Bob Chapek’s mistakes made it difficult to escape from Bob Iger’s shadow

Bob Iger would always be difficult to follow. But Bob Chapek’s tenure at Disney’s helm was also marked by unforced errors that ultimately made it impossible to escape Iger’s shadow.

As of Sunday night, Chapek was ousted and replaced by Iger, a little less than three years after Chapek succeeded Iger as CEO in February 2020.

Chapek came to the top job from the Parks and Resorts division and had little experience dealing with A-list talent and high-pressure political situations (a particular strength of Iger, who made difficult decisions with a velvety touch). What followed was a series of stunning blunders, including a public falling out with an actor.

In the summer of 2021, Disney released Marvel’s Black Widow simultaneously on Disney+ and in theaters — boosting the streaming service at the expense of box office revenue. But the company was initially unable to strike a deal with the film’s star, Scarlett Johansson, whose compensation was tied to a series of box office bonuses. That prompted the actor to file a lawsuit and shed light on the disputed negotiations. He compounded the blunder by approving a public statement that Johansson was greedy and insensitive to the challenges of the coronavirus pandemic. (The lawsuit was quickly settled.) It came as a surprise to many industry insiders that Chapek would so openly blow up a movie star who is standing on her contractual rights. A rival studio boss told diversity At the time, it was “the most embarrassing thing I’ve experienced in my career.”

Chapek also resisted pressure to oppose a Florida law restricting teaching about gender identity and sexual orientation, dubbed by his critics the “Don’t Say Gay” bill. Chapek chose to remain neutral even after Iger tweeted his opposition, and despite the company’s history as an advocate for LGBTQ rights.

This led to employee absences. Many employees were particularly outraged when Chapek suggested that the best way for the company to bring about change was through inclusive content. It turns out the company removed a gay kiss from “Lightyear,” which was restored after Pixar employees wrote an open letter criticizing the company.

Chapek was forced to completely reverse himself on “Don’t Say Gay”. But with the fervor of recent converts, he defied the law so sharply that it drew a concerted backlash from Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis and the Social Conservatives. This has jeopardized the company’s political interests in Florida, where 40% of its employees work. Shortly before that headline-grabbing debacle, Chapek hired the communications strategist who helped BP weather the 2010 oil spill as the company’s key spokesman and policy advisor. The chief executive, Geoff Morrell, lasted about 90 days in office before being ousted (following the backlash from Don’t Say Gay). Another problem for the C-Suite that many believed would never have happened under an Iger regime — especially with the feared and formidable Zenia Mucha in the role, briefly held by Morrell.

Just a few months later, Chapek shocked the industry again by summarily removing Disney General Entertainment Television chairman Peter Rice, who has been one of the industry’s most respected executives since his long tenure under the Murdochs at 20th Century Fox. Rice was seen as a possible contender for Chapek’s post should it become vacant, and the move was seen by many as a pre-emptive strike against a formidable challenger. CEO Susan Arnold was forced to issue a statement supporting Chapek: “Bob and his leadership team have the support and trust of the board.”

To bolster this, the board then extended Chapek’s contract for a further three years. But just five months after the extension, the board clearly made the decision to do a U-turn. Iger officially resigned from his position on Sunday evening.

Chapek has faced his fair share of public scandals, but the final straw has likely been Wall Street’s thumbs-down verdict over the past few months. As Disney stock plummeted, Chapek’s regime faced a brief skirmish with Third Point activist investor Dan Loeb. In August, Loeb publicly urged Disney to double down on streaming by selling ESPN and acquiring Hulu. But Loeb turned down the heat just a month later, issuing a public statement saying he’d gained a “better understanding” of Disney’s strategy.

Loeb’s pacification was seen as a much-needed victory for the Chapek regime. But it was too little, too late. A weak stock price and the possibility of more rough quarters amid an economic slowdown spurred the Disney board to return to its old flame — in a last-minute move worthy of ABC’s The Bachelor. Bob Chapek’s mistakes made it difficult to escape from Bob Iger’s shadow

Charles Jones

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