CU Boulder alumnus Sean Bailey talks about his uncommon path from the ground floor to the heights of the entertainment field
Sean Bailey and his dad saw Rocky in Texas in 1976. He remembers the long lines outside, the audience cheering inside and walking away feeling profoundly moved.
Rocky and Star Wars left indelible memories, but they didn’t make him dream about a career in movies, he says. “I didn’t really understand that people made those things.”
Now, he is president of Walt Disney Motion Picture Production, and he makes those things.
Bailey, a University of Colorado Boulder alumnus, has headed Disney production since 2010 and serves on the board of the Sundance Institute. In a recent interview with this magazine and in a speech to May 2021 CU Boulder graduates of cinema studies and moving image arts, Bailey talked about his rise from his first job in the entertainment field—in a product-placement company—to a titan of film.
Bailey noted that he left the university knowing that he wanted to be in the entertainment industry but not knowing “specifically what that meant.”
“I knew I was interested in storytelling. I love music. I love film.”
His first job was in a product-placement company, which worked to put consumer products in shows. “We’d try to get Diet Coke into George Costanza’s fridge on Seinfeld,” Bailey said.
After dropping off the Cokes, fruit juice or product du jour, he’d hang around and watch. Over time, he learned the key production roles: assistant director, director of photography, unit production manager.
He once asked another crew member, “Who is that person sitting in the chair doing nothing?” Answer: “That’s the producer.”
“I said, ‘Well, maybe that’s a job that I could do.’”
Joking aside, Bailey recognized that “if you made something, you were a producer. There was nothing holding me back from doing it.”
He teamed up with “inspiring and creative” young people, raised some money and created a half-hour show. Meanwhile, he pored over screenplays and learned as much as he could.
An intellectual omnivore, he tried his hand at screenwriting. He wanted to understand the craft and figured that, regardless of what role he played in the film industry, writing would give him a deeper understanding of the challenges that other writers and creators face.
“Writing has never come easily to me, but I do love it. I love going in, closing the door, turning on music and being alone with your characters for five, six, seven, eight hours. It's a wonderful experience.”
Success was no fait accompli. “There were a couple of years for me of real hardship: living off of my credit card, not having any money in my bank account, living off of tuna sandwiches. But we kept going.”
Who is that person sitting in the chair doing nothing?” he asked. “That’s the producer,” someone replied. “I said, ‘Well, maybe that’s a job that I could do.’”
“And I failed a lot.”
Just when he thought he’d have to seek other employment, 20th Century Fox tapped him and his colleagues to produce Best Laid Plans, starring Reese Witherspoon.
Thus buoyed, Bailey and the actors Ben Affleck and Matt Damon, along with producer Chris Moore, launched the company LivePlanet in 2000, which focused in part on mixed-media, cross-platform storytelling.
“That wasn’t part of my career plan,” Bailey said. “But this interesting opportunity happened because something interesting happened in the world, and I went through that open door.”
LivePlanet made movies like Project Greenlight and American Pie 2 for Disney and TV shows like The Runner for ABC, which Disney owns.
“I was very fortunate in that they let me work on bigger and bigger things,” Bailey said, adding that he was “really content and fulfilled as a writer and producer.”
But in 2009, then-CEO Bob Iger began wooing Bailey to head production at Disney. “Again, that wasn’t part of my plan. … An opportunity came, and I considered it, and I changed the path that I thought I would be on.”
Bailey, who played in a band while in school and is a Metallica fan, noted the similarities between music and film.
Like favorite songs, great movies soak into your memory, prompting years of reflection about lines, sequences or images that become “imprinted upon you,” he said.
When he thinks about his life, “I think very often about the music I was listening to and the movies I was seeing in that chapter of my life.”
It’s no accident, Bailey notes, that he associates Rocky with his father, who is no longer living. “It becomes a primitive, imprinted memory, like a great concert, or like the first time you heard one of your favorite songs.”
But could a movie today have the same cultural significance as Rocky?
“That’s the question on everyone’s lips today,” Bailey replied.
I often say these stories only make sense when you look back on them,” he said, noting that young people often ask him to reveal “the path” to success.
“I, for one, happen to believe in the communal movie experience,” Bailey said, noting that hits such as Game of Thrones and The White Lotus on HBO are also cultural touchstones. But for the right movies, “people will still want to go see those in a communal setting.”
Meanwhile, to better reflect the whole community, Bailey champions efforts to diversify film.
“The entertainment industry has a lot of work to do on diversity, equity and inclusion,” he said. “But I believe we are starting to make significant moves. There’s a long way to go.”
The fact that he’s now in a position to make such moves would have surprised him three decades ago.
“I often say these stories only make sense when you look back on them,” he said, noting that young people often ask him to reveal “the path” to success.
“The only commonalities are that the stories are uncommon,” he said, mentioning colleagues who started out as artists, accountants, athletes and more.
Such multiplicity in viewpoints helps the industry adapt to a rapidly changing world, he suggests. He still loves the big theatrical experience and appreciates the stories that can be told in half-hour sitcoms or one-hour dramas.
But a world altered by streaming video has wider horizons: “Storytelling’s been upended,” he said. “I think that enabling of different people telling different kinds of stories, unrestricted by format, is going to lead to a lot of really exciting stuff.”