Late in 2019, during a conversation with TIME, longtime Disney CEO Bob Iger outlined the key qualities he thought his successor would need. By that time Iger had already outlasted—or moved along—several of his would-be successors, and he was very tight-lipped on who would be replacing him when his contract expired in 2020.
His ultimate choice, Bob Chapek, who had previously been in charge of Disney’s parks division, abruptly left the company on Nov. 20 after fewer than three years, and was replaced by Iger, which surprised everybody— including, reportedly, Iger. But looking back at his words from three years ago, Iger seemed to quite clearly predict why Chapek didn’t work out.
He suggested that there were four key qualities a new Disney chief needed.
The ability to keep the creators on side
“Obviously having an appreciation for creators and the creative process is very important,” Iger told TIME in 2019. “Most of the value proposition, or all of this company, emanates from creativity. So one must appreciate that.”
Not too long after Chapek took over, he got involved in a public spat with Black Widow star Scarlett Johansson, ruffled the feathers of Shang Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings star Simu Liu and oversaw a corporate reorganization that gave the creatives at the company less free rein. He also suggested in an interview that animated films were not for adults, which came as news to the team at Pixar.
“Chapek… made controversial management and reporting changes that appear to have disrupted the culture at Disney,” wrote Macquarie Capital analyst Tim Nollen in a research note on Disney’s changing of the guard.
Good PR chops
“I think it probably takes someone capable of being on stage a lot, meaning a public-facing person,” said Iger. “Disney has a place on the world stage, and the person running Disney typically has a place on the world stage as the face and the spokesperson of the company.”
Chapek appeared to be doing a good job at this until recently. Only five months ago, Chapek’s contract was renewed for another three years, and until last month, Iger was still denying any possibility of going back to his old job, despite swirling rumors of unhappiness in the ranks. But then came the fourth quarter earnings call, during which some investors felt that Chapek did not set the right tone when announcing an unexpected blowout of expenditure on the company’s streaming service Disney+, which led to a disastrous balance sheet. The stock plummeted and the board felt it had to act.
A knack for balancing legacy and progress
“There’s a set of values someone must have,” said Iger. “I think appreciating the heritage and the legacy of the company and its place in the world has value, without letting it get in the way of innovation.” Customers have balked at the cost of going to Disney’s parks, which Chapek formerly ran, and the introduction in October 2021 of the Genie, a new app that was designed to help guests navigate their way around the park. Some visitors have found Genie labor intensive and ineffective and have objected to being on their phones when they’d rather be interacting with their families. The app’s upgraded sibling Genie+ allows guests to skip queues, but is expensive and doesn’t cover every ride—access to others has to be purchased at even more additional cost. Before Iger was reinstated, the parks announced plans to raise prices; the most expensive entry fee will be $189 a day.
Ruthless prioritization skills
“It’s someone that has to have an ability to manage just a tremendous amount of responsibility all at once,” Iger noted, observing that Disney is a complex business; it has its tentacles in sports, movies, parks, cruises, hospitality, merchandise and TV, among other things, a few hundred thousand employees and a global reach. “That takes energy, it takes the ability to prioritize, to compartmentalize. It takes the ability to really know what’s important and what isn’t.”
Chapek’s flip-flopping on the state education legislation in Florida that many believed was anti-LGBT demonstrated that he didn’t have a clear vision of his priorities. “One of Iger’s strengths is his people skills; Chapek’s handling of the “don’t say gay” controversy alienated many staff and consumers,” wrote Nollen.
And in an era when everything is about politics, Nollen suggested this might have played a role as well: “Perhaps it’s just interesting timing, but in the immediate wake of the Republicans winning the House,” he wrote, “Iger may be considered more adept at managing the social issues that Chapek was dragged into.”
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