And when Bob Iger saw the breadth of his domain, he wept, for there were no more worlds left to conquer.
Or so one imagines. Iger, after all, exhibited an Alexander-like appetite for empire building in the years that he led Disney. His announcement Tuesday that he will be stepping down as CEO came as a shock. After a 15-year buying spree in which Iger annexed Pixar, Marvel, Lucasfilm, and 21st Century Fox, the great man is taking a step toward retirement—nearly two years earlier than he’d previously suggested.
Picking up the mantle is Bob Chapek, who has been with Disney since 1993, most recently as chairman of parks, experiences, and products. Iger himself will stay on as a board member through December 2021, “spending as much time as possible on the creative side of our businesses.”
Iger’s departure marks the end of an era, a stunning period of growth in which Disney quadrupled its market cap by stockpiling the world’s best IP, fueling a wave of imitators (hello, Justice League) and industry consolidation.
The entertainment landscape has been forever altered—for better and for worse.
Iger stepped into the leadership role at Disney during something of a fallow period for the company. The 1990s had seen a revival of Disney’s dominant status in animated movies, with colossal hits like Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, and The Lion King arriving one after the other. By the mid-aughts, however, in the wake of Pixar’s CG surge, 2D animation had become unfashionable, and movies like Chicken Little, Home on the Range, and Brother Bear failed to generate anything resembling the excitement of Disney’s ’90s run. There was the odd live-action hit like The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe in 2005, but overall the times were changing and Disney was not.
At least not until Iger took over from his predecessor Michael Eisner.
Buying up Hollywood’s oceanfront properties
Embodying the “if you can’t beat ’em, buy ’em” formula, Iger’s Disney bought Pixar in 2006 for a staggering (but clearly worth it) $7.4 billion. The Pixar deal not only enabled Disney to benefit from the animation juggernaut’s epic run, but its leadership reinvigorated Walt Disney Animation, leading to its own epic run. Disney created massive critical and cultural hits such as Frozen, Wreck-It Ralph, and Zootopia, none of which relied on established IP or the parent company’s many acquisitions. (Disney and Iger should not be left off the hook for their role in enabling one of the architects of that turnaround, John Lasseter, in his actions making women uncomfortable by his behavior, which ultimately led to his departure in 2018.)
Next, Disney picked up Marvel for $4 billion in 2009, a prescient move considering that Marvel Studios had only 2008’s Iron Man under its belt. At the time, the Marvel Cinematic Universe was just a glint in Kevin Feige’s eye, and there was no guarantee that the Avengers solo and crossover movies would become such an enduring phenomena. But Iger clearly saw something in Feige, and understood the value of the underlying properties. That the studio was able to produce 23 well-reviewed Marvel movies without a single flop is a testament to Iger’s management as much as Feige’s vision. (Iger, for what it’s worth, says that he will be focused almost entirely on creative until his contract expires in 2021.)
Then came the acquisition of Lucasfilm for another $4 billion in 2012, taking Disney’s interest in the Star Wars franchise beyond its theme-park attractions and onto the big screen. Although the acquisition had the initial effect of turning the idea of a new Star Wars movie into something to get excited about again, especially after the disappointing prequel trilogy, ultimately the effort to create a new trilogy and spin-off stories played out as a case of there being too many cooks overseeing the effort, with directors and writers being hired and fired, leading to a lack of cohesion. The box-office results were certainly impressive (Solo, notwithstanding), but after what should have been a triumphant conclusion to the trilogy with Rise of Skywalker, the diehards appear to be left disappointed by the diminution of the epic film franchise into a universe that will live on only on Disney’s streaming service for the time being. And there’s still no clarity as to who’s in charge of overseeing Star Wars’ future.
Finally, in 2019, Iger completed his end-run around Hollywood with Disney’s biggest acquisition yet: Most of Rupert Murdoch’s entertainment assets, including the historic 20th Century Fox studio, Fox Searchlight, FX Networks, Nat Geo, and eventually Hulu, all of which cost a cool $71.3 billion. It’s still too early to value the fruits of that acquisition, but much of what Disney inherited has disappointed, leading Iger to suggest that future theatrical releases of ex-Fox properties will be limited to Avatar, Planet of the Apes, X-Men, and Deadpool, while lesser franchises such as Home Alone, Night at the Museum, and Diary of a Wimpy Kid will be relegated to streaming on Disney Plus. Of course, that’s not to diminish the importance of streaming video to Iger’s master plan to compete with Netflix. The warhorse Fox cartoon The Simpsons is one of several reasons that the streaming service has already picked up 28.6 million paid subscribers. The addition of FX to Hulu next month, meanwhile, will give Disney a more adult-oriented beachhead in the streaming wars.
So, yeah: quite a run. Bob Iger has largely done well by Disney. Last year alone, the company’s films grossed a ridiculous $13 billion worldwide, including seven individual billion-dollar movies.
The implications of that empire building
At what cost has all this success come, though, beyond the double-digit billions in acquisitions?
Although Pixar is still capable of putting out original winners like Inside Out and Coco, under Disney’s stewardship, the studio released seven sequels in the 2010s, out of 11 total movies. All of them were moneymakers, but few would argue that Cars 3 was pushing things forward creatively. Disney also sullied Pixar’s brand a little bit by doing a Cars spin-off, Planes, which was even more cynical than the Cars sequels. (Pixar has since announced it is pumping the brakes on sequels.)
Disney’s push to bring in other studios paved the way for the AT&T/Time Warner merger, along with NBC Universal Comcast. The number of major studios is shrinking, and as Disney strips the Fox name off its new properties, like the statues in a conquered country, it’s using the Searchlight banner less to create original movies than to steer content to Hulu.
Between Marvel, Star Wars, rampant consolidation, and the glut of so-called “live-action” remakes that consist entirely of digital widgets, the entertainment landscape has now become a battlefield for finding the latest interconnected universe or content made of pre-existing IP. Disney under Bob Iger has contributed more than any other entity toward making the cinema experience consist almost wholly of homogenous tentpoles.
Jon Favreau is a representative talent for the brand, having directed the influential first MCU movie, Iron Man, “live action” remakes such as Jungle Book and The Lion King, and now The Mandalorian for Disney Plus. He’s a talented four-quadrant filmmaker, and thus the perfect avatar of what Disney has in the offing. The problem is that not everything can or should hit four quadrants. Has Disney ever done anything for just one quadrant?
According to Bob Iger’s book, The Ride of a Lifetime: Lessons Learned from 15 Years as CEO of the Walt Disney Company, his predecessor Michael Eisner long ago floated the idea of buying Marvel, but was shut down because the property was deemed “too edgy.” Now that the studio has made a mint from Marvel, it’s clear that a certain degree of edginess is something its intended audience can stomach.
Considering how diverse Disney’s portfolio has become, though, it’s amazing what is still considered too edgy—like a planned TV series adaptation of LGBT teen movie Love, Simon.
Consumers increasingly gravitate toward niche entertainment that may not hit all four quadrants. Disney is in no danger of dying, but just as when Iger took over for Eisner almost 15 years ago, it would do well to realize that it’s time to adapt again.