Bob Iger's Next Priority? Streamline Disney+ Development

Disney+ New Illo March 2020
Guy Shield

In his new role "getting everything right creatively," the former CEO is likely to tackle the streaming service, which, despite its booming subscriber numbers, is suffering from a dearth of original series, brand identity issues and stars pleading to move their shows to Hulu.

When Bob Iger announced Feb. 25 that he was stepping down as Disney CEO and into the role of executive chairman, he said he would focus on “getting everything right creatively,” calling it the company’s “biggest priority.” One division where Iger will continued to spend much of that time, per sources close to the executive, is Disney+. 

After launching with a bang on Nov. 12 and shooting past 28 million subscribers in just three months thanks, in large part, to the buzz around its rich library and flagship Star Wars series The Mandalorian, Disney+ is now grappling with a dearth of original product aimed at a wider audience than just kids happy to watch Moana or Frozen on repeat.

Disney+ has more than 50 scripted shows and some 50 unscripted shows in development, according to a source with knowledge of the plans, and is set to release around 35 originals in its first year. But those launches have been heavily weighted to the service’s first six months, leaving several months until its next high-profile series debuts. With its upcoming release calendar looking thin, multiple sources with connections to Disney suggest that the service is still struggling to define its identity.

In a sign of the challenges, Disney+ has developed then scrapped three original series in the past year: scripted comedy Muppets Live Another Day from Adam Horowitz, Eddy Kitsis and Josh Gad; Disney villains drama Book of Enchantment from Michael Seitzman; and, per sources, a never-announced Tron adaptation from John Ridley. Two other projects — TV series based on High Fidelity and Love, Simon — were moved to Hulu over their adult thematic content that executives weren’t comfortable showing on the family-friendly Disney+.

Meanwhile, production on the service’s high-profile Lizzie McGuire revival halted in early January after the departure of creator and showrunner Terri Minsky over creative differences with Disney. Star Hilary Duff then pleaded with Disney on Instagram to “let us move the show to Hulu” so it could explore more mature storylines.

The TV industry is littered with shows that were developed but never picked up to series. The issues on these projects stem from what multiple people describe as questions about what executives want the Disney+ originals brand to be. Early on, per one source with close ties to the company, the Disney+ team — headed by direct-to-consumer chairman Kevin Mayer, president of content and marketing Ricky Strauss and senior vp content Agnes Chu — described a plan to be “on the edgy side of PG-13.” But their programming decisions so far have skewed more PG. “They should have had more clarity around what the guardrails are,” says the source, adding that the early confusion set creators up for failure.

Disney’s guidepost for the service as a whole is to create a family-friendly, PG-13 environment that reflects the company’s core values, but it has different standards for each of its brand tiles. In marketing materials, Disney has described the Marvel hub, where many of the licensed films are PG-13, as “epic storytelling with a human spirit,” and the National Geographic hub as “entertainment with a purpose.” The Disney and Pixar tiles, however, have younger-skewing programming and are described as “special entertainment with heart.” And The Simpsons, which streams in full on Disney+ but is not categorized under any of the brand tiles, ping-pongs between a TV-PG and TV-14 rating over its suggestive language, violence and (albeit cartoonish) sexual situations.

Disney+’s multibrand environment was, by design, a way to highlight the many marquee franchises that exist under the Disney umbrella. Each of the company’s content arms — among them Lucasfilm, Marvel, Pixar, Disney Channel and National Geographic — have been given the authority to develop projects that they then feed to Disney+. In the lead-up to the Disney+ launch, Iger was vocal that streaming was his No. 1 priority. His comments “created a land grab” among executives at Disney’s various studios, per one source, prompting everyone from Marvel Studios president Kevin Feige to Disney Channels Worldwide president Gary Marsh to get deeply involved in the projects they were supplying to Disney+.

Within Disney+, whose leadership has greenlight authority, Strauss and Chu — a former film marketer and Iger right hand, respectively, who lack deep programming experience — have staffed up a 20-plus person content team that includes former Smokehouse Pictures co-president Sarah Shepard running scripted and former Marvel New Media executive Dan Silver heading unscripted. Iger’s directive, per the source with close Disney ties, is that the Disney+ team should be programmers, choosing which projects to debut and when, not developers working on creative.

In success, that structure has led to The Mandalorian, which brought a live-action Star Wars to television for the first time and created a meme movement over Baby Yoda. But sources with connections to projects that hail from the TV studios describe a process that is less defined, with one noting that Disney TV Studios chairman Dana Walden was asked to get more involved in the projects that her group was supplying to Disney+ to help guide the creative process.

Multiple sources say Walden has, in fact, become a lot more involved in recent months. The executive, who oversees three of the eight production entities that feed Disney+, is taking an active role in pitch meetings and development on projects that the TV studios are making for Disney+. She and ABC Studios president Jonnie Davis were both in a November meeting about a live-action Beauty and the Beast prequel series starring Josh Gad and Luke Evans, a source says. Chu’s scripted team, meanwhile, has stopped conducting notes calls, a high-level source says. Though a Disney insider says that team works closely with the studios and routes notes through them, another source says there are growing questions about what those jobs will look like going forward.

