Bob Iger Makes His Disney Exit as a Titan of Transformation

Photographs by Art Streiber

As we stroll on Disney’s historic Burbank lot toward the plaza where he is about to be photographed in front of a statue of Walt Disney and Mickey Mouse holding hands, I ask Iger if he is feeling melancholy about his decision to leave.

“I’m being resolute about it — this time around. I haven’t once second-guessed it or hesitated,” he tells me. “It’s bittersweet. I’m going to miss people, and I’m going to miss the creative process.” Iger, who turns 71 in February and who began his career at age 23 at ABC, is one of only six CEOs to lead Disney since its founding in 1923 until Bob Chapek assumed the role in February 2020.

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Art Streiber for Variety

Ten days from now, Iger can step away knowing that few, if any, media leaders can claim as impressive a track record at any one enterprise as he achieved over his time atop Disney with such pivotal creative and accretive transactions as the acquisitions of Pixar, Marvel, Lucasfilm and 21st Century Fox. As someone who always embraced rather than fought new technologies, Iger leaned into the future and made Disney’s content available across multiple platforms, launching ESPN Plus in 2018 and Disney Plus a year later. In doing so, he transformed a nearly century-old traditional studio into a modern-day digital juggernaut with direct access to consumers. Under his leadership, Disney was the first studio to have its TV content on iTunes, in 2005, and a year later was the first to stream ad-supported TV content for free.

Iger also spearheaded the company’s international expansion, opening the Hong Kong Disneyland Resort in 2005 and the Shanghai Disney Resort in 2016, marking his 40th trip to China in the past 18 years. He drove the reinvigoration of Disney’s failing Animation Studios by installing Pixar chiefs John Lasseter and Ed Catmull at the helm. Disney’s value has shot up nearly five times what it was when Iger took over: Its market cap increased from $48.5 billion to $240 billion — close to a 400% increase.

And to think how many people both inside Disney, including four board members, and outside the company totally underestimated Iger’s abilities as he fought to be considered as Michael Eisner’s successor in 2005. Former Disney Studios chief Jeffrey Katzenberg met Iger for breakfast back then, telling him, “You need to leave. You’re not going to get this job. Your reputation has been tarnished.” Iger tells me that Katzenberg urged him not only to leave Disney but to “leave the business.” In his book, “The Ride of a Lifetime: Lessons Learned From 15 Years as CEO of The Walt Disney Company,” Iger quotes Katzenberg as suggesting to him, “You should go do some pro bono work to rehabilitate your image.” Despite being tormented and crushed by the lack of support at the time, Iger was approved by the board, and clearly got the last laugh.

“I even surprised myself,” he quips during our expansive interview in his near-empty office suite in the legendary terra-cotta Seven Dwarfs building that has been largely packed up but for a few remaining artifacts and personal belongings — including a model of Walt Disney’s Grumman G-159 Gulfstream airplane on his desk; a framed vintage Autopia Disneyland poster; and a wooden chess table with carved “Star Wars” character pieces, which Kathleen Kennedy gifted him and he’s donating to Disney.

“Nothing at this point is left on my agenda, businesswise,” says Iger, who has spent these last few weeks saying his goodbyes. On a recent trip to New York, he met up with his 96-year-old former boss at Cap Cities/ABC and longtime mentor, Tom Murphy. “One of the things he taught me was take chances with people. Don’t overemphasize experience — overemphasize talent,” Iger says Murphy counseled him about making hiring decisions. “He took chances on me a number of times. That was a huge lesson.”

Murphy and other of his former colleagues, including Dan Burke and the late Roone Arledge, are featured prominently in Iger’s 2019 book, a New York Times bestseller, in which he shares what he’s gleaned from leading a company whose global staff numbers almost 200,000 employees.

Last week, Iger sent a farewell note to all those employees and “cast members,” imploring them to “always keep the creative fires burning” and thanking his four children, who never took for granted that “Dad” had one of the coolest jobs in the world, and his wife Willow Bay, “my single most trusted advisor, and my partner in all aspects of my life.”

