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Exclusive: Disney’s MT Carney, Grilled — ‘A Baptism by Fire’

In her first in-depth interview, Carney says: “I feel like it’s been a bit of baptism by fire. But my God, I have some amazing people to learn from.”

In June, MT Carney was plucked from Madison Avenue obscurity where she ran the Naked marketing agency, to run Disney’s global marketing machine. This weekend, her second major release, “Secretariat,” opened to a weak $12.9 million. TheWrap’s Sharon Waxman grilled Carney about her first few months and what she’s learned.

We hear you are hiring lots of consultants to help you do your job.  Valerie Van Galder is working on “Pirates,” Kevin Campbell has just been hired, Dana Precious at Marvel. True?
I’m very respectful of the movie business and of people’s experience. I feel the combination of my experience and their movie experience will be great. 

I have hired and I will continue to hire the absolute best people that I can find. I’m aware of the fact that I don’t have tons of experience, so I hire around me the people that have experience that are really good. You’ll see the people I’m going to hire over the next couple of months, it just keeps getting better.

Do I think I can cut a better 30 second spot than Val Van Galder than Dana Precious? Of course I can’t. That’s why I hired them. I have other skills. And the combination of that together will be something really cool.

If you people just give me a chance.

And you’re working with Michael Kassan?
We are reviewing all facets of our marketing relationships. Michael Kassan is helping me on media strategy. We are looking at our media relationships.

So — "Secretariat"? What happened?
"Social Network" did  phenomenally well, and we did better than the estimates we had on Thursday. It’s what we love about the movie, what we knew – its hard to be out front.

We hope it will run for several weeks. This movie has exceptional performances, not least by the director Randall Wallace, we hope that it will do well.

Will it do business overseas?
I think it will do well in some markets – it will be limited. Horse racing movies, American sports movies don’t tend to do particularly well internationally. But it’s a movie about heart, not just horse racing.

Read also: Is Disney's MT Carney Ready for Hollywood's Shark-Infested Waters?

What was your marketing approach?
It was an impossible true story, the story of a woman that didn’t allow herself to be judged by society, and a horse that wouldn’t be held back by anything. They came together and created perfect storm. It’s about not being held back by what people think of you, and following your dreams.

Actually, I meant what were your marketing strategies?
We focused a lot on the heartland, on the center of the country – faith-based communities is slight misnomer, on traditional American heartland. We had public performances – we went to military bases and to horse racing, we went to the Hamptons and showed it at polo races, and there was heavy television.

We felt that when people got a sample of it, they’d become involved. There was a lot of social media, a fair amount of digital, but the primary focus was on television and publicity.

Did it work?
This one I look and can’t think what we did wrong. We had huge buzz. We got more Internet buzz than a whole lot of movies. In the heartland people are older, they don’t run out to see a movie on its first weekend, and "Social Network" held on better than we thought. It took away a big chunk of our audience. I don’t think we made any big mistakes in marketing campaign.

I’m very proud of the campaign, and it’s a shame it wasn’t a massive rip-roaring success. Randall and Gordon McVeigh and Sean and Rich – everybody was completely on board. All the team. This was movie that Rich and Sean didn’t greenlight, everyone really wanted it to do well. We did our best, put together great campaign.

Do you feel comfortable with your job at this point ?
As a general principle, the day I don’t have anything to learn is the day I give up. I feel like it’s been a bit of baptism by fire. But my God, I have some amazing people to learn from. I get to work with Stacey Snider!

OK, but three and a half months in, do you feel you have a good understanding of this business?
I feel I have enough sense to say I know what I don’t know. I’m a helluva lot better than I was three months ago.

In my old business, I worked with so many businesses, every time I worked with a new client, I had to learn their business. This is a similar exercise, but much more immersive. I have a lot more at stake.

I don’t mind people being annoyed at me out of ignorance, but I’d hate to ever think out of arrogance. I don’t know if I’ll ever know everything.

Do you feel you can bring new insight to the business from your past work?
There are some simple fixes in the way things are put together in terms of process and structure which can make things much more effective. We just came from doing a four-day conference with marketing and distribution executives in Europe.

We talked about planning further in advance, and taking into consideration the needs of individual markets further in advance so we’re not doing just-in-time planning.

Disney hasn’t done that before?
The way it was done different. So people have marketing plans early, that is changing way we work with non-domestic markets so we can start to become much more global. Movies are so global now.

And we’re trying to make sure that everything we do strategically we do for a reason, and not just because it’s cool.

There can’t be any dead ends in what we do. Everything should link to something else. And everything should link to a sale. Getting everyone to work together in collaborative. It sounds kumbaya, but it’s just very practical.