The fence around the grounds of the Walt Disney Studios in Burbank, California doesn’t wear spikes on top, but rather mouse ears. The whole area with its many office complexes and studio halls has the look of an amusement park, at least at first glance. In the entrance area, the seven dwarfs from “Snow White” look down on visitors as oversized stone figures, the streets are called “Mickey Avenue” and “Pluto’s Corner”. Of course, none of this can hide the fact that it’s all about money: For many decades, Disney was the smallest of the big Hollywood studios, but then it rose to become the most powerful player in the American film business.
But this success is getting cracks. A hiring freeze was imposed on November 11, and employees were ordered to strictly economize on travel expenses. These are new tones for a company, which until recently also invited entire groups of journalists from Asia to California to demonstrate the mouse’s concentrated power at lavish PR events with barbecues. But now a new wind is blowing. On Sunday, Disney’s board of directors fired incumbent CEO Bob Chapek, 62. This was met with great excitement in Hollywood, since Chapek had only been in office for two years. A real tremor then triggered the news of who Chapeck’s successor would be – namely his predecessor.
Bob Iger, 71, is considered one of the most successful executives in Hollywood history and has Disney already conducted from 2005 to 2020. The search for a worthy successor dragged on for years, his contract was extended again and again, until finally, with his blessing, Chapek was agreed, who was previously responsible for the amusement parks at Disney, among other things. However, Chapek was unlucky when, roughly parallel to his appointment as CEO in February 2020, a virus spread from Wuhan around the world, plunging the film industry into a crisis not seen since the Spanish flu in 1918.
Apart from the problems caused by the corona crisis, Chapek often didn’t have a lucky hand
Almost everything Disney makes money from has had to go into lockdown. The amusement parks, the cruise ships, all filming on cinema and TV productions have been stopped. Chapek pursued a hard-hitting digital-first strategy during the course of the pandemic by in-house streaming service Disney+ declared the company’s new holy grail. Of course, Covid would have presented any other aspirant for the job of Disney boss with previously unimaginable challenges. But apart from Corona, Chapeck didn’t always have a lucky hand. For example, he wore a media-effective one in public Quarrel with Hollywood star Scarlett Johansson out, which damaged the reputation of the company. Johnasson finally sued Disney for breach of contract because her superheroine film “Black Widow” did not come to the cinema as originally agreed, but ended up on Disney + – but she was not compensated for the contractually guaranteed income from the cinema. The parties eventually settled out of court, but Chapeck didn’t do well on the road to that settlement.
So here comes Bob Iger, who, during his first tenure at Disney, already had what was arguably the best purchasing policy in Hollywood history. He became CEO on October 1, 2005, and on October 2 he told shareholders he needed $7.4 billion to buy a company called Pixar from Steve Jobs. That was a stroke of genius because it not only took Iger on board the biggest animated film competitor on the market, but also brought the start-up spirit of the Pixar folks to what was then a rather sluggish and immovable Disney steamer. This was followed in 2009 by the purchase of the comic book publisher Marvel for four billion dollars and in 2012 for another four billion dollars by the purchase of the production company Lucasfilm and thus, among other things, the rights to “Star Wars”. He also brought Disney’s theme parks back to profitability after years in the red, and even opened a new one in Shanghai, despite years of reluctance from Chinese authorities. In 2019, the mega purchase of the entire Fox film studio followed for 71 billion dollars.
With this portfolio, supplemented by its own catalog of legendary cartoon characters and films, Disney became number one in the film business. But Iger also brought a completely new management style to the company. Disney has a long tradition of dictatorial and choleric bosses. Starting with the old communist hater Walt Disney himself, who in the fifties did not shy away from reporting his own employees to the FBI for alleged communist activities. Things got worst around the turn of the millennium under Michael Eisner, who created a working atmosphere that led employees to refer to the Burbank studio lot as “Mouseschwitz.” Bob Iger should know what that was like, having served as Disney’s number two under Eisner.
He was “grateful and humble,” the new, old boss wrote to his employees
Iger started his career as a weather announcer at a local network, later became a manager at Disney channel ABC and eventually moved to headquarters. Under his leadership, he gave the employees freedom like never before in the company’s history. He also ensured a new political orientation, because Iger, in contrast to the arch-conservative, almost reactionary Walt Disney, is a self-confessed democrat. He is even said to have more than flirted with running as the Democratic presidential nominee against Donald Trump in the 2020 election campaign.
Now Disney is the boss again, and if you didn’t know that he was in his early 70s, you could say he was at least ten years younger. He was “grateful and humbled,” he wrote in an email to employees on Sunday, and also “a little surprised” at the development. According to the will of the supervisory board, Iger is to take over Disney as interim boss for two years. During this time he should get the company back on course and, once again, look for a worthy successor. Once again, neither of these things will be easy. But when it’s in Hollywood one makes it, then probably Bob Iger.