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Art Streiber for Variety

Iger and Bay, who is dean of the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism, hosted a party at their home a few weeks ago for about 90 guests, including several of his onetime colleagues — former ABC Entertainment chairman Ted Harbert, ABC News retired executive and producer Stu Bloomburg and sportscaster Al Michaels, who spent three decades as a commentator for ABC Sports, before moving to NBC.

“It was my way and Willow’s way of saying, ‘Thank you,’” says Iger. “I’m looking forward to unplugging more than anything else and waking up one day and not feeling all the responsibility that I have on my shoulders.”
I ask Iger what he won’t miss.

“I officially became CEO on Oct. 1, 2005, and I really have not had a day off since. Not a day off. I’m looking forward to what I’ll call a true day off. And I’m not talking about a day on my boat where I’m answering emails all day and screening rough cuts,” says Iger.

He’s eagerly anticipating taking his whole family — including his five grandchildren — to Disney World right after Christmas, but he assures me: “That’s not work; that’s just vacation.”

Iger says his first real day off will be Jan. 1.

“I guess I’m going to watch some college football without having to worry about the outcome of the ratings.”
In a wide-ranging interview, Iger talks about his legacy, reveals the subject of the next book he plans to write and shares his views on the current and future state of the ever-evolving media business during the most disruptive period “in our lifetime.”

The following are edited excerpts from that Dec. 8 interview.

VARIETY: Tell us something about Bob Iger we don’t already know.

IGER: I’d say the thing that would surprise most people is that I’m much more of an introvert than an extrovert. I’m an introvert that plays extrovert at times when it is necessary.

VARIETY: Well, that must be most of the time.

IGER: It is.

VARIETY: You had planned on retiring from Disney on several different occasions. What drove your decision to actually leave this time?

IGER: Well, the same thing that drove my decision to retire the first time, which I failed at, and that is I happen to believe that change at the top has value for a company. It brings in new perspective, kind of a fresh pair of eyes and a new way of doing things and looking at things. Secondly, I wanted to leave of my own volition. I wanted to leave not only with my head held high but my body feeling pretty strong … so that if there were to be another chapter or another thing that I wanted to accomplish in life, I would have the vitality and energy to do so.

VARIETY: And what is that next chapter likely to be? You’re someone who gets up at 4:15 every morning. I don’t see you just sitting on boards, volunteering and playing golf.

IGER: You’re absolutely right. I don’t play golf. I’m wired to be active and busy and engaged. So I’m looking forward to having to be imaginative with my time for the first time maybe in my life. I joke to people that I haven’t had a summer off since eighth grade. I’m looking forward to a blank canvas and having the good fortune of having a lot of paint to paint with and trying to figure out what it is I do with that canvas. Honestly, very few decisions have been made, and most people that I’ve spoken with who have stepped down, particularly from positions of significant responsibility, all counseled me to go slowly and not make any big decisions right away. And I’m not at all anxious about that.

VARIETY: Could you imagine yourself doing something full-time again?

IGER: No. I have no interest in running another company. I’ve mostly been focused on doing some selective investing in relatively new companies as a means of advising and mentoring founders. I’ll do more of that, but beyond that no plans at all.

VARIETY: Are these media or tech companies you’re investing in?

IGER: I’m investing in companies that are using technology to disrupt current businesses. Only one comes close to touching media, and it’s pretty far afield from the media I’ve been engaged in. The others are far afield from that.

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Art Streiber for Variety

VARIETY: When I read your book, I was surprised at how serious you once were about running for president of the United States. Are politics completely off the table for you now?

IGER: They are.

VARIETY: Why is that?

IGER: Looking back on it, I think I was a little bit too idealistic. I think I was just really naive and maybe a bit presumptuous about my abilities, but more than that just presumptuous about my chances. And I’m just over it.

VARIETY: I hear you are planning to write another book. Could you tell us about it?

