Global recognition: Dave Hollis brings Disney brands to a world audience


Worldwide sales and distribution of the Walt Disney Studios’ films to theatres across the globe, along with the enduring and lucrative brands that power those films, couldn’t be in better hands than those of Dave Hollis, Walt Disney Studios’ executive VP, theatrical distribution, and the recipient of CineEurope 2013‘s “International Distributor of the Year” Award in Barcelona.

Reporting to Walt Disney Studios president Alan Bergman, Hollis oversees the whole global sales and distribution picture for movies that cross borders as assuredly and consistently as rivers and mountain ranges.

A 12-year Disney veteran, Hollis was previously senior VP of distribution for Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures International, where he was responsible for the growing sales and distribution operation across 70 countries for all motion pictures released under the Walt Disney Pictures, Pixar, Disneynature and Touchstone Pictures banners (subsequently joined by the formidable Marvel and Lucasfilm labels).

Hollis arrived at Disney after serving in various research, marketing and publicity positions with companies like Fox Broadcasting, Merv Griffin, and the Bragman Nyman Cafarelli PR house. At Disney, Hollis first brought his marketing and publicity expertise to the Miramax brand, where he also cut his teeth on distribution in post-theatrical markets.

Before stepping further into theatrical distribution at Disney, he served as senior VP, distribution strategy, helping develop and implement profit optimization strategies across the various businesses of the Walt Disney Studios.

In recent years, Disney has benefited from the rise of Brazil, Russia, India and China, the four dynamic markets collectively referred to as “BRIC.” “You see growth,” Hollis observes, “especially in places with a growing middle class. Brazil is a key example. But other regions like Latin America in general, Southeast Asia and Central and Eastern Europe are also showing strong signs, as are pockets in local areas beyond Moscow and St. Petersburg and the big cities of China. It’s extraordinarily exciting. And, of course, places like Thailand and the Philippines will continue to be opportunities.”

But expanding markets also often mean other markets maturing or contracting, like “a lot of the U.K., traditional Europe and Australia,” says Hollis. “But such maturity doesn’t mean growth is out of the question,” he further explains. “Growth, in fact, will come through technology advances in the ecosystem that is moviegoing. Disney was at the forefront of 3D and we’ll continue with innovations. Theatres are doing extraordinary things and know they have to do whatever to stay ahead of all the new emerging content and platforms.”

Asked where audiences are most unpredictable, Hollis answers, “There’s no single silver bullet to figure [audience acceptance] out,” although different territories reflect some quirks. “Every market has its unique quality, and film-going habits vary. In Latin America, more families attend together. Japan is especially interesting to me for the way Japanese audiences respond to trailers and the composition of our movies. They are interested in the emotional components of a story, how characters relate to one another. They care about the deeper context that is the motivation of the characters. I see it as a purity in the way they’re looking at films and maybe it’s even more evolved.

“In Russia and China, 3D is often the big draw. But there are different sensibilities and preferences that require a different way to market.”

Quick to emphasize the importance of teamwork, Hollis says he’s no expert on audience peculiarities but counts on “our main resources, who are our teams all over the world, those people showing our films, marketing them.”

In addition to IMAX and 3D, newer experience-enhancing bells and whistles are also winning audiences in different territories. Hollis points to the Korean-invented and owned 4DX technology that theatres in certain regions have begun exploiting. “Korean theatres and venues in places like China, Mexico and Brazil use 4DX to add things like aromatic vapors, touch components, steam or motion simulation to film presentations.”

Such enhancements are at the theatre, not the production, distribution or marketing ends where Disney operates control switches in a worldwide business often seen as notorious for uncertainty. Disney’s winning formula, says Hollis, is to “employ a branded tentpole strategy and make our films as relatable as possible so that they transcend language and cultural differences.”

