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Disney's Bob Iger Talks Steve Jobs, Lucasfilm and His Biggest Fear

Bob Iger
John Sciulli/Getty Images
Bob Iger

As part of HRTS' newsmaker luncheon series, Brian Grazer peppers the Disney CEO and chairman about his appetite for risk and his continued success atop the media giant.

Walt Disney Co. CEO Bob Iger used his platform before the TV community Wednesday to discuss a host of topics from the value of risk-taking to his memories of Steve Jobs.

In a wide-reaching conversation with producer Brian Grazer as part of the Hollywood Radio and Television Society’s newsmaker luncheon series, the Disney chief explained the philosophy he credits with his success. "I’ve learned over the years that you can’t be dismissive of risk, especially in the corporate world," he told a roomful of agents and execs, highlighting such bold moves as the recent acquisition of Lucasfilm and the decision to put Disney TV series on iTunes. "If you’re too focused on it, you can’t get anything done."

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The Disney chief was most animated when discussing the time he spent with Jobs, who died in 2011 as Disney’s largest shareholder. He revealed that one of the first calls he made when he got the job as CEO was to Jobs, who had announced he'd be severing ties with Disney amid discord with previous management. “I had to repair the relationship. So the day the board called me to say I was CEO … I decided to call my parents, my grown children, a couple of friends and Steve,” Iger recalled, noting that Jobs agreed to take a meeting with him despite the fact that he perceived Iger as “more of the same.”

To hear the Disney CEO tell it, he and Jobs formed a bond over a collective desire to take risks. Early on, that came in the form of putting such series as Lost and Desperate Housewives on iTunes -- a game-changing arrangement that Iger remembers taking only five days to hammer out. "[Steve] realized I was willing to take risks and question the status quo,” said Iger, who credits his company’s willingness to do so as leading to the trust that made Disney’s $7.3 billion acquisition of Pixar possible.

“[Steve] was relentlessly honest and relentlessly candid,” he said of the late Apple co-founder's infamous style, acknowledging how Jobs would call him periodically on a Saturday to tell him that he had seen one of his movies the night before and, in his words, “it sucked.” Although Iger noted that he appreciates honesty from people he deals with, the latter likely played to his biggest insecurity, which he noted was a fear of "not making enough things that are good." Although Iger suggested that few things keep him up at night at this stage of his career, walking out of a screening knowing that a Disney project -- be it a film or a TV show -- isn’t as good as it could be falls among his biggest concerns. “I hate that," he said. "Nobody ever sets out to make anything bad."

Iger used the remainder of the hourlong discussion to touch topics including Walt Disney's impact, revealing that he has listened to a 20-hour interview that the company founder gave shortly before his death in 1966. "I’m a big believer in respecting the past," Iger said. Quoting Disney's philosophy on the theme park business, the exec added, "Disneyland will never be finished so long as there is imagination in the world." That comment inspired a brief conversation about the recently announced Magic Band (a bracelet with an RFID chip) that is going to allow his Disney World staff to cater to its customers' personal needs. Among the examples he offered of the technological innovation that he described as "interesting, fairly risky and very expensive" was an ability for one of the park's fast-food restaurants to not only take a visitor's order but deliver food to that visitor just as he or she sits down at a table -- and all without having to take out any cash.

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Other topics addressed were Disney's recent Lucasfilm acquisition, which Iger praised his senior staff for keeping under wraps for many months, and the growing competition across all of Disney's platforms. At one point during the conversation, he acknowledged that he felt for ABC Networks entertainment chief Paul Lee because he operates in an environment with so many more competitors -- both in traditional media and beyond -- than Iger did when he ran ABC some two decades ago. He also noted that he recently met with his video game staff to address the content of the company's games, making sure they were being as responsible as possible in light of the recent mass shootings.

Although Grazer provided a level of cachet for the event, he failed to ask Iger the hard-hitting questions that a journalist in his position might have. Questions regarding Iger's succession plan, his film division’s scaled-back slate (or former film chief Rich Ross' short-lived tenure) and ABC’s lagging ratings of late went unasked as Grazer opted instead to talk more philosophically about Iger’s tenure and strategy. In fact, so many of Grazer’s questions were wrapped up in compliments -- among them: “you must feel amazing” -- that Iger felt compelled to quip at one that he also is the man who put notorious flop Cop Rock on ABC’s schedule back in 1990. “I’ve got a dark side,” he said following a deluge of praise. “You’re building me up as a knight in shining armor.”

Email: Lacey.Rose@THR.com; Twitter: @LaceyVRose