Lauren Kisilevsky, has always been incredibly hands-on in her role as VP of original movies at Disney Channels. On Descendants 3, where she was the executive in charge, she made sure to be involved in every decision from the writing and editing all the way down to helping decide what Pantone color each of the characters’ hair should be. But recently, she’s added oversight of Disney Channel-produced movies for Disney+ to her remit—and that means taking a bit of a step back from the day-to-day because she can’t do it all.
Kisilevsky’s responsibilities include creative development of Disney Channel Original Movies, as well as those for Disney+. All of that entails script development, generating new projects, collaborating with writers and directors, overseeing the creative storytelling during production and providing direction on everything from marketing to post-production and release.
With a lot on her plate, she’s had to let other people take on more tasks that she’s used to doing. Starting with the production of Secret Society of Second Born Royals—the division’s first movie for upcoming SVOD Disney+.
Starring Andi Mack’s Peyton Elizabeth Lee and Pitch Perfect’s Skylar Astin, the film introduces a rebellious princess (second in line to the throne) who learns she has superpowers and belongs to a secret society.
For this project Kisilevsky is letting Amee Dolleman, executive director of original movies, take the lead. But she’s here to help if needed.
“As [Dolleman's] the day-to-day eyes and ears on the movie, if stuff is just more complex and we need an extra pair of eyes then she’ll loop me in or share with me what she’s worried about and I’ll help her strategize,” says Kisilevsky. “Then she dives right back in.”
As a kid growing up in Canada, Kisilevsky wasn’t very familiar with Disney Channel beyond an awareness of High School Musical (due to her love of musicals) and her career in theatrical horror films for adults hadn’t exactly crossed paths with the House of Mouse very often. Kisilevsky joined Disney in November 2010 after serving as VP of development at Type A films and VP of production and acquisitions at Overture Films, where she oversaw the films Paper Heart, Nothing Like The Holidays and Pandorum. She’s also held executive positions for Reese Witherspoon and Ashton Kutcher, as well as at Beacon Pictures and Blue Star Pictures.
That experience, combined with a well-placed friend who knew Disney was looking to fill this position, led Kisilevsky to this role.
“I didn’t particularly have a passion for making kids content when I started, but in hindsight now I really think a lot about how everything I’ve ever done in my whole life has led me to this job. I didn’t know it at the time,” says Kisilevsky. “I grew up in musical theater, I’m a mom and I have two kids in our demo and I used to want to go into early childhood education before I went into entertainment.”
What really drew her to the role was that it was making feature films, but for a network, which meant that it was a lot easier to actually get projects made.
“I actually get to make things and see them go to air,” she says. “Because the theatrical film business can take a really long time and as a development executive, you can work on a script for a very long time and never actually make anything.”
For a big franchise like Descendants, which requires a lot of world building and attention to the talent on and off screen, Kisilevsky has still been actively involved all the way through, even with Descendants 3 which premieres next month on Disney Channel. Since it is the third movie in the franchise, she wanted to make sure the writers got it right and worked with them on the script to help shape ideas and eliminate some of the noise. She then worked with director Kenny Ortega (who recently signed an overall deal with Netflix) to shape the actual film in the editing room.
But she says that it was a tricky job, because she wanted to create this large theatrical world on a television budget that wouldn’t look out of place on the channel in the appropriate slot it needed to fill.
In addition to the larger tentpole movies, the projects she’s leading for Disney+ and for the channel in the future are going to be much smaller in scope. After building up these entirely large worlds in fantasy-driven franchises, she’s decided to scale it back a little bit.
“We’re going to be developing and producing movies of smaller scope as well in order to have substantially more movies a year,” says Kisilevsky. “[We're looking at movies] that don’t necessarily have to have that world building, which are more grounded, more comedic, ideas that really speak to culturally specific narratives.”
The upcoming SVOD also poses a new challenge for her. Instead of thinking about what projects will best fill a slot on-air, she needs to think about what will just make a good movie…and where it will fit best. There isn’t really a direct remit about what works well on SVOD vs. the channel yet because it hasn’t launched, but down the road there will likely be more of a concrete delineation, she says. For now they are building up a slate of projects that will likely work well on the platform and then will be tracking their success moving forward.
She’s got a healthy slate though, and plans to keep building, which means Kilsilevsky is constantly looking for new talent. She says if anyone has a project that works well for Disney or Disney+ they should pitch it through their agent, manager or lawyer. But her team is also always doing outreach to people who they think could make the next great kids movie for TV.
“For us it’s really about finding people who are really genuinely passionate about working in the kids space, whether or not they have in the past,” says Kilsilevsky.