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Bob Iger’s Second Act: The Risks and Rewards of Returning as Disney’s CEO

Bob Iger Variety Cover Story
Art Streiber for Variety

F. Scott Fitzgerald once wrote that “there are no second acts in American lives.” By returning to the Walt Disney Company and resuming his former role as chief executive officer, Bob Iger will attempt to disprove that maxim.

But if Iger’s first stint at Disney was marked by growth and an exciting wave of transformative acquisitions, his comeback will require a different set of skills. Bob the Builder must become Bob the Manager. And that’s a whole lot less fun.

Take the situation that Disney and many other media companies find themselves in right now. Wall Street has soured on the idea of streaming subscription growth at all costs, preferring instead to focus on pesky things like profits. In this climate, the sheer expense of creating more and more premium content for Disney+, Hulu and ESPN+ has imperiled the company’s stock price. In its most recent quarter, Disney shares plummeted on the news that its streaming segment had lost $1.47 billion, nearly double the red ink the company spilled in the prior-year period.

“There were signals that something was afoot,” says Stephen Galloway, the dean of the Chapman University film school. “The fallout from the recent earnings call was catastrophic. It was the last straw.”

At the same time, Disney is facing questions about the viability of several of its long-standing businesses. Cord-cutting is continuing at an alarming rate, taking a chunk out of ESPN and Disney’s other cable brands and jeopardizing a once lucrative part of its portfolio. That’s to say nothing of the theatrical movie industry, which has yet to shake off the lingering effects of COVID closures and is also grappling with a diminished international landscape. Tensions with China have depressed global box office receipts for Hollywood films while Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has cut off another major market.

Then there’s the parks and attractions sector. Disney World, Disneyland and other parks around the globe are back in business, but profits have yet to return to pre-pandemic heights. Plus, a recent decision to hike prices at the parks has led to backlash. Things could get worse if rising inflation and a potential economic recession further depress attendance and spending.

“[Iger’s] priority will be to cut losses,” says Jamie Lumley, a TMT sector analyst at global research firm Third Bridge.

Already, Disney has signaled that it will work to get its financial house in order. That likely means layoffs and cost cutting across its various divisions. This new economizing is a lot less glamorous than the kind of mergers and acquisitions that helped cement Iger’s legacy. As Disney chief, Iger spent nearly $87 billion to buy Pixar, LucasFilm, Marvel and most of 21st Century Fox’s entertainment assets. Now, with Disney saddled with $46 billion in long-term debt, Iger may be forced to be a seller not a buyer. Would he consider off-loading Hulu to Comcast, for example? Might he take activist investor Daniel Loeb’s suggestion to spin off ESPN? Loeb backed off that position, but nothing is out of the question at a time of media retrenchment.

Iger does offer the kind of charisma that was noticeably absent during his successor-turned-predecessor Bob Chapek’s brief and largely unhappy tenure as Disney CEO. Chapek, who was handpicked by Iger to take the reins, offered operational experience from his time overseeing Disney’s parks. But he struggled with the showmanship required for the post, often appearing awkward at investor conferences and earnings calls. He also failed to cultivate ties to the entertainment community, which played a critical role in the standoff between Disney and “Black Widow” star Scarlett Johansson over her compensation when the company decided to release the film concurrently in theaters and on Disney+. Compounding matters, he happened to take the reins a month before the pandemic upended the behemoth’s entire business model. It didn’t help that Chapek and Iger were seen as being at odds during the transition period.

“It’s a much more complex, fast-moving business than it used to be,” says Ken Leon, CFRA Research’s director of equity research. “That was probably the shortcoming for Chapek. He was looking for an integrated model of parks and stores with everything on the creative side.”

Iger is a deft player when it comes to smoothing the bruised egos of creative types, while balancing the pressures of hitting financial targets. He’s particularly adroit at navigating the intense scrutiny that comes with leading one of the world’s most recognizable brands — he boasts a mega-watt smile, a politician’s knack for putting people at ease and an ability to never show the sweat that it takes to maintain such a placid facade.

“Iger is uniquely suited,” Galloway says. “Not many people can operate atop Mount Everest with very little oxygen.”

In one of Iger’s first official moves, he turned the page on the Chapek era by ousting Kareem Daniel, Chapek’s top lieutenant and chairman of Disney Media and Entertainment Distribution. Under Chapek, Daniel was given unprecedented control over the budgets of the various entertainment divisions, a move that rankled top executives. Iger said he would shuffle that reorganization in order to put “…more decision-making back in the hands of our creative teams.” It’s a decision that was well-received in Disney’s Burbank headquarters, with many executives believing it was a sign of Iger’s belief that creative daring was the key to the company’s success.

Part of the challenge during Iger’s return to the Magic Kingdom will be finding the next CEO. If the 71-year-old is only returning for two years, as advertised, at least some of that time will be devoted to finding a worthy successor to continue Iger’s legacy.

“There will be a big focus on finding that next person,” says Lumley. “Chapek was at the helm for less than three years. Ideally, they will find someone who can manage that ship for longer.”

But why return at all? Iger doesn’t need the money. He’s worth tens of millions. And it’s not just about legacy. He already will go down in history as one of the most consequential leaders in Hollywood. But for someone like Iger, an ambitious personality accustomed to being in the room where it happens, the allure of once again being in control may have been too intoxicating to resist.

“Just like stars aren’t stars by accident, moguls aren’t moguls by accident,” Galloway says. “They crave what mogul-dom offers.”

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