Interview with Alan Horn (MBA ’71), Chairman of The Walt Disney Studios
Alan Horn (HBS ’71) may be the humblest man in Hollywood. This might not be what you’d expect from one of the most influential figures in the film and television industry, and one of the individuals responsible for shaping much of what we’ve watched on screens over the past four decades.
Sincere and thoughtfully-spoken, Horn is well suited to his current role as chairman of The Walt Disney Studios, and has become known for his sentimental reactions to screenings and his deep attachment to movies (“I just love pictures”). Outside of his professional achievements, Horn serves as an inspiration to HBS students – not simply because of his quiet meteoric rise to the top – but for his consistent dedication to the causes he believes in. Horn serves as vice chair of the Natural Resources Defense Council, where he’ll take over as chair in 2018. As the proud father of two daughters, one of his current priorities is helping oversee Disney’s move to empower an entire new generation of female lead protagonists through the re-creation of classic films such as Cinderella and Beauty and the Beast through modern media. “We’re not simply remaking the movies, we’re retelling them in a way that empowers the lead protagonists”, he explains. “I love what we can do. It’s important.”
Similarly, it is evident how much his time at Harvard Business School meant to him – a place that Horn admits “changed my life”. A recipient of the HBS Alumni Achievement Award in 2016, Horn regularly gives back to the school however he can, serving on the HBS Board of Dean’s Advisors, attending classes to speak to students, and – quite possibly – agreeing to this interview (his preference for discretion and maintaining a low-key profile ordinarily renders him press-shy).
But perhaps the most powerful testimony of Horn’s affinity with Harvard Business School is revealed by the fact that he still counts some of his HBS classmates as his dearest friends – proof in his view, of the sense of comradery and bonding that is formed from “being dropped in the deep end” and finding friends with whom you can learn to swim.
In the course of his lengthy career, Horn has served as President and COO of Warner Brothers (where he was responsible for the Harry Potter series, Batman Begins, The Dark Knight, amongst other blockbusters); President and COO of Twentieth Century Fox; and Co-Founder of Castle Rock Entertainment (the studio’s first movie was When Harry Met Sally, with ensuing hits including The Shawshank Redemption, and TV series, Seinfeld). Horn’s multifaceted role at Disney currently has him overseeing the production, distribution, and marketing of Disney’s sprawling empire of animated and live-action films worldwide – including Disney, Pixar Animation Studios, Marvel Studios, and Lucasfilm – the latter earning him the nickname “Jedi in Chief” in a 2015 Financial Times article. He also oversees Disney’s music and theatrical stage divisions.
Despite all this, Horn’s career does not necessarily tread the traditional path of someone who was destined for the bright lights of Hollywood. Famously recruited into the industry without any prior film or television experience, it was a serendipitous meeting with industry luminary Jerry Perenchio (whom he always refers to ‘Mr. Perenchio’) that persuaded him to take a leap of faith into the unknown. Over time, both Perenchio and his partner – the legendary Norman Lear – would play formative roles in helping Horn become the industry heavyweight he is today. Their careful stewardship over 12 years not only taught him the deal-making skills he needed to thrive in the industry, but helped him cultivate the artistic sensitivities that he needed to earn credibility amongst “the creatives”.
It is against this backdrop that we pick up the phone to call Horn’s LA office on a busy Wednesday afternoon. We later discover that our telephone appointment is scheduled between a meeting with The Walt Disney Company Chairman and CEO Bob Iger and a meeting with Chief Creative Officer of Walt Disney and Pixar Animation Studios John Lasseter. “I’m afraid he’s running a tiny bit late”, his assistant apologizes. “Would it be OK to delay by ten minutes?”
It is of course more than fine, Mr. Horn.
Precisely ten minutes later, a familiar voice picks up the line. “Ladies, I’m so sorry. We’re having a bit of a fire drill here. If we get cut off by my next meeting, let’s make sure we speak again afterwards. Now tell me, how can I be helpful to you?”
And with that, our interview begins, first by tracing back the journey that brought him to Harvard Business School.
Take us back to your path to HBS. What led you here?