On the film side, Walt Disney Studios president of production Sean Bailey has been tasked with feeding between three and five projects to Disney+ each year. Sources say the target budget for those movies can vary but is generally between $30 million and $60 million, which makes it harder for him to generate the same buzz as with a Star Wars- or Marvel-branded film. The early slate has included a Lady and the Tramp remake, live-action adventure Togo starring Willem Dafoe and Christmas film Noelle starring Anna Kendrick. One source describes the early film forays as “Not ‘you’ve got to sign up because you have to see this’” titles.

“On Disney+, we have the ability to make a kind of movie that we stopped making for the theatrical marketplace, which are smaller family comedies, smaller inspirational movies and midbudgeted comedies,” Bailey recently told THR. And, speaking on a THR roundtable last fall, Disney Studios president Alan Horn cited flops Queen of Katwe and McFarland, USA as examples of quality films that could reach an audience on Disney+ that they couldn’t in theaters.

Executives have acknowledged that it will take time to ramp up Disney+. After all, even Netflix, which releases hundreds of projects each year, launched originals with just six shows in 2013. Disney+, meanwhile, will hit 35 originals in its first year by supplementing tentpole launches like The Mandalorian and December’s WandaVision with unscripted series like cooking competition Be Our Chef and shorts like Muppets Now. The goal is to expand to around 50 original series and 10 features and specials each year by year five

Still, Disney+ is already experiencing a perceptible drop in originals output as it heads into the spring and summer months. Though it has teen drama Stargirl (March 13) and a handful of unscripted projects on its release calendar, it hasn’t scheduled another high-profile premiere, The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, until August.

Disney+ enjoys some cushion with its subscribers, 20 percent of whom are locked into a one-year free membership through Verizon. (Some have also signed up for three years of Disney+ for a discount.) But there’s a risk that those paying $7 a month could decide to cancel their subscriptions until the next must-watch original is released. “Original programming is the fuel in the growth engine,” says Wedbush analyst Daniel Ives, calling it “the lynchpin” in the company’s plan to hit between 60 million and 90 million subscribers by 2024, especially as competition from forthcoming streamers HBO Max and Peacock heats up.

Many of the shows that have been scrapped or moved to Hulu may have filled those holes in the schedule. But sources involved in several of the projects say that there was a lack of direction during the development process, which led to frustration and often multiple creative visions. On Book of Enchantment, for example, the executives at the streamer took issue with its dark tone and budget. And Tron, which Ridley was developing via his ABC Studios overall deal, had been in the works, though not officially greenlit, for several months when it fell apart, per sources. Though Muppets Live Another Day was shelved after an executive shift at Muppets Studios, the creative team — Gad and Once Upon a Time creators Eddy Kitsis and Adam Horowitz — is now back at Disney+ with the Beauty and the Beast project.

The need for a clear benchmark is particularly apparent on the shows that have moved to Hulu. High Fidelity star and executive producer Zoë Kravitz is said to have been resistant to a watered-down version of the show, which helped prompt a move to Hulu early in the development process. “Disney+ never constrained us — when they realized that the show was maybe bigger in certain subject matters than they could handle, they set us free,” co-creator Veronica West said in a February interview.

The Love, Simon and Lizzie McGuire reboots, meanwhile, were already in production when questions arose over the adult nature of the scripts. The pilot script for Love, Simon, which THR has read, explores the lead character’s struggle with coming out as gay, as well as issues like marital tension and teen fighting. At the time of the move, sources noted that those themes, as well as topics like alcohol use, were a concern for Disney+ execs, who worried about families watching with young kids. 

Meanwhile, the first episode of the Lizzie McGuire revival, the script for which THR has also read, acknowledges the existence of sex with cheating as a central plot point. Duff, in her recent Instagram post, said she was worried about “limiting the realities of a 30 year old’s [sic] journey to live under the ceiling of a PG rating” on Disney+ and made a plea for the show to be join High Fidelity and Love, Simon at Hulu. Disney+ hasn’t responded publicly to the request, but a spokeswoman said in late February statement, “Our goal is to resume production and to tell an authentic story that connects to the millions who are emotionally invested in the character, and a new generation of viewers too.”

Growing pains are common at any new network and are sure to plague HBO Max and Peacock, too, when those services launch later this year. With Iger focusing on creative until he leaves the company at the end fo 2021, it could fall to him to streamline the Disney+ content pipeline. The time to make those changes is now, says Ives, citing the growing competition: “The concrete is still wet in terms of who’s going to be successful in streaming, but 18 months from now, the concrete starts to dry up.”

Additional reporting by Mia Galuppo, Lesley Goldberg, Kim Masters and Lacey Rose.