The future of media is local and digital, says Disney head

PEPE DON’T PREACH - Pepe Diokno (The Philippine Star) - February 21, 2016 - 9:00am

Robert Gilby is the managing director of the Walt Disney Company in Southeast Asia. That means he oversees the entire operations in the region of a Hollywood giant, one that is responsible for blockbusters such as Star Wars: The Force Awakens, all of Marvel’s movies, all of Pixar’s movies, not to mention Frozen. So it was a bit of a surprise for me to see him as chairman of the board of the Singapore Media Festival (SMF), an event aimed at spurring local creativity, where Brillante Mendoza was president of a jury, obscure Filipino indie films were programmed, and local TV shows were being feted. So what does a Hollywood man have to do with local content, and is this a sign of things to come in the global media landscape? I asked Gilby these questions in a one-on-one conversation on the sidelines of the festival.

PHILIPPINE STAR: In Disney in Southeast Asia, how much of your work is with local creators?

ROB GILBY: Disney, historically, makes its own movies and TV shows and distributes them around the globe and we’re very proud and we love the work we do. But I think in the last 10 years, we’ve had a focus on growing our presence globally; really being a local Walt Disney Company. That means fitting into local communities. So while I will always still love to distribute Star Wars and Marvel and Cinderella, really, my involvement with the Singapore Media Festival came from a desire to support the growth of local talent and see the whole film and TV ecosystem grow. When it grows, of course, we do well, too.

Local creators and a big company like Disney are usually seen on opposite sides of a spectrum. Do they compete with one another?

We all share a love of storytelling. It’s all about great storytelling and it doesn’t matter where you start. Walt Disney started as a small filmmaker. George Lucas started as a small, independent filmmaker. All of the great talents that are behind a big companies all started small — everyone has to start somewhere, right? And so I think we actually share. It’s not about big companies versus small companies or US versus local. We’re all in the business of telling great stories and trying to find opportunities.With the SMF, we want to create a platform to bring everybody together. The US film industry is a very mature industry, large-scale, and so there are more opportunities for filmmaking talent. In Asia and particularly in Southeast Asia, there is incredible talent and great stories, but there is not always as much opportunity for them to practice their craft, or to secure investments, or to share their wonderful stories with everybody else. My interest in seeing that ecosystem grow is that I don’t know where the next writer, producer or next story is going to come from. Great storytelling can come from anywhere. An example is Ronnie del Carmen, who worked on Inside Out. He is very proud to be Filipino.

You mentioned that the SMF is a platform for Southeast Asia, and Disney has its headquarters in Singapore. What is it about this city that makes it a hub for the region?

Actually, I really love how the government has supported the industry. They’ve said, “I need to invest in this industry. This industry is important to me because it creates jobs through skills and capabilities. And it gives a platform for national roots and national storytelling.” I think that’s very important to invest in creativity in the arts. It’s not a soft area. I believe in the value of creative economy in countries and I believe in the potential it provides for positive national identity, pride in the good things about a country. What I love in Singapore is they’re very clearly invested in trying to create that kind of environment.Second thing that’s really important about Singapore is that it is a little bit of a hot point. Geographically, it is very easy to connect with the region. And Singapore celebrates the diversity of its population. Put this together with a wonderful infrastructure, nice airport, nice technology, it makes for a nice meeting ground.

What do you want to see come out of SMF?

I’d love to see collaboration between filmmakers from different countries. I would love if a director from the Philippines got together with a producer from Thailand and a talent from Japan. You put these together and you get something really new and unique, which we don’t get in the US or European system.

In the current state of things, we aren’t seeing much of these collaborations. Are the hindrances political, economic or cultural?

I don’t think they’re political. I think actually that media tends to be an area where there’s less national politics. Cultural? There is a journey every time you get to know a different culture. There’re so many layers to cultures and you can think you understand but you don’t. But I don’t think that’s a challenge. I think that’s a really unique opportunity. Because that’s where the richness of bringing different cultures together and exploring new areas comes in. It’s where people are discovering and go, “I would never have thought of it that way.” It’s economics. It’s a matter of, if you make a film across different areas, who’s going to watch it? How do you finance that film? Where are you going to exhibit it? How you create something that’s going to appeal to different audiences? This is why we introduced the projects market (in SMF).

Speaking of other countries, what would you like them to contribute to SMF?

I would love more participation. We have eight Filipino films being exhibited. We had one of the filmmakers running a master class, which is great. And one of the films is shortlisted for Best Asian Film on the Silver Screen Awards. Participation is really important because it inspires the next generation of filmmakers and makes them feel that they’re part of a larger system.Apart from film, I would also love more presence at the Asian television event, and more YouTube artists from the region to attend the digital events. Next time, I need to bring Mikey Bustos. He’s awesome.

On that note, lets’s talk about digital.

Yes. SMF is the only event I’ve seen that actually, truly has film, TV and digital, fully connected. That seems to me the future of media and entertainment. They’re converging.

How is the landscape changing in that sense?

You know, when Disney’s CEO and chairman (Bob Iger) took his role about 11 years ago, one of his three core strategies was “Embrace new technology.” I think recently, with great developments, we need to have a love affair with technology. And it’s important as it affects most parts of the ecosystem. It certainly affects the viewership, as in how people enjoy film or TV or radio. And that leads to how you distribute it. It also leads to how you market.

If you watch something like Mad Men, it was back in the days when you could just buy your way across certain marketing channels. That’s not how it works anymore. It’s discovery. How do you discover something?

We use influencers and social media and other connections to enable discovery. We use a different language now: Influence, engage and fan. Even how you produce has changed. I think it may enable new ways. People are sometimes using Kickstarter to fund some of their films. That was never possible before. There’s a great app that a couple of guys here in Singapore developed called ViddSee. I love it. It’s a simple, well-designed app that just showcases films. And many of the films I’d never have seen.

Last year at the media festival, I was having a conversation with Eric Khoo, a celebrated Singaporean filmmaker. Brilliant filmmaker, love what he does, but hasn’t spent as much time in the digital space.

Then the next day, in exactly the same location, I was having a chat with a Singaporean YouTube production company called Night House Cinematics. And they love Eric’s films, but they never really thought about talking to a filmmaker. So I thought, “Hmm, what if you can start getting this together?

What is possible with that kind of process?” The connection of technology to everything from filmmaking to raising the financing to distributing movies to getting a scalable audience is a fantastic opportunity. There’s a lot of filmmakers who say, “I don’t know how to do that.” And there’s a lot of YouTube creators saying, “I know how to do this but I don’t know how to tell my stories.”And there are brands like the FMCG (fast-moving consumer goods) companies.

The new marketing is storytelling; branded entertainment. It’s not enough just to buy media and create a commercial anymore. Now you have to tell your brand story. These companies are now saying, “I want to work with storytellers.” You have all these communities we’re trying to kind of put together. And when you do, some really cool things happen. I don’t know how all those play out and I don’t think anyone will until you get it together. I find it exciting. I love the creativity that exists in this part of the world.

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Tweet the author @PepeDiokno.

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