Tanen was born in Los Angeles and served in the United States Air Force after graduating from the University of California, Los Angeles. Following his military service, he got a job in 1954 in the MCA mailroom. He helped form the Uni Records label at MCA in 1967. Artists recording on the Uni label included Neil Diamond, Elton John, Olivia Newton-John and the Strawberry Alarm Clock. Uni Records later merged with Decca Records to become MCA Records.
Tanen served as production supervisor on the 1971 Miloš Forman film Taking Off, which became his springboard into film production at Universal Pictures, a subsidiary of MCA. He was named president of Universal's film division in 1976. His projects at Universal included a wide-ranging variety of box office and critical success, including the 1973 film American Graffiti, Jaws (1975), Smokey and the Bandit (1977), The Deer Hunter (1978), Melvin and Howard (1980) and Missing (1982). His 1980 films set an industry box office receipts record of $290 million, with releases including Coal Miner's Daughter, The Blues Brothers and Smokey and the Bandit II. He resigned from Universal in December 1982.
In a 1978 article in The New York Times, Tanen described how some of the biggest box office grossing films take on a life of their own, describing the success of the film Animal House was a surprise, acknowledging that "All we did was make a picture about college fraternity life in the 1960s".
He had left Universal saying he wanted to leave the Hollywood game and established Channel Productions, which produced the 1984 film Sixteen Candles and a pair of 1985 releases, The Breakfast Club and St. Elmo's Fire.
Moving to Paramount Pictures in October 1984, Tanen served as head of the studio's motion picture division, producing box office successes including the 1986 films "Crocodile" Dundee and Top Gun, and the 1987 releases Fatal Attraction and Beverly Hills Cop II, leading Paramount to post the top revenues among all studios in both 1986 and 1987. The studio's films in 1986 drew receipts of $600 million, more than twice its nearest competitor and setting an industry record at the time. Other films produced by Paramount during his time there include Ferris Bueller's Day Off (1986), Children of a Lesser God (1986), Fatal Attraction (1987), The Accused (1988) and Ghost (1990). Tanen resigned in November 1988, with the responsibilities included in his position split between Sid Ganis and Barry London.
The character Biff Tannen in the Back to the Future films was named after Tanen. Writers Bob Gale and Robert Zemeckis had met with Tanen during a script meeting for I Wanna Hold Your Hand, and Tanen had reacted in aggressive fashion to their writing.
- Grimes, William. "Ned Tanen, Movie Executive With a Taste for Youth Films, Dies at 77", The New York Times, January 8, 2009. Accessed January 8, 2009.
- Bates, william. "Hollywood in The Era of the 'Super-Grosser'", The New York Times, December 24, 1978. Accessed January 10, 2009.
- Harmetz, Aljean. "President of the Film Group At Paramount Steps Down", The New York Times, November 22, 1988. Accessed January 9, 2009.
- Freer, Ian. "The making of Back to the Future", Empire (magazine), January 2003.