Disney Chief Bob Iger Is the Mouse House’s Most Valuable Franchise

Bob Iger Is Disney's Most Valuable
Kimberly White/Getty Images

When I first encountered Bob Iger in the mid 1990s, he was described to me by one of his colleagues as “cool but cranky.” As president of the ABC network, he had been nurtured within the smooth-running, paternalistic empire of Cap Cities, which had just been swallowed up by Disney. The Magic Kingdom, he instantly discovered, represented more chaos than magic.

Twenty years later, the Iger presence in Hollywood is anything but chaotic. The Disney Co. honcho not only presides over the industry’s most respected company (in the eyes of Wall Street), but with Rupert Murdoch now passing the baton to his two sons, and Sumner Redstone in decline, Iger has assumed a stature in town unparalleled since the heyday of Lew Wasserman half a century ago.

Disney’s status as a sort of nation-state was reflected recently when the city of Anaheim had the temerity to propose a gate tax on Disneyland. Iger’s corporate crunchers informed the city fathers that it would allot $1.5 billion to expand the theme park, provided no one ever mentioned a tax again for 45 years. The city council was happy to reaffirm the exemption. And last week, Iger was in Shanghai hyping Disney’s $5.5 billion theme park, scheduled to open next year.

Consistent with Disney’s expansionist mode, Iger has been busily mobilizing Pixar, Marvel, Lucasfilm and Walt Disney Animation into worldwide juggernauts, thus creating a franchise heaven. The aim is to perpetually reinvent the brands as theme park rides, toys and videogames, and milk whatever new revenue streams may emerge. As the Wall Street Journal reverently pointed out recently, media investors and analysts now view Disney not as a media company but as a global consumer products company.

The veneration accorded Disney and its boss is stirring an undercurrent of angst, if not resentment, in Hollywood. On one level, the sheer heft of Disney franchises grants the company unprecedented clout in negotiating release dates and trailer opportunities. In summer 2016, Disney owns the prize weekends for its next “Captain America” sequel, for “Alice Through the Looking Glass,” for “Incredibles 2” and a new Spielberg film, “The BFG,” among other pictures, almost all of them preordained hits. Anthology film “Star Wars: Rogue One” has secured a holiday-season release.

Disney’s long-term dominance, to be sure, is predicated on the sustainability of the tentpole/superhero business model which, some industry veterans feel, may prove evanescent. Further, could the almost cosmic ubiquity of Disney brands prompt ennui in the fickle youth market? Will spiraling theme park admission prices induce families to migrate to rival, less pricey venues?

If Iger faces an eventual battle to maintain his lofty position, his early war stories at Disney certainly have prepared him for combat. His then-boss, Michael Eisner, brilliant but impulsive, had appointed Michael Ovitz as Disney’s president, prompting Ovitz, an unreformed agent, to close some huge talent deals in film and TV without consulting the appropriate division chiefs. When Iger married Willow Bay in 1995, Eisner refused to attend the wedding because he learned that Jeffrey Katzenberg had been invited (Eisner and his former studio head weren’t talking). To add to the turmoil, Roy Disney, vice chairman of the board, angrily resigned, claiming the company founded by his uncle was being mismanaged.

Through all of this, Iger had to listen to a succession of daunting rumors — some from board members — that Eisner did not look upon him as a likely successor. In Eisner’s mind, Iger supposedly lacked charisma and the unrelenting drive to add magic to the Magic Kingdom.

In the succeeding years, Iger hasn’t worked much on building his charisma quotient, but he hasn’t had to. In his public interactions, he remains reserved, and often injects self-deprecating humor. After all, he has a lot to smile about.

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  1. TheBigBangOf20thCenturyPopCulture says:

    Disney has spread itself too thick and branched out to wear too many content hats that damaged the former childlike innocence of the brand. Sci-fi and superhero tent poles call for subsidiaries and not an amalgamation of what has become an overextended trademark. In short, delinquent diverse Disney product is no longer for little kids. DreamWorx had a chance to become the new old Disney but had to settle for using them as a distributor when quality make believe films in Hollywood jumped the shark.

  2. BTW, to my fellow commenters here. It’s “Lucasfilm”, singular – not “Lucasfilms”. Small bugaboo I have, sorry.

  3. Jacques Strappe says:

    Before I even opened the comments section for this article, I expected to see many more Disney “dissers”. It’s an astounding company and Iger is a fitting leader. Even through their big acquisitions, Disney continues to offer the best family entertainment and the biggest name recognition in the world.. Walt would be proud.

