Deadline’s Dominic Patten has shared his breakdown of Disney CEO Bob Iger’s “ghosts” of Disney past, present, and future. Iger retired as CEO in 2020, with Bob Chapek replacing him. But Chapek was fired, and Iger returned just last month.
With only a two-year contract, Iger will have to find another replacement CEO by the end of 2024, or stay on for a few more years. He’s also facing dropping stock and may need to fix some of his own past mistakes.
“Iger gets a lot of praise as an executive, a lot of it well deserved,” said an agency captain. “But one of his greatest accomplishments may be sidestepping his missteps. The billions in debt that came with the Fox purchase, going all in on streaming, hemorrhaging TV and ESPN viewership, and the succession fiascos alone would have killed any other CEO.”
A studio insider added, “He’s teflon like Reagan, but left a lot of mess over the years for others to clean up like Clinton.”
Inspired by Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol,” Patten proposed some ghosts that Iger may encounter in his sleep before Christmas morning this year. Here’s what he wrote:
GHOST OF DISNEY PAST – Tom Staggs literally saved Iger’s life in 2003 by using the Heimlich maneuver to dislodge a chicken bone that was caught in the choking exec’s windpipe. However, in a series of ruthless moves Iger repaid that debt by kicking then heir apparent and COO to the curb in March 2016. A year after then CFO and CEO contender Jay Rasulo was passed over for promotion and took the hint before he was pushed. Bob Chapek did get the CEO job in 2020, but Iger quickly made sure to never hand his successor real power while he was still at Disney. Once Iger left, the white gloves came off. “Iger made it clear, loudly, to anyone who had lunch with him (that) he considered Chapek a failure,” a former studio executive said.
Looking at the bottom line, Iger is revered for a triumvirate of acquisitions: Pixar (2006, $7.4 billion); Marvel (2009. $4 billion); Lucasfilm (2012, $4 billion) that have more than made back their purchase price. Not so the $71 billion for Fox, a price tag that scared away even Brian Roberts. Remember, Comcast offered $65 billion for the Murdoch-owned company but waved the white flag after Disney topped the bid. Deal saddled Disney with a $19 billion debt that’s followed it since. A debt that became hobbling during the pandemic when revenue streams for Disney (like everyone else in the industry) dried up. It was thanks to CFO McCarthy that the company was able to manage the load and raise cash over those bleak months.
GHOST OF DISNEY PRESENT – Almost no one will argue that the transition to Bob Chapek as CEO in early 2020 was a smooth affair. Exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic, Iger halted his exit and installed himself as Executive Chairman, effectively knee capping the former Parks boss in his new position from the start even before a public chill set in between the two. Slow walking his Disney retirement a number of times over the years even before he finally left at the end of 2021, Iger has put the breaks on a successor so many times, some doubt if he will really leave in 2024 and if he will have empowered anyone to take over. The two-year limit on his current contract places a successful succession as the top priority, but, wishful thinking aside, that’s simply not Iger’s strong suit. Once this latest honeymoon is over, could the once-in-a-generation exec fail to pass the baton again and find himself shown the door by the board like his predecessor Michael Eisner?
GHOST OF DISNEY FUTURE – Grown exponentially by Iger over his previous 15-year bossman status, the Disney empire is now so big and so sprawling that there are few platforms or mediums they don’t play a prominent, if not dominating, role in. Which, for some on the Street, is part of the bottom line problem. Recently, after Mr. Merger a.k.a. Iger axed rumors of a deal with the $2.1 trillion market-capped Apple that no one took seriously, Wells Fargo’s Steven Cahall suggested Disney dump dwindling ABC and ESPN to stem revenue losses. Despite that and belt tightening all over, it still looks more than likely that the company will write Comcast a nice big juicy check in early 2024 to buy out the remaining 33% in Hulu. “Iger likes deals, and he loves acquisitions, so it is only a matter of time for the next one, just watch,” the studio insider prophesied. With the past relationship between Apple and Disney, never really say never there. There’s always also a chance Iger could make a move for Candle Media and bring co-CEOs Kevin Mayer, who was the Mouse House’s strategic planning head, and Tom Staggs back to Burbank to be on the Disney chief contenders shortlist.
Additionally, a centerstage showman who knows how to keep the audience interested, Iger has over the years pivoted between reveling in his position as the Disney boss with the golden touch and rumblings of political office and more. Gaining headlines galore, underlings and flatterers have floated trial balloons of White House and gubernatorial bids, NFL ownership status, and even prestige ambassador postings. None of which have ever materialized, and have drawn giggles in electoral circles where Iger and Disney’s track record with China alone is seen as a non-starter. Not that such a track record stopped Iger himself from throwing out there in a November 28 town hall that spouse Willow Bay encouraged his return to Disney so he wouldn’t run for President — don’t think you’ve heard the last of this fantasy.
Patten also points to Iger’s skills as CEO, specifically talent relations, as boons for the future.
“Not only do you feel he hears you,” a writer said of Iger, “but that he will both protect you and your vision.”
Iger is (mostly) good at appointing trusted individuals to departments, such as Kevin Feige to Marvel and Kathleen Kennedy to “Star Wars.”
Patten says a “storybook ending” for Iger’s next to years at Disney would be “playing the long game, literally and figuratively.” He points out that many of Iger’s past decisions — such as acquiring Pixar, Marvel, and LucasFilm — weren’t necessarily seen as good ideas at the time. But those three studios are now powerhouses for the company. The Fox acquisition could also prove to be a wise decision depending on how successful the “Avatar” sequels turn out to be. Disney stock, meanwhile, will likely stabilize as the company does.
What do you think of Patten’s “ghosts” for Iger? Are you hoping he will appoint a new CEO or stay on for longer than two years? Let us know in the comments.