November 21, 2022
The sudden and unexpected exit of Bob Chapek as CEO of Disney and return of the media giant’s velvety former chief executive Bob Iger underscores the stark reality that good deeds and intentions in corporate Hollywood are often in the eye of the beholder.
It wasn’t too long ago (Feb. 25, 2020) that Iger quietly announced he would be stepping down as CEO after 15 years, replaced by Chapek, the former home entertainment executive who transitioned from championing Blu-ray Disc to heading the consumer products and parks and amusement business units.
Iger at the time appeared in no hurry to retire completely, having already written his memoir and ditching any U.S. presidential aspirations. He twice extended his employment contract with the Disney board (the latest until Dec. 31, 2021) despite originally planning to retire in 2017.
But his shift from hands-on CEO to passive “executive chairman” came at a most opportune time — for him. Iger had the instinctive smarts to recognize that a growing global pandemic tsunami was about to hit not just the United States but also the entire world, shuttering much of what was near and dear to Disney: theatrical movies (Disney dominated the global box office in 2019 with $11 billion in ticket sales), cruise ships, resorts and amusement parks.
All four of those businesses essentially shuttered overnight in March 2020 — leaving Chapek with a pile of long-and-short-term catastrophic situations. Indeed, Shanghai Disneyland, Disney’s sixth global amusement park and China’s first foreign invested ($5.5 billion under Iger’s reign) theme park, remains closed due to COVID concerns.
To be sure, Chapek made a few self-forced errors. First came a public feud with Scarlett Johansson after the actress filed a lawsuit accusing Disney reneging on a contractual agreement when it released Black Widow on Disney+ concurrent with the theatrical release. The two parties settled out of court.
Then, Chapek appeared to sit on the political fence too long in response to Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’ controversial “Don’t Say Gay” legislation aimed at preventing the topic from being discussed in public elementary schools. Iger condemned the bill from the get-go.
On the flipside, Iger spearheaded the $71 billion acquisition of 21st Century Fox, inheriting a studio with significant debt ($13 billion) and few box-office prospects. The long-delayed signature sequel, Avatar: The Way of Water, is finally hitting the big screen next month. And the end result of the pricey purchase is the obliteration of a vaunted, highly respected movie studio with a rich Hollywood legacy.
“A lot of Disney’s current problems were started by Iger, driving heavy into streaming to play catch-up to Netflix (after licensing first-run movies to the service for years). Plus, he did nothing but undercut Chapek at every turn, instead of supporting the person he supposedly hand-picked to succeed him,” said a source familiar with the studio.
Disney’s singular direct-to-consumer streaming focus is shared throughout the media landscape. The $1.5 billion in segment operating losses through Oct. 1 may have caught Wall Street off guard and occurred on Chapek’s watch. But they originated under Iger.
The increase in operating loss was due to a higher loss at Disney+ and a decrease in results at Hulu, partially offset by improved results at ESPN+. The Fox acquisition helped jumpstart the global Disney+ subscriber count thanks to India’s obsession for the sport of cricket (Disney+ Hotstar owned the streaming rights the Indian Premier League cricket), but it also left Disney 33% short of owning Hulu outright.
Now, Iger faces a Jan. 1, 2024, date to exercise a $27.5 billion option to buy the remaining stake from NBCUniversal. The latter’s corporate parent, Comcast, thinks that stake is now worth a lot more. CEO Brian Roberts is also interested in acquiring Hulu outright.
Regardless, Iger stepping back into the spotlight and largely avoiding the last two-year shit storm should hardly be observed as heroic.