  4. “Incredibles 2” is not opening next summer. “Finding Dory” is, but “Incredibles 2” is still in development and does not have a release date yet.

  5. Lee F says:

    Iger is simply the smartest guy in the room. His style, leadership, vision, ability to execute has been amazing to watch. He clearly understands the essense of DIS and how it fits in the new dynamic media landscape. He has the guts to make tough decisions and take on risk. iTunes, Pixar, Disney Travel/Cruise Line, Club Penguin, Broadway, Princess/consumer merchandising, Marvel, Lucasfilm, are all a testament to Iger. If we all remember, he almost did not get the top job. As a lifelong Disney guest and shareholder…thank you Bob.

  6. David says:

    Iger put TV shows on iTunes 10 years ago when everyone thought he was crazy. Since then he’s picked up Pixar, Marvel and Star Wars. He’s just smarter than the other CEOs, he always see two steps ahead.

  7. John says:

    I’m sorry but Iger isn’t showing me “Disney”. Mostly he’s bought popular franchises and he’s riding those. They aren’t paying much attention to “Disney” properties besides retreading animated films into live action. If it weren’t for John Lassiter in Pixar, Disney wouldn’t actually exist movie wise.
    He has also decided to focus on a business plan to turn away American tourists from the parks and focus on foreign visitors. They’ve priced the average fan away from the parks all together.

    • The move into live action adaptations is a pretty shrewd move actually. Disney animation is so entrenched with the classic fairytale genre that developing live action versions, in a technologically ‘no limits’ atmosphere, means the brand is in a very strong position to continue top-of-mind awareness for years to come.

      Lasseter is, without a doubt, the best choice as the creative standard bearer in the modern Disney iteration. I think you give Mr. Iger short shrift when you simply dismiss the vision he realized by bringing Pixar into the Disney fold. It was a master stroke and since we’re not getting Walt or the 9 old men back, I’m not sure what it is you thought would be a better move?

      As for your anti-American tourist comment I could not disagree more. The fastest growing economies in the world are not in North America or Europe. If you want to increase your audience, and your bottom line, you have to look beyond your shores.

      As regards admission prices it’s simply a matter of economics and is not, in any way, a personal slight against ‘average fans’. I think Disney could almost double their current admission and still pack their theme parks. The only way to control the ridiculous crowds found there is to a) raise the price (simple supply & demand), and/or b) expand/build new parks. It’s pretty straight forward.

    • Summer Morning Rain says:

      You might enjoy these words, as they appear to reinforce your view and that of many others (they are borrowed from media strategist Gary Snyder):

      “More a symbol of America in its minted-by-Wall-Street and cemented-on-Main-Street role as a global ambassador than Lady Liberty herself, the Walt Disney Company has risen from a cartoon maker of its eponymous animator to a warehouse of media brands unrivaled in its sheer breadth.

      And it is that last part that might well be a big part of why the ‘remaking’ of Disney under the direction of outgoing Chairman and CEO Robert A. “Bob” Iger may well signal the decline of the brand itself. Mickey Mouse is Disney. Minnie Mouse and Donald Duck are Disney. As are Pluto and Goofy. But, once we move beyond the endearingly drawn and meticulously marketed page jumpers sketched by Disney — the man and not the brand — and his Nine Old Men, the marquee becomes harder to define as being Disney.

      Such was the intent of Bob Iger when he succeeded Michael D. Eisner in his transition from one-time weatherman to programming executive and now chieftain of a media empire. A noted manager and delegator, two defining words not in sync with the traditional studio head, Iger went about acquiring content creators as the steward of America’s premier producer of content that defied the limits of age and transcended cultures.”

  8. MortyMouse says:

    Everything Iger has done is through acquisitions. Disney under Bob Iger has run out of new ideas much like Michael Eisner before him. After ESPN collapses, I’d like to see what your opinion of him is after that.

    • So the skill and vision of bringing those brands together was pretty much a no-brainer and anyone could have done it – is that the gist of your argument Morty? Interesting perspective.

    • louferrari says:

      After ESPN collapses? In due respect @MortyMouse, when has ESPN shown any kind of weakness when it comes to getting big-time ratings when they “event” sports franchises like the NFL and the NBA, among other sporting events and leagues??!! Granted the rights fees for the NFL and NBA typically go higher with every new “cycle” rights deal, but ESPN and Disney have usually made the economics work — particularly when it comes to Monday Night Football and relying on the parent’s deep pockets.

