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.