In what many industry observers claim is shocking news, but I’d argue was always inevitable, Bob Iger has returned to Disney as CEO, thereby replacing his hand-picked successor Bob Chapek atop the Mouse House… at least for the next two years.
The news reportedly caught even senior Disney executives off-guard, and when Disney’s corporate communications team announced Iger’s return to the company’s 190,000 global staffers, some initially thought it was a hoax. Clearly, they haven’t been paying attention to the torrent of negative press surrounding Chapek since he took over.
If you’ll recall, Iger stepped down from the coveted position in February 2020, not that he really stepped away from the limelight, as he has openly criticized Chapek at almost every opportunity over the past 2.5+ years. Iger never really gave Chapek a chance to lead without looking over his shoulder, as he barely went away. He seemed to always be there, waiting for Chapek to slip up, as if Iger didn’t step down of his own accord. The whole thing gives off some major Jay Leno vibes…
And yet, between the botched Scarlett Johansson negotiation surrounding Black Widow‘s move to Disney+ and the company’s initial response to Florida’s preposterous Don’t Say Gay policy, Chapek’s reign over the Magic Kingdom was undeniably a disaster, to the point that I’m even cold on Disneyland these days, as the most magical place on Earth has been milking customers for years and become a place that only rich people can afford to visit, which is not what Walt intended.
Believe me, I know that Chapek wasn’t dealt an easy hand, assuming control at the start of a terrifying pandemic that forced movie theaters (and theme parks) to close their doors, and virtually transformed the business overnight as streaming became Wall Street’s top priority. Fortunately, Iger had already put those streaming wheels in motion, but Wall Street is fickle, and the economics of streaming still don’t add up. As a result, Disney’s stock price has taken a major hit during the Chapek era (after its recent Q3 earnings report, financial analyst Jim Cramer called it the “balance sheet from hell”), to the point that rumors recently surfaced that Apple was looking to buy Disney altogether. That seems premature, but then again, who knows these days?
The fact is that Chapek was never cut out for the top job. He’s a numbers guy in a relationship-driven business. Bob Iger has those relationships with A-listers because he knows how to treat top talent. (Pay attention, David Zaslav!) That’s why Susan Arnold, the chairman of Disney’s board of directors, called Iger “uniquely situated to lead the Company through this pivotal period.” The man stands alone, and besides, everyone still thought of him as “Mr. Disney” anyways. He was never going to shake that, no matter what he did for his next act, whether he ran for President or bought a stake in a pro sports franchise.
“We thank Bob Chapek for his service to Disney over his long career, including navigating the company through the unprecedented challenges of the pandemic,” Arnold said in a statement. “The Board has concluded that as Disney embarks on an increasingly complex period of industry transformation, Bob Iger is uniquely situated to lead the Company through this pivotal period.”
Of course, it was just five months ago that Disney’s board of directors renewed Chapek’s contract for three years, with Arnold adding that he was “the right leader at the right time for The Walt Disney Company, and the Board has full confidence in him and his leadership team.” So much for that “full confidence.” At this point, after nearly 20 years as a reporter, I’ve come to realize that these kinds of beauty quotes — not to mention contracts — mean absolutely nothing.
Chapek is a 30-year Disney veteran who had experience overseeing the company’s theme parks, consumer products, home entertainment, and distribution divisions over the course of his career. But insiders are said to have described him as “cold” and too focused on the bottom line — which is a problem when the bottom line hasn’t looked too good of late, even if the circumstances are somewhat beyond his control. Then again, he left untold millions on the table sending several animated features to Disney+ where it has proven impossible for them to justify their costs. I don’t think he’ll be too missed by either the creative community or the representation community, or even on the lot. And don’t be surprised if Chapek’s right-hand man Kareem Daniel joins him soon outside of the studio’s gates. We could even see Peter Rice return, who knows?
“I am extremely optimistic for the future of this great company and thrilled to be asked by the Board to return as its CEO,” Iger said in a statement. “Disney and its incomparable brands and franchises hold a special place in the hearts of so many people around the globe — most especially in the hearts of our employees, whose dedication to this company and its mission is an inspiration. I am deeply honored to be asked to again lead this remarkable team, with a clear mission focused on creative excellence to inspire generations through unrivaled, bold storytelling.”
Iger is 71 years old and eager to rewrite the last chapter of his Disney legacy, but his return doesn’t just mean that the company’s myriad problems will evaporate overnight. However, he certainly seems better equipped to handle them than Chapek, and I look forward to seeing Iger rebuild his team, as more Disney announcements are considered imminent.
For now, Iger’s Sunday night memo to Disney staff can be found below in its entirety:
Dear Fellow Employees and Cast Members,
It is with an incredible sense of gratitude and humility — and, I must admit, a bit of amazement — that I write to you this evening with the news that I am returning to The Walt Disney Company as Chief Executive Officer.
When I look at the creative success of our teams across our Studios, Disney General Entertainment, ESPN and International, the rapid growth of our streaming services, the phenomenal reimagining and rebound of our Parks, the continued great work of ABC News, and so many other achievements across our businesses, I am in awe of your accomplishments and I am excited to embark with you on many new endeavors.
I know this company has asked so much of you during the past three years, and these times certainly remain quite challenging, but as you have heard me say before, I am an optimist, and if I learned one thing from my years at Disney, it is that even in the face of uncertainty—perhaps especially in the face of uncertainty—our employees and Cast Members achieve the impossible.
You will be hearing more from me and your leaders tomorrow and in the weeks ahead. In the meantime, allow me to express my deep gratitude for all that you do. Disney holds a special place in the hearts of people around the globe thanks to you, and your dedication to this company and its mission to bring joy to people through great storytelling is an inspiration to me every single day.