Jeffrey Forman’s career could have turned out a lot differently. The veteran distribution executive was on the fast track to a legal career, having already secured an MBA from the University of Southern California before earning his Juris Doctorate degree from Loyola Law School. Forman spent the first two years of his professional life practicing business and real estate law in Los Angeles. When an opportunity to join Disney’s growing international distribution team opened up, Forman left his legal career behind to join the entertainment industry—and never looked back. Now celebrating his 31st year in the industry—all with Disney—Forman is this year’s recipient of CinemaCon’s Passepartout Award, presented annually to an industry executive who demonstrates dedication and commitment to the international marketplace.
At the start of your career, you were well on your way to practicing law for a living. How did you come to work in distribution?
I’ve always enjoyed the law and found it to be an amazing education. However, I grew up around the entertainment industry and always found exhibition and distribution interesting and exciting. When I learned that Disney was setting up the first international distribution company in many years, the opportunity sounded too good to pass up, and I am so glad I followed my instinct and took a chance on something new.
What are some of the lessons you learned that still hold true today?
There are a few things I learned early on that have helped guide me throughout my career. First, don’t pretend to be more than what you are. Be real and genuine and tell the truth; people are smart and can sense dishonesty. You may get away with it a few times, but it eventually catches up with you. This ties in with the second thing I still hold true, which is treating people with the same respect that you hope they would afford to you. No matter the situation or the person, treat everyone with dignity and take the high road. It is always the path best traveled.
I’ve also found it incredibly helpful to always be sensitive to culture. We live in a big world, and what makes the world so fascinating is seeing how people and cultures are different, appreciating those unique and amazing qualities, and then trying to find the best business approach and outcome to connect with people.
Are there any industry executives you consider mentors?
I have had the good fortune of working with some amazing people and leaders. A few that really stand out for me are Kevin Hyson, who was my first real boss in the industry, and Mark Zoradi, one of the best leaders I had the opportunity to work with and learn from. And I currently work with Cathleen Taff, who is an amazing leader. She has opened my eyes and mind to a whole new way of managing and working within a complex organization.
You’ve been at Disney for over three decades now. What have been some of the highlights or milestones during your tenure? What have been the biggest changes in the industry since you began?
One of the highlights for me was building Disney’s Asia distribution organization, a real milestone for us. During my time here, I’ve also had the incredible opportunity to support the integrations of Pixar, Marvel, Lucasfilm, and 20th Century Studios and the amazing content these studios create.
There have been a number of big changes in the industry since I started, but the first that comes to mind is the switch from 35 mm film to digital. It not only improved the viewing quality and experience for the consumer but also made it much easier to get the film out to the theaters.
Another area is marketing—the power of digital and social media has enabled us to market more efficiently, but it has also changed the nature of word of mouth. We really have a lot more marketing tools and levers now, and that means we can constantly be adjusting and improving our strategy.
And then there’s the evolution of formats and theaters. The sheer variety of options the customer has to see a film—from Gold Class to dine-in theaters, from Imax and Dolby Cinema, from 4-D to ScreenX—has raised the bar for the moviegoing experience.
Which releases stand out as highlights in your career?
There have been so many amazing films I have had the honor and privilege to work on, it is hard to pick just one. Releasing The Lion King in China, our first release in this market, was very rewarding. Releasing Star Wars: The Force Awakens: The last Star Wars film had released 10 years earlier; there was so much pent-up demand and excitement around the film, it was a real amazing moment. The other film that had a similar amount of fan enthusiasm and intensity was Avengers: Endgame. It was the conclusion of a cumulative story over 21 prior films, and the intensity and excitement around the film was something I will never forget. Both Star Wars: The Force Awakens and Avengers: Endgame really connected with a global audience, becoming the No. 4 film and No. 2 film of all time respectively.
You were originally supposed to receive this award at CinemaCon 2020, when Disney was coming off a major year in its history. You made it look easy, but nothing is ever that simple in distribution. What have been some of the keys to the studio’s global success?
There are a number of key elements that have helped shape this past year and enabled us to achieve the kind of box office results we had [in 2019]. First of all, quality always wins out. In this day and age, you need to make a really compelling, fresh, and interesting film where people can care about the characters and relate and connect with the story. Anything else just doesn’t cut it anymore. And we also focus on making films that you need to see and experience on the big screen. We have this great content coming from our collection of recognized and appreciated brands, which are among the most respected in the world, and we have been consistent and deliberate in our approach to building brand loyalty and trust with the consumers, which makes a difference when we go to launch a film. We keep our consumers top of mind, not only in terms of the quality of the film but also marketing it in an attention-grabbing and relatable way and making sure they can experience it at the best cinemas.
And then we obviously couldn’t do this without great teams and great people. Films come and go, but it is really our people—their passion, dedication, and effort—that make the difference. It’s the ultimate team sport, and we only can succeed when we are all working together. The last piece of the puzzle is our partners, who join us on this journey and work closely with us to maximize each film to its fullest potential.
We all know about China’s impact on the global market. Do you see other emerging markets that could be important players in the coming years?
Indonesia is a fast-developing market with the fourth-largest population in the world, a growing economy, and some great theaters with hopefully more on the way. Both Vietnam and Central Eastern Europe show potential for continued growth, along with the Middle East—including Saudi Arabia—which holds promise for sustainable growth as well. India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh all have huge populations with opportunity for sustained growth, and they already have strong film-going cultures.
Do you have a favorite moviegoing moment you’d like to share?
For me, it has to be watching Pearl Harbor right in Pearl Harbor for the U.S. premiere, and then attending the Japanese premiere for 25,000 people at the Tokyo Dome. It was truly a moment in time I will always remember.