Can Alan Horn Come Home Again?

Alan Horn
Photo: Jason LaVeris/FilmMagic
Matthew Belloni
May 15, 2022

Of all the rumors swirling around the Warner Bros. film studio these days, here is the most intriguing: Alan Horn, the former Warners film chief, who retired in January after a stellar nine-year run atop Disney’s movie unit, is said to be in talks to return to his former home under new Warner Bros. Discovery C.E.O. David Zaslav.

In the film world, that would be the executive equivalent of a blockbuster. Horn has enjoyed one of the great Hollywood careers. Over five decades, he co-founded Castle Rock, got rich on Seinfeld, then joined Warner Bros., where he is credited with popularizing the “tentpole” strategy of pouring huge resources into a small number of high-priority films, like Harry Potter or Batman or The Hobbit, that prop up the entire studio. Time Warner C.E.O. Jeff Bewkes pushed Horn out at age 68 in 2011, a decision that Bob Iger quickly capitalized on. During Horn’s tenure, Disney remade itself as a megahit factory, producing almost exclusively pre-branded tentpoles from the Marvel, Pixar, Lucasfilm, Disney Studios and Disney Animation units, releasing 20 billion-dollar grossers, and setting an industry high-water mark of $11 billion in global box office in 2019—a feat that few believe will ever be replicated.

So, yeah, it’s easy to see why Zaslav would be interested in Horn, especially since Zaz has made it clear to insiders that he wants to remake Warners in the image of Disney, with siloed units like DC, New Line and Animation, run by individual creative leaders, yet all reporting up to a film boss overseeing the total output. 

I called Horn to ask him what’s up, and he confirmed that he has had talks with Zaslav about returning to the studio where he made his name. “I’m friendly with David and we have met several times,” he told me. That’s partly thanks to Zaslav’s now-famous “listening tour,” wherein the Hollywood outsider met with seemingly everyone who has run an entertainment company during the year preceding the close of Discovery’s merger with the WarnerMedia assets. But Horn said that the chats have gone further, and that they did discuss the possibility of him helping the company. That could be in a consultative capacity, an advisory role, or a short-term assignment, but probably not in an executive job.

Horn wanted to make clear that nothing is imminent. He has great respect for the challenge that Zaslav & Co. are undertaking, and he has no interest in being involved in the current integration of the Warner assets from AT&T. Horn still has tons of friends at Warners, so he wouldn’t want to spearhead layoffs or the replacement of key executives with Discovery people. Plus, at 79, and having retired from two big jobs, he’s also fine not jumping back into the studio snake pit. (Warner Bros. Discovery declined to comment.)  

But Horn is healthy, he said, and as was clear from our chat, sharp as ever. So it could happen, they would just need to figure out what kind of role makes sense for him at this stage of his life. “I’ve been in retirement for four months, and there is a certain cadence to these things,” he told me.

If I were wagering, I’d bet Horn will end up consulting, or coming in with a specific goal related to the re-org. He’s a respected statesman, and he could manage executive talent, especially if Zaslav is thinking of divvying up responsibilities and bringing in headstrong execs, whether it’s Mike De Luca or Emma Watts or others, to run things alongside Toby Emmerich or another executive. Horn knows fully well that the movie business is not the same as it was pre-pandemic, when he set that $11 billion record: “The theatrical model has changed, I think irreparably.”