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Hello & Goodbye Bob: Iger re-appointed as CEO of the Walt Disney Company

Updated: Apr 14, 2023

On 20th November 2022, in an unforeseen turn of events for Disney fans and scholars worldwide, Robert ‘Bob’ Iger was re-appointed as Chief Executive Officer of the Walt Disney Company by the board of directors. Effective immediately, he will be fulfilling the position for an interim period of two years while a new successor is trained to take his place, taking over from his own successor, Bob Chapek, who held the position for only two years.

C.E.O. of the Walt Disney Company between 2005 and 2020, Iger focused on innovation and expansion in all areas of the company. He oversaw the acquisition of Pixar in 2006, Marvel in 2009 and Lucas Film in 2012, the opening of Shanghai Disney Resort in 2016 and the acquisition of 21st Century Fox in 2019 to add to the library of the streaming service, Disney+, which launched in 2018. This exponential growth which the Walt Disney Company underwent within the space of fifteen years was complemented by the company being elected one of the best employers in the world by Forbes Magazine in 2018 and 2019. This was owed to his philosophy of ensuring that he listened to the staff at the company and because he was outspoken in his progressive political views in comparison to Chapek. Now returning to the company and his role as C.E.O., he has stated that:

“I am extremely optimistic for the future of this great company and thrilled to be asked by the Board to return as its CEO. 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 honoured to be asked to again lead this remarkable team, with a clear mission focused on creative excellence to inspire generations through unrivalled, bold storytelling.”

In early 2022, Robert Iger made multiple statements to the effect that he supported Chapek's promotion to C.E.O. and claimed that he looked forward to seeing how Chapek's vision for the future of the company would come to fruition, claiming in March 2020, “I couldn’t think of a better person to succeed me in this role.” However, within months of Iger passing the role of C.E.O. on to Chapek, the COVID-19 pandemic began to spread globally, and many corporations, including Disney with its theme parks and resorts, had to adapt to the conditions of the pandemic. Chapek, who had been newly appointed to his role, took umbrage when Iger told the New York Times in April 2020 that he was not going to “throw Chapek to the wolves” and that he would assist him in steering Disney through the pandemic. It was Chapek's opinion that if he required assistance in leading the company through the pandemic, he would have asked for it, and that Iger was undermining his authority by making statements to the effect that he still had power within the Walt Disney Company even though Chapek was now C.E.O. This, amongst other disagreements as to how the company should have navigated the pandemic, led to a rift forming between Iger and Chapek that would loom over the leadership of Disney until Iger left the company in late 2021.

Chapek wildly changed the way that Disney resorts and theme parks operated by replacing the old Fast Pass system with Genie+ and Lightning Lane. The system currently allows those who pay extra to use Genie+ throughout their stay to gain access to multiple extra features throughout the parks, such as the Disney PhotoPass Lens and Audio Tales. However, the most controversial element of the system was the Lightning Lane, which replaced traditional fast pass practices. This meant that instead of steps being taken to ensure that the main ‘standby’ queue for an attraction continued to move, Lightning Lane users would always be preferred, and the standby queue would not be used until every visitor who had a reservation had accessed the attraction, increasing queue times for non-Genie+ holders exponentially. Some Premium Pass holders also felt conned by the system due to staffing problems leaving the Lightning Lane queues taking just as long as the standby queues. Although profits at the Disney parks have risen under Chapek, with reopening after the pandemic taken into consideration, Genie+ has proven controversial because whilst several customers do not see the difference between it and any other premium system, others are critical of it being a necessity to be able to not spend an entire day at a Disney Park in queue. Although the initial model of Genie+ was developed under Iger, Chapek was responsible for the final model and pricings, with which Iger has reportedly acknowledged that he is not happy. It abandons the original concept of Disney theme parks whereby all guests have an equal opportunity to have an enjoyable experience on a single ticket and intends to change elements of the system to have more reasonable pricing and be fairer on non-Genie+ users. There are hopes amongst many that under Iger, the parks can at least return to a hybrid between Genie+ and the original Fast Pass so that it is no longer a necessity, especially with Genie+ prices reaching their highest during holidays as they did over Thanksgiving.

