When Disney’s Launchpad debuted in 2021 on Disney+, it offered a slew of storytelling from diverse perspectives that aren’t usually in the mainstream. From American Eid showing the struggles of a Pakistani Muslim immigrant family, to The Last of the Chupacabras showing the magical realism of an aging Mexican woman, to several more, Launchpad offers an opportunity for lesser known filmmakers to have their work on the large platform Disney+ offers, and hopefully find more work after.
With Launchpad Season 2 debuting this September 29, we spoke with Disney’s Director of RISE Creative Talent Pathways Mahin Ibrahim and Senior Manager of RISE Launchpad Phillip Domfeh about the upcoming set of short films. We discussed where the idea for Launchpad originated, what they’re looking forward for audiences to see in the new season, the challenges of being a marginalized creator, and much more.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
The Nerds of Color: First off, congratulations on Season 2. I really enjoyed season one especially American Eid. That was one of the first time I’ve ever felt represented as a Muslim. In general, what was the conception for Launchpad in the first place? And how do you aim to give underrepresented filmmakers chance to break through for more opportunities whether at Disney or elsewhere?
Phillip Domfeh: Yeah, well Mahin started the initiative way back in 2018 or 19.
Mahin Ibrahim: Such a great question. So I joined the company five years ago to with a team helped develop what became Launchpad from the ground up, which is the Walt Disney Studios’ first public facing filmmaker program. And the goal as it really stands back then, in 2019, when we launched and now in 2023, is to show Disney’s continuous commitment to telling untold stories. In front of and behind the camera. And actually Season 2 is debuting during Disney’s at 100th year anniversary this year. It really shows testament to Disney’s commitment. Now more than ever before. Phillip anything you want to add?
Domfe: No. I mean, I just think it’s really incredible that you have a studio with the resources and scale and history and legacy storytelling, reaching down or I should say reaching down strong language but opening up an opportunity for younger filmmakers to get in there. And to really learn that stuff and to carry that with them.
Yeah, for sure. So what can you tell us about the stories that are we’re going to see in Season 2 from the cultures of the filmmakers covered in the subjects tackled in them?
Domfeh: In Season 2, the theme is “connection.” And I think what you’re really going to find is we’ve just leveled up the scale of what we’re doing. I think one of the things that was really important to me as a producer in Season 2 was to look at the incredible work that we accomplished and see where can we go. And I think every single filmmaker took that vision of what we’re doing to the next level, incredibly seriously. And it really shows on the screen. The fact that we have a ghost story and being able to pull off all of those different types of elements to really realize that and authenticity while also exploring like the Korean family is incredible. Martial arts sequences powerhouse, literal cloning, I mean, you name it. I think our filmmakers showcase a technical ability to really only deliver meaningful stories that really wow you.
Ibrahim: I would just add to that, we have gotten bigger and bolder in genre and scope in Season 2 and we have also widened the types of stories that we’re able to tell. So for example, we have a coming of age story from a Cheyenne team. We have a story of a black female, teen scientists genius on navigating through grief. So really proud of what we’ve been able to expand into this season.
I’m so excited to watch them. So Launchpad impresses me with its usage of the short film format, telling these really impactful stories in just 15 to 20 minutes. There’s such a depth to this and how they’re able to tackle those hitters. One example being, again, American Eid showing the sense of ostracization American Muslims often feel, so why do you both think that short form storytelling can be so effective?
Domfeh: I think short form is such a an interesting framing because I think you’re right, like as opposed to a feature they’re shorter, but some of our shorts verge on not being that far from the length of network television episode, like 20 to 24 minutes of commercials. So, I think that timeframe is only told us that that time frame allows for, being able to make a very impactful narrative I think, in the right hands. And so I think it’s a great way to grab the audience’s attention. And also like a great training ground, which is another element of this program. We’re looking to work with filmmakers who are just about ready for that next step. So being able to come into a studio with resources and have a place where you can play, make mistakes, take risks, all that type of stuff. It just seems like the right size and amount.
