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The day after Disney shocked Hollywood by unceremoniously dispatching Bob Chapek as CEO, sources with ties to the company say discontent among some board members had been building to the point that there was discussion about replacing Chapek as far back as the directors’ late June meeting in Florida.
At that time, sources say, some on the board wanted to replace Chapek and appoint one of their own, Nike chairman Mark Parker, as interim CEO while conducting a search for a new permanent leader. But a source says Parker declined the role even as the idea arose more than once. Aside from Parker, these sources say, General Motors executive Mary Barra also advocated replacing Chapek at the June meeting. (Neither Parker nor Barra responded to requests for comment.)
By that point, Chapek had already piled up a set of widely derided moves. Aside from the much hashed-over public conflict over Scarlett Johansson’s compensation, Chapek’s flip-flop on Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” law at first roiled the Disney staff and then drew the wrath of Gov. Ron DeSantis. Another controversy erupted after Chapek’s abrupt and particularly brutal firing of Peter Rice, the well-regarded chairman of entertainment and programming. “Chapek has chosen another negative news cycle when he was just getting his feet back on the ground,” a longtime communications exec said at the time.
But sources say Board Chair Susan Arnold was an advocate for Chapek. “Susan sided with Chapek from the beginning, even before [Iger] left,” says one. “She tried to put Iger back into his box. At every turn, she said, ‘Let Chapek run the company.’”
In the aftermath of Rice’s firing, Arnold released a supposedly unanimous statement of board “confidence and support” for Chapek. But many in the industry had noted that the board had yet to renew Chapek’s contract, which was set to expire in February 2023. Once again, top industry executives rolled their eyes. “You let the CEO get within a year of his contract being up,” one industry power player said at the time. “That by itself is a statement of non-support. A vote of confidence is nonsense.”
When the board discussed Chapek’s contract at the end of that month, according to one account, some wanted to extend it for only two years. But Arnold argued that would undercut Chapek too severely. A seeming compromise was reached: Chapek’s contract was extended for three years but backdated, leaving a bit more than two years on his deal.
Meanwhile, discontent with Chapek built, hitting a tipping point with the most recent earnings call and a subsequent note to staff regarding a hiring freeze, layoffs and other cost cutting that set off profound anxiety within the company. Two high-level sources — who felt they should have been given a heads-up — say they were totally blindsided by the memo and left scrambling to figure out what they could still spend money on and what was now off limits.
Throughout it all, Iger’s disapproval of Chapek was a secret to no one. He is said to have warned at a board meeting in December 2021 in New York, just before he left the company, that the culture of Disney could be transformed negatively and rapidly. It was the last time he spoke to Chapek.
In recent months, Iger has spent his time dealing with his investments, sailing his yacht, working on a book and even talking with producer Brian Grazer about a movie based on the book Lucky 666: The Impossible Mission That Changed the War in the Pacific. Until his phone rang. It was Arnold. Iger had not spoken to her since his final lunch with the board in New York last December.
When the end came for Chapek, even a Disney-connected source who is not a Chapek fan expressed shock at the way it went down. “He didn’t get to say goodbye or say, ‘I’ve decided to step down,’” this person says. Reminded of reports that Rice had likewise been unceremoniously dismissed following his own brief meeting with Chapek, this person adds, “I bet you it broke Chapek’s record of firing Rice in seven minutes. They called [Chapek] and said, ‘You’re out. Our lawyers will call your lawyers.’ No statement from him, no comment from him, no grace. It’s fucking insane.”
As for current and even former Disney insiders, the change did feel insane, though welcome. “As much as it’s a wow,” says one, “in a weird way it felt inevitable.” Another noted that Iger has already undertaken a reorganization to undo the one imposed by Chapek, who had shifted power over financial decisions away from creative executives. “I’m happy he’s going to revert everything back to the way it was,” this person says. “As though Chapek was never there.” Iger and Chapek declined to comment.
Another Disney veteran observes the stunning irony: “Bob Iger messed up succession at Disney for 15 years. When he finally did it, it was a colossal mess-up. It’s extraordinary that [Iger] is the guy they chose to come back. It speaks to his reputation and the board’s lack of options and ineptitude. How could they have gotten to this place? How could this happen?”
Additional reporting by Alex Weprin.
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