Jordan Horowitz (C02), a sought-after Hollywood producer, screened his Academy Award-winning movie La La Land and discussed a broad range of topics to a riveted crowd in the Owen L. Coon Forum in Leverone Hall on May 23.
“Failing is good,” he said at the event, co-sponsored by the student-run production company Studio 22 and the Office of the President. School of Communication lecturer Stephen Cone moderated the hour-and-fifteen-minute discussion after the movie screening. “I’ve learned a little bit from successful movies, but I’ve learned much more from movies that didn’t do so well.”
As a kid growing up in Westchester County, New York, about forty-five minutes from Manhattan, Horowitz said his theatre-loving mother took him to shows at an early age. Horowitz said he used to put on productions for his parents in his basement, but added that even then he was more producer than actor.
“I was super-obsessed with the box office,” he said. “We’d put on these shows, but I’d be the one that always made sure we had tickets to hand out. You could say that early on I was destined to become a producer.”
As an undergraduate Theatre major at Northwestern, Horowitz said that early on he had aspirations to act, but decided that he was better suited behind the scenes.
“In my life, I was always someone who put people together—and this is what producers do,” he said. “But I never thought of it as a job.”
That changed when he and a few fellow Northwestern alumni opened a small theatre company in New York after graduation. They only ran very small shows, but the experience led to Horowitz wanting to be a producer full time. He moved to LA and worked for Garden State producer Gary Gilbert (the movie’s screenwriter, director, and star was fellow Wildcat Zach Braff). Eventually, he worked as a producer on The Kids Are All Right, which was nominated for a Best Picture Academy Award in 2011.
Horowitz said when he met La La Land’s director, Damien Chazelle, he loved his vision of writing an original musical, a love letter to LA that would be both contemporary but also a tribute to the old Hollywood song-and-dance film. The challenge, however, was getting the studios to see the value as well.
“By far, La La Land was the hardest picture ever to get greenlighted,” said Horowitz, who worked for six years to get the picture made. “The picture was too big. Studios didn’t want to take a risk on basically what amounted to an untested director and untested producer. Plus, nobody was clamoring for an original musical.”
La La Land was nominated for multiple Academy Awards, including Best Picture, in 2017. In a now-famous blunder, the wrong card was read at the culmination of the live show and La La Land was announced as the winner. It was Horowitz that stepped up to the microphone amid all the confusion and corrected the mistake, announcing Moonlight as the rightful winner. He was widely praised for his classy, compassionate handling of the awkward moment.
Horowitz told the audience that one of a producer’s greatest strengths is learning patience, and not to push a picture when the environment isn’t right.
“When I was younger, it was all about steamrolling and getting things done my way,” he said. “But now I understand the importance of waiting for the playing field to lay out the way you need it. That has a lot to do with being patient.”
Horowitz said he heard others lobbied criticism at the movie by suggesting it was just a vehicle for winning awards.
“That’s so weird to me to hear, because it was a pure passion project made by three kids and then it just became this juggernaut,” he said.
In his career, he said he’s always gravitated toward original work, and he said that he’s now looking for more unique stories.
“I think it’s especially important now to make films that aren’t too cynical, films that have a big heart and they aren’t afraid to wear it on their sleeves,” he said. “I also want diversity in my films—both in front of and behind the camera.”
Matt Ruchlman, a senior Theatre major who will join the Chicago Shakespeare Theater company after graduation, attended the event and said he found the talk thought-provoking.
“When I think about how hard it is to get a musical made on Broadway, and then, when you see here that they made an original musical movie, it just blows my mind,” he said. “It was great hearing how that came about and the challenges they faced.”
Sam Shapiro, a junior Radio/Television/Film major, agreed.
“I’ve noticed in many of these talks, there’s a discussion about the importance of failing, and while that may be clichéd a little bit, it’s also a very good reminder that we can learn from our mistakes,” he said.
– Cara Lockwood