IGER: The publisher that published the first book [Random House] is ready to go, but I’ve not signed on the dotted line yet, so I haven’t made any official announcements. I haven’t started writing the book. I wrote a proposal that I sent to the publisher. But to answer the question, in observing how leaders reacted to the pandemic and to COVID, it struck me that leaders are frequently balancing a set of countervailing dynamics in order to successfully lead through a crisis of that magnitude. To give you a couple of examples: One would need to act with speed because of the nature of the crisis, but to collect as much knowledge and be as deliberate as possible; and where on the sliding scale of timing and decision making must you be, for instance. Another is the whole notion of needing to be optimistic — because I think, particularly during a crisis, people are looking for hope and optimism — but at the same time needing to be extremely realistic to call it like it is so that those people are acting accordingly.

VARIETY: Post-Disney, do you expect to keep your hand in the creative process in some way?

IGER: I think that’s probably my biggest challenge. Actually, my wife said something to me last night when I returned from the “West Side Story” premiere and obviously feeling such exhilaration for art at its highest form. She said, “You’re going to have to figure out a way to keep those muscles in tone, so to speak, or stay involved enough,” because she knows that nothing has motivated me more than that really. Of all the things that I will miss, besides the great people I’ve worked with, is being engaged fully in the creative processes. I’m going to have to figure that out, but I have not yet.

VARIETY: How difficult has it been managing a huge creative enterprise like Disney?

IGER: It’s not difficult if you apply a few critical principles. First is you have to respect the creators and their creative processes a lot and not encroach. In other words, do no harm. Be there as a cheerleader to encourage, to push and to demand excellence and innovation. Part of the underpinning of successful creative leadership is trust — trusting people in the end to do the right thing.

VARIETY: I’d love to hear your views on the current and future state of the media business. Do you think that any of the legacy companies that don’t have global scale can survive without being gobbled up by one of the big tech enterprises like Google or Apple?

IGER: That’s a complex question. We are living in a world that is experiencing more profound disruption at a higher rate than we’ve ever seen in our lifetime, obviously due to huge advances in technology that are going on as we speak. Any company that does not keep pace or allow itself to innovate will fail. It’s that simple. We’ve seen it countless times. If we pause for a moment and think back on all the companies that failed to be innovative, everybody always uses Xerox or Kodak, companies like that. If you were to look at all the most valuable brands in the world in the decade since Disney was founded in 1923, there are only two companies left that are still considered among the top global brands — Disney and Cola-Cola.

VARIETY: GE is another company, once the largest in the world, that failed to innovate, and now it is no longer.

IGER: Yes, I do happen to understand how difficult it is for companies operating in a traditional space to be innovative. Not only are you potentially disrupting your own business and the bottom line, but sometimes it takes you spending money, which comes off the bottom line. I learned those lessons when we decided to transform the company by going into the direct-to-consumer digital distribution business. Highly disruptive to the bottom line, to all kinds of habits, structures, you name it. Extremely difficult to do.

VARIETY: All true, but you’re someone who has always embraced new technology.

IGER: Yes. I think transformation requires leadership. A leader has to declare what transformation is necessary and then be more resolute than you can imagine. In other words: “This is the direction we are going in, and everybody needs to get out of your way.” Essentially, you don’t take no for an answer.

VARIETY: Over your 15 years as CEO, you’ve transformed Disney in so many ways, including with the acquisitions of Pixar, Marvel, Lucasfilm and Fox and the launch of ESPN Plus and Disney Plus. What are you most proud of?

IGER: I could cite a number of examples, “Black Panther” probably being near the top of the list. Cutting the ribbon and opening a theme park in Shanghai and delivering the quintessential Disney theme park experience to the most populous city and country in the world. Signing a contract at this desk in this office with George Lucas to buy Lucasfilm. Standing at Pixar with Steve Jobs and being handed a Luxo Jr. lamp and saying to a thousand people at Pixar that I’m going to use this to illuminate the castle. An incredible moment buying Marvel, of course, is right up there, and gaining access to not only the treasure trove of great characters but so many incredibly talented people who knew so much about the Marvel brand and its storytelling potential.

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Art Streiber for Variety

VARIETY: What are some of the hardest decisions you had to make?