Although Disney had sacrificed customer satisfaction at its parks under Chapek, it was the attitude of the company towards the age ratings of its animation and the LGBTQIA2S+ community that overshadowed Chapek’s leadership. Iger was in charge of Disney when animated series such as Amphibia (Matt Braly, 2019) and The Owl House (Dana Terrace, 2020) were greenlit, with executives at Disney going as far as to renew The Owl House for a second season before the series had even aired for the first time. This can be argued to be because of the success of previous story focused animated series such as Gravity Falls (Alex Hirsch, 2012) and Star vs the Forces of Evil (Daron Nefcy, Dave Wasson, 2015). However, upon the cancellation of The Owl House in 2021, Terrace explained in a post on reddit that from what she had heard about the reason for the series being cancelled, it was not a situation where she was allowed to argue her case for the series being renewed, as a single executive at the very top had decided that The Owl House ‘did not fit the Disney brand’ and ordered the series to be cancelled. Terrace’s post was a response to fans who feared that The Owl House had been cancelled for possessing the most direct LGBTQ+ representation in children’s animation to date at the time (Dead End: Paranormal Park (Hamish Steele, 2022) had not been announced at this point) and was her attempt to extend her good faith in Disney that the reasons for the cancellation of the series were not homophobic.

This opinion changed when the Parental Rights in Education Act in Florida was passed earlier this year and it was revealed that Disney, on Chapek’s orders, had been donating considerable amounts of money to supporters of the infamous ‘Don’t Say Gay bill’ to help them with their campaigns. This, combined with a company wide email from Chapek that sought to quell concerns amongst staff and instead caused further upset due to the company’s refusal to pledge their support between LGBTQIA2S+ staff members, led Terrace to release a video on her Twitter account that changed the narrative surrounding Disney’s attitudes towards series such as The Owl House and other series containing LGBTQIA2S+ representation completely. In the video, Terrace references the email and states that she is tired of choosing between her morality and being able to pay rent while working for Disney, before calling for fans to join in protesting against the bill and participate in a charity livestream that would later gain record donations. At this point, between Chapek’s executive power being such that only he could singlehandedly make the decision to cancel The Owl House and his actions surrounding the Don’t Say Gay bill, although it was not confirmed, fans speculated that Chapek was solely responsible for the series being cancelled.

These rumours were later dispelled by Production Associate of The Owl House, Rebecca Rose, who tweeted that neither Iger nor Chapek had anything to do with the syndication nor cancellation of The Owl House. In reality, it was a chain of individuals in charge of different divisions within divisions that were responsible for the rise and fall of the series and it was nigh impossible for Iger’s return to do anything to change the fate of the series. While Terrace confirmed that any executives who were not in the same building as the production team were unlikely to know that the series even existed, Rose did also encourage fans to continue supporting the series and watching it to show interest in additional content.

Bowing to pressure from campaigners, fans, and staff at Disney alike, Chapek and Disney eventually revoked their initial decision to remain neutral in their stance towards the Parental Rights Act and came out in support of the LGBTQIA2S+ community, promising that they disagreed with the act and that Disney parks would remain safe havens for the LGBTQIA2S+ community. This occurred much to the ire of the state of Florida and Governor Ron DeSantis who claimed that the state would begin exploring avenues towards stripping Walt Disney World of its special self-governing status. The company also made other moves to prove that they were still supportive of the LGBTQIA2S+ community, such as reinstating a scene involving two female characters kissing in Lightyear (Angus MacLane, 2022) whereas they had previously ordered its removal, but this did little to salvage Chapek’s reputation amongst animation fans.