      Let’s also not forget that ESPN.go.com blazed new trails on their paid “Insider” subscriber business model (making the site one of highest trafficked Internet URLs on the net!), along with having among the most active chatrooms and Fantasy Leagues on its state-of-the-art UX (user-interfaces) pages on the Internet — from what I’ve heard is that ESPN gets some fattest advertising CPMs and PPC (view) revenues from advertisers to boot. I’m sure that Iger and the shareholders are SLEEPING EASY about ESPN’s continually robust revenue picture for the foreseeable future.

      Maybe you are thinking about the defunct SoapNet or something else like Eisner once paying way too much for ABC Family Channel (formerly Fox Family Channel)??? I just don’t see where you going on your thesis about ESPN “collapsing” soon — maybe you could elucidate us something we don’t know going on there??!! I’m mystified.,,

      • louferrari says:

        By the way, @Morty Mouse, I don’t know of one other major Hollywood media conglomerate that has NOT acquired some other former major independent production company/studio, station groups and the sort to achieve “SCALE” through mergers and acquisitions (you know, “M&As!”).

        I’m not sure how Iger pulled it off, but he stealthily guided DISNEY into quietly put in “preemptive bids” for Pixar, Lucasfilms and Marvel Entertainment — any of the major Hollywood media conglomerates would have given their right and left nuts to get in bids to have acquired those studios. Heck, I’m sure given their distribution history together, Murdoch’s 21st Century Fox (whatever century?) would have LOVED to have owned Lucasfilm’s “Star Wars” franchise…lock, stock and barrel

        Boy, I’m just blown away that you guys really don’t give Iger his DUE CREDIT/KUDOS for having the strategic vision to pull those choice INTELLECTUAL PROPERTY/CONTENT companies like Pixar, Lucasfilms and Marvel — to me (and probably other Hollywood watchers), it really looked like Iger won the “TRIPLE CROWN” for helping Disney acquire those JEWELS! :-D

  9. louferrari says:

    Once viewed derisively by some Hollywood movie folk as a “just another TV guy,” Bob Iger has CONSISTENTLY proved to be a low-key, under-the-radar “business development strategist” of the finest order — not someone who needs to micromanage or bang his chest like CBS ceo Leslie Moonves and Fox/News Corp. topper Rupert Murdoch. Some may view Bob Iger as having a bit of an icy, too polished veneer as a public persona, but it really comes down to Iger simply being confident and comfortable in his own skin…and a truly visionary mind for strategic business objectives.

    While predecessor Disney ceo Michael Eisner also came from the TV side of things (at Paramount prior to that) and really brought the Mouse House back from near-oblivion in the mid-1980s, Eisner also had a widely known penchant for being an “over-the-top, obsessive micromanager” who also terrible lapses in judgment (the “Ovitz Fiasco” hiring topping the list), Bob Iger quietly and deliberately rose through the ranks of CapCities and made it one of the most profitable station groups in the country (prior to its merger with Disney) — engineering the key strategic syndie licensing deals with “Oprah,” “Wheel of Fortune” and “Jeopardy!” to make ABC/CapCities the perennially top-rated TV group in the major markets.

    In fact, Iger’s strong, innate understanding of programming content, which also carried into his somewhat brief tenure as President of ABC Entertainment’s network primetime, really served him well in making the brilliant, stealthy acquisition moves for Marvel Entertainment and Lucasfilms. It really is no matter of overstatement to suggest that Iger parlayed and further improved upon Disney’s “content-centric” history and approaches to CEMENT the Mouse House’s future revenue streams and market shares of movie box offices with highly brand-recognizable IP franchises and characters for years to come.

    His helmsmanship in negotiating for the Marvel and Lucasfilm’s libraries was truly nothing short of a Lebron James-like slashing-and-cutting to the basket…just magnificent to witness — and both Iger and Disney’s shareholders truly scored on that front. At the risk of hyperbole, I’d have to say that Iger is to Hollywood as to what Steve Jobs was to Apple and Silicon Valley — true innovators and risk takers! Kudos to Bob Iger for building a Bigger Legacy for Disney for decades to come!

