Record Breakers: Disney's Chambers and Jury celebrate a stellar year

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With another “beauty” of a year that Disney just notched worldwide (a record year, in fact), how appropriate that Disney's Tony Chambers and Lee Jury, co-heads of the studio’s EMEA (Europe, Middle East and Africa) distribution operations, will receive CineEurope international distribution honors for 2017 in Barcelona on June 22.

In addition to the broad swath of oversight (the EMEA includes all of Africa but only the Ukraine among Russia’s former Soviet states), Chambers and Jury are unique in their group because they also go granular. Chambers, officially the EMEA senior VP and head of studio sales and distribution, and Jury, EMEA VP and head of studio marketing, serve as regional co-heads for the U.K./Ireland in their specific areas; Chambers and Jury jointly oversee the day-to-day and strategizing and have direct operational accountability for their activities throughout the U.K./Ireland. This “home” arrangement differs from their other Disney EMEA territories where Chambers and Jury rely on local offices or sub-distributors for such local focus.

With offices at Disney’s London headquarters separated by only ten doors, Chambers and Jury were behind the £300,000,000 (approximately $384,270,000) at the box office in 2016, the biggest-ever single box-office year recorded by any theatrical distributor in their market. This included the box-office force Star Wars: The Force Awakens, the third highest-grossing movie ever released in the region.

Not that such accomplishments are so easy, even with a treasure chest of product continually emanating from the studio’s Disney, Pixar, Marvel and Lucasfilm units.

With Chambers at the top level of sales, distribution and operations and Jury guiding marketing, Chambers notes, “We have two very distinct responsibilities, but additionally responsibilities in the middle. We had to divide and conquer, so we have our defined areas and some ‘grey’ like those in planning and budgeting. Our offices are close to each other, as we know that the only way business works is by the continuous flow of information.”

And work there is, including the dubbing that Chambers oversees. “I work with a team that does this across all media. It’s about making the experience relevant for the consumer, and localization is the way to go because you can use big local dubbing talent so that the films aren’t U.K.-centric.” And, adds Jury, there’s also marketing value by “going with this local talent—it not only gives more to local filmgoers but creates a lot of opportunity, like an end-title song sung by a well-known artist in the local language.”

Dubbing continues as the way to go, say the executives, in France, Germany, Italy and Spain. In Switzerland and Belgium, Disney films go out dubbed in as many as three different languages. And dubbing is no easy task: They point to Frozen, which was dubbed internationally in more than 41 languages, and Beauty and the Beast’s 30 versions.

Chambers is also responsible for the studio’s local acquisitions strategy in EMEA. Local productions across territories continue to be a strong box-office factor, he confirms.

There are also minutiae for Chambers and Jury to deal with. For instance, their attention is needed when Disney releases like Zootopia, Moana, Tomorrowland, or Avengers: Infinity War need to be retitled for the EMEA market (e.g., Zootopia became Zootropolis).

As managers of both Disney’s theatrical and physical home-entertainment operations for EMEA, Chambers and Jury also work both sides of the aisles. Chambers explains. “For us, [the windows situation] is a bit of a non-issue and we don’t worry about it. As [Walt Disney Studios chairman] Alan Horn and [The Walt Disney Company chairman and CEO] Bob Iger recently reiterated, we as a studio are making movies that people want to see and need to experience on the big screen. Our branded content strategy and upcoming lineup look very, very strong and we are in the fortunate position where the majority of our releases become global events and phenomena. Consequently, what we have in terms of approach is definitely working, so there is no real reason for us to disrupt or tamper with that.”

Chambers, whose career at Disney spans over 22 years, has overseen successful distribution of such recent blockbusters as Finding Dory, Frozen, Guardians of the Galaxy, Inside Out, Maleficent, Marvel’s The Avengers, The Jungle Book and Zootropolis. In 2015 and 2016, he oversaw distribution of the two highest-grossing titles released theatrically across EMEA—Star Wars: The Force Awakensand Rogue One: A Star Wars Story.

Chambers previously served as general manager for the emerging markets where he had responsibility for all Walt Disney Company operations, including motion pictures, consumer products, Disney Channels, retail and TV, in the Middle East, Israel, Africa, Turkey, Greece and Cyprus. He is a Fellow of the Institute of Chartered Accountants and did graduate studies at University College Dublin.

Jury has worked over 21 years in the industry, during which he helped successfully launch over 450 films. After climbing the ranks of The Walt Disney Company, he now leads a team of over 40 marketing and publicity executives in the EMEA he oversees with Chambers. He is an honors graduate of Sheffield Hallam University with a B.A. degree in Business and Technology Management.

