The entire entertainment industry was caught flat-footed last week when Bob Iger suddenly called it quits on his time as Disney CEO and appointed a replacement – Bob Chapek, head of parks and resorts, formerly the mastermind behind the Disney home video “vault” concept – who has zero name recognition with anyone in Hollywood. (“No idea” was the succinct response of a prominent talent agency exec when Vulture asked for his take on Chapek.) It was a plot twist straight out of HBO’s Succession, except even Logan Roy wouldn’t have done this.
Given that Iger’s contract doesn’t expire until 2021 and that he’d given no indication during his recent book tour that he was on the verge of such a monumental move, the speculation machine jumped into overtime. After all, CEOs don’t just quit and appoint their successor on a random Tuesday in February without at least some warning. Clearly, something is rotten in the state of Mickey Mouse. Right?
That’s Mr. Executive Chairman, Thank You Very Much
Well….Iger isn’t actually leaving. He’s sticking around as executive chairman, a relatively rare title historically reserved for company founders who put off retirement to oversee their successor’s transition period. Jeffrey Sonnenfeld, a Yale School of Management, told WSJ this is actually an ideal model for Disney considering the company’s marvelous run as of late. “It’s a really good model for continuity if you’re on the right track,” he said. “If you’re veering off a cliff, then this is the last thing you want because it’s not going to let the new player cut their own trail.”
Owning an unprecedented chunk of the box office certainly seems like “the right track” to me. Still, when Eisner took over in the 1980s he’d just enjoyed a successful run as head of Paramount. When Iger replaced him in 2005, he at least had a half-decade of experience running ABC Television in the 90s. They were people with established Hollywood relationships, seemingly a prerequisite for anyone tasked with running the largest film studio in the world. After Iger gobbled up Lucasfilm, Marvel, Pixar, and dang near all of 21st Century Fox, however, there really isn’t much of Hollywood left that Disney doesn’t own. Maybe what the Mouse House needs now is someone better at trimming the fat, not another guy who knows a thing or two about making movies/TV shows.
When the news was announced, Eisner took to Twitter to pat Iger on the back:
Truly, Iger’s bonafides as CEO can’t be denied. Even Eisner sees that. 15 years ago, however, Eisner didn’t want to leave. If not for a successful coup orchestrated by Roy Disney, Eisner would have likely stayed in his job. That means this sudden, but seemingly peaceful transition from Iger to Chapek is a new look for Disney in the modern era. Iger sticks around to mentor his replacement and focus on the creative side of the company, and then once 2022 rolls around Bob Chapek’s training wheels come off and Disney is his to either maintain, grow, or ruin.
No, he’s not running for president this year
That’s not the type of pragmatic logic the world wanted to hear in the immediate aftermath of Iger’s shocking announcement, though. The explanations – some well-reasoned, others entirely speculative – came fast and furious:
Iger’s totally running for president! No, he’s about to buy a sports team! Wait, no, I’ve got it – some publication somewhere is about to drop a hit-piece revealing a huge scandal and this was Iger’s way of getting out in front of it and reframing the news cycle!
In truth, as legendary entertainment journalist Kim Masters bluntly admitted on her KCRW show The Business, neither she nor any of her colleagues saw this coming and didn’t have any sources whispering to them about what really happened behind Disney’s closed doors. The questions were obvious – Why now? Why Chapek? Why pick someone with no film/TV production background? – but the only person with answers was Bob Iger. Luckily, he talked to the New York Times about all of that.
Why So Abrupt? – “It’s only abrupt in other people’s eyes because we haven’t been talking about it publicly,” Mr. Iger said by phone. “I have been discussing this with the board for a number of months.”
What exactly does an executive chairman do? – “I basically described what I thought my best use was given that our asset base and strategy are pretty much in place. And that was to fully focus on the creative side of our business and make sure that our creative pipelines are vibrant. That is very, very important, especially as we roll out Disney Plus around the world. In thinking about what I want to accomplish before I leave the company at the end of ’21, getting everything right creatively would be my No. 1 goal. I could not do that if I were running the company on a day-to-day basis.”
