On Oct. 18, a special guest visited Professor Cheri Steinkellner’s Film Studies Hollywood Industry class. Alan Horn, the Chairman of Walt Disney Studios and former President of Warner Bros. Entertainment, delved into his life’s work through personal anecdotes, a sizzle reel of upcoming Disney movies, descriptions of the studios and solid advice.
Once onstage, Horn responded to the audience’s applause with a statement of gratitude: “Thank you for being here, you could be at a movie instead!” This set the easygoing and appreciative tone of his talk. Horn’s interview began with disclosure about his childhood and changing career paths. Horn came from a relatively poor family, moved several times and enjoyed what he called a “modest upbringing” on the East Coast. Far from the entertainment industry, down-to-earth Horn was “not knowledgeable about film” and originally studied to become an electrical engineer.
In his young adult years, Horn’s dream was to fly as a pilot in the Air Force, but growing eye problems derailed his course. Horn left his dream behind him and returned to college, enrolling in a marketing program at Harvard Business School. Meanwhile, Horn worked at a singles bar, where, on one opportune night, he met a man who would lead him to his first job in the entertainment industry. Reflecting on the unexpected unraveling of his adult life, Horn said, “I think serendipity plays a surprisingly important role in your life. I had no idea where I would go … You have an event happen to you and you think ‘This is awful,’ and it turns out to be the best thing in your life.”
Horn has spent 40 years in the entertainment business guiding the creative operations of Walt Disney Studios, Warner Bros. Entertainment, Castle Rock Entertainment, Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation and the Environmental Media Association.
As the President of Warner Bros. from 1999 until 2011, Horn oversaw the production of all eight “Harry Potter” films. “It was great fun. I just can’t tell you how exciting it was in the beginning — figuring out how Hogwarts looked, creating the sets, casting. And I loved the books, they killed me.” He had to approve the casting for all of the main characters, and fondly remembered the director giving him four options for Harry, four options for Ron and only one option for Hermione. “Out of the U.K., Ireland and Wales, they could only find one kid who could play Hermione Granger. She was incredible, just fantastic.” And about Daniel Radcliffe’s blue eyes, he lamented, “We cast him, but he had blue eyes. So we gave him contacts, but he couldn’t do it. He was 11. And to use CGI to alter his eye color for every frame, we calculated it would cost a total of 1.5 million dollars.”
Horn detailed his transfer from Walt Disney Studios and Warner Bros., and joked with the crowd that in the beginning, he thought, “I mean, from [Bugs] Bunny to [Mickey] Mouse, how hard can this be?” In Horn’s perspective, the Disney culture is very different from the inner workings of Warner Bros. The most obvious difference is that the shining talents of Warner Bros. are human actors, while the stars of Disney are animated, anthropomorphic animals. Additionally, Disney appears to be more relaxed, demonstrated by the looser dress code of casual wear.
As the new Chairman of Disney, Horn supervises the operations of major franchise businesses such as Pixar, Marvel and Lucasfilm. Horn described the happy ambiance of Pixar Animation Studios: “They have a full-size soccer court, they wear jeans and a t-shirt and they give each other hugs … a lot. They have a chef, they have a chef!” Contrastingly, Marvel appears to be rigid and focused. Of Marvel, Horn said, “Now we’re in Sparta. It’s a very disciplined work environment.” The most recent addition to the Disney family, Lucasfilm, plans on releasing new Star Wars films starting in 2015. Horn described Lucasfilm’s office campus in San Francisco as a “beautiful wood building with high ceilings, glass everywhere and rugs, many rugs. Then there’s this two foot tall statue of Yoda. And it’s not uncommon for people to end a meeting and say, ‘May the force be with you.’ And what do you say to that? I say, ‘And with you, brother.’”
For aspiring entertainment executives, Horn advised, “You can start on the business side, but you have to develop an understanding of the creative process. The business line and the creative line must meet.” Horn asserted that three-quarters of the operations at Disney Studios is creative.
What’s next for Disney? Surprised that “Snow White and the Huntsman” was not a Disney movie, but a Universal Studios film, Horn was inspired to take the lead with new live-action remakes of quintessential Disney films. A remake of the 1950-version Cinderella is being directed by the classically-trained British actor Kenneth Branagh, whom Horn worked with at Castle Rock Entertainment. Horn has also worked with the whimsical Helena Bonham Carter who will play Cinderella’s fairy godmother.
“It has to be fabulous, and the fantasy has to be really funny … I want this to be great and I think it will be,” Horn said.
Spinning off of another old classic, Disney is also filming “Maleficent,” a retelling of the Sleeping Beauty tale from the side of the villain. Playing the character Maleficent is the sultry Angelina Jolie, whom Horn characterized as, “sensational — Angie projects strength, beauty, power; she’s just phenomenal.”
Nearing the end of the interview, Horn gave final words of advice directly to UCSB students. “You can’t make a mistake, no matter what you do after UCSB. You can’t make a mistake because you’re young, you have plenty of time [and] you have the flexibility of having your whole life ahead of you. So adventure. Take a chance.” Horn then paraphrased Harry Potter author J.K. Rowling, saying, “Jo said a good thing about failure: Failure is not only necessary, but it’s important. If you don’t venture out, you won’t have lived at all.”
The Film 54: Hollywood Industry class is offered quarterly by the Film & Media Studies Department and taught by Professor Cheri Steinkellner, who generously allows students of any major to enroll. As a two-unit class every Friday from 5-6:50 p.m., Hollywood Industry provides an inspiring opportunity to meet the key players — executives, directors, writers, actors, make-up artists, lyricists, comedians — in the entertainment industry who visit us from Los Angeles. With Professor Steinkellner as a moderator, these role models share their life experiences as human beings who possess the admirable qualities of courage, thoughtfulness and solid work ethic. Hollywood Industry is a hidden gem in UCSB’s crown of opportunities: the immense honor of acquiring unique life advice and of broadening one’s scope into the adult world of business and creativity.
A version of this article appeared on page 9 of the Thursday, October 24, 2013 print edition of the Daily Nexus.