    • Summer Morning Rain says:

      In reading your curious defense of Disney’s top guy, one must ask, if Bob Iger is $DIS’s most valuable franchise (and your passionate replies support this view as does Peter Bart’s column), exactly what does a post-Iger Disney look like? After all, once his contract is up and his stock options are exercised, how can $DIS weather the loss of its “top franchise”?

      • louferrari says:

        I never used the word “top franchise” — I’m assuming that’s you and Mr. Bart’s column — labeling Bob Iger in that fashion. While I do think that Bob Iger is a “visionary strategic executive” in terms of the content play M&As he’s done with PIxar, Lucasfilm (better make there is no “s” at the end for another poster here!) and Marvel Entertainment, he is NOT a “franchise” — because EVERYONE is eventually replaceable. As sad as Steve Job’s much too early passing meant to a lot of us in the world (those who at least admire “tech innovation”), his successor Tim Cook’s leadership still has Apple positioned extremely well for the future (with everything from before and now the Apple Watch, etc.) and it remains the largest “capitalized” public company in the world.

        I do think that if Iger retires and leaves Disney in a couple of years from now, the company might have some “succession issues,” but keep in mind that Iger has already put a SOLID FOUNDATION in place for Disney to remain profitable for the foreseeable future with “bankable FRANCHISES” in the Marvel universe of characters/comic book storylines, Lucasfilm and Pixar’s CGI animation prowess — barring any unforeseen collapses of the U.S. and/or world economies (always a fearful possibility, given 2008’s massive fail).

        Believe it or not, I’m not giving Iger a “blanket endorsement” here for everything he does. I do think he has to SERIOUSLY re-think and re-approach how Disney Theme Park workers (like those who “maintain” the parks) are paid only about $9 bucks an hour while Iger made a FAT $45 million+ in salary and perks. If he even thought of giving back $30-35 million of annual bounty from Disney (who can’t live comfortably as a CEO at $10 million per year??!!), then that would money given back would allow about 9,000 theme park employees make up to $15 per-hour — the widely proposed federal MINIMUM WAGE being proposed by a host of Democratic politicians and the great independent Sen. Bernie Sanders1

        Iger may be a brilliant strategic senior executive, but he could be EVEN SMARTER by making sure that Disney gives back more DOLLARS to its rank-and-file theme park workers! Come on, Bob, you can leave an even bigger legacy! ;-D

      • Well I guess I would ask, what “exactly” what did a post ‘Walter Elias Disney’, Disney look like?

        I’ll tell you what it looked like. For awhile there it was pretty darn bleak, that’s what. Then Eisner and Katzenberg resuscitated it and now Iger and his team, (Staggs, Lasseter, Skipper, Feige, Kennedy etc.), are moving it boldly forward. So there have been several really strong and visionary leaders guiding this Company throughout the years. Why is it so hard to believe there isn’t someone else able to lead?

  10. Summer Morning Rain says:

    Wow, comparing Bob Iger to Lew Wasserman… Well, Lew was a manager and so is Bob. They do have that in common. As to Michael’s view — not seeing any charisma or added magic, just acquisitions and the massaging of $DIS.

    • louferrari says:

      You should keep in mind that Lew Wasserman started in the “agency business” in a big way before MCA and Universal took the form of a studio — and he was forced by the government (probably rightfully so!) to DIVEST his agency business to become a real player in the “content business” (and end potential “conflicts of interest” in also repping “above-the-line talent”). Wasserman also “adapted” to changing times and how to re-manifest MCA as a major supplier of filmed entertainment (movies ad TV) with hits like “Psycho” (and a long relationship with Alfred Hitchcock), “Jaws” and a string of other big-grossing Steven Spielberg-directed hit movies, in addition to their music and theme park businesses as well.

      Wasserman had a natural “eye for talent,” but he also eventually realized that Universal/MCA’s future lied with being a “globally financed,” first by the Japanese and Matsushita…and then watched the studio being tossed over to Canada’s Bronfmans and the Seagram booze guys and again to NBC/GE and lastly to Comcast (Lew’s hopefully resting in peace with the final transaction!). No matter what, so much of what Universal had been and is today still finds it roots in the leadership of Lew Wasserman and Sid Sheinberg — they do deserve their kudos for building lasting “franchises” in their own right.

  11. Al says:

    Cranky? You can bet on it. But he has clearly earned his spot, as the company today is back at the top of the game. Only he has had a vision to do that.

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