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Disney’s Horn finds hits of future – Rare H’wood exec uses low key approach, keen creative vision

Indian Bollywood actress Aishwarya Rai Bachchan (right), and Indian tennis player Sania Mirza pose as they attend the ‘NRI of the Year Awards-2016’ in Mumbai on April 11. (AFP)
Indian Bollywood actress Aishwarya Rai Bachchan (right), and Indian tennis player Sania Mirza pose as they attend the ‘NRI of the Year Awards-2016’ in Mumbai on April 11. (AFP)

LOS ANGELES, April 12, (RTRS): If Disney’s Burbank headquarters suggests the look of a whimsical, post-modern Parthenon, with columns styled as giant “Snow White” dwarves, then a sixth-floor screening room might be the building’s most sacred shrine. At least to Walt Disney Studios chairman Alan Horn. It’s to a modest, three-row theater that the man who oversees Disney’s hit-making factory retreats to get an early look at the would-be blockbuster movies of tomorrow, from “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” and “Captain America: Civil War” to “The Jungle Book” and “Finding Dory.” Horn comes to the theater carrying only two possessions: a totemic brand of pencil (more on that later) and a notepad. “I get to look at the very, very first cut,” he says, pausing to relish the thought. “That is heaven for me.”

The humble trappings belie the status of one of the most powerful figures in media. His position at the forefront of US culture was evident as recently as April 7, when he hosted President Obama at a lavish fundraiser at his Bel Air home. The event, priced at $33,400 per couple, drew heavyweights including Julia Roberts, Gwyneth Paltrow and Horn’s boss, Walt Disney Co CEO Robert Iger.

Though Horn is too circumspect to say it, the exhilaration at his achievements must be heightened because of the long and (briefly) fraught path that brought him to this place. The man now celebrated as the rare Hollywood executive who is both successful and beloved almost got run off in his first foray into the creative side of the business more than 30 years ago. Then, after a dozen years Horn spent cementing Warner Bros as a dominant force in the ferociously competitive film business, Time Warner boss Jeff Bewkes sent him packing in 2011, for no apparent reason other than his age. Horn was 68.

Horn hesitates to dwell much on the loss of his job as Warner president and chief operating officer but recalls it as “painful” and “hurtful.” In a rare break from his usual reserve, he even betrays how the episode estranged him from his longtime colleague, former Warner Bros chairman Barry Meyer. “I was in partnership with him running the place for almost 12 years, then he went on alone. So good for him,” says Horn, with a dismissive wave of his hand. “He is now retired.”

Believing his time atop the Hollywood ziggurat had expired, Horn was devastated, according to one close friend. But then, a year later, Iger jettisoned studio boss Rich Ross, who had alienated many of those around him, and put Horn in charge.

“I had the good fortune to convince Alan to come out of retirement by sharing my belief that we could form a partnership and a friendship that would not only result in our studio doing well, but also in the two of us having a good time along the way,” Iger says. “And that’s exactly what happened. The studio’s recent success is a result of Alan’s experience, talent and great leadership.”

Grateful

Horn, the son of a New York bookie, is an Air Force veteran and holder of a Harvard MBA who has overseen a run of box office winners that has made Disney the envy of the entertainment world. “I’m very happy to have had a chance to rewrite my ending, if you will,” says Horn, 73. “I am grateful for that opportunity. It’s been a great four years.”

Underscoring that the job is the coda to a distinguished career: When it was announced April 5 that Disney COO Thomas Staggs, the presumed heir to Iger’s position, would exit in May, Horn’s name was not mentioned as an eventual choice for CEO. It’s thought the job will go to an exec with experience overseeing other areas, such as TV or digital, and who is further away from retirement. (Initial speculation centered around Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg, a Disney board member.)

Horn discusses his life at Disney in a homey office, full of tchotchkes from decades in Hollywood — an Orc-detecting sword, a gift from “Hobbit” director Peter Jackson; a collage honoring his taekwondo teaching days in the 1970s; a sculpture of himself as a “Star Wars” stormtrooper.

Horn won’t begin to talk about himself until he has mentioned many others whom he credits with Disney’s success, including studio president Alan Bergman and, especially, Iger. He describes a devotion so deep, he would “take a bullet” for the chief executive he calls “the commanding general of all allied forces.”