I began at Union College in New York as an electrical engineering student. To be clear – I was a bad electrical engineering student. One Saturday morning, I remember being in the lab, when the professor came over to me and said: “Alan, what are you doing?” “Well professor, I’m working on my lab experiment” “No – I know what you are doing right now, but I mean, what are you doing in this program? You seem like a nice enough kid, and you must be good at something – though nothing comes to mind. But it certainly isn’t this.” The very next Monday I switched my major to economics. Because of that, I came out of Union College without a particular undergraduate discipline. I thought I’d perhaps make a career in the Air Force and I became a captain, but an issue with my right eye set aside any thought of a long-term career there.
At around the same time, my older brother was graduating from Wharton, and was extolling the virtues of an MBA. He suggested I try going back to school, so I took that advice and decided to apply.
Arriving at HBS, did you have a clear career path in mind? Did you find that HBS changed you in any way?
HBS shaped everything for me. I came to the school as a blank slate. Yes, I had a degree in economics, but it was just a fallback. And I knew I didn’t want to be an electrical engineer. At first, I was surprised that I got into HBS, and was convinced I was an admissions mistake. I remember the Dean then saying: ‘I know that some of you are sitting there and thinking you’re an admissions mistake, but this is Harvard, and we don’t make mistakes’. So, I thought okay, I’ll be open to any career path that makes sense to me.
As you know, the first year is all required courses, but in the second year, I kind of drifted towards the marketing end of the spectrum. I knew I didn’t too much care about going to Wall Street. So, I found myself led to Procter and Gamble, who gave a compelling argument to my newly minted MBA self. They basically said: ‘we know a secret, and that secret is that we know, that you know, that you don’t really know very much about anything. But we at P&G will teach you how to run a business. You’ll run a brand and gain experience that will be in a sense, like another degree, post-MBA.’ That sounded compelling to me, so I joined.
In that case, did you always know that the move to Procter and Gamble was only going to be a short-term learning opportunity? Did you know that you wouldn’t end up there in the long-run?
No, I thought there was certainly a possibility that I’d stay at Procter and Gamble. The company taught me a lot of great business skills. But there was a certain rigidity to the environment. I remember arriving at my desk one day, and all of my photographs on my desk had been replace
d and moved away. I was just thinking how that wasn’t very nice, when all of a sudden, I realized that I’d got off on the wrong floor. The thing was, all the floors just looked so identical. It was an easy thing to do. Not long after that, I met the impresario that is Jerry Perenchio, who was a total business genius. He interviewed me five times. And in my fifth interview, the conversation went something like this:
“Let me get this straight, have you ever wanted to be in the entertainment business?” “No, Mr. Perenchio.”
“Do you watch movies?” “No, sir, not too much.”
“Do you watch television?” “Not too often, Mr. Perenchio.” “Do you know anyone in the entertainment industry?” “No, sir, I don’t.” “Have you ever been to Los Angeles?” “No, Mr. Perenchio”. “You’re perfect!” he said, and hired me.
I was just being honest, but it turned out he wanted a blank slate. That’s one of my other life mantras: never lie to anyone about anything. You never know what’s going to happen. And I feel Mr. Perenchio could feel I was just telling the truth. The prospect of going to California was totally new to me, but the idea of working with him was just exciting to me. And like that, Mr. Perenchio convinced me to move out to the West Coast.
Looking back, was there anything that you learnt at HBS that prepared you for that fateful meeting with Jerry Perenchio? And for embracing that opportunity when it appeared to you?
Harvard Business School changed my life. The two years at HBS gave me confidence that I could be in an environment with some really talented people – some really intelligent people – and hold my own. At the end of my first year at HBS, I think I was well below the top half of the class. I was adjusting to having been in the Air Force for so long, and the fact I had been immersed in classes like classified thermodynamics and advanced calculus at Union was ultimately not helpful – none of those had much to do with Harvard Business School. But my second-year grades were very good, so leaving HBS I felt confident and had a sense of self- assurance.
There’s something about an MBA from HBS which provides an immediate affirmation that you’ve survived a great, rigorous program, at the best school in the world. And I’d learnt a bunch of things along the way. In fact, in my interview with Mr. Perenchio, he asked me some very rudimentary financial questions, just to prove that I understood my way around a balance sheet. They weren’t sophisticated questions, but he just hit me with them in rapid fire succession, to try and get a sense of what I knew about business. Because of HBS, I felt confident in that moment. The school is impressive to people because they know that you’ve already come through a pre-selection process, and they therefore feel confident in their selection of you.
