April 21, 2022
As CEO of The Walt Disney Co., Bob Chapek is the home entertainment industry’s single biggest success story.
He joined Disney in 1993, after stints in brand management at H.J. Heinz Co. and in advertising at J Walter Thompson, and spent his first 18 years in home entertainment, running the division as president from 2006 to 2011. And with streaming now the dominant delivery mechanism in home entertainment, it’s fitting that one of Disney’s biggest corporate initiatives is Disney+, the subscription streaming platform launched in November 2019 that by the end of last year had amassed nearly 130 million subscribers worldwide, up 37% from the end of 2020.
In an exclusive interview with Media Play News, Chapek shares some thoughts on the past, present and future of home entertainment.
MPN: At the time of launch, did you recognize DVD’s potential?
Chapek: I don’t think that anyone fully realized the trajectory that we would be on. I think if we knew, we probably all would have made other decisions quicker than we did. But I think it’s been a roadmap, right? We went from VHS and Laserdisc, to DVD, then to Blu-ray, then to having files accessible through iTunes and then, ultimately, streaming. So it’s been part of a big evolution. I don’t think anybody had the foresight to know exactly how that was going to play out. But we knew we were on a digital path, a digital future, and I think the consumer’s better off for it.
MPN: What were you doing when DVD first came on the market?
Chapek: At that point I was SVP of marketing for home video, running marketing, essentially. What I was actually doing was making sure those discs would actually play, because if you remember there some playability issues, as there are with all new formats, compatibility issues between players and discs, and making sure that anything we put in the marketplace was going to actually deliver on what the consumer expected. And then shortly thereafter, we started innovating, trying to take full advantage of all the capabilities that the new digital format had. More than just no need to rewind, right? Or you can start a movie anywhere you wanted to — there wasn’t that linearity, and we tried to take advantage of that in so many ways. I work with Pete Docter still to this day, and I remember innovating on Monsters Inc., with the two paths on the menus, one for kids, one for adults, and it was a completely different experience. So we did try to seize the opportunity to use technology to create a whole different type of experience and, you know, that’s the Disney way.
MPN: When Blu-ray came along, you played a primary role in bringing that high-definition format to market. I remember Warren Lieberfarb saying it’s vaporware, and you explained that it’s not evolutionary, it’s revolutionary.
Chapek: Well, first of all, I do give credit to Warren to be the father of DVD, he certainly was that, and got the entire industry off on its way. [But with Blu-ray] there was an unfortunate and expensive format war. We clearly aligned on the side of Blu-ray because it was the best for the consumer. I think there were a lot of competing interests with people doing things that might be best for their company but not necessarily with an eye toward what was right for the consumer, and we just believed that a transformative technology that could completely promise a new experience, without compromises, would be superior to something that was a bit more evolutionary, like HD DVD. So knowing that it would make our library brand new again, if we had a revolutionary technology rather than an evolutionary one, we stood, as you remember, staunchly behind Blu-ray, which eventually prevailed.
MPN: Along with Blu-ray Disc, the argument can be made that DVD also fathered streaming, both because it spurred the digitization of content and because its small size and light weight prompted Reed Hastings to launch a DVD-by-mail rental service. Would there be a Disney+ had it not been for DVD?
Chapek: I think it’s part of the natural evolution. It was a big leap from tape to disc, and then another big leap from physical to digital. And even in those early days of Blu-ray we started playing around with what we thought was going to be digital delivery. We were involved in a new technology we had developed called Keychest. I don’t know if you remember it, but it was the embryonic beginning of owning a digital library — which, again, to us was a pretty big deal at that time. I think back often to those Keychest days as being the founding moment of at least our own digital business. And we certainly played along with that evolution, and now with streaming, with Disney+, it’s really been interesting for me, over almost 30 years, to see this evolution. I have the deepest respect for Netflix. Again, they were pioneers in this business, coming all the way from shipping discs to your home all the way to where they’re at today. And I’m not sure how many players will be left standing, ultimately, in the streaming wars, as they call it, but I certainly think both Netflix and Disney+ will be among them.
MPN: Any thought on the future of physical media?
Chapek: I guess there’s always going to be a niche for physical media that some people will celebrate. I still hang on to a few of my classic titles and, in particular, I’m a big music audio on disc fan for some of the high-definition and lossless formats, so I’m one of those rare types that still loves the lossless, uncompressed formats. But I think each person will find out their own path when it comes to hanging on to different physical formats. I remember the days of Snow White, the one that started it all here at Disney, and working on The Lion King, which has sold over 45 million copies in North America alone, and there are some of those titles that will hold some library value if for no other reason than sentimental value. But I fully embrace the digital revolution that’s taken place and think everything I really need to watch is on Disney+.