Incubator programs from large studios are so critical for creators from marginalized backgrounds who may not otherwise have access to Hollywood. One of my favorite such programs is Disney’s Launchpad, a program that officially released its first set of short films in 2021.
Led by Director of RISE Creative Talent Pathways Mahin Ibrahim and Senior Manager of RISE Launchpad Phillip Domfeh, Launchpad is a 12-month program that pairs up-and-coming writers and directors with Disney creative executives, who serve as mentors, and provides the filmmakers with the full support of the studio.
The program is described as an incubator “for experienced writers and directors from underrepresented backgrounds with diverse and varied perspectives” with “a focus on building a more inclusive entertainment industry.”
When season 1 premiered on Disney+ in 2021, I spoke with Ibrahim and Domfeh about the exciting films from the first class of directors. The six short films from season 1 are some of my favorite stories ever, and I have personally recommended several of them to my friends to watch with their families and loved ones. The thing that stands out to me about the Launchpad films is that so many marginalized voices are being seen and heard for the first time on one of the biggest entertainment platforms in the world.
At that time, Launchpad was already accepting applications for a second season, having expanded its program to include writers in addition to directors. On September 29th, season 2 of Launchpad premieres on Disney+, and I had the opportunity to chat once again with Ibrahim and Domfeh about their new class of filmmakers.
The thing about diversity initiatives is that they don’t always last. During the time of the first season, many DEI related programs were created as a response to the societal outrage following the murder of George Floyd in 2020. Since that time, many of those programs have been quietly discontinued and there’s been substantial pushback on DEI efforts, attacking programs like affirmative action in schools and diversity fellowships from employers. I asked Ibrahim, who has been with Disney for five years, about the increasingly challenging climate of highlighting marginalized voices.
“Looking back, I just celebrated my 5 year anniversary last month, so onto my 6th year at the company, and I’ve seen a lot of change in this space and in the world. What I love is that season 2 debuts during Disney’s 100 year anniversary, and it really showcases Disney’s continuous commitment to telling untold stories in front of, and behind, the camera,” Ibrahim said. “Not just in 2019 and 2021 when we first launched Launchpad and our shorts released, but today, as our shorts will be shown to the whole world on September 29.”
What’s clear is that Ibrahim is excited about the future and the potential that the Launchpad program has to highlight even more diverse creatives. While the program started with six directors, and added writers to the second season, there are plans for even more.
“We’re just getting started. We are actually piloting new initiatives for writers, directors and producers with leading organizations such as Film Independent,” Ibrahim said. “This really is the start for us and Disney has been committed from the start. We continue to to be very grateful that we get to operate on the biggest scale possible with what we’re trying to do, which is to make sure that everyone gets the opportunity to see themselves on screen.”
For season 2, Domfeh and his team were given the responsibility of conducting the first review of all the applications, of which there were thousands. Domfeh talked about the theme of the second season and how he wanted to allow the creatives to apply that theme broadly.
“It’s why I wear glasses!” Domfeh said laughing. “We received over 2000 applications and we spent months just diving into the work, sitting with it, reading stories. We knew our theme, which was ‘connections’ for season 2, and I generally just like to have the applications speak to me, and just take them at face value with little to no expectations of what stories we’re going to tell, and to just see what connects, and that just takes a lot of time.”
Domfeh emphasized that they were looking for a combination of a technically strong filmmaker, who truly works at their craft, combined with an intangible element that feels right.
“It’s just finding the right person. I had an old guitar teacher who always said, ‘When you can’t be denied, you won’t be.’ And when it’s your time and when it’s the right story for you, it just takes all the other factors that can impact how something gets made out. So that was our process,” Domfeh said. “You kind of know it when you see it. When I read a scene like in The Roof, where a grandfather and a grandson are bonding over two spirit identities, over the history of their family, I see connection. When I consider a young Korean girl finding something in common with a ghost that’s haunting her because they both know what it’s like to feel alienated from their parents, I feel the theme of connection. I just genuinely allow the story-tellers to tell us what that means.”
Ibrahim added that the themes are also selected because they reflect current events in society during each season.
“Season 1’s theme was ‘discover’ because Launchpad was a brand new program where aritsts themselves were discovering it literally and what that meant to them. Season 2 was born out of the pandemic, so connection became more important than ever. So when we look to future seasons and what that means, we always want to hone in on what’s happening in the current environment and how we can bring what’s happening in the state of the world and art and mix those together.” Ibrahim said.
Both Ibrahim and Domfeh made it clear that ultimately, the stories that are being told are the most important element of the Launchpad program. They wanted stories that are personal, unique and well-crafted. On top of those requirements, they wanted to make sure that the second season built on the first.
“With season 2, what became clear from our team is how can we go bigger, how can we reach newer heights and how can we go bolder? So you’ll see that with new genres. For example, this is the first time you’ll see a horror film on our slate. This is the first time you’ll see an action film, specifically martial arts, on our slate,” Ibrahim said. “And that is to really challenge ourselves to do something bigger and within that, of course, character and story are our number one priority. So how can we make sure that our audience will fall in love with our characters and want to see them leap off the screen after these shorts?”
Domfeh highlighted the fact that each of the filmmakers who were chosen for this season were uniquely qualified to tell their specific story, both personally, and professionally with experience.
“All things being equal, being excellent at what you do is very important. And that comes from my time as a classically trained musician, and having really drilled down the importance and value of discipline of craft. As a producer and taking the lead on who we invited to the program, that’s what I looked for,” Domfeh said. “Erica Eng is an accomplished commercial director. She is so detail oriented and she’s right on it, and being able to work with her, I knew that her story was in incredibly safe hands. You look at Spencer Glover, he had done martial arts stunt work before he had done this film. That’s kind of what said to me that he was the right guy. It’s not all just technical filmmaking, you look at the types of stories they’re telling. You look at Alex Bocchieri, his sample that he submitted was small and intimate, but it was so clear that he knew how to pull forth subtle notes in a story and drive in to the emotionality of a narrative and that’s what made him perfect for something like The Roof. Something unique in every single filmmaker spoke to me, but all of them across the board, there’s a dedication to the craft of filmmaking that really showed.”
Season 2 of Launchpad premieres September 29 on Disney+.
Editor’s Note: 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 being covered here wouldn’t exist. To support the WGA and SAG-AFTRA, donate to the Entertainment Community Fund.
Ron is the founder and Editor-in-Chief of POC Culture. He is a big believer in the power and impact of pop culture and the importance of representation in media.