What Disney’s CEO Shake-Up Means for Its Movie Business

Matt Donnelly

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After rocking a quiet Tuesday afternoon with news of leadership changes at the very top of the Walt Disney Corporation, attention has turned to respective divisions at the Hollywood superpower — and to what the side-stepping of Bob Iger and ascension of new CEO Bob Chapek might mean for the future.

This includes Disney’s Goliath of a film business, which shattered box office records to earn $11.1 billion worldwide and accounted for nearly 40% of domestic market share in 2019. That sector — including premium brands Marvel Studios, Lucasfilm, Pixar Animation, Walt Disney Studios, Walt Disney Animation, and 20th Century Studios — will now report up to Chapek, formerly the chairman of Disney parks, experiences and products.

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Iger will assume the role of executive chairman and retain full creative control of the company until December 2021, when his deal expires. On a call with investors Tuesday, Iger expressed “absolute confidence” in Chapek’s abilities to lead, but also made a case for the timing of the announcement, saying his sole priority was to set up Disney’s content businesses for assured long-term success.

“Getting everything right creatively would be my number one goal,” Iger said on the call, admitting he could “not do that on a day to day basis” in the office of the CEO. Numerous industry insiders who spoke with Variety said a considerable amount of Iger’s focus would likely be directed at the film group and its long-term leadership. The company’s television business, reshaped after the 20th Century Fox acquisition and now headed by Fox veteran Peter Rice and top lieutenant Dana Walden, is widely seen as in capable hands.

A mission-critical strategy, numerous executives at rival studios indicated on the condition of anonymity, would be for Iger to map a succession plan to replace 76-year-old Alan Horn, who serves as chief creative officer at the Walt Disney Studios. In 2019, Horn extended his deal to remain in the role for an undisclosed amount of time, though his exit is widely expected to be timed with Iger’s.

Horn runs WDS with studio co-chairman Alan Bergman, where the pair have become a synonymous management team: “The Alans.” For decades Horn has been known as a creative’s executive, and insiders said its no coincidence the studio has installed Bergman, 53, as his co-chair. Some argue that Bergman might need a similar counterpart, as he manages massive budgets and operations on top of creative with Horn.  Leadership at all the portfolio companies report to the Alans and, as one person familiar with Disney quipped, “good luck finding anyone people like Feige and Kennedy will respect as much as Bergman once Horn is gone.”

The individual labels create an interesting task for executive chairman Iger — ensuring the continued synergistic magic of shops like Marvel and Pixar.

Marvel Studios czar Kevin Feige reupped his own contract in 2019, and was also named chief content officer of all of Marvel Entertainment. While the term of the deal is unknown, Feige’s grasp on film and streaming production is unquestioned as he carries the unit into a fourth phase of tentpole films and, now, a bulky slate of Disney Plus original series.

At Lucasfilm, chief Kathleen Kennedy signed a three-year contract extension in 2018. Iger himself admitted in an earnings call this month that the label behind the juggernaut “Star Wars” franchise is treading water when it comes to theatrical films. After disappointing offshoot movies like the Han Solo spinoff “Solo” and Gareth Edwars’ “Rogue One,” the unit is pivoting to streaming series like the social media sensation “The Mandalorian” — which gave unto us Baby Yoda. There’s also the sobering reality that last year’s “Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker”grossed over $1 billion worldwide, but saw the lowest grosses in its own trilogy.

Pixar is coming off of an Oscar win for “Toy Story 4” and seems more than stable under Pete Docter, who replaced ousted chief John Lasseter in 2018. He’ll be tested this year with the original conceit “Soul,” which he directed, but is also making the mother ship happy with animated shorts for the Disney Plus streaming service, insiders said. Jennifer Lee, who runs Walt Disney Animation, is prepping “Raya and the Last Dragon” for a November release, an original tale featuring the voice of Awkwafina.

None of the industry players Variety spoke with doubted Iger’s ability to set Chapek up for success, though growing pains will be unavoidable as the company gets its arms around the Fox assets.

“Who is going to replace Emma Watts?” one movie agent wondered of the chairman position at 20th Century Studios, an empty chair that will be responsible for delivering the “Avatar” sequels on top of straight-to-service fare like the “Home Alone” reboot. Others wondered how much steam Disney’s live-action remake machine has left as we look down the barrel at flesh and blood adaptations of “Mulan,” “The Little Mermaid,” “Aladdin 2” and “Cruella,” coming from WDS president of production Sean Bailey.

Questions only lead to more questions, complained another executive who listened to the investor call while stuck in Los Angeles lunch traffic.

“They’re blaring the hold music, I didn’t know the song,” the executive said. “It should have been ‘A Whole New World.'”

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