Disney "Needs to be Saved From Itself," Says Abigail Disney

Abigail Disney
Jemal Countess/Getty Images

At the very core of the heir's concerns is the chasm between what the C-suite is paid and what the thousands of hourly and low-level Disney “castmembers” are paid: “The high, high compensation at the top tends to come as a reward for pushing down compensation at the bottom.”

Over the past few years, Abigail Disney has made no secret of her concerns around the corporate policies of The Walt Disney Co., criticizing its compensation practices for senior executives and its treatment of lower-level employees.

Unlike most company shareholders, however, Disney has a personal connection to the entertainment giant, which was co-founded by her grandfather, Roy O. Disney, the brother of Walt.

In an interview with The Hollywood Reporter’s editor-at-large Kim Masters on KCRW’s The Business podcast, the Emmy-winning director says that Disney’s C-suite turnover and the novel coronavirus pandemic have only exacerbated her concerns around the company’s future.

“I don't believe that the company and the magic can survive this kind of corporate behavior, I don’t think that the brand, as solid gold as it is, will last,” Disney says. “And it is the kind of brand that is so enormous and all-encompassing and people invest so much into it, I don’t think it will erode slowly, it will fall over like a great sequoia … I am a little bit about saving the company over the long term. I think the company needs to be saved from itself.”

At the very core of Disney’s concerns is the chasm between what the C-suite is paid and what the thousands of hourly and low-level Disney “castmembers” are paid.

“The high, high compensation at the top tends to come as a reward for pushing down compensation at the bottom,” she tells Masters. “When I try and draw a direct line between how the C-suite is paid and how the hourly workers are paid, when I try to draw a direct line between some of those things, I think they look at me like I am speaking in some kind of alien language, because to them that is the dumbest thing they have ever heard. To them there is no relationship between what we pay a line worker or a shift worker and what we pay Bob Iger.”

The pandemic has made those differences even more stark, with the company laying off tens of thousands of employees as many of its theme parks remain closed.

“Let’s not pretend that [employees that get laid off] go somewhere and disappear; they lose their houses, they are homeless, and they have to steal things to eat,” she says.

To hear Abigail Disney explain it, there is also a tug-of-war between the creativity that built the company’s brand, and a corporate ideology defined by business school best practices. And that something has changed over the past few decades to depress wages for workers at the same time that executives are seeing their compensation skyrocket.

“My grandfather made a lot of money, and he provided for me and my children of course, he wasn’t shy about taking compensation,” Disney says. “I’m not talking about ownership, I am saying are you willing to put everything you have up again and again and again, every single time, with the chance of losing everything, because that is what my grandfather did … He would never have taken a $66 million payday, never. And not because he was a perfect guy, but because it wasn't done, it just wasn't done.”

Disney was also surprised by the executive shakeup this year, with Bob Iger ceding the CEO title to Bob Chapek in February.

“There is no question it’s baffling, there is probably something to know in the fact that it was baffling, because he doesn’t do things that way,” Disney says. “[Iger] is a nice man and a great manager, I have nothing personal against him, but his strategy from day one was to buy Pixar, buy Lucasfilm, he was a purchaser of creativity which added and added to the machine.”

The appointment of Chapek only sharpened her criticism.

“It was extremely disappointing to see a person who never held a creative job in his life take over the company,” Disney added. “It is just a business, it is the deli, they are selling salami, and they are slicing it as thin as they can possibly slice it, because they are not making any more salami.”

And while some hold out hope that a Biden administration could seek to reverse some of the corporate-friendly policies instituted by the Trump administration, Disney remains unconvinced.

“Let’s not forget that Joe Biden was the senator from Delaware, where 90-something percent of corporations are based, and that Bob Iger is a huge Democrat supporter, and thought about running for president in the same party,” Disney says.

Iger, as it turns out, is in the mix to become Biden’s ambassador to China or the U.K.