So, you arrive in Hollywood without any industry experience. It seems a world so far away from anything you could have studied in the HBS classroom. Did any classes help?
Well when I was at HBS, there was no BEMS (The Business of Entertainment, Media and Sports, taught to ECs by Professor Anita Elberse), though there was a guy named Steve Star, who was quite the impresario and taught marketing. Specifics aside, there is no question that the training I received during business school was helpful to me, as it’s exactly what I then had to do at Procter and Gamble. But then again, the entertainment industry is another world. I was brought in as Mr. Perenchio’s business factotum and just did “busy business things” that any one of you could do. It was really only once I was on the job that Mr. Perenchio taught me my core function there, which was to negotiate deals with actors and actresses, producers, directors and writers for our television series. That was something completely new to me, but the two rigorous years at HBS did mean that I was comfortable with a heavy workload, comfortable with numbers, comfortable with making presentations, and comfortable with writing things up. And, given that half of the HBS grade was class participation, I was also very comfortable presenting oral arguments, which was immensely helpful, since Mr. Perenchio and Norman Lear didn’t care too much about reading reports. They wanted me to simply walk in and present a compelling business case.
The biggest professional challenge came for me around five or six years later, when Norman came to me one day and said, “I have a shocking surprise for you. I’m going to take a break from television production, and I want you to go in my place to take over the creative management of the shows. I want you attend table readings, read teleplays (scripts for television shows), go to run-throughs, shootings, tapings, filming, editing sessions, the whole thing.” That was a complete fish-out-of-water experience for me and a tough transition. Ultimately it was Norman who stood by me, and had the belief that I could do it. It was then that I earned my creative bones – if you will.
The other time that lessons from HBS and Procter and Gamble helped me out was when I was writing the business plan for Castle Rock Entertainment. It got us funding and brought over the guys from the creative side to form the company. My experience there gave me the credibility I needed to land the job at Warner Bros.
Looking back, do you have any defining memories (good or bad) from HBS?
One of the things I remember very strongly was the support and comradery I felt amongst my study peers. Since I’d been away from academia for a while, there were times in my first year that I felt a little out at sea, given how rigorous the program was. I had friends who were enormously helpful and supportive to me. So, instead of feeling any sense of the competitiveness that is sometimes associated with a high-pressured academic environment, I felt the opposite. All these years later, I still count them amongst my dearest friends. They are my closest friends by far.
In terms of the academia, I simply remember feeling this intense, total immersion in the school environment, right from the first day. We weren’t given any particular preparation for it, and I certainly hadn’t any summer classes or anything. I just started in September with everybody else. And I remember feeling a bit overwhelmed, as if I had just been dropped into the middle of this intense and highly competitive environment. That is, before we all bonded. But looking back, the community amongst your study peers is something that I don’t think is spoken about enough. It is the sense of comradery, support, and closeness students feel amongst themselves that really contributes to the power of the HBS experience.
Do you have any advice to students at HBS who want to go into the entertainment industry? Would it the advice be different to the advice you would have given to yourself, when you entered the industry?
When it comes to career advice, a metaphor I’ve used in the past is to pretend you’re at a train station, and there are trains heading off in all sorts of different directions. One may go to Wall Street, another may go to the corporate life of a General Motors, another elsewhere. Some people know which train they want to board, others do not.
If you are fortunate enough to know the destination that you want to go to, and let’s say it’s a specific area of the entertainment business, then I’d recommend you just focus on getting aboard that train. Don’t worry which car you are on, don’t worry about starting salary, don’t worry about title, don’t worry about position, don’t worry about anything. As long as you feel you’re on the train that is transporting you towards your dream, then go for it. Don’t be put off by short-term gains elsewhere – higher salaries or whatever. I always suggest that people think about what is best in the long run.
On the other hand, if you’re not fortunate enough to know precisely which train you want to get on but just, for example, “like” the world of entertainment, then my advice would be to get onboard a train that’s heading in that direction, but be careful about where you end up. The reason is that if you’re not careful, the business school degree can compartmentalize you. You’ll end up as “the new business person”, or even “the new Harvard Business School person”, and could get pigeon holed, causing you to spend too long in a role that you really don’t like, then leaving it too late to switch. I’ve seen it happen where people at major studios take a role on the business side, even though they really want to be on the creative side, and end up staying just long enough that they can’t easily transfer out. They’ve started to make too much money, are getting older with family responsibilities, or they’ve just stayed too long. They’ve been compartmentalized, and they’re stuck.