Later on, in October 2022, under a month before his removal from the position of C.E.O., Chapek was interviewed by the Wall Street Journal about the premiere of Marvel’s Black Panther: Wakanda Forever and his vision for the future of Disney. During the interview, Chapek was repeatedly asked about the decision-making process surrounding the Parental Rights in Education Act, to which he responded by claiming that it was important to ‘follow your North Star’ and that Disney listened to the passionate responses from its ‘cast’ surrounding the Bill. However, it was a comment made before the topic of Don’t Say Gay was brought up that attracted further ire from the animation team at Disney and fans of Disney animation in general. When asked about the future of Disney and what approach he envisioned for Disney to take to separating adult content from children’s content, instead of addressing age ratings in the age of streaming, Chapek instead made a polarising statement:

“Every day, even after 30 years, I am amazed at the elasticity of the Disney brand. I always say that one, our fans and our audiences put their kids to bed at night after watching Pinocchio or Dumbo or Little Mermaid. They're probably not going to tune into another animated movie. They want something for them.”

Chapek’s statement demonstrated that his philosophy towards Disney animation was that he continued to believe that animation is exclusively for children and that whilst adults watch animated films and series with their children, when they are on their own adults would prefer to watch something ‘for them’, ergo live action series and films rather than more animation. Chapek’s statement disgruntled and alienated Disney’s animation teams as they believed his statements directly undermined Walt Disney’s legacy that animation is enjoyable for all age demographics and that Disney, and its characters are for everyone. Up to this point and for a long time, Disney’s brand had been built upon its universal appeal across nations and age groups and acted as a unifying force on account of anyone being able to be a fan of Disney and discuss films and series ranging from the classics such as Pinocchio and Dumbo to the more recent animated features such as Moana and Encanto. It also set a troubling precedent as to Chapek’s plans for Disney animation because, in the context of him being asked about what he would do with Disney animation so that the brand could change with the times, his answer was that he wanted to define adult content from children’s content. This philosophy could have potentially seen the more mature themes of Disney films and animated series being reined in. As a result, Disney animation would begin to move away from films and series such as Encanto (Byron Howard, Jared Bush, 2021) and The Owl House and return to being heavily censored with a focus on children and their parents rather than audiences of all ages. With the removal of Chapek and the return of Iger, creatives, especially those who worked for Disney under Chapek, have heaved a sigh of relief, with creator of Amphibia, Matt Braly tweeting that, ‘I cannot tell you how elated the entire animation industry is to see this man gone lmao.’

Abigail Disney, the granddaughter of Roy Disney, made a point that the turmoil at Disney is not entirely Chapek’s fault, stating in an interview with Time Magazine that,

“But also, Bob Chapek inherited a business plan for streaming that involved Disney losing money for a long time. There isn’t a streaming service that you can name that didn’t lose a ton of money in the process of building its way to profitability. He inherited a business plan that [people] thought was sound. Suddenly he’s being punished for something that was always the plan.”

Although she extended her faith in Iger’s leadership of the company during the interview, she did not refrain from commenting on his mistakes, such as originally leaving his position when he saw the issues with COVID-19 in China and handling the succession process alongside the board ’sloppily’ as a result. Therefore, it must be understood that Chapek inherited various projects such as Disney+ and Genie+ that were designed to make short term gains but were doomed to cause issues in the long term. While Chapek’s treatment of LGBTQIA2S+ staff members and creatives, as well as his cavalier attitude in the face of losses, may not be reflected by the returning C.E.O., Iger has his work cut out for him regarding turning around the fortunes of Disney+, repairing customer satisfaction at the parks and relations with creative staff. Either way, fans of Disney have already been speculating on what this means for the company. While some are hopeful that animated series and films will receive better treatment under Iger, others hope that pricing at Disney parks and resorts will become more reasonable, Disney scholars and DisNet followers will surely have an interesting two years ahead of us!


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