It was part pep rally and part therapy session: For 45 minutes on Monday, Robert A. Iger stood inside a film soundstage in Burbank, Calif., and fielded questions from Disney employees about the company’s dramatic turn from Hollywood juggernaut to streaming-era cautionary tale.
Is Disney going to be sold to Apple? Will the hiring freeze be extended? Are traditional TV businesses such as the Disney-owned ABC viable?
“These are challenging times, and I feel that now that I have assumed this role again,” Mr. Iger said, according to four Disney employees who attended the town hall, two of whom provided The New York Times with audio recordings of the event. “There is a lot we have to do and quickly.”
Mr. Iger downplayed chatter that Disney was potentially seeking safety in the arms of Apple as “pure speculation” and said cost cutting efforts, including a hiring freeze, would remain in place.
“If you look long term at the future of linear TV, it would be wise to be skeptical or pessimistic about it,” Mr. Iger said, exhibiting some of the trademark candor that has always made him stand out as a Hollywood executive. “How that manifests itself in our company I don’t know.”
The Race to Rule Streaming TV
Mr. Iger, 71, retired as Disney’s chief executive in 2020 after a celebrated 15-year run, but was rehired on Nov. 20 after the company’s board fired his hand-selected successor, Bob Chapek. After a year of turmoil marked by firings of executives, it is now time to move on. plunging stock priceAccording to Disney employees, despite demands from activist investors and attacks by conservative pundits, and politicians, Mr. Iger was seen as overjoyed, according to those present, who spoke under the condition that anonymity to discuss a private occasion.
To extended applause, Mr. Iger wore a crisp white shirt and a cardigan. He quipped that the welcome — and the realization of how much work was in front of him — had him on the edge of tears. (After the town hall was over, the crowd stood and ovated him.
Additional changes have occurred at Disney quickly since the surprise ouster, just over a week, of Mr. Chapek, aged 62. For instance, Mr. Chapek had restructured the company in order to give priority streaming services (Disney+Hulu, ESPN+, and Hulu. In doing so, Mr. Chapek took away distribution and profit-and-loss responsibility from the executives who run Disney’s movie and television studios. Mr. Iger quickly set about putting back the old structure.
Also last week, Mr. Chapek’s top lieutenant, Kareem Daniel, was shown the door, as was Arthur Bochner, who helped write Mr. Chapek’s prepared comments on earnings conference calls and previously served as his chief of staff. Someone removed a tribute for Mr. Chapek from Castaway Cay’s small themed building, which is a Disney-owned island in The Bahamas that serves as an activity port for Disney Cruise Line. This was seen as a mean move.
Before using anonymous sources, what do we think? Are the sources aware of the information? What’s their motivation for telling us? Do they have a track record of reliability? Can we verify the information? These questions being answered, The Times still uses anonymous sources as a last resort. At least one editor and the reporter know the identity.
On Monday, Mr. Iger didn’t mention Mr. Chapek. But Mr. Iger’s repudiation of his tenure was clear.
Dismantling the structural changes that Mr. Chapek had put in place — changes that Mr. Chapek had called wildly successful — would “restore control, responsibility and accountability to the creative businesses,” Mr. Iger said. He added that empowering Disney’s creative executives and cultivating a company culture where creativity can bloom was his No. 1 priority.
“I’m obsessed with it, and I’m obsessed with it for a reason — because it drives this company,” Mr. Iger said.
“It’s not about how much we create, it’s about how great the things are that we do create,” Mr. Iger continued, perhaps in a swipe toward the avalanche of content that Disney and other media companies have been dumping on streaming services to drive subscription growth.
One employee asked about Disney’s commitment to L.G.B.T.Q. The future of storytelling In the spring, Disney became a political piñata among conservative pundits, partly because it had started to add openly gay, lesbian and queer characters to its animated movies.
“One of the core values of our storytelling is inclusion and acceptance and tolerance, and we can’t lose that,” Mr. Iger said.
“We’re not going to make everyone happy all the time, and we’re not going to try to,” he added. “We’re certainly not going to lessen our core values in order to make everyone happy all the time.”
At one point, Mr. Iger referenced the song “What’d I Miss?” from the musical “Hamilton,” in which Thomas Jefferson returns to the United States from France and sings, “There is no more status quo, but the sun comes up and the world still spins.”
“That’s how I feel,” Mr. Iger said. “The status quo is gone. Many things have changed. But the sun is still shining, and our world and our Disney world is still spinning.”
John KoblinContributed reporting
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