OSCAR: Warner Bros Film Boss Alan Horn On Awards Campaigns Past And Present

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.

  1. This is a great interview which highlights the nuance and strategy behind the Best Picture race. I found it rather informative and engaging as an aspiring filmmaker.

    Through Ms. Finke’s savvy and knowledgeable questions, Mr. Horn gives us a clean and well-phrased display of internal studio politics and publicity.

    This Deadline interview reminds me of the classic journalism from the golden era of filmmaking I’ve read in film history classes. I hope this marks a trend toward the sophisticated armchair journalism of the 50s and 60s.

  2. Wow! He has the balls to just say it for us all to know–

    “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.”

    “Pressure” on the marketing department??? Like what, it’s harder to strategize a poster/media-campaign for “smaller” films than for big dumb stuio ones???

    Oi, and this the guy that takes over the keys from Horn?

    Scratch WB off the list of producers for QUALITY filmmakers who make films about PEOPLE.

    1. marketing a smaller film is more labor intensive and the rewards are usually smaller. every so often a paranormal activity or a blair witch project comes along. but more often than not, it ain’t so.

      1. When someone says “think of a small, difficult-to-market film that paid off,” the first two that come to mind are The Blair Witch Project and Paranormal Activity? Because no marketing department in the world knows how to sell a horror movie?

        For what it’s worth, Wikipedia has the budget for Slumdog Millionaire at around 15 million dollars. Blair Witch and Paranormal Activity were both under 100K. When Robinov says he doesn’t want to do “small,” he doesn’t mean no-budget b-horror, he means movies about “people.”

    1. Agreed. And whenever possible, be condescending to Nikki Finke. Couldja take longer to explain the concept of the “come from behind” win? Jesus.

  3. Ten years ago, a summer blockbuster came out of nowhere and took Best Picture at both the Golden Globes and Oscars while the pundits who were championing the critical darlings Traffic and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon were left scratching their heads. I have a feeling Inception will “pull a Gladiator” and sneak past The King’s Speech and The Social Network, much to the surprise of the “experts”. And Warner Bros. will have yet another Best Picture winner in spite of itself.

    1. I agree. I liked, but did not love Inception. Not as much as The Town or The Social Network. But the Academy took a lot of flack for not nominating The Dark Knight for Best Picture. I think the Academy will want to award Christopher Nolan not only for Inception, but of course for The Dark Knight and for creating an original, offbeat concept for a film that did huge at the box office. And it was really well reviewed. Look for Inception to be a major contender during Oscar season.

    2. Im surprised the lack of Oscar buzz “Inception” has received. I do think when it is released on DVD and BluRay with a campaign, Look out! It will be re-discover. If not, too bad it didnt have a December release date! (My biggest pet peeve about Oscar season.)

    3. Nah. Gladiator was the kind of grand historical epic that voters go gaga over, can’t say that about Inception. Plus, they expanded the voting pool a few years ago to favor smaller films.

      Also, I wouldn’t really put Crouching Tiger in the same category as those other films. Yeah it had a small budget, but it was a fantasy action flick that grossed $213.5 million worldwide ($128 domestic)

    4. As much as I loved Inception (and really all of Nolan’s work) I can’t say I agree here. Gladiator was a grand historical spectacle, rather unlike Inception. Inception was a breathtakingly original idea with amazing execution – I think it could garner a nod for original screenplay (which is a weak category as almost everything now is adapted) and a director nod. Maybe a look for Leo, unless Shutter Island splits voters. But I think with another Batman movie looming large on the horizon, voters won’t feel the need to throw him a bone. That said, with 10 movies nominated for pic, I think it’s a shoo-in for at least the nomination. The Town, Social Network, King’s Speech, 127 Hours, Toy Story 3, toss in some of the maybes like Black Swan, Long Way Back, you’ve still only got 7ish contenders.