Another strategy (and hardly exclusive to Disney) to connect globally is Disney’s embrace of marquee names. “Stars like Johnny Depp are critical and we have to find these people,” Hollis emphasizes. Also, “audiences need variety, so we’re supporters of choice. It’s all about delivering a better experience and about delivering value. 3D, IMAX, premium sound like Dolby Atmos are important—the better light, visuals, premium sound, things that ensure that films like Iron Man 3 or Oz the Great and Powerful will help audiences leave the world of reality.”

The bottom line is, says Hollis, “if audiences get these better experiences, they become more evangelistic [about going out to theatres] and everyone is happy.”

Admitting that he’s relatively new in his global sales and distribution role, Hollis notes, “I learn something new every day. The nice part of being the newer person is that I’m not so encumbered by so many years of the old ways that might hinder how I approach the business. I want to know how to get more people in seats. I’m a big asker of questions.”

And in today’s world, there are some important questions to ponder. “How do we continue to keep family audiences as excited over time? How do we deal with the teen and young adults who are distracted by technology? How do we keep them interested so that they pass on the excitement to their kids? And with the continuing growth of Hispanics in the U.S., how do we maintain and build on a meaningful relationship with them?”

Hollis does not neglect to add that “telling stories that are relevant and resonant for every audience remains as important as ever.” In a broader stroke, he invokes “a great line from Steve Jobs that [Pixar CEO] John Lasseter uses: ‘Quality is the best business plan.’”

Asked whether he believes these are the best or most confusing times for theatre owners, Hollis replies, “The movie business in general is not an easy thing. There are still the enormous challenges of piracy and changing tastes to deal with, but we should see this as an exciting time that acts as the catalyst to create what younger generations want. There’s an insurgent mentality and an incumbent mentality to deal with and I think we’re balanced between the two, although to engage people in the theatre space we’re more on the insurgent side. With so much social media and so many new devices, we need to adapt and find ways for direct relationships with these.”

Hollis, who has overseen distribution of many Disney films (including such blockbusters as Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides, Brave, Wreck-It Ralph, Marvel’s The Avengers and Iron Man 3), says that these releases have been a lesson in “the power of our brands, of the Disney name itself, because unlike other companies, people do shop for Disney or Pixar, etc. So we have an important trust with the audience and understand that our films must be events. This all requires a healthy balance between having a respect for how we do business and respect for how not to lose touch with our consumers.”

Disney’s upcoming films seem assured to maintain that global touch. Among the studio’s pictures soon to hit theatres are Pixar’s Monsters University, the much-anticipated Johnny Depp starrer The Lone Ranger, and the high-concept Vince Vaughn comedy Delivery Man (in which Vaughn learns he’s father to hundreds of kids as a result of his anonymous fertility clinic donations).

Later this year come Marvel’s fantasy-actioner Thor: The Dark World; Disney’s animated Planes, about a simple crop-dusting plane who longs to soar higher; and, in a neat twist on furthering that Disney brand, the drama Saving Mr. Banks, which stars Emma Thompson as the Australian-born British Mary Poppins book author whom Mr. Walt Disney (Tom Hanks) flies to Hollywood for the book’s big-screen adaptation. During her visit, the fabled studio honcho has an “a-ha moment,” explains Hollis, when he (and no doubt audiences) learns about the author’s father and what inspired the classic story.

Hollis characterizes the Disney line-up as “a showcase of our branded tentpole strategy.” Taking cues from the studio’s impressive overseas grosses, he also points to “a 3D and animation ramp-up” to further the Disney and Pixar brands.

With Disney’s first Mainland China Disneyland scheduled to open in 2015 in Shanghai (at three times the size of the current Hong Kong park), the outlook couldn’t be brighter for Dave Hollis’ vision for continued brand vitality on a global scale.

The brand juggernaut aside, Hollis is eager to again underscore “the strength of my team at home and around the world” and recognize that the successful launch which he oversees of Disney film product to theatres worldwide requires a collaboration with exhibition, filmmakers, production partners and the broader Disney enterprise.

Hollis says he’s honored to receive the CineEurope award, but adds, “It is an award for our teams who together make it all happen. It is an acknowledgement of the Disney effort, an award for the whole company.”