Disney ambassador: CinemaCon salutes David Kornblum's global efforts


Right at the dizzying digital entertainment rotary where great product meets great expanses like China and great promise from rising markets sits David Kornblum, VP of international theatrical sales and distribution, Asia-Pacific and Russia, for Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures International and this year’s recipient of CinemaCon’s annual “CinemaCon Passepartout Award.”

But Kornblum, always on the go, doesn’t sit for long. Based in Disney’s Burbank offices, he’s often on the road. “It varies, and over the last 15 years it more and more depends on what’s going on. I’m usually away about 10 or 11 weeks per year.” Those weeks on the road in Asia-Pacific and Russia could very well increase, as the region is the world’s fasting-growing for moviegoing and accounts for over 40% of annual box-office revenues.
While the Passepartout Award does not recognize miles earned, it does honor industry executives for exceptional dedication and commitment to the international marketplace. In Kornblum’s case, you might also add enthusiasm, as he declares, “I have the best job in the world.”

Kornblum began his Disney career in 1989 and held numerous executive-level positions before stepping into his current VP shoes. In 1993, he helped establish and build Disney’s distribution organization at a time when the company first took on direct distribution. He has spent over 24 years with the Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures International distribution team, where he has been involved in distribution of more than 500 titles across all genres and throughout the international marketplace. These include the record-setting Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides, Marvel’s The Avengers, Alice in Wonderland and Toy Story 3, all of which grossed more than $1 billion worldwide and became among the very top grossers in industry history.

His purview covers distribution of all Disney Studios, Marvel, Pixar, Walt Disney Feature Animation and DreamWorks titles in 15 markets including Japan, Australia, Russia, South Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, the Philippines, Vietnam, Indonesia, New Zealand, India and the People’s Republic of China, where it’s not just high rises, yuan and exports that rise. As well-reported, Kornbluth reminds that box office in China last year grew 30% and the number of screens is soaring. And Russia last year reportedly had a near 10% box office jump.

In addition to his oversight of these vast, increasing markets, Kornblum has the added responsibility of shepherding Disney’s international acquisitions through Buena Vista for these areas.

Prior to Disney, Kornblum worked in corporate finance at Paramount and for the independent Atlantic Entertainment. In his previous Disney role as VP of international sales and distribution, he oversaw sales planning, strategy and analysis. During his tenure, the company reached the $1 billion annual box-office threshold for the first time and has now crossed this plateau for 18 years in a row—a consecutive record unmatched by any other distributor. Kornblum was integral in propelling the company to a new performance record in 2010 when Disney attained $2.3 billion in overseas box office. The $2 billion milestone was also crossed in 2011 and 2012.

Last year’s releases on Kornblum’s watch included the $1.5 billion global-grossing The Avengers, which currently stands as the third most successful release ever in industry history; Brave, winner of the Best Animated Feature Oscar; and the smash Wreck-It Ralph, on target to notch more than $275 million in international box office.

It’s not just because Kornblum grew up in Southern California and was crazy about movies as a kid that he’s a natural for his job. “I loved seeing films in the theatres, on the big screen,” he emphasizes, “because it was and, of course, remains the very best way to see them. But I also learned back then to love all the numbers and statistics relative to this business. Then, after I graduated UCI [the University of California at Irvine], I went off to Europe and that did it. I had always had a wanderlust and realized how much I loved connecting to different cultures outside the U.S.”

Clearly, a perfect storm was brewing for Kornblum to land at Disney and go very international. The large territories he covers break down into a total of 15 offices that are in his “remit.” Thirteen of these, he says, are Disney-owned and operated, all of which cues the question of where have been the most noticeable changes in audience taste. Kornblum replies, “The PRC and Russia. Both countries have long had strong cultures of cinema but have grown to love Hollywood storytelling. This has much to do with the multiplexing going on that has allowed Hollywood to discover and nurture these markets. There have been two phases in this international growth, first in the mid-’90s as moviegoing became more than a second thought and now this latest burst with the new cinema building in places like Russia, the PRC and India.”

As Disney is a powerhouse in both animation and live action, there’s also the question of which genre has the most appeal. “It’s equal,” Kornblum quickly answers, “because Disney is in the enviable position of having the most powerful brands [in these genres] under one roof. With Walt Disney Pictures, people know they’ll receive magic for the whole family. There’s Pixar animation, which takes Disney elements but applies them to a different sensibility and an exciting new visual experience. And Marvel, which delivers the comic books and superheroes.”

And now Kornblum can add another galaxy to his itineraries. “We just bought Lucasfilm. I grew up watching Star Wars as a kid and now we’re at Star Wars 7.”

