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Bob Iger’s Long Goodbye

Eighteen months into media’s most consequential transition, Disney’s respected ex-CEO lingers while successor Bob Chapek provokes anxiety as he moves aggressively to reshape the Magic Kingdom.

In June, Disney’s board and top management flew to the company’s Aulani resort in Hawaii for their annual retreat. It was executive chairman Bob Iger’s last official appearance at such a gathering. With retirement looming — former theme parks and resorts chief Bob Chapek had already taken the reins as CEO in February 2020 — this was the first time in 15 years that Iger would not be presiding.

Iger decided to open the meeting by offering his parting advice. A longtime critic of over-reliance on market research rather than instinct and taste, he made an inspirational plea for the value of talent. He touched on the challenges of managing creators but stressed that every transaction at Disney — parks, consumer products, movies and television — starts with creativity.

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“In a world and business that is awash with data, it is tempting to use data to answer all of our questions, including creative questions,” he said. “I urge all of you not to do that.” If Disney had relied too heavily on data, he noted, the company might never have made big, breakthrough movies like Black Panther, Coco and Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings.

Though no outsiders were present, chatter about Iger’s talk soon began to seep through Hollywood. His words were interpreted as a shot at Chapek. Though a 28-year Disney veteran who most recently had overseen the theme parks and resorts, Chapek was an outsider in Hollywood. Known for cutting costs and raising prices, he was regarded by many with distrust if not outright hostility. So the version of the board retreat that made the rounds had Iger showing up Chapek, who was said to have followed Iger’s remarks by declaring in blunt terms that, in fact, Disney was now a data-driven company. It sent a chill through Hollywood.

Sources who attended the meeting say Chapek did not make such a bald declaration. They say he was merely being himself: a numbers-oriented, bottom-line-focused businessman lacking creative experience and without Iger’s polish and flair. Nonetheless, the retreat anecdote dovetailed with a narrative that was already taking hold among Iger confidants: that he had lost faith in Chapek and that his speech before the board was “a final warning” that Disney was veering off course. And the idea of the wrong man at the helm of Disney stokes a lot of anxiety in an industry that has seen Fox and MGM swallowed up, WarnerMedia battered by AT&T and Paramount transforming into a shadow of itself.

Iger won’t address the Aulani meeting but says from his standpoint, the transition has gone as planned: He has continued to oversee the creative side as Chapek took on the day-to-day running of the company. “The whole thing was sort of my construct with ultimate buy-in and full support of the board,” Iger says of the succession plan. “I would be around to mentor him for a year and a half while I was concentrating on the creative. He would get up to speed on all things Disney in that period of time. And then, by the time I gave in my Disney ID card, we’d have a transition about as smooth as it could be.”

Chapek declined to comment on the process. But even as Iger lingered, Chapek moved quickly to seize control, reorganizing the company in a way that diminished the power of some key Iger lieutenants as others have exited. “Every creative person is leaving or losing power,” laments one former high-level Disney exec.

The challenge confronting Chapek, and the leaders of every other legacy entertainment company, is daunting: They must serve Wall Street’s obsession with building their streaming services without alienating creatives, who still want a shot at the mind-bending paydays that come with success under a traditional model. In October 2020, major shareholder and activist investor Dan Loeb began to pressure Disney to double its investment in content for Disney+. In August, he pushed Disney to make “tough choices” and offer all theatrical content on the streamer the same day they open in theaters, at no additional cost to subscribers. “Disney investors are pushing Chapek to lean harder into streaming even if it frustrates talent,” says Lightshed Partners analyst Rich Greenfield. “He has to balance that with managing talent and relationships.”

All that spilled dramatically into public view when Scarlett Johansson sued Disney over her payday for Black Widow, which was offered day-of release on the service. Disney shocked Hollywood and sparked backlash with an aggressive response accusing Johansson of indifference to the effects of the pandemic. The suit was briskly settled, however, and Chapek is now getting some support from Disney’s single most important creative player. Marvel boss Kevin Feige won’t address the Johansson litigation, but, while he is not known for discussing Disney internal politics, he says the still-new CEO is being underestimated. “I think he is a creative guy, a nice guy, a real guy,” Feige says, adding that Chapek offers “just enough of an opinion to give good feedback” on early cuts of movies and shows.

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Marvel boss Kevin Feige (left) with Chapek in June. Alberto E. Rodriguez/Getty Images

As head of theme parks, Chapek was a proponent of replacing the Tower of Terror attraction with the Guardians of the Galaxy — Mission: Breakout! ride, which opened in 2017. Feige says he remembers an entire plane trip to Hong Kong listening to songs Chapek had recorded for the attraction and thinking, “This guy goes deep when it comes to contemporary artists.” And after the record-breaking 2019 opening of Avengers: Endgame, Chapek celebrated the Marvel team by installing a Dole Whip machine — a theme park favorite — in their offices. “I thought that was pretty cool,” Feige says. “I thought that was great.”

