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Saturday, 7 February 2009

Disney Leaves the Studio

Film and television companies make all sorts of forays into the performing arts and live events to accompany their films and shows, a noteable example being Disney's The Lion King live musical production based upon the successful 1994 animated film featuring the voices of Matthew Broderick, Whoopi Goldberg, Jeremy Irons and James Earl Jones.

And of course the various theme parks round the world are great showcases for both Universal as well as Disney to turn their films into sensational experiences for the public. I've often reported on theme park science and innovation. Once, I had to file live for BBC Radio 5 from Universal Florida using their in house radio studios with their in house American engineers. ('Maybe Rani's getting a bit stressed out, I think Rani could do with a massage') I remember one of them saying as I was still waiting for my live report to go out on air via London just two and half hours before my return flight to the UK was about to take off.

Disney is steaming ahead of the pack following the UK premiere of the Disney Channel original movie The Cheetah Girls One World with a whole series of free Saturday workshops in London designed to encourage children to express themselves.

This is new because regular classes are different to performances and show events. This is local stimulus encouraging self-expression. The stakeholders, apart from the Disney Channel UK, based in Chiswick, West London, are Anupam Kher's Actor Prepares School and Heathrow City Partnership who brokered the deal. The teaching takes place at the Ealing Institute of Media.

I was the first journalist to get to Michael Cairns, Vice President and General Manager of Disney Channel UK, the day of the launch, and we both went behind a curtain to do the early-morning interview. He told me that the classes were designed to help celebrate the movie Cheetah Girls in the UK, and that the Saturday clubs where children can learn Bollywood routines can help with self-expression. He said that this was a further development from what Disney did with High School Musical, where shows were created. Cairns said that he was really keen to have the involvement of local schools. He described how Disney chose its partners on this project very carefully, identifying Indian film and theatre Anupam Kher 'We felt he was the right person, and the link with Disney fits in with the global aspect of his aspirations.'

Disney Channel UK is also increasing progamming originated and made in Great Britain. Michael Cairns said that Disney is planning to introduce more short-form programming, three-minuters such as Undercover Coach and Life Bites. This is in contrast to what traditional UK network channels are doing, cutting their childrens' TV spend or removing it completely from their budgets, a move which is upsetting many in the industry.

The Disney initiative is a real push towards encouraging community youngsters to aspire and to achieve. By identifying and encouraging activity through dance and drama, childrens' self-esteem and artistic expression is supported. The film Cheetah Girls itself celebrates aspiration, cultural diversity and the achievement of dreams. The setting is Mumbai and historic Udaipur, and a lot of local talent was employed. That local talent included 45 principal core dancers, and 450 ensemble members.

The project signifies something more important and I don't think it is just about a multinational corporation building brand awareness. It is actually addressing something fundamental about second, third and fourth generations of former immigrants. It is about helping them with their identity and their knowldege of their own historical culture. Many will not have access, often through ignorance as well as because of limited means, to the resources that the project is providing, free of charge, so this collaboration can go far in helping the psyche of those who participate. It feels altruistic.

I went to ask the Chief Executive of Heathrow City, Ash Verma, for an exclusive explanation. Sitting in his Southall HQ, after a moment of reflection, he told me,

'21st century multicultural Britain should be about setting an example to the world on how, through entertainment, film and TV, we can bring different cultures, mindsets and communities together. The Cheetah Girls One World movie is an example of how that can be done, specially when you make it fun, specially for young people, who have a natural sense of inquisitiveness, to learn. Learning about dance, acting and movement, I think, gives confidence in helping people to interact rather than being defensive. From personal experience of 51 years in the UK, (being defensive) was a characteristic of the 60s, 70s and 80s onwards. With the openness that we have through high speed technology, visual and otherwise, this makes exposure to different cultures instant and real, and I think much easier to embrace. The net result of initiatives like this, films like this and if you take recently, the excellent portrayal in Slumdog Millionaire, helps to create a lot more openness and a positive approach to what is happening in the world.'

What is interesting is that both Michael Cairns and Ash Verma confirmed that this is just the beginning of an exercise; that there are plans for a national roll-out as well as for an extension of age ranges.

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