  4. Wow, you hammered him. Hindsight is 20/20 though – and it’s easy to ask harsh WTF type questions with its benefit. At the storm of things happening it can be hard to predict how they might wash up. (cue evil foghorn)

  5. Always tough to argue with Bottom line success, and WB has been just that…but Alan Horn is an out of touch, bad judge of art and talent. This is the same guy who left Toby Emmerich in charge of New Line because of spread sheets instead of listening to an entire company of people and a town underneath them that told him (one publicly during a company wide video conference) Toby was simply not a reasonable choice to run that or any studio. Who in their right mind takes a Bob Shay hire and keeps them? Alan Horne does because inspite of all the people talking, Alan doesnt know ANY of them. Never has, wouldnt take the time or have the intelligence to learn the buisness growing beneath him. When you switch fields no matter your previous success, and agruably he may have been a good buisnessman, you need to learn how it works and know who the people are working for you…you didn’t. You knew who you were working for for sure…sadly lorenzo didnt and hence you kept your job when it should have been taken from you (what ever did happen to poor lorenzo diboneventura) And so, now…finally, farewell you out of touch man in a suit. No longer do we have to have your teenage daughters making 100 million dollar creative decisions or have to see your stupid big dumb hair.

    1. Hey Mr. Bitterman, Warner has won 30+ academy awards and make piles of cash under his tenure. So while he would have the class not to say it, I will …. SUCK IT!! Now get back to your cube and get to work before you lose another job.

  6. Atta writer, Nikki! Tough and well-informed yet respectful. This is the kind of interview that gets a good reporter fired by a weak editor after a wimpy publisher gets a nasty call from a frightened advertising department. This is why Nikki is the Mencken (“Freedom of the press is limited to those who own one”) of digital journalism.

  7. Wow, if The Blindside was ever considered to be worthy of Best picture that makes me very sad. The film was lifetime at best.
    This year the film ‘pulling a gladiator’ will be ‘The Fighter’. Saw it last night and having previously thought it would be a two horse race between Inception and Social network I think The Fighter is just on another level of film making. Having said that I haven’t seen Black Swan yet!

  8. Sobering interview. It’s too late for Inception; this particular stud is still in his stall while the other Oscar-bound horses have already begun the race. Clint actually thinks Hereafter is award-worthy? LMAO; that acronym times 2 for Harry Potter 7A. And isn’t The Departed, er, The Town have a been-there, done-that feeling?

  9. This is the kind of interview that is a great testament to what Deadline does. No softballs, some real questions and I give it to Alan Horn for actually answering the questions.

    In response to those grumbling about WB and other major studios not doing “small” films, I feel they just don’t have a good understanding of the studio film game. When you’re owned by multinational conglomerations and your ultimate responsibility is to the investor of (TWX, Sony, Disney, Viacom, etc) you’re forced to do films that have a distinct chance of affecting the bottomline. This is exactly what I believe is the major opportunity of indie filmmakers. Just look at the recent indie spirit awards nominations and all the related discussion of how it’s may be good oscar predictions. That’s exactly what we should be shooting for. Great stories will always be in demand, and studios can mostly make decisions on past metrics.

    The one thing that disgusts me about this whole conversation. I know we can’t change it but how the campaign is winning and losing oscars. The fact a movie is actually better or worse is merely secondary. When do the campaign finance reform discussions begin here. I believe this is a key problem why most of america doesn’t watch or care about the oscars anymore.

    Thanks again for the great interview.

  10. Impressive interviewer. Impressive interviewee. If there were an Oscar for Best Showbiz Interview, this would be a shoo-in nominee.

  11. “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.”

    Warner Bros releasing fewer films a year under Robinov? I’ll believe that when I see it.

    I’d like to see WB try and placate DiCaprio, Matt Damon etc with their first look deals and their 30+ ‘on lot’ producers with an annual output of 12 pictures.

  12. I’ve said it too many times but I will say it again. Nikki Finke would ask God tough questions and persist until she got an honest answer. There is no one like her in the industry and I hope she lives to be at least 102. If I could have six people for dinner I would only ask her to eat with me. She is a showstopper and the toughest Q&Aer in town.

