Coming to Grips With Disney’s Era of Unforced Errors

Coming Grips With Disney’s Era of
Photo illustration VIP+: AP Photos

In this article

  • The series of management errors that have cast a cloud over CEO Bob Chapek’s reign at Disney
  • A dissection of the awful optics surrounding the mysterious termination of top TV exec Peter Rice
  • The difference between the leadership styles of Disney chief Bob Iger and Bob Chapek

Somewhere Bob Iger is having himself a nice long laugh.

With the tension between the former Disney CEO and his successor, Bob Chapek, well documented by now, it’s a safe bet Iger is positively brimming with schadenfreude at the seemingly endless mishaps emanating from his former office, culminating in last week’s unceremonious termination of Disney’s top TV executive, Peter Rice.

The world’s biggest pure-play media conglomerate has seen its stock plummet in 2022 (and the upcoming IPL rights negotiation could make that worse) amid a broader-based downturn that has just about all of corporate America in its grips. But there’s a more complicated truth at play for Disney, which is being bogged down by a series of unforced errors by Chapek.

I must admit I myself was sympathetic to Chapek for a long time. Having to fill Iger’s big shoes was bad enough; that Chapek’s predecessor was clearly not trying to help him in any way even before he stepped down only made matters worse. Not Chapek’s fault, I reasoned.

Even when Scarlett Johansson sued Disney over her payment from “Black Widow,” allowing the kind of ugly standoff Iger would never have allowed to go public, I didn’t rush to judgment against Chapek. Rethinking profit participation for the streaming era would never go smoothly, as former WarnerMedia CEO Jason Kilar could tell you, and at least Chapek had the successful launch of Disney+ to support his hardline negotiation stance.

Yes, Chapek clearly didn’t have the kind of finesse and stature Iger had with the creative community, but he was a new kind of leader for a new era in which Hollywood couldn’t expect not to have some noses out of joint.

Then came what still stands as Chapek’s biggest gaffe yet: his egregious handling of the “Don’t Say Gay” bill, the effects of which are still playing out for Disney in Florida. His insensitivity toward his gay employees was appalling, but I doubt many CEOs would have foreseen how huge a mess something so unprecedented would become.

Had Chapek played his cards differently, Disney wouldn’t still be reeling from this controversy, but this was the kind of problem no executive is prepared to handle.

And so as the knives out for Chapek multiplied, I maintained my misguided patience with him. Clubby showbiz types have a way of imposing facile narratives of ineptitude on any executive they don’t deem one of their own, as Kilar and NBCUniversal-era Jeff Zucker can attest. Chapek was considered an outsider because he comes from the comparatively grubby world of theme parks. I don’t subscribe to the notion that a creative company like Disney can’t possibly be properly managed by someone who doesn’t come up through the traditional Hollywood ranks.

But alas, even I have a limit to my patience. What transpired with Rice has finally brought me around to the reality that Chapek’s tenure at the company is doomed.

My change of heart is not even because Rice is so well respected in Hollywood that he couldn’t possibly have deserved to be shown the door or that the brusque manner in which he was fired was uncalled for. While what prompted an executive who'd already had his contract extended to get dumped the way Rice did remains a mystery, the particulars don’t actually concern me.

It’s Chapek's willful blindness to the optics here that I can’t get over. Maybe Rice did something so egregiously out of character that termination was justified, but deliberately not providing him or the industry an explanation looks so bad. It sends exactly the wrong message to an industry and his own company at precisely the wrong time, a period in which Chapek has already given everyone around him so much to distrust. It speaks to a basic lack of common sense.

Perhaps Chapek isn't blind to the optics; he knows full well what the optics look like but doesn’t care. And that doesn't compute in a business as relationship-centric as Hollywood.

What makes the optics even worse is that Rice was widely regarded as a successor to Chapek, inviting speculation that all Disney’s CEO was doing was ridding himself of a rival. Again, the truth doesn't really matter; regardless of the reality, he comes off petty and paranoid.

As a guy who has had plenty of his own succession difficulties, Iger may have at least a little sympathy for Chapek on this front. But if Disney's board of directors ends up not renewing Chapek's contract, Iger will truly have the last laugh.