Why not appoint Chapek as an Interim CEO? – He said he decided not to elevate Mr. Chapek to an interim role — perhaps chief operating officer, a job that has not existed at Disney since Thomas O. Staggs, once Mr. Iger’s heir apparent, left the company in 2016. “I did not believe that would bestow on him the kind of autonomy that I wanted him to have during this transition,” Mr. Iger said. Furthermore, “I’m not going to suddenly be working three days a week. My new role is a full-time job.”
Why Chapek? – “I have absolute confidence in his abilities, as does the board,” Mr. Iger told analysts on a conference call. “I intend to work very closely with Bob. My goal when I leave here is that he will be just as steeped in the creative part of the business as I am today.”
Who is Bob Chapek?
Chapek’s background, according to Vulture:
- Named Bob which, hey, clearly doesn’t hurt.
- Joined Disney in 1993.
- Worked for years as head of home video, during which he time he pioneered the so-called Disney “vault” strategy and helped the company transition to emerging formats, first from DVDs to Blu-ray and then from physical media to digital downloads like iTunes.
- Moved to consumer products division – a division which also added oversight of the theme parks starting in 2011. Thus, he was Iger’s #2 through the launch of Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge at Disneyland and Disney World as well as the opening of Shanghai Disney in 2016.
- Iger consolidated consumer products, theme parks, and Disney cruises into one unit starting in 2018 and put Chapek in charge.
- Said to be a bit maniacal about cost-cutting and keeping every division profitable, which likely portends bad things for everyone at 20th Century Films and struggling TV units like ABC and Freeform
Didn’t we just do this 5 years ago?
A Disney lifer who first joined in the 90s, enjoyed a highly successful run as head of parks and resorts, and is now first in line to succeed Bob Iger? It’s been done.
The last time around, the employee’s name was Thomas A. Staggs. He was promoted to Disney COO in 2015 and unofficially selected as Iger’s successor. Then it all went to shit. Just over a year later, Staggs quit, reportedly because he’d lost Iger’s full support, and a year after that Disney announced Iger was delaying his retirement from 2018 until 2019.
That became a thing – Iger kept pushing off retirement another year, each time to finish off major projects, and the media kept speculating about who was being lined up as his eventual replacement. Coming into 2020, the big bet was on Kevin Mayer, head of Disney+ and Hulu and thus the architect of what Iger has consistently referred to as the future of the company’s entertainment division.
Chapek, however, is the more seasoned executive with a more diverse portfolio. In his time with Disney, he’s directly touched just about every part of the company other than film and TV production. He can learn that and the necessary talent relation skills on the job from Iger. Mayer’s more like Disney’s streaming czar who might be too good at that to reliably oversee everything else.
That is assuming Iger will ever actually leave. Like Logan Roy on Succession, maybe he secretly just wants to stay in the job forever. Even if that’s not the case, Chapek could still disappoint as CEO. If so, don’t go printing your Iger 2024 banners just yet. “If it goes off the rails over the next two years, will Iger go away?” Peter Crist, chairman of executive recruitment firm Crist Kolder Associates, asked himself while talking to WSJ. “Probably not.”
What creative challenges? Doesn’t Disney rule the universe now?
While Chapek learns the art of the handshake, Iger has plenty of challenges to overcome all over the company, from the setbacks faced by the new Star Wars theme park attractions to lagging toy sales to ESPN’s new leadership/ongoing financial struggles to deciding just how many former Fox employees to fire. Even something as strong as Disney+ isn’t truly solid yet.
Disney+ shot out strong out of the gate thanks to The Mandalorian, but none of the streamer’s originals since then have made a dent in pop culture. (Again, I ask, has anyone other than me watched Togo?) At least they actually premiered, though. Behind the scenes, Disney+ already has a long track record of giving straight-to-series orders to shows and then later canceling them once the first scripts come in. Those that don’t get canceled get moved over to Hulu (High Fidelity, Love Simon).
