Selected out of almost 2,000 applicants, all from underrepresented backgrounds, the lineup of filmmakers features six writers (Jasmine Johnson, Kevin Park, W.A.W. Parker, Xavier Stiles and the married screenwriting team of Joel Perez and Adrian Ferbeyre), five directors (Alexander Bocchieri, Erica Eng, Spencer Glover, Cashmere Jasmine and Gabriela Ortega) and one writer-director (Niki Ang). Their six short films, based on the theme “connection,” will debut on the streaming service in 2023.
After the successful debut of the pipeline program last year, the Disney team strived to up the ante with year two. Disney senior manager Phillip Domfeh, who runs the initiative’s second season, tells Variety that the team asked themselves, “How do we grow and expand impact? And how do we continue to take our program to the next level?”
The pipeline program therefore added a writing track, which allowed both directors and writers to apply, while the first season was geared solely toward multi-hyphenate filmmakers.
“One of the very obvious opportunities was to bring writers into the program,” Domfeh explains. “They’re really, really important in this business and often overlooked, and we have a belief that diversity begins on the page before it happens on the camera.”
This meant that the filmmakers applied separately, sending in their writing and directing samples to the Disney team for review before they were paired with another writer or director.
Domfeh and the Disney team began their selection process by analyzing the scripts. “Let’s identify the stories we’re most passionate about, the stories that resonate with us, the stories that we feel like we haven’t seen,” he recounts. “And then let’s find the right directors to bring those to life.”
From there, the team hoped for a “little bit of magic” when finding the right pairings.
“There is a je ne sais quoi to filmmaking, and you see a short film that someone made and then you see a script,” Domfeh begins. “For example, we have one director, Gabriela Ortega, whose sample was more on the horror side of film, kind of surrealist, versus this script in ‘Beautiful, Fl.’ that had these very dynamic and heightened elements — like I know it seems weird, but we think that these two would actually really, really vibe.”
He adds: “The vision is always seeking authenticity, never trying to pigeonhole a storyteller or say that this is the only type of thing that they can bring to bear, but trying to bring to bear what we have in front of us in the truest way possible.”
The Launchpad team then introduced the filmmakers to each other via email. “When everyone connected, I breathed a sigh of relief,” Domfeh admits. “Everyone raves about the filmmakers that they’re working with, so we got it right.”
Like “Launchpad” Season 1, the program has been affected by the COVID-19 pandemic; after the filmmakers were notified that they’d been selected in December, they were welcomed into a virtual orientation instead of meeting in person.
During that orientation, though, the filmmakers were surprised by a special guest — Carlos López Estrada, the Oscar-nominated director of Disney’s “Raya and the Last Dragon.”
“He shared from the heart what it means to take that journey as a filmmaker coming out of the indie space — that rough and tumble, pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps work environment — into the studio environment, which undoubtedly is very different,” Domfeh explains. “We definitely want to continue doing that and creating those moments of connection for filmmakers. We have some other exciting things planned.”
Estrada is just one of the major forces at Disney with whom the filmmakers will interact, in addition to the senior Disney creative executives who will mentor them throughout the program.
“It takes a lot of people coming from a different perspective to make excellent work, but we definitely saw an opportunity there to try to communicate with the filmmakers and have someone in their life who understands the journey,” Domfeh says.
The new group of filmmakers also received invaluable advice from the Season 1 crew about working within the studio system.
“They were dying to just welcome them in and create an expanded community where every season the other cohort teaches them all their lessons and imparts all their wisdom,” Ibrahim says. “They organized a panel where it was all about lessons learned from Season 1, how to shoot on a studio production, how to shoot during COVID successfully.”
The overarching theme of the filmmakers’ advice centered on working within union regulations.
“One of the key themes to Launchpad is bringing that training opportunity to our filmmakers — whether they be from theatrical, the indie world, film school, who absolutely have no idea or exposure to what it takes to make a studio film,” Ibrahim recounts. “After they’ve been through that process, they now know making a $200 million movie is the exact same union process just with more resources.”
The filmmaking teams are now in the script development phase of the year-long program, with filming set to begin over the summer.
“We’re just so excited,” Domfeh says of their progress so far. “These stories are wild. They’re beautiful, they’re funny, they’re dynamic, they’re spooky. There’s just such a beautiful plethora and dynamism to the narratives that we’re going to tell.”
He admits that a few of the projects brought him to tears. “It’s tough to get me to tear up from reading a script, and that happened on numerous occasions,” he says. “That was a sign that the storytellers were manifesting the theme of connection in unspoken ways that I didn’t see coming. They’re a really imaginative, creative group.”
Domfeh is most thrilled about the way the new lineup adds to the totality of the Launchpad program, representing a collection of stories that will only grow more impactful as new films launch on Disney Plus each season. “As we continue, there’s just going to be this treasure trove of narratives,” he says.
Launchpad’s inaugural class is already seeing success outside of the pipeline program, notes Mahin Ibrahim, director of representation & inclusion and content talent pathways. First season filmmaker Ann Marie Pace is set to direct an episode of Disney Plus’ “High School Musical: The Musical – The Series.”
“She’s in prep right now on set,” Ibrahim reports. “Part of what we tried to do [with Launchpad] is open up that door; it’s all about access and opportunity, creating over 100 creative connections between our filmmakers and creative executives across the company and our several brands.”
Pace helmed the short film “Growing Fangs” during the Launchpad program, which impressed the Disney Branded TV Team and helped her land the “High School Musical” gig. (To note: Pace was also a Disney employee, working as a multi-media creative coordinator for Disney Channel.)
“They glommed onto her short, which was a testament to [Pace] really understanding the brand, and they just thought she was a perfect fit,” Ibrahim explains, adding that Pace is an LGBTQ filmmaker and “HSMTMTS” showrunner Tim Federle was particularly keen on helping to bring up the next generation of LGBTQ talent.
“That’s just the beginning of what we hope will be thousands of success stories for our launchpad filmmakers,” she declares.
The “Launchpad” Season 2 lineup of short films (with working titles) and filmmakers are:
“Beautiful, FL” — Director: Gabriela Ortega; Writers: Joel Perez and Adrian Ferbeyre
A teen girl scrambles to get spare parts from her eclectic trailer park neighbors and fix the family RV in time to share her tia abuela’s special flavor in the annual Beautiful, FL Ice Cream Competition.
“Black Belts” — Director: Spencer Glover; Writer: Xavier Stiles
KJ, an offbeat middle schooler and martial arts movie nerd from Compton, challenges the top dojos in South LA, wearing his uncle’s old black belt. But when his former fighter dad gets too involved, both learn there’s more to life than keeping your guard up.
“The Ghost” — Director: Erica Eng; Writer: Kevin Park
12-year-old Clarice Cheung feels like she’s invisible in her family—especially next to her older sister Naomi. But when a powerful ghost appears in their house, the estranged sisters will have to team up and stop it before their family is torn apart forever.
“Maxine” — Director/Writer: Niki Ang
Nervous about introducing her first girlfriend to her family, a queer college student gets help from the spirit of a long lost relative during the Hungry Ghost Festival.
“Project CC” — Director: Cashmere Jasmine; Writer: Jasmine Johnson
A brilliant child scientist must reconnect with her beauty influencer sister when a cloning experiment goes awry.
“The Roof” — Director: Alexander Bocchieri; Writer: W.A.W. Parker
After being sent to stay with his grandfather, a Cheyenne teen uncovers a secret that connects him to his family and community in a way he never thought possible.
For more information about the program, including a complete list of all semi-finalists and finalists, visit https://launchpad.disney.com/2021directors#finalists.