But as important as the master of the Marvel universe is, he doesn’t direct or star in movies. Chapek still has to handle that part of the talent equation without the experience that Iger brought to the job. Many Disney veterans and outside observers think the public fight with Johansson never would have happened on Iger’s watch, and even before that blew up, the feeling among many in Hollywood was that Chapek was using the pandemic as an excuse to throw movies onto Disney+, steamrolling talent in the process. “The thing about Hollywood is, you can behave badly, you can be rude, you can make duds, but the thing you cannot do is fuck with people’s money,” says a producer with business at Disney. “You just don’t do that and hide behind technology as the reason why.”

Clearly Chapek is not oblivious to this and has made efforts to defuse the tension. He has repeatedly spoken of his high regard for talent and creativity and, though a Johansson legal victory was not assured, the suit was quickly settled. Before that, Disney locked up a new deal with Emma Stone — whose Cruella went day-and-date on Disney+ for $30 — and committed to exclusive theatrical releases for the remaining 2021 movies, though he committed to nothing beyond this year.

But as WarnerMedia’s Jason Kilar has learned, when talent is bruised, the marks heal slowly. After blindsiding the creative community in December by putting the studio’s 2021 slate on his HBO Max streamer, Kilar tried to make peace by writing big checks and agreeing to a 45-day theatrical window going forward. Yet he was still apologizing for the original sin as recently as Sept. 28.

There have been signs of tension within Disney as well. In April, Insider reported that Pixar’s Pete Docter was unhappy with the decision to skip theatrical and put Soul on the service in December 2020; animators were said to be dismayed when Disney then put Luca directly onto the streamer, both for no extra charge. (Soul went on to win the Oscar for best animated feature, eligible to compete only because of pandemic rules.)

Endeavor CEO Ari Emanuel — whose firm benefits greatly from the UFC’s deal with Disney-owned ESPN — dismisses talk of a choppy transition: “Bob has steered [Disney] through one of the most challenging times anyone in our business could go through, and he did it without losing sight of their long-term objectives.” Despite complaints from his competitors at CAA, Emanuel continues, “Our clients have a great relationship with Disney, as the studio has quickly demonstrated to us how the creative community can share in the success of new platforms like Disney+.”

It’s true, as Emanuel points out, that Chapek stepped into the job at a nearly impossible moment, just as the pandemic shut down all the company’s revenue streams except the nascent Disney+. The crisis created more bad optics for him. Disney laid off 28,000 staffers in September 2020, prompting frequent critic Abigail Disney to tweet that the company should have spent more time fighting California Gov. Gavin Newsom for unemployment benefits and rent subsidies instead of lobbying to reopen the theme parks “prematurely and in a way that would risk their employees’ health.”

***

Transitions are almost always messy. Just ask the ghost of Sumner Redstone, whose refusal to loosen his grip on his empire steered it into a ditch. Michael Eisner, Iger’s predecessor, didn’t handle leaving well; he ultimately was pushed out after a shareholder revolt. Iger was hazed when he took over in 2005.

But as it turned out, Iger would become an especially hard act to follow, not only hugely successful in building the business but the very embodiment of a polished entertainment executive: immaculate in his presentation, friends with Oprah and Lin-Manuel. Almost anyone seems earthbound in comparison. One Disney veteran — not a Chapek fan — compares a lunch with Iger to a lunch with Chapek. “A conversation with Iger was, ‘Where can I help you? Did you watch this new Icelandic thriller on Netflix? I just finished this book about Churchill.’ Bob Chapek is all about business. He sits at lunch, there is 60 seconds of small talk about his home in Key West, and then it’s all Bob sending messages about how things are going great. He is on-message.”

The board had been pushing for a succession plan even as Iger built Disney with one acquisition after another: Pixar, Marvel, Lucasfilm, Fox. Iger had toyed with other pursuits through the years, flirting intermittently with a run at politics and making a play to bring an NFL team to Los Angeles in 2015. But he postponed his retirement four times from 2013 to 2020.

As one success followed another, a former colleague says, Iger had started to feel somewhat underappreciated, and the pressure to pick a successor began to grate. Some former insiders think he had gotten a bit too much positive press for his own good. Iger sometimes expressed his amazement to friends that other industry figures pulled in huge paydays while running much lesser companies. In 2017, for example, then-CBS chief Leslie Moonves cleared $69.3 million while Iger was paid $36.3 million. In 2018, Iger got $65.6 million while Discovery’s David Zaslav raked in $129.4 million. Meanwhile, Iger was at the helm of the biggest and most complex entertainment company and had done brilliantly by all accounts.