All of this suggests an evolving definition of the Disney+ brand. They need to lock that down. Hillary Duff publicly begging Disney to move her Lizzie Maquire revival from Disney+ to Hulu is not a good look for them, not when you add it to all the other behind the scenes drama at the streamer.
This doesn’t mean Disney+ is heading straight to the ER and Iger’s the only doctor who can save it. After all, its early subscription figures shattered analysts’ expectations and the unbeatable library content makes Disney+ a mandatory buy for many families. However, the streaming economy is a growth model where the only metric that matters is sub numbers, and Disney has already said it won’t be updating its publicly released Disney+ figures anytime soon. That means we have no idea how many people canceled once The Mandalorian wrapped its first season, but if search engine traffic is any indication a LOT of people have been looking up how to cancel.
Basically, they had the best collective IP in Hollywood history and successfully launched a streaming service. Congratulations. Now, what’s your solution to combat churn? How do you keep people from canceling as they tire of waiting for The Mandalorian to return or for those Marvel TV shows to debut?
That’s exactly the kind of thing Iger can help fix if his day isn’t filled up with CEO duties. If streaming is the future, then tighten up the next phase in the strategy. So far, one of his first moves was to appoint Kelly Campbell the new president of Hulu, part of a wave of managerial changes behind the scenes all throughout Disney. For now, Campbell answers to Kevin Mayer. Before Iger retires, however, he’ll probably also have to replace Mayer since executives passed over for promotion don’t typically stick around. He’s expected to depart for a rival streaming service within two years.
Above all that, you have three of the prized IP acquisitions of the Iger era – Marvel, Star Wars, and Pixar – transitioning to something new. Iger has already moved to ensure Marvel’s future by giving Kevin Feige nearly complete oversight over every aspect of the comic book company. Even so, Marvel is about to launch TV shows that cost as much as blockbuster movies and directly connect to the Marvel Cinematic Universe, which is a Universe newly down several Avengers and lacking a central villain. A hit the size of Avengers: Endgame isn’t likely to happen again anytime soon meaning Marvel’s next challenge will be not only producing compelling content but also convincing the market that it’s ok if some of the new movies don’t crack a billion worldwide. Plus, the X-Men are coming back. When, where, and how, however, remains a mystery. In Feige we trust, though.
The same cannot be said for Kathleen Kennedy, whose run as Lucasfilm head has been entirely mixed and filled with behind the scenes drama and fan revolts. Figuring out not only the future of Star Wars but also who will be in charge of that future has to be the most pressing creative problem facing Iger.
Somewhat lower on that list is Pixar, which would seem to be in good shape after Toy Story 4, but it has experienced its own executive reshuffling as of late and has an upcoming slate of riskier projects. Pixar President Jim Morris is betting on the future, telling Vulture the company can’t just lean on Lee Unkrich, Peter Docter, and Andrew Stanton to work magic. Going forward, Pixar needs to find a new generation of talent:
Those guys are all middle-aged or older now and they’re not going to be the filmmakers ten years from now. They’re not going to necessarily be the ones that have their finger on the zeitgeist. And we knew that. Animated films come from people of their time, if that makes any sense. Just as John was, and Andrew, Pete, and Lee were when they made their first films.
Not coincidentally, Toy Story 4 and Onward were entrusted to longtime Pixar employees – Josh Cooley and Dan Scanlon respectively – who’d never solo directed a feature-length film for the company before. Later this year, one of those middle-aged guys Morris referenced, Pete Docter, is returning for a new movie, Soul, but he’s doing so as a co-director. Working with Docter on Soul is Kemp Powers, a complete Pixar newbie. With any luck, Docter will mentor him and look on with pride years from now when Powers makes something just as good if not better than Up.
Iger obviously hopes for a similar outcome with his mentorship of Chapek. After enjoying one of the biggest years in Disney history thanks to Avengers: Endgame and Disney+, Iger could have easily dropped the mic and peaced out, enjoying a billionaire’s retirement of running some sports team. However, Disney is experiencing its own mini-succession dramas all throughout the company, and before Iger goes he wants to make sure everything is heading in the right direction and all the right people are in charge.
Then, maybe, he runs for president. Iger 2024?