Alumni Interview: Alan Horn, Chairman of Walt Disney Studios

In the latest installment in our Alumni Interview Series, The Harbus spoke with Alan Horn ’72, who joined Walt Disney Studios as Chairman earlier this year. Horn previously served as President & COO of Warner Bros. Entertainment, where he worked on the eight-film Harry Potter series, Batman Begins, The Dark Knight, The Departed, Million Dollar Baby, the second and third Matrix films and the Ocean’s Eleven trilogy. Horn co-founded Castle Rock Entertainment in 1987, where as Chairman and CEO he oversaw films such as A Few Good Men, The Shawshank Redemption, When Harry Met Sally, City Slickers, and In the Line of Fire, as well as the TV series Seinfeld. Horn previously served as President and COO of Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation and as Chairman and CEO of Embassy Communications. He served as a Captain in the US Air Force and began his post-MBA career at Procter & Gamble.

What was the most important thing you learned at HBS and how have you applied that lesson throughout your career?

There were a number of things. Right off the bat, there’s a certain requisite understanding that anyone in any business has to have – how to read a balance sheet, understanding basic financial parameters, etc., and I found having those in my pocket was helpful to me. Also, I’d say that the marketing classes got me thinking in a way that I hadn’t thought before.

Beyond all of that, there’s something about the case study method interaction between professor and students, which I remember as a kind of tiny trial by fire each day, that I found invaluable. It forces each student to express his or her opinions in front of a large and smart group of colleagues, and coming out of that cauldron I learned how prepare myself for meetings as well as the consequences of not being prepared. Knowing that I would be subject to the counterpoints of my arguments from a group of very smart young people in class each day, it forced me to become comfortable speaking aloud and taking a position, and defending that position amid rigorous debate. I really learned a lot from the structure.

There is nothing that I learned at Harvard that particularly helped me in the entertainment space. They didn’t have a course like SMICI [Strategic Marketing in Creative Industries] when I was there; the things I learned were more relevant to marketing at Procter & Gamble than marketing a movie or TV show. Nevertheless, the skill set I brought with me when I moved into entertainment was very beneficial.

How have the relationships you developed at HBS impacted your career, if at all?

In my experience, the relationships I developed at HBS were mainly friendships as opposed to business connections. No one from HBS went to P&G with me, but there were HBS graduates at P&G; there’s something about having the common alumni experience, something about that that facilitates a bonding thing. I found it more helpful in entertainment when I met with fellow graduates, actually, than it was at P&G.

What helped me more than any business connection though were the sustaining friendships that I was privileged to have during business school and beyond. Many of the guys and ladies who were my good friends at business school are still my friends. Those friendships have meant a lot to me and I’ve benefited from the counsel of those people and the life experience interaction with those people over the course of my career.

If you could relive your HBS experience, what one thing would you do differently?

If I were to redo it all over again I’d encourage my young self to be more outgoing in class earlier. It’s not that it hurt my grades, because I worked really hard while I was there, but I was reticent. I came from 4-5 years in the military where I didn’t have the kind of stimulus that made me feel very prepared and current from an academic perspective. So I was more reticent in the first year than I was in the second year. I wish I’d said “the heck with it” and gone for it more in the first year.

One thing I would encourage others to do is, I didn’t slack off in my second year – I worked just as hard that second year. I can’t say it was a lot of fun, but it was worth it to be able to graduate with distinction.

What’s the best career advice you ever received?

There’s a lot of pressure that people experience in their jobs – there’s a lot to do, a lot of work. One piece of advice I received was to worry about the big things because not everything has equal weight – some things are way more important than other things. There’s something about a compulsive personality that wants to cross all T’s and dot all I’s, but the workload can be so overwhelming. When I felt like I was getting it from all angles, the advice to follow the big things was very helpful.

Another piece of advice came from the military. An officer said something to me at one point that I’ve never forgotten: “The senior officer never remembers his rank, but the junior officer never forgets it.” I’ve seen people make the mistake of responding too familiarly with their bosses, when the boss is just letting his or her guard down. Remembering my superiors’ rank served me well when I was a subordinate.

In terms of advice I would give to students, it would be to remember that there’s an important changes that takes place over the course of a career. At one point in your career it’s the people over you who determine your success in life, increase your salary, give you that next advancement, whatever it is. At some point though, it’s no longer the people over you, it’s the people under you. If they work for you happily these people will cause you to be successful – it’s the cumulative effect of their individual efforts that drive your organization to success. You get to a point where you can’t be the primary driver behind the organization’s success. When that day comes, your job is to motivate those in subordinate positions.

What advice would you give to HBS students who hope to pursue a career in entertainment and media?

Find out where in the space you’d like to be – marketing, production, business affairs, in a studio, at a big company – decide where you think you’d like to wind up. Then think of that as a train, the right train for you, and don’t worry about which car you get on. It’s OK if you take a position much less important or well-paying if you’re on the right train. Trust yourself to let your abilities advance you from car after car.

Looking ahead to the next 5-10 years, is there a particular corner of your industry where you think MBAs can have the highest impact? Are there are particularly pressing challenges that MBAs can address?

I think that technology is the driving force behind our business now. I think MBAs can be particularly helpful in terms of what’s happening with distribution, windowing, where content is sold, what’s going on in the digital space.

If you’re on the creative side, it goes back to the same old maxims that have been important for 80 years, which is that nothing counts as much as a good story and characters you care about. On that side the business things really haven’t changed. The formation of the product requires a creative skillset that’s very different from the skillsets that go into marketing and distributing that product.

It’s also an increasingly global world. The number of international students at HBS is way up from what it was when I was there, and that’s great. It’s important to get a flavor from a business, cultural, and friendship standpoint for the world outside the US because that’s where so much is happening these days.

What are you proudest of in your career from a creative perspective?

I have to say, creatively, it would be my supervision and guidance of the Harry Potter film franchise, though I’m also very proud of the work I did at Castle Rock and the reinvention of the Batman film franchise through the genius of Chris Nolan.

What are the best, worst, and hardest parts of your job?

The best part is sitting in a preview test of a film I’ve seen but the audience hasn’t, and being there as they experience it for the first time when you know you have the goods. It’s a lovely immersive experience.

The worst part is having to fire somebody.

The hardest part is finding that elusive balance between the pure creative sensibilities that would drive one to do certain things in making a movie and the business constraints that have to be put into place to make sure things are done responsibly. Finding that balance between art and commerce is always very hard.