Disney’s Sean Bailey: ‘Our Job is to Build Worlds’

Disney prod'n topper talks strategy at Entertainment and Technology Summit

Sean Bailey as president of production

From Amazon to Zynga, the promise and perils of VOD, multiplatform distribution and social media were the overarching topics of discussion among tech mavens and traditional Hollywood execs who gathered Monday for Variety’s Entertainment and Technology Summit at the Ritz-Carlton in Marina del Rey.

Disney Studios production prexy Sean Bailey offered a personal perspective on changing mantras for the studio feature biz during his keynote convo with Variety group editor Tim Gray. “Our job now is to build worlds,” Bailey said.

In picking its tentpoles, Disney has to focus on projects that can not only spin off sequels but also boost the bottom lines of the Mouse House’s other divisions, from music to consumer products and the theme parks.

Bailey said he and his boss, Disney Studios chairman Rich Ross, evaluate each major pic for its potential to serve as the hub of a wheel, with spokes branching out that can serve as their own storytelling mediums.

Bailey was quick to note that not every film the Mouse tackles must lend itself to such extensions. “For smaller movies it’s a wonderful bonus if it’s there, but it’s not a must-have,” Bailey said. “It’s important to not let that definition constrain you.”

But the creative community is starting to move in the same direction, developing concepts that can live as a film, videogames, TV shows and other content, he said. “They’re thinking about storytelling across all platforms,” Bailey said. “This is the storytelling capital of the world, and it’s a wonderful time to see what that means now.”

Bailey cited Disney’s strategy on “Tron: Legacy” — a project he was already on as producer before he took his exec post at the Mouse in early 2010. Film has crossed the $400 million mark, but the studio has yet to decide whether to greenlight a sequel. “With ‘Tron’ we got things right,” Bailey said, including working with the videogame developers, the writers and designers of the animated series and consumer products arm to “achieve a consistency” in the overall world seen in “Tron: Legacy.”

After a successful launch of consumer products, soundtrack release and theme park integration, property still has an animated series to bow this fall on Disney XD.

A decision to greenlight a third “Tron” all comes down to identifying whether “people understand the brand,” Bailey said. “Do we have a footprint in people’s consciousness?”

As for the rollout of premium VOD services and other digital delivery methods for pics, Bailey suggested that bizzers should refrain from attacking one another and instead “look at the opportunities and challenges” that each new technology offers. “We must look at what is really going on rather than be fear-based,” Bailey said.

Earlier in the day, Tom Adams, director and principal analyst of U.S. Media at IHS Screen Digest, sought to put hard numbers on the question of premium VOD and its impact on exhibition revenue as well as traditional homevid rentals and sales.

Adams projected that exhibs may lose 2 1/2 ticket sales for each premium VOD purchase, under the plan unveiled late last month by Fox, Sony, Universal and Warner Bros. to make selected feature titles available for $30 purchase 60 days after theatrical release. He also noted that the vast majority of theatricals make 84% of their theatrical revenue in the first month of release.

During a sesh on the state of the content biz, Candace Carlo, partner and chair of the entertainment group at Greenberg Glusker, said some of her clients have serious “artistic concerns” about the premium VOD plan. (Those clients include James Cameron, who has been vocal about his skepticism.) Carlo said creatives are worried about diluting the moviegoing experience — bigscreen pics should be seen in the format they were made for — and that the push to squeeze more coin out of pics via premium VOD would make the feature marketplace even tougher for smaller, nontentpole fare.

On the smallscreen side, Steve Mosko, prexy of Sony Pictures TV, and Lionsgate TV topper Kevin Beggs, agreed that Netflix’s buying spree of the past year has been a boon to studios, especially at a time when advertising sales and the off-network market is finally rebounding strongly from the blow of the economic meltdown. Netflix’s interest in the kind of serialized programming that typically doesn’t sell as well in the traditional off-net market will give producers much more flexibility to invest in the format, Beggs noted.

There was much talk at the summit about the evolution of cloud computing and the UltraViolet initiative backed by Warners and other majors that will allow consumers to purchase and store digital content for access by any digital device. Warner Bros. Digital Distribution prexy Thomas Gewecke said the studio is focused on improving the entire experience of digital transactions for consumers.

“There is a lot more we can do to make the benefits of ownership clear,” Gewecke said.

Brent Weinstein, head of digital media at UTA, presided over a panel that confronted the challenges of making money on content online.

Jim Wiatt, former head of WMA and current adviser to AOL, believes it’s only a matter of time before the economics become attractive enough for established storytellers from other mediums to gravitate to digital platforms. “At some point it’s worth their time to experiment there,” he said.

But Jordan Hoffner, president of digital at Ben Silverman’s Electus, warned that profits tend to flow more in the direction of platform owners like Facebook or YouTube than to the content creators who utilize the platforms. “The reality in digital is that it’s the platform that makes the most money,” he said.

To round out the day, a clutch of directors — Jon M. Chu (“Step Up 3D”), Eli Roth (“Hostel”), Tim Hill (“Hop”) and James Gunn (“Slither”) — gathered to discuss how the changing economics of visual effects have given rise to a whole new breed of lower-budget film.

Roth described how fellow filmmaker Timor Bekmambetov (“Wanted”) even turned to fans to churn out shots for an upcoming movie. However, he noted, “The technology is so exponential, but you can’t lose sight of the story.”

Gunn cited the unfortunate fact that the recession has become advantageous to directors. “There’s a lot of out-of-work talent dying to get involved,” he said.

But Hill said that for the specialized branch of visual effects he employed in “Hop” — creature animation — the talent pool is actually very small. “As the technology advances, it becomes so complex and really easy to screw up,” he said.