Bob Iger 2

Robert Iger served as the CEO of the Walt Disney Company for just under 15 years. It’s hard to emphasize exactly how massive an impact Iger made in his tenure at Disney, one which concluded quite abruptly on Tuesday, when he announced that he would immediately transition into a new role as executive chairman before stepping down permanently in 2021. An air of mystery surrounded the announcement, because while Iger’s contract was up at the end of next year, there was little expectation that he would hand over the reins — to Bob Chapek — quite so swiftly.

In the meantime, as the aftermath makes itself clear, it’s high time that we look back on Iger and his many accomplishments at Disney.

Going the Distance

Bob Iger first joined the Walt Disney Company in 1996; fittingly, he did so as the result of Disney buying another company. In this case, it was Disney’s acquisition of the corporate parent of the ABC television network, Capital Cities. Iger had been part of the ABC family since 1974, when his own attempts to become a TV news anchor fell by the wayside. Iger became president of ABC, Inc. with the merger’s completion. In January of 2000, he was promoted as the president and chief operating officer of the Walt Disney Company, serving as the number-two man to Michael Eisner, then the CEO of the company.

Before he became the Disney CEO, Iger wasn’t automatically thought of as a natural fit for the role by Eisner, nor was he always held in the best acclaim by his peers. As captured in James B. Stewart’s invaluable behind-the-scenes story DisneyWar, Iger once thought a great idea for a TV series would be one based on the Fountains of Wayne song “Stacy’s Mom”, in which a very attractive middle-aged woman is the sexual fantasy of all the pre-teen boys in her neighborhood. (In fairness, Stacy’s mom does got it going on.) And Eisner, only a couple years before Iger took over, was dismissive in saying that Iger could never run the company.

But Bob Iger ended up being the perfect person to take the place of Michael Eisner, largely because Eisner made one poor decision after another (or, if you want to be charitable, good decisions of his tended to flame out one after another). In 2020, Iger is about as powerful a CEO as you can think of; he’s going out on top, seemingly (though we’ll get back to that in a minute). In 2005, he was installed as a more balanced leader in place of Eisner, who was all but booted out of the company by Roy E. Disney, the late nephew of Walt Disney who had once been instrumental in advocating for bringing Eisner in during the mid-1980s.

To Infinity and Beyond

One of the biggest sources of tension for the Walt Disney Company in the mid-2000s was Pixar Animation Studios. (For more details on the films themselves, I invite you to read my ongoing series on the studio and its history.) Michael Eisner, for reasons that may well have boiled down to stubbornness with the late Steve Jobs, refused to bring Pixar closer to the fold. Before Eisner left, there were serious concerns that Pixar’s contract with Disney would conclude, and they’d move to a rival studio. Though Eisner was convinced that Disney could be successful without Pixar, Iger (to his credit) knew that wasn’t true. Soon after he started as CEO, he went to work on John Lasseter and Jobs, eventually getting them to sell Pixar to Disney for a whopping but well-earned $7.4 billion. 

That was just the beginning of a leadership tenure marked by smart and savvy mergers, which have led the Walt Disney Company to a point of success almost everyone would have thought impossible 15 years ago. Attendance numbers at the major Disney theme parks in the United States (as well as most of the international Disney theme parks) have skyrocketed in the past 15 years, thanks in no small part to the swift decision to add even more intellectual property in attractions and live entertainment. 

For further proof, all you’d have to do is look at domestic box office. In 2005, the year when Iger officially became the full CEO of the Walt Disney Company, the House of Mouse had just four films in the top 20 domestic grossers of the year. One of those titles was an unequivocal, smash-hit success: their adaptation of The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe, which grossed nearly $300 million in North America. The other three titles were, in descending order of box-office numbers, Chicken Little, The Pacifier, and Flightplan, the latter of which didn’t even make $100 million. In 2019, Iger’s last full year as CEO, Disney had seven of the top eight films at the domestic box office, among them Captain Marvel and remakes of Aladdin and The Lion King. And that eighth title? The one not released by Disney? Well, that was the new Spider-Man movie from Sony, which still has a pretty direct connection to the House of Mouse.

Engulf and Devour

Of course, as Jason Cochran of Frommers.com noted to me on Twitter the day after Iger left, it helps when you buy everything. If Bob Iger excelled at anything during his time at the top of the Walt Disney Company, it’s acquiring as much as humanly possible. Admittedly, some of the acquisitions have worked out better than others. There’s still enough debate about whether or not Lucasfilm has paid off for Disney in the theatrical market, with Solo: A Star Wars Story failing to hit big and the lower-than-expected numbers for The Rise of Skywalker. (Even those numbers, of course, amounted to more than a billion dollars worldwide.) 