IGER: I think the hardest always was having to make tough decisions about people. I mean, some people made it easier I guess by their behavior, but a lot of people didn’t. People I liked, people I respected, people I worked closely with. Looking back, I’ve never felt great about having to make tough decisions about people, even though it’s necessary.

VARIETY: Is there anything you would have done differently?

IGER: Surprisingly, not much. I’m not a second-guesser. I look back at things and try to use them as lessons in terms of what I might do better going forward.

VARIETY: So, no regrets?

IGER: No, not really.

VARIETY: Bob Chapek has some pretty big shoes to fill. What would you say he needs to do to continue growing Disney and keep the company ahead of the curve?

IGER: Bob has to make a lot of those decisions himself. As the world changes and continues to be disruptive, he will be faced with circumstances, challenges and opportunities that are going to be very different than those I’ve been faced with. So he’s going to have to be facile. He’s going to have to have the ability to adapt to a changing time. I’m not presuming he has to do this a certain way. The one thing I have exhorted Bob and everybody else at the company to do is to keep those creative fires burning.

VARIETY: You’ve always been ahead of your time. I remember how in 2005 you made an astonishingly controversial suggestion, which was the simultaneous release of movies in theaters and on DVD. Theater owners and some very big directors went nuts.

IGER: I think I still have some battle scars from that declaration. I felt it was very lonely at the time. One of the things I learned is to keep some of your most innovative thoughts to yourself until you’re really ready. I remember talking to Steve Jobs about that a lot. Over time, I came to appreciate moviemaking much more than I think I appreciated back then because most of my career I spent in television. I learned that the experience of watching a big movie on a big screen outside of your home with a lot of other people was a big deal not just for the company but for consumers. It’s kind of a shared common experience — and there’s real value to that.
I do think what we’re seeing today, and some of it has been accelerated by the pandemic, is far more interest in being entertained in the home. There’s comfort with the technology and comfort with the experience. I do think the big-screen movie experience is migrating, not completely, but to a significant extent to an in-home experience versus an out-of-home experience.

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Art Streiber for Variety

VARIETY: So, do you advocate for the simultaneous release of movies in theaters and in the home?

IGER: The whole day-and-date thing, I don’t know what that gets anybody, frankly. I know everybody says, “Give consumers a choice,” but I think I prefer a model where certain movies — not all movies — are projected on the big screen for a certain period of time and then made available on screening platforms pretty quickly. … My successor may do it completely differently. That’s up to him.

VARIETY: I want to go back to something you wrote about in your book. You were very candid about the tortured process you went through when you were trying to land Michael Eisner’s job after he was fired and how incredibly painful it was that so many people both inside Disney, on the board, and some outside people, like Jeffrey Katzenberg, underestimated you. I believe Jeffrey urged you to leave the company because you were damaged goods.

IGER: The business.

VARIETY: Did you eventually make peace with him?

IGER: Oh, absolutely.

VARIETY: How painful was that period for you?

IGER: I remember it well. Was it painful? Yes, partially because it was very public and there were so many doubters. It’s not easy experiencing that, but it strengthened me in a number of ways. I think it caused me to focus more on what my thoughts were about leading this company and what my plans might be. I think it ended up forcing a discipline on me that served me extremely well once I became CEO and in the years since then. So I harbor no ill will, no grudge. The board went through a very responsible process. Do I wish it would have taken them a little less time, sure. But I got the right results.

VARIETY: You certainly proved all your naysayers wrong.

IGER: I love the fact that I exceeded people’s expectations. There are a lot of things I’m pleased with as I leave this job, and one of them is “OK, I showed all of you.” I think I surprised myself too.

VARIETY: Did you?

IGER: Look, I had no anxiety stepping into this role in terms of my ability to manage this company. I learned a lot, including from Tom Murphy and Dan Burke at Cap Cities. And Michael Eisner taught me about managing this company and about leadership. So, I had the confidence when I came in. I think had I not, I wouldn’t have gotten the job. But I’ve exceeded my own expectations. I didn’t think it was going to turn out this well.

Grooming: Thereze Berquist Bake