- Share this article on Facebook
- Share this article on Twitter
- Share this article on Flipboard
- Share this article on Email
- Show additional share options
- Share this article on Linkedin
- Share this article on Pinit
- Share this article on Reddit
- Share this article on Tumblr
- Share this article on Whatsapp
- Share this article on Print
- Share this article on Comment
Disney is in uncharted waters. From 1984 to 2020, the company had only two CEOs: Michael Eisner from 1984 to 2005 and Bob Iger from 2005 to 2020. Now Bob Chapek, with two years in the job, is facing a staff revolt and insiders are speculating about his longevity in the job and who might succeed him (entertainment chief Peter Rice and ex-CFO Tom Staggs would seem to be favorites). His contract is up in 11 months.
(The Simpsons top brass, including Jim Brooks, Matt Groening, Al Jean and Matt Selman, deny that that there was such a cartoon in the office. “For the sake of the simple truth: No notice concerning Bob Chapek has been on the walls of any Simpson’s office. Since March 2020 all our work has been done remotely due to Covid. Nobody has been in the offices for two years now. We do miss the snack room,” they wrote in a joint statement. The source who spoke with THR said that the circulated cartoon was in fact subsequently taken down.)
The last-minute postponement of the company’s management retreat, set for Orlando the last week of March, struck one Disney veteran as ominous. “This was Chapek’s big moment, post Iger, to assert his leadership and vision in front of the top 300 execs worldwide,” this person says. “These events at Disney are like political rallies, coronations, sports camps and proms all in one.” The postponement is “not necessarily fatal but very serious and destabilizing,” he says. The event has yet to be rescheduled, but Chapek still held a two-day meeting for investors.
The fallout over Chapek’s initial position on Florida’s so-called “Don’t Say Gay” legislation, which was to not take a position, added to the growing unease within Disney and in the creative community about Chapek’s leadership. He is known as a top-down manager, more of a talker than a listener. “It’s funny how many people have said to me, ‘It’s such a giant mess, but I’m not surprised,’” says another longtime Disney insider. “That’s part of what makes it difficult to recover from.”
Succession is never easy. Eisner hazed Iger before the board anointed him. Questions about Chapek, meanwhile, who had a long career in consumer products and theme parks, began early on because of his lack of creative experience. His October 2020 reorganization giving his longtime lieutenant Kareem Daniel oversight of distribution was seen as a downgrade for creative execs and an upgrade for suits who had never made a movie or TV show. Another jolt came when Scarlett Johansson sued in July 2021 over her pay for Black Widow and Disney lashed out in response. The fight, which led to a public war of words with CAA’s Bryan Lourd, struck many observers as a relationship-corroding battle that Disney would have avoided in the Iger era.
The degree to which Disney’s 11-member board is concerned at this point isn’t known. Their numbers include the CEOs of General Motors, Oracle, Nike, Lululemon Athletica and Illumina. “None of them come from the media business,” says a Disney source. “It’s not like [former Warners chairman] Bob Daly or [former Time Warner CEO] Richard Parsons is on the board. I imagine they’d be scared” to replace Chapek. But a longtime executive at the company isn’t so sure. “They’ve got some CEOs on there that I think know when someone’s a problem,” he says, adding pointedly, “The chairman of the board is gay.” (Susan Arnold is the board’s first openly gay chairman.)
With Iger’s departure as executive chairman at the end of 2021, Chapek clearly felt that it was time to assert his control. The plan was for him to define the culture of the Chapek era at an April companywide meeting. The message, in part, would be that he would not involve Disney publicly in issues he considered irrelevant to the company and its businesses.
Before he had a chance to lay out that position, the Florida legislation posed a test. Chapek’s statement that “corporate statements do very little to change outcomes or minds” and that the way to bring about change was “through the inspiring content we produce’’ sparked immediate backlash. Disney was picketed, Pixar employees issued a public letter, walkouts were planned. “It’s like the substitute teacher,” says an insider. “The kids get a whiff of the fact that [the teacher] can’t control the classroom and it’s all over.”
As Chapek shifted positions, saying the company had been opposed to the bill from the start and had worked against it behind the scenes, other Disney executives and creative partners took public stands. Disney General Entertainment Content chairman Peter Rice said, “Personally, I see this law as a violation of fundamental human rights.” Finally, Chapek issued a full-throated apology and pledged to go on a listening tour.
On March 28, one day after the bill was mocked on the Oscars telecast, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis signed it into law and Disney called for its repeal. But a Disney veteran says Chapek should have been able to frame the company’s opposition to the law earlier in a way that wouldn’t have opened the door to attacks on “woke Disney” from DeSantis, by acknowledging the need to protect children from harmful content. “Was this one really that hard?” he asks. Now, he says, Disney “has managed to piss off both sides at once.”
Another longtime industry executive, not associated with Disney, also thinks the company could have taken a position from the start. “What [is Florida] going to do? Throw you out of Orlando?” he says, dismissing the idea that opposing the legislation would have alienated a meaningful number of red-state fans. One of Disney’s high-profile creative partners thinks the underlying issue is that Chapek — numbers-oriented and bottom-line-focused — hasn’t shown he understands the importance of the employees who bring the magic to the Magic Kingdom. “There’s a lack of awareness of what makes a company a company in terms of people and the culture,” he says.
There are those within Disney who hope Chapek has already learned from his mistakes and will learn more from his listening tour, that he can win some trust and move forward. But one industry veteran says it won’t be easy. “Even if he sits there and smiles politely and listens, people are not going to buy into it at this point,” he says. “He’s not going to win hearts and minds.”
Rebecca Keegan contributed to this report.
This story first appeared in the March 30 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
March 30, 7:20 pm Updated with a denial from The Simpsons team that there was a cartoon of Chapek hanging in its production office.
Sign up for THR news straight to your inbox every day