  13. inception still has a chance at the oscars. it’s just coming out on home video and it will find its groove.

  14. Thanks for the interview Nikki and to Mr. Horn for sitting for it; a rare moment of candor in Hollywood. Having said that, you are way off base in your Blind Side assessment. Gladiator, in part because of Ridley Scott, had won BAFTA, The Producers Guild and the NBR. Solid movie with an elevated pedigree because of the talent. Blindside on the other hand, received nary a single Critic’s or Guild nomination. Mike Smith may have erred in moving Zenyatta too late, but there’s no winning when you’re saddling Mr. Ed.

  15. I knew Alan when he was a principal at Castle Rock and I was at Nelson Entertainment, which financed CR’s pictures. He was then, and it seems to me he remains now, an honest and principled executive. What startles me about the comments posted here is how many of them misread his words, or want to blast him by cherry-picking mistakes out of a million decisions he made as studio head.

    Someone wrote that Alan is taking credit for hits and passing on blame for mistakes. I read his words in exactly the opposite way. He’s admitting freely, for example, how he “missed it” entirely with “Million Dollar Baby,” and giving credit to Eastwood for being magnanimous about it.

    As to all the “bad” decisions he’s made: I challenge any of you haters to pick a slate of two dozen pictures a year — go ahead, go over all the projects you know are in development or about to be made and pick 24 — and figure out exactly where you’re going to spend the shareholders’ money, in advance. Then wait a year and see how you did, without the pressure of dealing with the talent. Alan’s done just fine; he can go to whatever the next stage of his professional life is with his head high.

    1. kevin koloff, thanks for your sobering/balancing words. I think, perhaps, I was quick to slam Mr. Horn, an executive I do not personally know other than through friends who’ve dealt with him/Warner Bros. and friends of friends. But after reading what you wrote, it certainly put a different spin on things and shifted my perspective a bit. So thank you for speaking up.

      And thank you, Nikki, again for such an incisive and revealing interview. (I swear, the interviews that you and Nellie and the rest of the Deadline gang do are so much, much, much better than “industry interviews” I’ve been reading in the LA times or NY times of late.)

      So muchas gracias — and keep ’em coming, please!

      — bobby the saint

  16. I don’t think it’s too late for Inception to gain some traction in the Best Picture race. While there are some shoo-in’s to get nods this year, there isn’t one movie that has that knockout punch in this category. Social Network, King’s Speech, Black Swan, The Kids Are All Right and Inception will all get nods, but none of them has emerged as a head and shoulders front runner. I think if WB puts together a big push for Inception, they can elevate it to the top of the Best Pic list. And if The Hurt Locker winning last year is any indication, the Academy isn’t afraid to award action-thrillers with feelings.

  17. Inception will not be the exception. I didn’t like it. I didn’t understand it. My pics. Even though there are 10, these are the top 5.

    True Grit.
    The Fighter.
    Social Network.
    King’s Speech.

    Winner: THE FIGHTER.

  18. Alright, Finke is a good interview, but she says some things that are absolutely ridiculous — like “The Blind Side” should have been considered for Best Picture. I don’t care if it could have even one the goddamn thing, that movie was straight balls. Straight balls. I like Sandra Bullock, but I also thought her win was a stretch but not impossible to accept because she was very good in her role.

    But to turn up the heat on the head of Warner Bros. because he didn’t go after the big kahuna… that’s just dumb. The movie didn’t deserve it. Let a really good movie win that award. If movies like “The Blind Side” win Oscars, the Oscars mean nothing.

  19. This top exec steps out and gives a candid interview in which he readily admits mistakes he’s made over his career and everyone wants to crucify him? How many other top executives at major studios are willing to publicly admit their shortcomings? This guy’s credentials (M.B.A. from Harvard University) and career successes speak for themselves. There is something to be said about helping to run one of the most successful studios in the business for over a decade. When will Part II of the interview get posted?

  20. FYI Finke,

    Bullock shouldn’t have won the Oscar for her performance in Blind Side.

    She didn’t do anything special. Meryl Streep is the MASTER!

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