Horn’s job puts him in charge of three powerhouse units — Marvel, Pixar and Lucasfilm — that Iger acquired over the past decade and collectively produce at least five tentpole films a year. Throw in Disney Animation, reinvigorated under the leadership of Pixar’s John Lasseter and Ed Catmull, and the studio can count another couple of films annually that contend for blockbuster status.

In 2015, Disney earned almost half of all profits in the film industry, nearly $2.5 billion of $5.2 billion. “That’s a crazy level of success,” says Cowen and Co analyst Doug Creutz. Jeff Bock, an analyst with Exhibitor Relations, adds that under Horn, things just keep getting better for Disney, leaving those at the other studios to fight over the scraps. “That has Hollywood in a place that it isn’t used to being,” Bock notes, “saying: ‘How do we get a chance to come in second place?’”

It’s a heady affirmation for a studio leader who was among the first to champion the strategy of building revenue around tentpole franchises, with their myriad merchandising spinoffs. So what continues to drive Horn, with two years left on his contract and an anticipated retirement at age 75?

Not content to merely ride the Pixar-Marvel-Lucasfilm rocket ship, as much as he has a solid hand in the subsidiaries’ films, he is also pushing — hard — for Disney’s own big live-action offerings to pull their weight in the company’s rivalrous cinematic universe. And, yes, he believes there’s a need to find hits that don’t necessarily spring from a known fairy tale or comic book.

“The life blood of any company is fresh IP,” Horn says. “And I believe that we have to have the courage to take chances, or we will never come up with anything really fresh.”

Not that the avuncular Horn, dressed in sweater and open-neck shirt for a lengthy interview, is ready to eschew the potential riches that come with built-in franchises. “But I will say that it makes a lot more sense for us,” he adds, “when those things fit within the overall brand identity of the Walt Disney Co.”

What experience has taught him is that films that don’t pass a twin test (Do I have to see it now? Do I have to see it in a theater?) don’t deserve a greenlight. And, given a few recent losses, budgets on small films must be kept even smaller. Horn and many critics liked 2014’s “Million Dollar Arm” and “McFarland, USA” (2015) but, at roughly $30 million apiece to make, the two multiculti sports-based character studies had to gross more than $70 million each to turn a profit, according to one Disney exec. Both films lost money. Consequently, director Mira Nair’s drama “Queen of Katwe,” coming out later this year with Lupita Nyong’o as the mother of a Ugandan chess champion, got a greenlight with a budget of $15 million.

Horn’s urge to find the next Disney hit is as immediate as the April 15 debut of “The Jungle Book.” Yes, it’s a redo of the 1967 animated classic. But, practically since he arrived at studio, he’s pushed for a darker, more “muscular” retelling, one he recalls from his boyhood reading of Rudyard Kipling’s 19th century story. He lured director Jon Favreau to the project, and — inspired by films like “Life of Pi” and “Avatar” — called for the creation of a new world.

Also:

LOS ANGELES: Disney is developing a sequel to “The Jungle Book,” which opens Friday in the US. The studio is talks with director Jon Favreau and screenwriter Justin Marks to return for “Jungle Book 2.” Disney’s also negotiating with Favreau and Brigham Taylor to return as producers.

The live-action-CG hybrid is expected to dominate the domestic market this weekend. Critics have embraced the movie with some of the best reviews of the year for a studio production.

“The Jungle Book” grossed $28.9 million during the past weekend in a number of Asian and Latin American territories, including $7.6 million from India, the second highest industry opening for an American release. It also grossed $6.2 million in Russia, $2.6 million in Australia. Besides the US launch on Friday, “The Jungle Book” will also debut this weekend in China, Brazil, France and Mexico.

The movie is based on the Rudyard Kipling stories about Mowgli, an abandoned human boy who becomes friends with jungle animals after being raised by wolves. Disney released an animated version in 1967.

Favreau’s film includes Bill Murray voicing Baloo the bear, Ben Kingsley as Begheera the panther, Scarlet Johansson as Kaa the snake and Lupita Nyong’o as Raksha the mother wolf. Newcomer Neel Sethi stars as Mowgli. Kipling’s “The Jungle Book” is a collection of stories published in magazines in 1893-94. The works are in the public domain.

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