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The Misdirected Anger at Bob Iger Risks Seeing the Bigger Picture

5 minute read
Sonnenfeld is Lester Crown Professor in the Practice of Leadership at the Yale School of Management as well as founder and president of the Yale Chief Executive Leadership Institute. He helped catalyze the retreat of 1,200 global corporations from Russia and has served as a personal, informal advisor to four U.S. presidents, two Democrats and two Republicans.

Hollywood loves a good foil—but reality can be more complex than that.  

In recent weeks, actors and writers in Hollywood have deemed Disney CEO Bob Iger as a cartoon caricature of a pampered, out-of-touch movie mogul.

On July 25, Breaking Bad star Bryan Cranston raged against Iger for “taking away our dignity and giving it to robots.” Days before, SAG president Fran Drescher called Iger an “ignoramus” who should be “locked behind doors.”

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Iger’s sin was that he attended the industry’s Sun Valley business retreat and then, while not directly involved in the strike negotiations, commented that “one has to be realistic about the business environment.” He further said that the actors and writers do need to be “compensated fairly based on the value that they delivered,” and cited the recent deal with the Directors Guild as a model.

While writers and actors are right to raise issues of fairness and accountability within the workplace, perhaps Iger is not the person who should be on the receiving end of their ire. For there is a larger system at work we must scrutinize—where tech giants reign supreme and are straining the traditional entertainment business model.

Today, the content producers are hardly a monolith but are actually a kaleidoscope of disparate players. Disney is just one of five major studios – the others being NBCUniversal, Paramount/CBS, Sony, and Warner Bros. The film studios are just one of many sets of ascendant Hollywood players who have overwhelmed the old studios in both power and money, ranging from the streaming giants such as Netflix, Amazon, and Apple, to showrunners including many big-name actor-producers and director-producers, to private equity players getting in on the action such as Apollo, Blackstone, and KKR.

The ire directed at Iger risks missing this broader picture. The streaming tech giants are disdainful of the actors and writers understandably demanding fair compensation. The actors need the streaming content viewership data and streaming residuals, but the streamers prefer to release only total subscription count and not show-by-show breakdowns; while the traditional business model of studios and TV networks have long trumpeted viewership through box office grosses and Nielsen ratings, sharing profit with creative talent. Legacy entertainment businesses like Disney have added offerings such as Disney+ that mirror those of the streamers, but Netflix has tens of millions more subscribers than Disney+, and Netflix produces about 400 original content titles annually while Disney merely produces about 15 theatricals and about 40 TV shows every year.

The writers and actors are right to raise issues of fairness regarding job displacement, intellectual property ownership, authorship credit, and streaming residual payments with the intrusive threats of AI. But ironically, by fanning the flames of the strike, some of these actors—who are conflicted because they double as showrunners and have their own production deals with the studios and streamers— are actually undercutting their own bargaining positions, as the studios will likely soon invoke force majeure to suspend many of the overly-generous deals that went to big-name showrunners during the heyday of the streaming wars and trim their content pipelines of gluttony. Some of these were deals worth upwards of a whopping $250 million and which amounted to very little, sometimes reportedly just to buy them off from working with a competitor. Furthermore, it is the showrunners themselves who will be making most decisions on how and when to integrate AI into the creative process, not the studios who merely fund and distribute their films.

Read More: 'They Are Doing Bad Things to Good People': Fran Drescher on Why SAG-AFTRA Is Striking

For years, Iger has always been a popular champion of creative talent. He melded the actors, directors, writers, and producers of the Marvel, Pixar, Lucasfilm, and Fox universes seamlessly into Disney over two decades, and upon his return, instantly re-organized Disney to unravel his predecessor Bob Chapek‘s centralized bureaucratic control. Furthermore, Iger restored Disney’s reputation after it fell dramatically when Chapek capitulated to Florida’s Governor DeSantis on the “Don’t Say Gay” legislation.

These attacks on Iger are being exploited by ideologues and cynics, with some suggesting that Iger has already failed in his comeback and should be replaced after only six months. These spectators do not know much about genuine turnaround management. Returning CEOs have restored their companies to greatness over years, not weeks. Starbucks stock was down 48.5% one year after Howard Schultz returned to Starbucks in 2008, but after three years had returned 63%; likewise, after Michael Dell returned to Dell in 2007, the stock fell 17.3% a year into his tenure but Dell is now at least two times more valuable.  Meanwhile Steve Jobs, who returned to Apple in 1997 took three years for Apple’s stunning stock rebound of 403%. Iger’s last tour of duty shows he has the credibility and competence to deliver, with 600% total shareholder returns and 11 of the 12 top all-time box-office hits during his previous stint.

There was a time when all-powerful media titans showed a tin ear towards creativity. Hollywood mogul Samuel Goldwyn once complained, “Here I am paying big money to you writers and what for? All you do is change the words. If you want to send a message, send a telegram.” As much as the strikers nostalgically conjure up those ghosts from the past as foils, today’s media mosaic is far more complex. We believe Iger is genuinely grappling with unprecedented business challenges amidst tectonic industry shifts.

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