But again: you don’t release seven of the eight highest-grossing films in a given year by chance. It takes good timing, talent, and acquisitions. Over the last decade, as I wrote about at the end of December 2019, Disney fostered the revival of intellectual properties with little concern for their creative value. Remakes, sequels, prequels, re-imaginings, reboots, etc. were a major part of Iger’s legacy, too. Pixar made more brand deposits than original titles in the 2010s, with only Brave, The Good Dinosaur, Inside Out, and Coco were the exceptions amid new Toy Story and Cars movies. Disney’s own studio similarly released few originals; their animation unit’s last original films of the decade were Moana and Zootopia, and their last live-action original title was the 2012 dramedy The Odd Life of Timothy Green. (Remember The Odd Life of Timothy Green? Of course you do. It featured, among other actors, Lin-Manuel Miranda three years before Hamilton premiered. It’s on Disney+. Check it out. It’s real odd.)

This strategy hasn’t promoted originality, per se. But that strategy has allowed Disney to become the most powerful American entertainment company in the world. Iger’s Disney has not always succeeded, sometimes at the expense of the intellectual property that he steered them to acquire. Last summer, it was arguably a major misstep to open Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge in Disneyland with only one available attraction, leading to a weirdly light attendance. It was as if Disney’s marketing campaign was too good: people so believed that the new area would be a crazed morass of crowds that they just avoided the resort entirely. But a swing and a miss like that is something you weather when you’re hitting home runs left and right.

The Ride of a Lifetime

Whatever mistakes were made at Disney in the last 15 years in their films, their theme parks, their shows, their TV networks, etc., the corporation has still become a true powerhouse. Disney now encompasses what used to be 20th Century Fox, Hulu, Disney+, Marvel, Pixar, Lucasfilm, National Geographic, ESPN, ABC, and more. Some of those acquisitions existed before Bob Iger became CEO. But they’ve grown stronger over time, and in many cases, those acquisitions are in a more powerful place now than they were before. (Fox, now known as 20th Century Pictures, is an arguable exception, with reports implying that we’re about to see far fewer films from that unit moving forward.) No doubt, many of the men and women who work as cast members at the company are instrumental for the company’s overall success. Yet there’s only one man on the top.

Iger’s departure remains something of a surprise — there have been some industry observers who have rightly noted that his contract was set to end in 2021, and he’d just been on a lengthy media tour promoting a memoir called The Ride of a Lifetime. Thus, these folks would say, Iger’s transition from CEO to executive chair is in no way surprising. (A few observers are comparing the Iger/Chapek relationship to that of Michael Eisner and Frank Wells in the 1980s or Walt and Roy Disney in the studio’s early days, a comparison that would hold a lot more water if Iger wasn’t planning on stepping down in less than two years.) But there’s a difference between a broad implication that you’re going to leave, and doing so in the middle of a week soon after a great earnings call with the weird sense that a transition of this kind was planned in the span of a day, not weeks or months.

As one Bob departs, another takes his place. Bob Chapek would no doubt be the first to acknowledge that he’s got big shoes to fill. If there’s any real issue at the core of Bob Iger leaving, it’s an issue best written as a question: how can Bob Chapek raise the bar higher than Bob Iger ever did? Even before Iger left, 2020 was going to be a strange, potentially messy year for Disney, at least for its film unit. The sure-thing titles of Frozen II, Toy Story 4, and Avengers: Endgame have been replaced with Raya and the Last Dragon, Soul, and The Eternals. Films that were guaranteed to make bank are replaced with films that will hopefully make bank. 

And the picture moving forward isn’t terribly clear. It is now even more fitting than before that the first film released by the Walt Disney Company under the tenure of Bob Chapek is Pixar’s Onward, a title that could have easily applied to the animation studio in the absence of its fallen, scandal-plagued leader John Lasseter. Now the entirety of Disney must move onward. Doing so is going to raise a lot of questions. Yes, Bob Iger isn’t leaving just yet. Yes, he’ll work in tandem with Bob Chapek through the end of 2021. Yes, he’ll oversee the creative end of the company.

Bob Iger just won’t be the CEO of the Walt Disney Company anymore, and in so doing, he’s left the company in what could be a very challenging bind. It’s the curse and blessing of having created such an impact in just 15 years at the top. Now, we get to find out if Bob Chapek is up to the task of following this show-stopping act.

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