Not surprisingly, 3D continues huge in growing markets like Russia, China and Vietnam, Kornblum reports, while more mature markets are also just fine with 2D.

As for theatre conversions to digital, “the newer markets skipped the 20th century. Every new theatre today is digital, which makes it fantastic for me to be in the distribution business. And look what the theatres get: great resolution with durability, lower costs, greater security. And they can leverage their content so much better.”

Countries like India and the Philippines are conversion laggards, he says, but others are 50 to 60% converted and Hong Kong is 100% digital. “I’m guessing and hoping that digital will be ubiquitous in the next five years.”

Also important to the business are other added amenities theatres are providing. “These enhance the cinematic and cinema-going experience.” To underscore his point, he proposes an analogy: “You may have the best kitchen in the world at home, but you still love to go out to a fine restaurant just as you’d go out to a fine theatre and enjoy that communal experience. It’s key. And I’m seeing these ‘gold class’ cinemas becoming more the norm, where venues have a dedicated area, maybe with one or two screens, that is ‘gold class’ and people might want food service. Across the board this works. Australia started the trend and many new builds around the world are adopting it.”

Another big amenity is IMAX. Says Kornblum, “They’re a key partner. Oz the Great and Powerful was just released in IMAX. The imagery popped off the screen and it was terrific.”
While Oz reportedly performed well domestically, overseas has been slower. But Kornblum counters that “‘soft’ doesn’t describe what the film will do internationally “because we haven’t yet opened in China and we’re seeing changes in this [Chinese] marketplace. China can move the needle on a film in a big way.”

Asked whether icons and entrenched brands in the U.S. like the Wizard of Oz or the Lone Ranger (starring in a new Disney film adaptation this summer) are just too, well, American to travel abroad, Kornblum acknowledges the “affinity for these brands in the U.S., which is great, but when they have so much visual flair and spectacle, they transcend that lack of awareness abroad.” Kornblum is confident about the prospects for The Lone Ranger: “We’ve brought back together many of the ‘Pirates’ people, including Gore Verbinski, Johnny Depp and Jerry Bruckheimer.”

Asked which of the recent Disney releases brought him the biggest surprises, Kornblum names The Avengers. (Its success just made Disney the top-ranked media company, according to SNL Kagan). Explains Kornblum, “Until then, superhero films never crossed the one-billion mark. With that film everything came together, it was a wonderful Petri dish that just connected with the imagination. I had no idea how big this would be. And how great it is that we have other Marvel films that will benefit from this halo effect. Another surprise was Pirates. We have that outlandish character that Depp plays, a great director with Gore Verbinski and a great producer in Jerry Bruckheimer.”

As for audience attendance habits, Kornblum observes, “Unlike in North America or Europe or Latin America, my markets are more adult-driven. We have more of a date crowd, more adults who don’t have families yet and go out for that social experience. Our more mature markets more resemble things here in North America where the audience is getting older and like more story-driven films and less visual spectacle. In Japan, however, families are still key. Families with kids want to go out together and go to the movies.”

In addition to shepherding Disney-made product in his territories, Kornblum also oversees international acquisitions, which aren’t locally produced films in the territories but are some of the best films from the domestic independent sector. As he explains, “In addition to our great Disney content, I work with the great distribution teams we have around the world to find strong product from U.S. independents that can go out under the Buena Vista International banner. So movies like Red with Bruce Willis and Soul Surfer, which did so well, are strong films that supplement our release slate. After all, going to the movies is a 52-week-a-year experience.”

Looking at China, Kornblum declares, “From a cinema perspective, we’re happy we can release more films in China [from 20 a year to 34 today], so that’s a positive thing. They are still building about one multiplex a day, which gives us great opportunity, especially because we’re making the kind of films that Chinese audiences find fascinating.” Kornblum is also excited about the Disney theme park opening in China in 2015.

Current on the Disney calendar for Kornblum are the ongoing releases of Wreck-It Ralph and Oz. Looming are Marvel’s Iron Man 3, which debuts internationally the last week of April; Pixar’s Monsters University, set for a mid-June release; The Lone Ranger, going day-and-date global in July; and the latest in the Pirates franchise.

As Disney keeps the great product flowing, the big challenge ahead, says Kornblum, is to “keep audiences engaged with the theatrical experience, especially the young, because they now have so many different things to do. So we have to keep that [film-going] experience at the forefront, keep it the top choice. And we want that high level of the all-important distributor-exhibitor relationship to continue. It’s both an adventure and challenge we face. I’m hoping exhibition will keep innovating with their cinemas, keep them clean, keep that experience great. Because what it all comes down to is offering a premier experience for premier content. We both have so much at stake in this collaboration because we’re so tied together.”