in scripts who were driving Hummers, frowned on unnecessary nudity and dirty language and fought to keep smoking out of most of the studio's films.

To his credit, he didn't just put pressure on some first-time filmmaker. When Horn saw an early cut of Martin Scorsese's "The Departed," which went on to win an Oscar for best picture, he was appalled by a scene that featured Jack Nicholson having sex and doing cocaine. Horn talked to Scorsese and Nicholson and persuaded the twosome that the movie could survive without it.

"I spent an hour on the phone with Jack," Horn recalls. "I'm a huge fan of his work and we had a very frank discussion about art and morality and other issues. If he had said, 'No, I think the scene has to stay,' I don't know what I would have done. But at the end of the day, he said OK, we can take it out. There were lots of scenes I was willing to leave alone, because they were appropriate to the context of a film, but when something felt gratuitous, I thought it was my role to voice my opinion about it."   

I didn't always agree with Horn's taste in films, which I guess is a nice way of saying that I don't think the films he greenlit at Warners were any better than the raft of forgettable films churned out by any studio. Horn's legacy as a studio chief will largely hinge on his efforts to direct Warners' focus toward the international end of the movie business and the record profits he achieved for the studio. When he took over at Warners in 1999, the studio would occasionally make a Big Event movie, but it wasn't an integral part of the studio's release strategy. Now the studio releases five or six tent pole movies each year, a number that could rise to seven or eight in the next few years.

It was Horn who pushed the studio to ramp up its Big Event films, presiding over the windfall profits that derived from its "Harry Potter" and "Batman" franchises, as well as the "Matrix" and "Oceans 11" series. There were plenty of clunkers along the way -- remember "Pluto Nash" and "Body of Lies"? But Horn realized that Hollywood's splashy, special-effects driven action adventure films gave it a competitive advantage in the overseas market, which was, with America already being saturated with multiplexes, the sole remaining growth area in the theatrical business.

When it comes to comedy or drama, it's hard to compete with local productions -- audiences in Japan, Germany or Italy would rather see a story about familiar characters and settings in their own language. But when it comes to larger-than-life visual effects and comic-book superheroes, those countries don't have the cinematic resources to compete with Hollywood.

"We had the capacity, the infrastructure and the economic staying power to make films that most other countries didn't have the size or scope to handle," Horn explains. "That gave us a real competitive advantage. On the level of a $5-million drama, the audience would probably pick its own locally made movie that was specific to its culture. But when it came to a big visually oriented action and adventure film with big movie stars, no one could match what we could do."

If you looked at the business in a bottom-line way, you can see why Warners made such a hash out of its Warner Independent Pictures specialty division. WIP made low-budget dramas that might occasionally find a small audience in the U.S., but rarely had any ability to make a bigger impact overseas. It was the Big Event movies that allowed Warners to use its marketing and distribution muscle to maximum effect.

Horn admits that he couldn't justify the meager profit potential for smaller films. "My feeling has always been -- this isn't my money. It belongs to the Time-Warner shareholders. And if a shareholder walked in and asked, 'What are doing making those pictures with my money? Why not leave that business to other people?' I didn't have a very good answer."

When I asked Horn what he would miss the most about running a studio, he said it would be the people. Not just the filmmakers he'd grown close to, like Clint Eastwood, whom he called "the coolest guy on the planet." But the people who make the Warners machinery hum. "There were a lot of people who really contributed to the success that I often would get credit for," he says. "They are the unsung heroes."

He fell silent for a moment, his eyes looking a bit watery. "If you go into the studio on the weekend when it's quiet and there isn't much work going on, you realize that it's just buildings. What makes the difference is the people. Without them, we'd be nowhere. With them, we could do anything. So I'll miss the movies but I'll miss the relationships even more." 

-- Patrick Goldstein

Photo: Warner Bros. president Alan Horn at an awards gala earlier this year in New York.

Credit: Justin Lane/European Pressphoto Agency