Asked about the impact of Disney’s North American release dates on those for the EMEA territories, Chambers responds, “The U.S. dates are always markers in the sand for us, but we have to be very conscious of our local holidays, of local habits and certainly of competitive titles, local ones certainly, as these can be strong in certain territories. Italy is a typical example. But release date patterns can vary: Rogue One, for instance, was day-and-date everywhere, while a title like Zootropolis went out a little early here.”

As for the challenges affecting theatre traffic in their many territories, Chambers and Jury bypass concerns regarding under-screening. Even in a country like Uganda with only six true commercial screens, Disney’s Uganda-made, chess-themed gem Queen of Katwe had what they term a successful release. Referring to a much more significant and amply screened market, Chambers notes, “Across Europe as a region, we’re relatively mature and sophisticated, so our biggest challenge these days is for people’s time, especially with so many options now available to them.”

“Every country is different,” Jury says. “So we know that one size does not fit all and markets are at different places on the curve in terms of adoption of platforms [that can distract from theatre-going]. So we view these idiosyncrasies individually and don’t push them across other markets.”

Amidst so much change and distraction, some things like dubbing, as described above, remain a constant, even as fluency in English grows. As for any noteworthy shifts in audience tastes and habits, Jury observes that, considering Disney’s long history with live-action and animation sequels, “it has been interesting to see how whatever the film—whether action, animation, franchises—what once attracted the younger audiences of the originals or previous incarnations keeps them coming back [for the newer iterations] as adults, even with a film like Finding Dory, whose predecessor Finding Nemo preceded it by so many years. So where we had a bigger concentration of families for films like these in their earlier years, now we also have mixed audiences that include older fans.”

To further the point, Jury cites the 2015 Star Wars: The Force Awakens, a continuation of the Star Wars franchise journey that began in 1977. “We went after all age groups but with a special focus on the over-55 demographic, as we had the original cast back and we saw a core audience that has been with it since 1977. In fact, all of our films feel four-quadrant.” Supporting this, Chambers notes that “the advantage we have with our branded content is even as you won’t know what you’re going to see, you’ll see what you want to see. Every film, of course, is different, but with these there’s a familiarity that is also a strong attraction.”

Jury has overseen a growing digital emphasis in Disney marketing, and Chambers suggests that the conversion to digital purchases is an item that both distribution and exhibition in his regions could improve upon. “We don’t have aggregated ticket providers [like Fandango or MovieTickets.com] in our territories, so the consumer journey from marketing to ticket purchase can be less efficient and more fragmented than elsewhere. As an industry—both distribution and exhibition—it needs to be about driving consumer engagement, driving frequency and ultimately driving to that ticket purchase. Yes, it would be helpful if we had ticket aggregators, but we have thankfully already had a number of successful tests and conversations with exhibitors in the past 12 months on this, so progress is definitely being made.”

In these relatively calm moviegoing seas, the Disney juggernaut of successful releases continues unabated. Among the most outstanding of the recent titles, Jury cites Beauty and the Beast, “which was staggering—it was the eighth-biggest picture ever in the U.K. and Ireland.” Says Chambers, “Whether good or bad times, you always have to expect the unexpected, But the minute we become complacent about how well we’re doing, we’re asking for trouble. Lee and I are very clear that in our jobs we have a duty to the filmmakers, audiences, exhibitors and also to our teams to do everything that we can to maximize every single release and to realize that even in good times there is always something that we could do better.”

Disney will surely keep doing it better with upcoming titles like Cars 3 for July 14, Thor: Ragnarok for Oct. 27 and Star Wars: The Last Jedi for Dec. 15. January will no doubt kick off 2018 in a burst of music, spectacle and box office with Pixar’s Coco. Black Panther, A Wrinkle in Time, Magic Camp and Marvel’s Avengers: Infinity War (retitled with the addition of “Marvel’s” for the EMEA) follow soon after in 2018.

With so many Disney titles on the horizon, the inevitable question—even if it’s as unfair as asking a parent to pick a favorite child—arises of what film the executives are most excited about. “Coco,” they both chime, which is about a 12-year old, music-loving Mexican boy living in a lively village but among a family that doesn’t like music. Chambers calls the film, due in late November in the U.S., “one of those special emotional stories from Pixar. It takes place during the celebrated Mexican holiday of the Day of the Dead. We saw a rough version and can say it tells a great story with a great message and will look stunning.” And Jury, in a no-child-left-behind-moment, adds that “obviously, we also have for December Star Wars: The Last Jedi,” thus assuring audiences worldwide that the forces allied with Disney product will continue to be with us.