Is this a hoax?
That was the reaction from many Disney employees on the evening of Nov. 20, as the stunning news spread that Bob Iger would return to Disney as CEO, ending the stormy tenure of his successor, Bob Chapek. The news was so unexpected that at first many Mouse House staffers were immediately skeptical that the press release in their inbox was really from company brass.
The surest sign that nobody — probably least of all Chapek — had any idea that Disney’s board was poised to take such a dramatic step was the fact that top Mouse brass were scheduled to be out and about that night at two highly public L.A. events: Elton John’s farewell concert at Dodger Stadium, which aired as a livestream for Disney+, and the American Music Awards, which aired live on ABC from downtown’s Microsoft Theater.
As the magnitude of the very real corporate shake-up settled in, the response was shock … then awe. The first shoe to drop on Monday was the exit of Kareem Daniel, chairman of Disney Media and Entertainment Distribution, who had been elevated to a lofty perch under Chapek.
Brian Grazer, chairman of Imagine Entertainment and a longtime friend of Iger, expressed the widespread sentiment around town of surprise and delight that Iger was saddling up again for Team Disney.
“He’s masterful at this job,” Grazer told Variety. “I’m excited for him. He has great expertise about the company, and he always had a central vision in mind for Disney.”
For Disney+, the simulcast of “Elton John Live: Farewell From Dodger Stadium” was a critical moment for the streamer as it prepares to branch into more live programming. Chapek and Daniel were scheduled to attend a VIP pre-show event with John.
For the AMAs, the plan was to have top execs, including Disney General Entertainment Content chairman Dana Walden and Hulu/ABC Entertainment president Craig Erwich and chief marketing officer Shannon Ryan, hit the AMAs before heading to Dodger Stadium.
In hindsight, the first indication that something was amiss came during the midday run-through at Dodger Stadium, where the Disney Branded Television team took the lead in supporting “Elton John Live” for Disney+. At that time, Disney executives learned that Chapek, who had planned to attend the show, had suddenly bowed out. It didn’t raise too many eyebrows in the moment.
At 6 p.m., the doors opened for a separate Disney Branded Television reception for press, talent and some execs at Dodger Stadium’s Stoli Club.
But the real Disney heavy hitters were heading to John’s hospitality tent, where a slew of top executives were expected to take in the historic final show on John’s “Farewell, Yellow Brick Road” tour.
Inside the Disney Branded TV event, phones started buzzing with the news around 6:45 p.m. At first, execs on hand asked out loud, “Can this be? Or is this a computer hack?”
That was also the mood inside the more exclusive hospitality tent, as exec after exec arrived at Dodger Stadium. That included Daniel, who showed up to the event but was seen exiting soon after. A few miles south in downtown L.A., Walden was spotted heading to Dodger Stadium minutes before the AMAs kicked off. The fact that Disney’s TV and streaming execs were all there together, on a Sunday night, while this corporate change unfolded made it seem surreal. And yes, Walden and many execs who were there (except Daniel) stayed and watched John put on a helluva show.
The following day, the Monday-morning quarterbacking was intense. Iger’s return was met with unrestrained celebration within the company, and reports emerged that the Disney board pounced on the opportunity to bring him back as they realized that Iger was about to make some long-term business moves that included being in talks with RedBird Capital Partners to run his own media and sports investment fund.
Instead, he’s headed back to the Rotunda in Burbank, where he reigned as CEO from 2005 to February 2020.
“All the [Disney] execs are delighted,” an industry insider says. “I’m not an anti-Chapek guy, but he seems to be tone-deaf.”
Chapek came to the job without deep ties within the creative community, and he did not win over many people in his tenure at the top. One of his key early moves was to dramatically separate content from distribution, which alienated creative executives as well as talent who perceived they had lost control over their projects to distribution-side executives.
As the shock factor wore off, Disney insiders pointed to numerous issues that Iger will have to confront amid a slowing macroeconomic environment. For one, the company’s spending on content to build up direct-to-consumer platforms has spooked Wall Street. Disney sources said Chapek’s goose was likely cooked on Nov. 9, when shares dropped below the $90 threshold on the heels of a less than confident performance during Disney’s fiscal fourth-quarter earnings call. (On Nov. 21, as East Coast markets woke up to the Iger news, Disney shares climbed 6%.)
In fairness, Chapek inherited the Disney+/ESPN+/Hulu empire-building strategy from Iger. Disney’s new-old boss will surely need some Magic Kingdom fairy dust to deliver subscriber growth and contain costs at the same time in the coming quarters.
Iger also faces a big diplomatic mission in Florida, where Disney’s mishandling of the “Don’t Say Gay” controversy managed both to alienate the state’s Republican leadership and cost Chapek credibility with his own liberal blue-state employees. “So many felt that Chapek did not have employee values in mind,” despite his long tenure as a 30-year Disney employee, according to an LGBTQ individual deeply involved in employee walkouts earlier this year.
In April, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis signed a bill to eliminate Disney’s special taxing district in June 2023, leaving the district in limbo. Observes one Tallahassee insider: The reintroduction of Iger into the picture “probably helps.”
Matt Donnelly and Elizabeth Wagmeister contributed to this report.