Walt Disney International Boss Talks Running a Successful Business Worldwide
Making an entertainment giant a success in various markets around the world requires management to forego any one-size-fits-all approaches and understanding local cultures, Walt Disney executives said Thursday at the Paley International Council Summit in New York.
Andy Bird, chairman of Walt Disney International, and Claudio Chiaromonte, executive vp and managing director, The Walt Disney Company Latin America, discussed their approach to bringing Disney magic to international territories without a cookie cutter approach.
Bird drew laughs when he started out the session by joking that the audience could either listen to the two executives for 30 minutes "or we'll show you 30 minutes of Star Wars."
He said when he took over Disney's international operations, many countries acted like in "giant, independent silos." He said he liked the Latin American operation that was an "integrated" operation and decided to implement the same approach around the world.
Bird said he and his team want to be the Chinese or Indian Walt Disney Company or so forth, not the Walt Disney Co. of a certain country.
At the same time, he said that Disney's advantage was its brand-centric strategy. People know what a Disney movie means and what to expect from it, he explained.
In China, with its stricter regulation, Bird said Disney early on focused on telling its stories through licensing. He also spent some time discussing India, a market that Disney was out of for a while, but has over the last decade or so focused on.
Bollywood films dominate 94-96 percent of moviegoing, and Disney acquired a controlling stake in UTV Motion Pictures to participate in the local film market in a bigger way, Bird said. He said the company now has 12 Disney-branded Bollywood films in development as it has over the past years built a development slate. Bird said the hope is to carve out a niche in the Indian movie business similar to how Disney has its niche elsewhere.
Bird also touted the strength of the Disney TV business in India, saying the conglomerate has nine TV networks, including three Disney channels.
Chiaromonte illustrated the importance of finding local ways to reach audiences by explaining how Disney in Brazil did a deal with the no. 2 network to be in free TV with a primetime kids slot and reach nearly all households as pay TV penetration was limited in the country.
He said his team wanted to connect with people in Latin America "without forgetting what Disney is," but adjusting it to local Latin culture and context. "We need to do the Disney brand within the Latin culture in the context of what is happening in the different countries in Latin America," he said.
Discussing Latin culture and understanding it and the context of specific countries further, he said Disney realized that it was easier for kids in Latin culture to connect with a real person on TV than purely animated content. "We found out that the kids really needed ... to connect with a human being," he said. "They have a very close emotional connection" with that particular person or character, he explained. "We could have said let's create animated content in Latin America, because we want to do more of this. That would have been silly," he said. "It had to be about people. Human beings participated."
Another key part of Latin culture is music. "We Latins are very passionate, we are very cheerful, and we love music," said Chiaromonte. So music got a bigger role in Disney shows than elsewhere.
In terms of formats working in Latin America, it was clear that telenovelas are very successful, said the executive. "But would this work for the kids? And the answer was yes," he said. "And that's how we came up with one of our most successful content [pieces] and franchises."
Kids telenovela Violetta about a talented teenager who returns to her hometown in Buenos Aires after living many years in Europe "was about music, it was about the values of the brand," said Chiaromonte. "It was in the context of what was happening in Latin America."
The show was "a complete success" beyond Latin America, being a hit in Spain and Italy and France. "We got all the Latin cultures with Violetta. Guess what: then we tried in other countries like Poland." The result: "We tried it in the U.K., and it didn't work ... We tried it in the U.S., and it didn't resonate that well, but ...we released it successfully over three years in more than 140 countries around the world with the same success."
His conclusion: "It's not one-size-fits all. Thank god, we are different. But we are not that different that we are separated. There are points of coincidence that we need to figure out."
Bird highlighted that Violetta star Martina “Tini” Stoessel started when she was 14 and recently was signed to Hollywood Records. "We are producing a movie, which will round off the Violetta story and then transfer Martina to Tini and start her bi-lingual global record career and then see whether or not we can't start putting her maybe into some Hollywood Disney movie," said Bird. "It's kind of a nice little encapsulated story of how we have turned the world a little bit on its head."