Disney taps UK indies in the North West

Disney taps UK indies in the North West

By Carole Solazzo,
Wednesday, 6th July 2022
Pistol (credit: Disney+)
Pistol (credit: Disney+)
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Carole Solazzo hears Disney exec Liam Keelan outline the type of shows he would like to commission in the UK.

In something of a coup for RTS North West, Liam Keelan, senior vice-president for original productions in Europe, the Middle East and Africa (EMEA) at Disney, told a packed auditorium about his mission “to make people think differently about what Disney does”, and what the role of North West indies could be in realising that aim. 

Happy to be “back on his home turf”, Keelan was asked by interviewer Alex Farber, deputy editor at Broadcast, about his rise from commissioning Jimmy McGovern’s Moving On for BBC Daytime to “working at a big global SVoD with 140 million subscribers”.  

He may have come a long way but, to Keelan, local stories are still key. “It’s the same whether you work on BBC Daytime or at Disney,” he said. “Authenticity is really valid and important. Whenever I’m pitched ideas at Disney, for me it’s, ‘Will it work in its local market, first and foremost?’…. It’s so important that the audience is reflected back to itself in its full diversity.” 

Using a clip from new series Oussekine (based on the true story of a French family’s fight for justice for their son beaten to death by police) to illustrate his point, Keelan said: “And what is constantly at the back of my mind is… challenging the preconceived ideas of what a Disney show might be.”  

Asked how he intended to subvert the idea of Disney as “more family-oriented… safer,” Keelan spoke about new acquisition Star - the brand Disney uses for what he calls “adult-friendly ­general entertainment”.  

Streaming now on Star are: Danny Boyle’s Pistol; The Dropout, chronicling the rise and fall of Elizabeth Holmes; opioid addiction drama Dopesick; and the “beyond graphic in parts” Pam & Tommy. Across the EMEA region, Keelan is commissioning 60 to 80 shows, with 80% for Star, 10 to 12 of them from the UK.  

So, what is he looking for? “We’re interested in making shows you can’t miss out on,” he said. He wants originals, or “projects with IP  behind them”, and on his development slate he has a “mix of 50-50 returning brands and franchises, and limited series”. He added: “But what crosses scripted and unscripted is [that] they have a sense of authorship, something to say, a voice.”  

In terms of unscripted, Keelan spoke about a David Beckham project – “not an original idea” – about the former footballer returning to his roots to “give something back, not just to the struggling young grassroots football team, by helping and coaching them, but also… to the wider working-class community… and it was this that, for us, elevated the idea to something that felt different.” 

Keelan was quick to add that attaching talent to a pitch is not crucial. New comedy Extraordinary, about an ordinary young woman from a world where everyone else has superpowers, was the winning script of a competition for writers new to TV. “It was something we took a punt on… but it was [from] Sid Gentle Films, which has made shows like Killing Eve, so you’ve got a certain level of comfort that it’s going to be done the way you want it.”  

Keelan doesn’t want “long treatments or bibles. We’re interested in getting a dialogue going,” he said, “getting back [to companies] quickly… and making sure we’re a good place to work with.”  

“Is [the idea] based on existing IP? Have you got a writer attached? These are… questions I’ll ask before it moves to the next stage,” he said. “But if those questions can be answered, we fund development as well.”   

The RTS North West indie networking event was held at the HOME arts centre in Manchester on 30 June. It was produced by Lynsey Hulme of Beautiful Productions.