It was supposed to be a restructuring of The Walt Disney Company. The mission was to move towards a more moderate position that would yield greater returns for investors buying into the biggest family entertainment company in the world. Throughout the pandemic, the strategy was a success.
All along, though, resentment festered inside the studios of Disney.
Having an entertainment outsider come in as the new CEO of the company — someone who was as apolitical as possible — with a different Chair for the Board of Directors was thought to be the key to getting Disney back on track. It was a correction after Robert Iger had pushed the company into the political sphere as a result of his own ambitions. Though Iger had been marvelously successful during the majority of his run, the final years were more about positioning his persona and empowering creatives without tremendous oversight. It became political, and the ethics of the country were cast down in favor of doing whatever it took to gain entrance in the Chinese economy. Iger had wanted to make a presidential run, then wanted the ambassadorship to China, but neither of these desires ever came to fruition. He had been both CEO and Chairperson, so his departure was a great opportunity to divide out the power and return to a business-first, fan-first Disney company. With Bob Chapek and Susan Arnold in place, investors were trilled to see messaging that would get the company squarely back to making profits, fans, and subscribers.
The new Three Pillars Strategy was a dream-come-true for the money people within, and invested in, the Walt Disney Company.
There was just one problem. The creatives who had seen unprecedented power under Bob Iger were not fans of the new Bob. Within many of the studios, Chapek was not respected. He was seen as bumbling and uncultured. Soon after taking his position, a hit piece in the trades compared the two Disney CEOs and did so unfavorably for newest. Iger was said to be refined, Chapek was said to be obsessed with his real estate purchases. The goal: to present Bob Chapek in a Donald Trump-esque light. The reason: Chapek and the Board had a desire to reign in the company’s cultural movement… something the creatives loathed.
That’s why it is important to remember that the intra-Disney divides are not based solely on Chapek. The CEO is simply the icon that many want taken down so they can go back to the late Iger years. The Pixar people are furious because they have been struck from theatrical releases for years now. Many of the artists who work there now were not there during the golden age of the studio, but they believe they deserve the same respect as those who produced such wonders as Up, The Incredibles, and Toy Story. An evident decline in quality of the Pixar product doesn’t stop them from blaming Chapek for sending their products straight to streaming.
The same sentiment flows through the other studios. Chapek’s handling of the Scarlett Johansson issue with Black Widow soured his relationship with Marvel Studios Head, Kevin Feige. Chapek was tasked with protecting Disney+ internal data, which would have been made public by Johansson’s claims, but Feige didn’t appreciate it. Meanwhile, Chapek and the board are not happy that Marvel has failed to produce a Disney movie that has made significant profit since 2019. The Marvel miniseries on Disney+ also don’t seem to be grabbing the ratings that their label and budgets would suggest they should.
The move towards financial efficiency and political moderation had been tough-going but successful. The company grew during the pandemic, and after a very hard 2021, the latest quarter was very profitable. But profitability is not the top priority of the studios that want to see social change. And thus, Chapek and the Board made a decision that would cost them dearly.
After initially trying to keep The Walt Disney Company out of Floridian politics concerning the teaching of sexual orientation to kindergartners, the internal pressures from the studios became too great and executives feared they would start to see demonstrations… they might even lose some artists. The culture of young adult artists coming out of west coast and Ivy League universities meant that Disney had hired a large number of passionate and revolutionary personnel over the last decade. Bob Iger’s parting program, Reimagine Tomorrow, had also pushed the company much farther politically left with an institutionalized system for ensuring Diversity Inclusion Equity initiatives could merge social movements and company policy. The program had already been scrubbed and re-introduced once after Chris Rufo, a conservative watchdog type, had made public the internal documents of the initiative that were publicly damaging.
As a result of the rising revolt, Chapek reversed course with a 180 degrees mea culpa. Suddenly the company was against the legislation publicly, had been doing so, and would go after future similar legislation in other states. Disney was made political. And yet it wasn’t enough.
The firing shot happened with the former CEO of Disney, Robert Iger, sabotaging the new Disney leadership in a single tweet:
Whatever the top executives had done, the trap had already been set for the company. The studios were already leaking information against the company — that would only accelerate as they saw weakness with Chapek. Pixar reinstated an act of affection into their upcoming family film, knowing it would result in the film being banned in China and the Middle East. In the current atmosphere, there is little chance Disney would censor the film to pass some international standards. For right or wrong, it would almost certainly damage the film’s potential worldwide. But Pixar creatives are interested in societal change, again rightly or wrongly, and the idea of financial success isn’t quite as high on their radar. If it had been, they would have produced a film capable of theatrical release in the past two years.
Unbeknownst to Chapek and the Board, they were facing a large portion of their west coast employees who were bent on changing the nature of the company. They were not interested in moderation, not interested in compromises. These are the sorts who see Walt Disney himself as a symbol of oppression. These are the sorts that look at Song of the South, the first film to earn an African American man a major cinematic award (and was the seventh-highest grossing film of all time when it finished its theatrical run), and all they see is a racist Disney family. While a company is at its best when it empowers people of different political and cultural beliefs in order to have diverse, balanced insights, The Walt Disney Company was creatively driven by people who could not be reckoned with. When even third-party vendors have messaged me letting me know they are scrubbing their social media accounts for fear it will be discovered they have voted Republican, and thus their contract with Disney endangered, you have to realize the company has become too political.
A pre-prepared employee movement was set into motion regardless of Chapek’s reversal. The Disney Walkout group was clearly enjoined with legal counsel and their efforts are likely to lead to an Activision Blizzard style revolt inside the company. Disney had been the recipient of many awards for their years of LGBTQ+ inclusivity — now the Human Rights Coalition wouldn’t even accept a dime from them. That the desires of the participating Disney employees aren’t in line with many families is not their concern. You don’t have a Mickey Mouse glove raised in a communist salute as your graphic logo if winning over heartland families is your goal.
All of this means that Bob Chapek and the Board, in a moment of weakness, have given way to the company radicalizing in an effort to claim unofficial mutiny. If March 22nd sees huge protests within and around Disney, it will only add to the pain that Disney will feel. After all, how much sympathy will this garner when people in Ukraine are being wiped out and China is committing genocide daily? When Disney employees and studios are putting out statements that compare a law forbidding sex ed in kindergarten to human rights violations, will that play out well in comparison to real terror around the world? You may support everything these employees and studios want, and many readers and writers here may, but the rhetoric is so over-the-top that there’s no way this will play out well.
Instead, the most likely result is that Disney’s family-friendly image will be harmed. How much that one sentiment is financially worth appears incalculable. For Chapek and the Board, however, they’ve already shown enough weakness that there’s little way to slow this down. Strength and uniform ethics would have saved them, but coupling the country to genocidal nations has meant they have no leg to stand on when they take any position at all on domestic politics.
At a time when the western world needs unity more than ever, division is being sown. The culture war is growing, even as unified resolve for free speech, free thought, and moral clarity are required. And it will be The Walt Disney Company where that culture war will be fought. Though it can’t be good for the company at large, it would seem there is no going back.