The Sunday before Thanksgiving, the Walt Disney Company dropped the kind of bombshell that ruins holidays across the industry. In a dramatic, shocking move, CEO Bob Chapek was fired by the board less than three years into his tenure, and mere months after the same board renewed his contract. Even more dramatically, his successor is also his predecessor: Bob Iger, the legendary leader whose first stint saw the acquisitions of Marvel and Lucasfilm, the absorption of Fox’s entertainment arm, and the launch of Disney+.
The news came less than two weeks after an earnings report that sent stock prices plunging. Yes, subscriber growth for Disney+ exceeded expectations, but Wall Street no longer cares about audience expansion as much as financials, and Disney’s streaming arm lost $1.5 billion last quarter—more than doubling its losses from the same time last year. Meanwhile, revenue came in below expectations and profits remained flat. Soon after the report, gadflies like CNBC’s Jim Cramer were calling for Chapek’s head.
Still, it’s not like Chapek’s departure was a foregone conclusion. Disney is hardly alone in straining uphill against an increasingly challenging economy and flip-flopping investors, who once incentivized a pivot to streaming and now balk at its costs. And Chapek’s challenges were partly a function of terrible timing: He was named CEO in February 2020, just a month before the novel coronavirus shut down vast swaths of Disney’s business, only to emerge into a tough climate for all of entertainment.
But Chapek also made blunders that have drawn more specific scrutiny—including from Iger, whose discontent with Chapek has been no secret despite the fact that he handpicked the new face of Disney himself. Recall the “don’t say gay” debacle, when Chapek’s initial refusal to denounce the Florida legislation angered progressive employees, then invited political backlash when the company reversed course. (The fiasco cost communications head Geoff Morrell his job after just three months, a harbinger of things to come for his boss.) Or the Scarlett Johansson lawsuit over how a streaming release affected her compensation for Black Widow. The case was eventually settled, but not before an embarrassing public spat that included a tone-deaf statement accusing Johansson of a “callous disregard” for the pandemic.
ScarJoGate only compounded the impression that Chapek, an executive with no experience handling talent relations or creative matters, was ill-suited to running a company that relies on expertise in both. Firing TV chief Peter Rice, a well-liked figure who wasn’t offered the courtesy of a graceful exit, only compounded the problem further. But even on the parks side, a business Chapek knew well and headed up before taking the top job, price hikes and perceived nickel-and-diming threatened to alienate even devoted customers. After that fateful earnings call, which seems to have spurred the board to action, the snowballing took a lethal toll.
What is surprising is how abrupt the transition will be—and who’s taking (back) the reins. “The board has concluded that as Disney embarks on an increasingly complex period of industry transformation,” board president Susan Arnold wrote in a statement, “Bob Iger is uniquely situated to lead the company through this pivotal period.” In theory, Iger’s final act will last only two years, allowing a do-over of the 71-year-old’s botched succession and getting Disney back on its feet. Then again, we’ve been here before: Iger postponed his retirement multiple times before finally vacating his seat, and even then stayed on to counsel Chapek as executive chairman through 2021. That means Chapek didn’t even last a year in full control, and that Iger has a history of sticking around past his initial term.
Viewed one way, Iger is putting his already-secure legacy at risk by reentering the fray as the going gets even tougher. Cord cutting is only accelerating, a trend that will inevitably hit the bottom line of a company that retains control of linear channels like FX and ESPN. Interest rates are up and layoffs may already be looming. (Chapek announced a hiring freeze and potential cuts in the wake of the earnings call, giving the impression of panicked appeasement; that doesn’t mean they won’t happen.) It’s enough to challenge any CEO, even one so highly regarded he once entertained the idea of running for president.
Viewed another way, Iger bears more than a little responsibility for the current state of the corporation he ran for 15 years, more than five times the total tenure of Chapek’s regime. Chapek didn’t start Disney’s investment in streaming; Chapek didn’t choose to take on debt from the Fox deal; Chapek didn’t give Netflix a head start by leasing out some of Disney’s most valuable properties, a move Iger himself later compared to “selling nuclear weapons technology to a third-world country.” Iger will now be around to answer for the long-term consequences of all these decisions. Maybe that’s the way it should be.
Iger is set to address Disney’s workforce on Monday. Until then, and likely after, there remain many open questions. What exact chain of events led Iger to commit to a course of action he once called “ridiculous”? Will Iger unwind Chapek’s controversial corporate shuffle, which took control of content distribution away from creative executives? Will he bring back longtime deputies like the formidable comms czar Zenia Mucha? Does Iger have one last blockbuster deal up his sleeve—something on par with the Marvel pact, to bring Disney into a new era? Iger may be a known quantity, but his sudden return puts Disney on uncertain ground, a twist worthy of its own blockbusters.