How did you avoid being pigeonholed as “the new HBS guy”?
I was with a small company [Tandem Productions, the company Norman Lear ran with Jerry Perenchio and Bud Yorkin] and it was the serendipity of life. Norman used to give me scripts to read and asked me what I thought, and I was too young to realise that I needed to be somewhat diplomatic and political. So instead, I would just look at him and tell him truthfully exactly what I felt. Over time, he decided that I had creative sensibilities that I didn’t even realise I had myself. Then one day he forced me out of my pigeonhole: I remember him saying so clearly: “Get rid of your suit, hang up your ties, find a pair of jeans, and go over to where we make the shows. Sit there in the meetings, in the run-throughs and tapings, and just be a creative person”. It was an adjustment, but I owe it to him for giving me that start. Once I had established my reputation, then I was okay.
The reality is that in my job, you have to have both arrows in your quiver: a creative arrow and a business arrow. If you come up on the creative side, you have to somehow pick up some business expertise, because it really is a complicated industry. But if you come up on the business side, you have to pick up the creative arrow somewhere along the line, and for me it was in my mid to late 30s. I had the business arrow thanks to Harvard Business School and to P&G, but it was Norman Lear who pushed me out of my comfort zone.
Never underestimate the serendipity of life. You might think you have all these plans, and then you’ll meet someone somewhere and find yourself in a discussion that takes you down a completely different path. Or perhaps you’ll be introduced to a mentor-like person who is ten, twelve, fifteen years ahead of you and is looking for an apprentice to train up. That’s really what happened when Mr. Perenchio hired me. I had no idea where it was going to lead.
What are you most excited about right now?
Well, I love movies. Firstly, I’m so excited about what we’ve already done in revitalizing the Star Wars franchise with Lucasfilm and what we will continue to do. It’s coming up to five years since we acquired the company (December 2012).
Secondly, I’m extremely excited about what we are doing to take storied, classic animated films from as long as 25 to 50 years ago and turn them into stories for today using technology. You may have already seen this with movies such as Cinderella, Beauty and the Beast, and The Jungle Book. The thing is, we are not just “remaking” these films in live action; we are re-envisioning them for a 21st century audience. In addition to those recent pictures, we’re currently shooting live-action re-imaginings of Dumbo, Aladdin and The Lion King. It’s truly such an honor to sit down with the director Jon Favreau and talk about the [Lion King] movie and realise how powerful it is going to be with the technology we now have to make the animals look real.
And lastly just for fun: what is your all-time favorite movie?
Well, that’s a good question. I loved It’s a Wonderful Life, but I also loved The Godfather. And, our own movie at Castle Rock, The Shawshank Redemption. It’s kind of a tie. Then here at Disney I love The Jungle Book and Beauty and the Beast. [Pause] But I mean, kind of like picking your favorite child, you know?!
As our call with Alan Horn draws to an end, it is impossible not to notice how little time Horn spends attributing any of his successes to himself. At each stage of his career – be it his tough-love engineering professor at Union College, Harvard Business School, Procter and Gamble, Jerry Perenchio “taking a chance” on him, or Norman Lear pushing him to move over to the creative side, it’s the influence of others that Horn insists was responsible for his success. This is the reality of Alan Horn: an industry titan who believes that the best path forward is to listen, treat everyone with the utmost respect, and collaborate. But above all – always be honest. Contextualizing this all against the glitz and glamour of Hollywood adds an even more impressive dimension. To borrow the words of his friend and colleague Rob Reiner: “Alan is a real rarity in our business. He’s a nice guy who finishes first.”
Pippa Lamb (HBS ‘18) worked for the British government in Beijing and Shanghai before transitioning to J.P. Morgan in London and Hong Kong. Pippa is a Fulbright Scholar under the British Friends of Harvard Business School Program.
Camilla Kalvaria (HBS ‘18) graduated from Princeton in 2012. Prior to HBS, she worked for Warner Music Group in New York.
A special thank you to Professor Anita Elberse for bringing Alan Horn to campus.