Disney Looks To Horn For Leverage

by , Jun 1, 2012, 8:09 AM
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Once upon a time, long, long ago, in a land you’d hardly recognize for its lack of a ubiquitous commercial message, a creative product looking to be published, shot or produced or might sometimes stand on its own two (or three) merits, such as quality, entertainment value or capturing the zeitgeist. Not so much anymore, and in talking to analysts at the Sanford C. Bernstein Annual Strategic Decisions Conference 2012 Wednesday, Walt Disney CEO Robert Iger made that abundantly –- he hopes -- clear.

"We're not in the business of making 20 films a year or more than that," he told the investment types. "When we have success with a Disney, a Pixar or a Marvel film, we can leverage it much more broadly, deeply and for a longer period of time than we can in any other film that we might make," as Erica Orden writes in the Wall Street Journal.

And so it goes that yesterday Disney appointed Alan Horn, 69, as chairman of the Walt Disney Studios to replace Rich Ross, who went south with “John Carter.” Horn co-founded Castle Rock Entertainment, and was the president and COO at Warner Bros., where he had remained as a consultant after being elbowed out by three younger executives last year. Horn is widely credited with stewarding the “Harry Potter” franchise while at the helm of Warner Bros. He has also been president and COO at 20th Century Fox Film Corp. and was chairman and CEO of Embassy Communications. 

“In selecting Horn, Iger repudiated his decision to elevate Ross, an industry outsider who purged many of the studio's top production, marketing and distribution executives who were loyal to his predecessor, longtime Disney Chairman Dick Cook,” writes Dawn C. Chmielewski in the Los Angeles Times. “In their place, Ross installed fresh blood. Some -- such as studio marketing head MT Carney, a New York advertising executive -- lacked film experience.” 

The reaction to the appointment among Hollywood types was “overwhelmingly positive,” according to the Hollywood Reporter. During his 12 years at Warner Bros., “Horn proved to be a conservative leader who implemented the kind of corporate mandates that Iger has been pushing on his own exec ranks,” Marc Graser writes in Variety. To wit: 

“That includes focusing more on launching tentpole family properties, backed by higher production budgets, that will benefit the rest of the company's divisions through TV shows, live events, videogames, music, toys and other licensed merchandise, web properties and theme park rides, once they perform at the worldwide box office.”

That’s may not be exactly what Horn says he was told he needed to do, as Orden reports in the Journal, even if it’s the way everyone else seems to be interpreting it. “"The only mandate that Bob [Iger] has suggested to me is to make good movies and movies that resonate with the family audience," Horn says.

Resonate is a word with an interesting history. It’s certainly “hackneyed,” as language police corps has been pointing out for years, and it has apparently been hijacked by the suits.

“These days we can blame management types in particular for overuse, as the term frequently gets hauled out to convey how ‘resonant leaders’ connect emotionally with a team or audience,” Ben Zimmer pointed out in the New York Times Magazine a while back. In this context, it’s used to convey the sound of money being made. 

Horn isn’t likely to “ruffle any feathers,” Graser writes. “His strongest characteristics as an exec are his affability and charm, his confidence managing creatives and his financial acumen.”

I don’t think that Walt Disney was thinking about a “Fantasia” theme park when he gave the green light to that quirky movie in 1940 (although some individuals did, admittedly, ride the sensory auditory and visual projections with somewhat-enhanced inner journeys). Arthur Miller’s producers weren’t thinking about “Death of a Salesman” t-shirts and travel mugs emblazoned with Philip Seymour Hoffman’s slouching figure when he created Willy Loman in 1949 (and, apparently and thankfully, neither is the current production). And Thomas Pynchon’s publisher certainly wasn’t worried that he hadn’t built a “platform” –- indeed, he didn’t want to interact with readers, period -– before they published Gravity’s Rainbow in 1973. 

I know it’s naïve to suggest that all this hasn’t been happening for a long time, and even more naïve to suggest that Hollywood is about anything more than the bottom line. Speaking of properties that have successfully leveraged themselves over the years, I am reminded of “Hello, Dolly!,” the 1969 movie made from Broadway musical with lyrics and music by Jerry Herman and a book by Michael Stewart, which was based on Thornton Wilder's 1938 farce “The Merchant of Yonkers,” which he revised and retitled “The Matchmaker” in 1955, as Wikipedia would have it.

As Carol Channing’s Dolly Levi sang to Max Showalter’s Horace Vandergelder, the Yonkers merchant she had her eyes on in the original Broadway production of “Hello, Dolly!”:

“And on those cold winter nights, Horace/You can snuggle up to your cash register/It's a little lumpy, but it rings!”

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