This is Part 1 from my recent long Q&A with Warner Bros’ Alan Horn who will step down as President/COO in April. Warner Bros has more marquee category awards contenders this year than probably any other studio because of Christopher Nolan’s Inception, Ben Affleck’s The Town, and Clint Eastwood’s Hereafter. It also boasted a remarkable string of recent winners including Million Dollar Baby and The Departed and Slumdog Millionaire and The Blind Side. But in almost every case, Warner Bros underestimated the picture’s Oscar chances. Studio mogul Alan Horn goes back to the future with me and assesses the campaigns:
DEADLINE: I want to talk to you about this year’s Academy Awards. Your studio has been sitting on its duff about campaigning for Inception. The result is that other movies are overtaking the buzz when your movie should be the logical frontrunner because it did well at the box office and with critics and because Nolan’s The Dark Knight was robbed of a Best Picture nomination. Doesn’t Warner Bros win Oscars in spite of itself?
ALAN HORN: Well, I know that’s how you feel. My response is that, first of all, we care about the Oscars and enjoy Oscar attention. A win is a very, very big deal. It’s very prestigious, it’s very exciting, plus we are a filmmaker friendly company and have long-term relationships with filmmakers. Of course Clint Eastwood comes to mind immediately, but now Chris Nolan and even the emerging Ben Affleck are our filmmakers that we really care about deeply and we want to do right by them. We want to do everything we can to have a strong Oscar campaign. Because we want to win. But we feel that for Inception, we have to coordinate it of course with Chris and with Emma Thomas and with Leo. But what comes to mind for me is, did you see the horse race with Zenyatta by any chance?
HORN: This horse won 19 out of 20 times. It’s a filly racing against all these giant male horses. She’s six years old whereas all the others were 3 years old. She’d never lost, and then just by a nose on the 20th and final race of her career. It was a very exciting thing. I don’t know anything about horses or horse-racing but I happened to see it. And it made me think of our conversation about the Oscars because the nominations come out, as you know, the end of December. Then the ballots go out. And then the voting takes place and all that. Our campaign is scheduled to start in a big way timed to that schedule. We are going to go very big for Inception. But we are also going to push for Hereafter because of the relationship with Clint. And for Harry Potter And The Deathly Hallows, Part 1 although no one really expects a lot of attention for Harry Potter until the final installment which will be next summer. And for The Town because we all think that Ben did just a hell of a job, a really good job. We want to do it right. There is no intention on our part to give short shrift to this, to be cheap about it, or to be stupid about it either. So what my understanding is for Inception is that we’re going to start very heavily doing editorial pieces, we are going to screen the picture like crazy, we’re going to have online participation and print too. It won’t be for lack of trying or spending money.
DEADLINE: But are you too late?
HORN: Well, we don’t think so. That’s why I brought up the horse race. This horse Zenyatta always started at the end of the pack and all of a sudden she comes on like a freight train. And the question for us is: what’s the right timing? Because if you peak too soon, you may blow all the money before people really focus on it. So it’s a big debate you could have but we sure are trying to do it right.
DEADLINE: Clint was not shy about telling people that you did not want to push his Million Dollar Baby because you didn’t see it as an Oscar film. You didn’t even want to greenlight it. Which goes back to the gripe that your studio wins Oscars in spite of itself.
HORN: Okay, with Million Dollar Baby, when the screenplay first came to us we passed, as you know. And I even went out and did some homework and saw this picture called Girl Fight with Michelle Rodriguez which did something like $1 million at the box office, which is nothing. Nikki, you have to know that saying no to Clint Eastwood was not easy to do. Not only is he an icon for our business but he is a fixture at Warner Bros for half of his 80 years. And he is respected like nobody else. And by me, too. I’ve been there for 11½ years, I am very friendly with Clint, so when we said no, of course the ultimate responsibility for saying no was my own.
DEADLINE: What did he say when you told him no?
HORN: He was a total gentleman. And he just said, ‘Hey, I wouldn’t want you to do something you’re not crazy about or if something doesn’t feel right for you.’ And he took it around town and tried to get someone else to do it. And no one wanted to do it. And then he came back and we did it because of Clint. After you recently wrote about this, I called him. And I said, ‘Look, Nikki Finke wrote this article and she basically slammed me for not wanting to make Million Dollar Baby. You also were very unhappy with me.’ And he said to me, ‘Look, you put up the money for the movie, you did it, and we all enjoyed great success. And, at the end of the day, that’s what counts.’ And he expressed at least in his own laconic super-cool Clint way, that as far as he is concerned he has a great relationship with me. And I said to him, ‘It’s a total mistake on my part. I didn’t see it. I did not see it.’
DEADLINE: But then you didn’t want to push for Oscar once it was made.
HORN: We did exactly what he wanted us to do about it. He takes it slow with the Oscars.
DEADLINE: But then Slumdog Millionaire also won Best Picture. Yet the initial word around town was that you looked at the movie and you didn’t see its potential. There are a lot of people who think that your No. 2 Jeff Robinov took the mea culpa by publicly telling people, ‘Look, we had too much product to market that year. So we did the right thing by the filmmaker and let Danny Boyle take it to Fox Searchlight, but Warner Bros kept half of it.’ People told me that you thought Slumdog Millionaire was too dark.
HORN: From what I saw I thought it was dark. By that time I had already given the actual greenlight to Jeff for Warner Independent Pictures. He had been trying to get me for two months to shut down Warner Independent Pictures. I like a lot of those small movies because they kind of appeal to me. Slumdog Millionaire was a picture that I didn’t even know was going to Fox Searchlight until Jeff told me. And Jeff has wanted for a long time to get away from small movies because of the pressure on the marketing department. He still wants to get away from small movies. He wants right now and when he takes over from me to do fewer movies. I’ve always liked us releasing at least 23 or 24 a year.
DEADLINE: Pete Hammond and I both believed that Warner Bros didn’t know what you had in The Blind Side. We separately were asking studio people, ‘Are you pushing this for Oscar?’ and they were going, ‘Really? You think?’ So you got started pretty late campaigning for Oscar. It worked for Sandy Bullock who knocked out frontrunner Meryl Streep. But many people still think you could have won Best Picture with more time.
HORN: Okay, and incidentally that would have made me happy. I loved Blind Side. But I will say that Blind Side as you know is owned by Alcon Entertainment. They also put up all the prints and ads, so it’s all their money. Every other movie we are on the hook for the marketing. But Alcon was on the hook for the marketing for Blind Side, so they decided what to spend and when to spend it because it’s their money. So if we were late then they have to share responsibility for that because we turned to them and we said, ‘How big a campaign do you want?’ because they would have to pay for it. We don’t have that situation this year.