Ibrahim: Firstly, thank you so much for your incredible comments on American Eid. That’s such a special film for me too. I definitely still remember that moment I was crying on my couch at home watching the director’s cut and couldn’t believe this is going to be on Disney+. But as Phillip mentioned, we really want Launchpad to be a calling card for our incredibly talented artists. It shows what they’re capable of, and they’re absolutely capable of that next step to direct a blockbuster feature film
Insha’Allah. But that also leads me to my next question, because so we as marginalized non-white peoples continue to deal with so many systemic barriers, the power structures in place that perpetuate to name a few racism Orientalism, colorism, Islamophobia and so many other isms and phobias. Even though these are system wide problems, how do you each hope that representation present in Launchpad can help buck some of these trends we see in the entertainment space?
Domfeh: I think that’s a great question. Unfortunately, every day I have to center myself with the fact that I can’t fix every problem that’s happening in the world, as much as I wish I could. But what I think is really true, is that stories and vulnerability, which I think very much go hand in hand, not for all filmmakers, but I think for many, especially for the ones in Launchpad, when you are bold enough to take the step to show yourself. I’ve meditated a lot on the meaning of just being an artist and what drives us and I think there’s a lot of artists are driven to exercise and get things out. But also, it’s when you’re working in this format. It’s not just to paint a painting in your room and lock it in your closet. It’s to then showcase it to the world and that requires vulnerability. And I think when you are truthful and honest and confident and presenting yourself, it creates an opportunity for someone else to gain a very deep and intrinsic understanding of your humanity. And hopefully when that happens, it reflects to that person that they’re just as whoever this person might be. That they’re just as human as you are. It doesn’t solve every problem. But I am proud that a program like ours has put forth stories like American Eid and that for many people that might be the first time that they ever hear about it. And so just imagine what that means for someone going to school the next day and I think we’ve done that now 12 times across all of these different stories. So I think with modest expectation and hope, I think just by positioning the stories and letting them be seen and letting someone engage them, it is just sending up a beacon that like hey, we’re all not that different. We are pretty similar.
It was finding the universal in this specific.
Domfe: Absolutely. And I’ll and I’ll just say something like the ghost, doesn’t matter what you look like if you’re getting haunted, right? Like it goes on to everybody. They don’t care where you’re from. They don’t care who you’re married to.
Ibrahim: What a great question. I would just add to that, that in addition to representation and absolutely starts with that is actually awareness and knowledge. So I always learned from the launchpad films myself in Season 2 are beautiful short, Maxine. The set pieces actually the Hungry Ghost Festival, which was a festival new to me. It is a Buddhist and Taoist festival. Meant to honor those who have passed away. And this becomes the hallmark of this short, and we got to learn the ins and outs to this film festival. Our production designers really brought it to life in such a beautiful way. So the next step after representation is definitely just education and knowledge.
Domfeh: And if I can add to that, I think you make such a good point Mahin, and it just makes me reflect on our journey of bringing these stories to bear, and I think that’s where like the producers that produce inside the sphere. It’s what’s so beautiful about bringing on the other producers who also work on these films and working with different partners that we have in the nonprofit space to really help us ensure that we deliver these stories in a very authentic way. We did our very first Disney Launchpad research trip we actually all went to the Northern Cheyenne reservation in Montana, sat with elders and really spend time learning the history and honoring that community, and it’s it’s been a privilege to work on this project for from a multitude of reasons, but the personal growth that has been possible has opened our eyes, especially taking these films on the film festival circuit. It’s just been invaluable. I think like we’re genuinely better people for it.
Launchpad Season 2 will be streaming September 29, only on Disney Plus.
This piece was written during the 2023 WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes. Without the labor of the writers and actors currently on strike, the [series/movie/etc] being covered here wouldn’t exist.