Iger says it was he who chose his moment to step aside. Plans for him to give way to Chapek as CEO began to take shape around Thanksgiving 2019, when he was a few months shy of his 69th birthday. By then, other internal candidates had come and gone. Iger had a bake-off that caused one potential successor, Jay Rasulo, to leave in 2015. The industry believed Tom Staggs had been anointed when he was named COO in February of that year, but if so, Iger changed his mind, and Staggs departed in April 2016. (Sources say Staggs heard from associates that Chapek had actively undermined him. Staggs declined to comment.) That left Peter Rice, chairman of general entertainment content, but though he had been through a lot of grooming in film and TV during his years at Fox, he had been at Disney less than a year. Kevin Mayer, who had been overseeing Disney+, was in serious contention but sources say he had less operating experience than Chapek. (He exited after Chapek was named CEO.)

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The Bobs: Chapek (left) and Iger in September. “He’s very different from me,” Iger says of his successor. “That doesn’t mean he can’t do the job well.” Gerardo Mora/Getty Images

In the end, Chapek was the only real internal candidate. Given his lack of creative background, it may have seemed likely to Iger that the board would want him to stick around. Then came the challenges of the pandemic. Several sources believe Iger was sure his plan to run the creative side of things until the end of 2021 — and maybe beyond — would work out of necessity. “I think he thought Chapek was so not liked and so not a creative executive that he would for sure be needed for the foreseeable future,” says a former Disney insider. “He could be executive chairman for who knows how long, and Chapek could be a glorified COO.”

Iger disputes this. “I wanted him to be CEO, not COO, because I wanted him to have the authority to take off my plate the kind of things I couldn’t do if I were going to be concentrating on the creative side,” he says, adding that he has felt energized by his freedom to focus on scripts and rough cuts and talks with creators. “The roles that I initially designed and announced are the roles that we’ve been performing.”

As the company mostly shut down in the early months of the transition, Chapek dealt with the pandemic response while Iger looked for material to put on the streamer. He moved up Beyoncé’s Black Is King to July. In May 2020, he appeared on Good Morning America with Lin-Manuel Miranda to announce that the movie version of Hamilton would drop on the service early.

Several Disney veterans believe Iger did not anticipate how aggressively Chapek would move to take charge. In The New York Times in April 2020, media columnist Ben Smith reported that Iger, mere weeks after Chapek became CEO, had “smoothly reasserted control” and “effectively returned to running the company.” Iger was said to have made his intentions clear to Chapek on a flight in March. In an email to the Times, Iger explained: “A crisis of this magnitude, and its impact on Disney, would necessarily result in my actively helping Bob [Chapek] and the company contend with it, particularly since I ran the company for 15 years!”

One Iger associate says the Times article was “a seminal moment” in a souring relationship between Iger and Chapek. Says another: “[Iger] forgot that as soon as he steps down as CEO, the gravity shifts to the new CEO. He miscalculated that because of his belief in his own mastery. [And] he thought Chapek would have a sense of fealty or duty. Instead, Chapek really resented the Ben Smith article. And he’s really not a collaborative person. He put his people in positions of power and marginalized Iger’s deputies.”

Iger says the Times column was “really unfair.” Naturally he would have a role helping the company through the pandemic, he says, but that shouldn’t have been interpreted as, “I’m back, I’m leading the company.”

In May, IAC chairman Barry Diller told a CNBC interviewer that Iger was “being pushed to the sidelines by his successor — not very nicely, by the way.” Iger says Diller is a friend but adds he was “shocked” when he heard those comments and doesn’t know how Diller would have gotten such an impression. It’s possible the constraints of the pandemic inflamed the perception of strained relations with Chapek. “It’s not like the two of us can walk into a room and show body language that’s positive,” he says. (One Iger associate says the situation would be much more awkward if the two were forced to be in the same office under the anxious eyes of staff.)

In October 2020, Chapek announced a major reorganization that continues to be opaque to many in the industry and even on Wall Street. It effectively moved the power of the purse from Iger’s creative executive team to Kareem Daniel, a longtime Chapek subordinate who has no more creative experience than Chapek. “You can’t blame Chapek for doing that,” says Hal Vogel of Vogel Capital Management. “He had to make his own imprint on the company pretty quickly or he would not have been effective or respected. I think he had to move as forcefully as he could.”

Now Disney is witnessing a broad changing of the guard, with general counsel Alan Braverman, studio chief Alan Horn and communications chief Zenia Mucha among those who have departed or are on their way out.

The critical question now is whether Chapek ever will be able to mimic the talent-friendly words that Iger said at the Aulani and convince anyone that he means them. “The single biggest topic is, does Disney now think its IP is more important than talent itself?” says Greenfield. “The question is, who is Bob Chapek?”

Hollywood will be watching closely to discern the answer. Iger says it will all become clear. “He’s very different from me,” Iger says. “That doesn’t mean he can’t do the job well. Give him time. It’s the only fair thing to do.”

This story first appeared in the Oct. 6 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.