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Alumni Profile: Alan Horn MBA '71 (executive)

May 2, 2024

Alumni Profile: Alan Horn MBA '71 (executive)

Alan Horn MBA '71 retired from leading studios in 2021, but he recently agreed to consult part-time for David Zaslav and Warner Bros. Discovery. 

Horn was named Chairman of The Walt Disney Studios in 2012 before shifting to Chief Creative Officer in 2021. In these roles, he presided over seven movie studios as well the Studios’ expansion into streaming for Disney+.  Under Horn’s leadership, The Walt Disney Studios set numerous records at the box office, culminating in $11 billion in 2019, the only studio ever to have reached these thresholds. 

Prior to joining Disney, Horn served as President and COO of Warner Bros., leading the studio’s theatrical and home entertainment operations. During Horn’s tenure from 1999 to 2011, Warner Bros. was the top-performing studio at the global BO seven times and released numerous critically acclaimed films.

In 1987, Horn co-founded Castle Rock Entertainment, where as Chairman he oversaw a diverse collection of film and TV properties including “A Few Good Men,” “The Shawshank Redemption,” “The Green Mile,” “In the Line of Fire,” and “Seinfeld,” the most successful show in television history. Horn previously served as President and COO of Twentieth Century Fox Films and as CEO of Embassy Communications. 

A passionate environmentalist, Horn served for thirty years on the board of NRDC and chair for the last three. He is a member of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and serves on the AFI Board of Directors. He also served on the Harvard Business School Board of Dean’s Advisors. He earned his MBA from HBS and served as a captain in the U.S. Air Force.  

He is married to his wife Cindy and has two grown daughters.

Alan Horn MBA '71 is one of the most seasoned executives in Hollywood at this stage in his career. Having served as co-founder and CEO of Castle Rock Entertainment, president and COO of Warner Bros and chairman of Walt Disney Studios, he’s done and seen a lot throughout his tenure in the entertainment industry. We sat down to talk with him about his journey.

After graduating from Harvard Business School in 1971, Alan was working on the Ivory soap account at Proctor and Gamble when a friend asked him to have a meeting with someone they knew from Los Angeles. Alan said he didn’t want to have the meeting. But his friend wouldn’t be deterred so easily, and a few days later Alan found himself sitting opposite Jerry Perenchio, who was partners with Norman Lear in their production company, which would later become known as “Embassy Communications”. 

After a two-hour long conversation, the world of entertainment had piqued Alan’s interest, and to Jerry, Alan was exactly the “blank slate” he had been searching for. He hired Alan on the spot, convincing him to move cross country to LA by offering him about a 150% pay increase from his current role as an associate at P&G. It was an offer that Alan simply couldn’t turn down.

“I was working on the business side, and I got to know Norman, and we became very close,” Alan recalls of his time at Embassy. “When you’re in a small company, you don’t get pigeonholed so much. There’s a lot of interaction. You get to do a lot more.” About six years into Alan’s tenure, Norman Lear decided to step down, and he wanted Alan to fill his role as the creative head of the company. At the time, they had seven network comedies running, including ALL IN THE FAMILY, SANFORD AND SON, and MAUDE. “Jerry didn’t like the idea, but Norman had already pitched it to me, so Jerry said to go ahead.” Alan smiles. “But I was too young, with no experience, and a business school guy (their worst nightmare), so I wasn't welcomed and it was very difficult.” Alan explains. “I even tried to unwind it, because it was so uncomfortable.” But Norman persisted, and after six months of tension, Alan finally won the writers over. Embassy was a harmonious workspace for everyone for the next seven years.

Following his time at Embassy, after a brief unhappy stint at Twentieth Century Fox, Alan went on to co-found Castle Rock Entertainment in 1987, overseeing hits including SEINFELD and WHEN HARRY MET SALLY. Castle Rock was later acquired by Warner Brothers, so he moved there next, and after twelve years at Warners he landed at Disney for the following ten. He’s currently back at Warner Bros Discovery working halftime as a consultant for the company. 

So, after all that, what skills does Alan believe helped to make him such a successful executive? “A high EQ,” he says immediately. “Every problem I've ever encountered usually translates to a people problem.” And to be an effective executive, you have to be ready to jump in and mediate anything interpersonal. Alan also says that with regard to creativity, it’s incredibly important to be able to recognize when a story has a solid beginning, middle, and ending that delivers. “You want to walk out of that theater and have closure,” Alan nods. “Therefore, you need characters that you root for, heart (a tear-shedding moment), and humor. There’s never anything that doesn’t benefit from humor.” 

Being able to identify those types of stories has led Alan to be involved with countless incredibly successful projects, from HARRY POTTER to AVENGERS to INSIDE OUT to SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION. “All [of them] have special meaning because they took place at a certain point in my life,” Alan recalls fondly. “And I learned a lot from them.”

We asked Alan to distill what he’s learned from each and every project into a list of lessons. “Never lie to anyone about anything,” he starts. “As a leader, you need people to follow you, and they won’t follow you if they won’t trust you, and they won’t trust you if you lie to them.” 

“Own your mistakes. Crow doesn’t taste very good, but it is nutritious,” Alan smiles. “Experience helps. You know more if you do it longer, and I’m still learning. Another one, in the management of creativity, one learns there isn’t always a clear answer. It’s all debatable. Also, don’t get too high on success or too low on failure, because nothing’s easy and success varies widely in the movie and TV business. Above all, ‘Quality is the best business plan.’” Alan mentions that he believes that this quote came from Steve Jobs, which was confirmed by Pixar’s John Lasseter in this Forbes article.

However, a quality screenplay doesn’t always guarantee a quality product which will enjoy financial success. “Although it’s essential, it’s not enough to walk in with a great screenplay,” Alan explains. “There has to be that conversation about commerciality. There’s an old saying, ‘The picture you don’t make, you break even on.’ So, before you say yes, it better satisfy the two criteria: creative resonance and a budget that makes sense.” 

One other point Alan makes is that the medium in which a script is presented is not the same that the audience will experience on screen. “You can think you have one thing and be completely surprised by the execution with all the variables involved in making a film. For example, with the film 300, the script was fine,” he recalls, “but I was blown away by the visual impact. So you greenlight a movie based on the screenplay, director, cast, but you’re not seeing what the audience will actually experience when they see the film.” That translation from page to screen is what can make the difference between a box office hit or a flop. 

Part of what informs Alan’s perspective is the sheer amount of content with which consumers can become inundated and overwhelmed. “There’s a proliferation of product, with theatrical and streaming, that makes it hard to break through the clutter,” Alan notes. “So a film needs something else, like a compelling marketing campaign. A great marketing effort can certainly help give people a reason to leave home and go to a theater.” 

With all that in mind, we have to wonder where the industry is headed, and Alan offers his thoughts. “The challenge is to find that elusive balance between traditional moviegoing and streaming,” he muses. “The business is changing so much that we are in uncharted waters, headed for a new normal, still undefined. Streaming is not going away. Motion picture viewership is coming back up again. It’s crowded out there,” Alan reiterates. “But, there will always be a demand for creativity, and (again) quality is everything.”

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