BURBANK, Calif. — Alan Horn was pushed out by Warner Bros. in 2011 after a celebrated run as its film chief — too old, too out of touch, he was told. Toddle off into a happy retirement, he was advised. Read a book.
Since then, Horn, 71, has achieved something rare in show business, if not in business overall: He has rewritten his own ending.
Horn in 2012 became chairman of The Walt Disney Studios, which he has helped turn into Hollywood’s most formidable movie operation, at least in the eyes of Wall Street.
At a time when investors dismiss most film companies as footnotes, Horn’s studio, which includes Marvel, Pixar and Lucasfilm, this month reported a record $1.55 billion in profit for its last fiscal year, up from $661 million in 2013.
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“Big Hero 6,” Disney’s animated follow-up to “Frozen,” was No. 1 at the domestic box office on a recent weekend, taking in $56.2 million to rout the space epic “Interstellar.”
“Maleficent,” starring Angelina Jolie, was the No. 1 nonsuper-hero movie of the summer, taking in $757.6 million worldwide. “Guardians of the Galaxy,” a Marvel film, ranks as the year’s No. 1 movie overall, with global ticket sales of $768 million.
Moreover, Disney’s pipeline is overflowing with potential blockbusters. Disney will release 21 big-budget movies in the next three years; it released 13 in the last three.
Three “Star Wars” films and three “Avengers” sequels are on the way. Pixar is working on “Finding Dory” and “Toy Story 4.”
Disney’s live-action label, which was struggling with bombs like “John Carter” when Horn took over, has a new “Pirates of the Caribbean” and a follow-up to “Alice in Wonderland,” which took in more than $1 billion in 2010.
“Hiring Alan was the equivalent of a team signing the greatest free agent on the market, and we were very lucky that he was a free agent,” said Robert Iger, the Walt Disney Co.’s chief executive.
Horn was initially reluctant to speak to a reporter, arguing that attention should instead go to people like Alan Bergman, the studio’s longtime president.
When Horn relented, he did not want to discuss his forced departure from Warner, which has struggled lately, and he played down his role at Disney.
“I’m just a janitor with a reel of keys,” he said, shifting uneasily in a navy blue pinstriped suit.
Continuing the metaphor, which he said he learned while serving in the Air Force in the late 1960s, Horn explained that “each key belongs to a different person here” at Disney Studios.
“Sometimes all they need me to do is empower them and act in service of them. Every once in a while there is a mess, and I try to help.”
Overly humble? A bit. No film goes into production at Disney, Pixar, Marvel or Lucasfilm without Horn’s input.
He is deeply involved with marketing, distribution and, at times, casting and editing.
He also oversees the studio’s music label, a Broadway division and, with Bergman, Disney Movies Anywhere, an industry-leading effort to prod consumers to replace their DVD libraries with digital ones.
But Horn’s job requires him to strike an unusual balance between contribution and intrusion. Marvel, Pixar and Lucasfilm operate semi-independently. They were stand-alone companies with distinct cultures before being acquired by Disney, and each is run by a forceful personality with decades of experience.
Kathleen Kennedy, the president of Lucasfilm, for instance, began her producing career in 1982 with “E.T. the Extra Terrestrial” and has been nominated for eight best picture Oscars. So while she reports to Horn on “Star Wars”-related matters, he most definitely does not micromanage her.
“These people have earned the right to make their own creative decisions,” Horn said.
He likens Marvel and Pixar to city-states: Pixar is Athens, where “they hug each other all the time,” while Marvel is Sparta, filled with “very tough customers.”
Still, they listen to him.
“Lots of our characters are engaged in physical battle,” said Kevin Feige, president of Marvel Studios, “and Alan at one point said, ‘If these characters are always getting beat up, and no one gets hurt, what are the stakes?’ That kind of perspective is crucial to us.”
Horn’s own résumé is remarkable — even if he did oppose the crude “Hangover” series, which ended up taking in more than $1 billion for Warner (and providing the out-of-touch narrative that cost him that job).
His film credits range widely, including “When Harry Met Sally,” “A Few Good Men,” “The Dark Knight” and the eight-film “Harry Potter” series. He also has an MBA from Harvard.
“It’s true that people don’t turn to me when I talk and think, ‘Why is he giving me a suggestion? What does he know?’ ” Horn said.
His predecessor could not say the same. Trying to more tightly focus the studio around brands, Iger in 2009 installed Rich Ross, a star television executive, as chairman.
Ross slashed and burned through the studio’s dead wood, laying off employees and reorganizing departments. But ultimately Ross could not hold his own with artistic giants like John Lasseter, chief creative officer for Pixar and Walt Disney Animation, and was removed.
In a recent interview at the “Big Hero 6” premiere, Lasseter said he “greatly values” Horn’s storytelling input.
“Alan is that fresh set of eyes that helps us clarify and connect parts of the story,” he said. “He has the best common man point of view in Hollywood, and I mean that in the best possible way.”
One example: While watching an early cut of “Frozen,” Horn worried that Anna, one of the princess sisters, would confuse and annoy viewers if she was both engaged to Prince Hans and flirting with the burly Kristoff. The scene was changed.
Horn has the most involvement with Disney’s slate of live-action films; it makes about five a year.
When he arrived, the studio had just suffered a $200 million loss on “John Carter” and production was under way on “The Lone Ranger,” which resulted in a $150 million write-down.
Rolling up his sleeves, Horn oversaw an extensive reworking of “Maleficent,” coming in on the weekend to sit in the editing room.
He replaced a director already hired for a live-action “Cinderella” and vetoed the studio’s candidates to play the title role, instead giving it to Lily James, best known for playing Lady Rose MacClare on “Downton Abbey.” “Cinderella” is to be released March 13.
But he notably did not replace the studio’s executive team.
“People had already been through a lot of change, and instability leads to insecurity, which can be death to a creative enterprise,” he said.
Horn recently gave multiyear contracts to Bergman, president; Ricky Strauss, chief marketing officer; and Sean Bailey, president of live-action production.
If Horn has an old-fashioned sensibility, and he does, it suits Disney, which does not make R-rated movies and whose executives work in a building held up by the Seven Dwarfs. (Literally.)
Horn, who grew up on Long Island, N.Y., said he was always a Disney fan: When he proposed to his wife, Cindy, he did it with a pewter Bambi figurine with a ring tied to its neck.
“I particularly like working 50 feet from Bob Iger, the head of the whole darn shooting match,” Horn said. “At Warner, all the big bosses were in New York.”
Horn has committed to remain Disney’s movie chairman through 2018, when he will be 75.
“I think that will be it for me,” he said. “I like that end.”