EXCLUSIVE: As diversity becomes more of a staple rather than a trend in Hollywood, Disney is stepping up to the plate to amplify underrepresented voices with the inaugural Disney Launchpad: Shorts Incubator program. Filmmakers Aqsa Altaf, Stefanie Abel Horowitz, Jessica Mendez Siqueiros, Ann Marie Pace, Moxie Peng and Hao Zheng were revealed as this year’s participants.
Launchpad is an immersive program in where the aforementioned six directors, who represent diverse perspectives, will produce original, live-action short films. They will have the opportunity to be considered for an exhibition on Disney+ and possible further development. The program also includes professional and storytelling classes led primarily by the program’s educational partner, the American Film Institute.
“We are so excited to work with these six wonderful and talented directors who have so much to say to the world and have such beautiful ways of saying it,” said Mahin Ibrahim, Director, Diversity & Inclusion, Market, at The Walt Disney Studios, and the leader of the Launchpad program. “We look forward to bringing their visions to life here in the Disney Launchpad program.”
Submissions for the program opened in June 2019. Applicants were required to submit a short script, an essay explaining how they come from an underrepresented background or have a diverse perspective, a resume, a lookbook, and a directing sample. The filmmakers were selected earlier this year for the program which included pre- and post-production as well as additional classes to bolster their talent.
The filmmakers have been paired with creative executive mentors from across The Walt Disney Company. Under the guidance of their mentors and their own creative directorial skills, the filmmakers were challenged to create original films that fell under the inaugural theme of “Discover”.
Due to the pandemic, the directors have been working on their script and connecting with their mentors remotely for the first half of the program. Despite production delays due to the COVID-19 crisis, they are now in the process of casting their films and selecting crew so they’re ready to commence production as soon as it is safe to do so.
Read the bios of the filmmakers for the first-ever Disney Launchpad: Shorts Incubator program:
- Aqsa Altaf was raised in Kuwait by Pakistani and Sri Lankan parents and graduated from USC School of Cinematic Arts before participating in the 2018 Werner Herzog mentorship. Her short film One Small STep played at the Cannes Film Festival 2019 and was shortlisted for the BAFTA Student Film Awards. She was nominated for the Young Director Award 2019 at Cannes Lions.
- Stefanie Abel Horowitz directed theater for a decade before pivoting to film. Her second short film, Sometimes, I Think About Dying premiered at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival, traveled the world on the Sundance Shorts circuit, garnered Abel Horowitz the Future Filmmaker Award from Palm Springs International Film Festival, and was shortlisted for an Academy Award. She is an alum of the 2019 New Voices Sundance Lab as well as a member of Lincoln Center Directors Lab. Her essay “He’s Your Destiny. Just Be Patient.” was published in The New York Times Modern Love 2019 column.
- Jessica Mendez Siqueiros is a Mexican-American writer/director and actress. Her debut short film Pozole was an official selection of SIFF, LALIFF, Hamptons, Nashville, Indy Shorts, and over 60 film festivals internationally. The film took home the Jury Prize for Best Narrative Short Film (Comedy) at Cinequest. Selected as a director mentee in the AT&T Hello Lab Mentorship Program, she recently directed Adeline, The Great, under the guidance of Lena Waithe and Rishi Rajani, and distributed by DirecTV.
- Ann Marie Pace is a writer/director raised in Tennessee and based in Los Angeles. Growing up Mexican American and bisexual and raised in a family of anthropologists, she is drawn to stories of identity and tells stories from multicultural perspectives to help create bridges of understanding. She received her MFA in Directing at UCLA; her thesis film Beyond The Gate, shot in the Brazilian Amazon, won first place in the DGA Student Film Awards Latino Category, Best Student Film at the Brazil International Film Festival, and was a Caucus Foundation Grant Winner.
- Moxie Peng is a queer non-binary writer and director from Hunan, China. They started filmmaking in Beijing and now live in New York City and Los Angeles. Their shorts have been screened at NewFest, Hong Kong LGBT Film Festival, Cleveland International Film Festival, and more. Moxie recently graduated from the Filmmaking MFA program at NYU in 2020, and is developing their debut feature Tender is the Night.
- Hao Zheng is a recent Student Academy Award-winning director (The Chef), with a BFA in Film Production from Emerson College and a MFA in Directing from the American Film Institute. His films have screened in over 50 international film festivals, including Short Shorts Tokyo and Interfilm Berlin, and were awarded the Best International Film Award at Show Me Shorts (New Zealand) and the AT&T Film Award. He has also worked extensively as an actor in Chinese films and television series.