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Disney’s Future Might Be in Jeopardy Over a CEO Battle


Disney's Future Might Be in Jeopardy Over a CEO Battle


Summary

  • Bob Iger’s return is crucial for Disney’s future success amidst internal battles and external pressures.
  • Nelson Peltz’s politically motivated proxy fight could threaten Disney’s creative integrity and success.
  • Struggle at Disney highlights the clash between business interests and artistic vision, challenging the company’s legacy.



The Walt Disney Company has certainly made headlines lately, but not for the usual reasons. Headlines around Disney either involve a major box office hit or flop, a new addition to one of their major theme parks, or someone online criticizing the company for “going woke” for something so minor nobody would or should think anything of it. Yet lately, trouble has been brewing behind the scenes as a Succession-style takeover attempt is happening behind the scenes, which could alter the fate of the Walt Disney Company as people know it.


This is easily the most significant internal battle Disney has faced since Michael Eisner was outed from the company in 2004, leading to Bob Iger becoming the new CEO of Disney. Iger’s tenure ushered in a new era for Disney, and acquisitions like Pixar, Marvel, Lucasfilm, and 20th Century Fox made Disney the biggest studio in the world with some of the biggest box office hits of all time. Now, though, a bitter proxy fight for control over Disney is brewing between Iger and Nelson Peltz and his Trian Partners. Here is everything to know about the internal battle at Disney: who the key players are, what the motivation is, and what the future holds for Disney.


The COVID Pandemic Might Have Changed Disney Forever


In 2019, Disney was riding high as they had seven of the 10 highest-grossing films of the year, with all their entries making over $1 billion. The release of Avengers: Endgame, Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker, Frozen 2, and Toy Story 4 in the same year seemed to show a peak for the Disney company with a new exciting decade on the horizon. In February 2020, after 15 years of running Disney, Bob Iger stepped down as CEO and named Bob Chapek the new CEO of The Walt Disney Company. The news was controversial among fans, as Chapek had earned a reputation for lacking original ideas and only investing in IP, but the stage was set. Then, one month later, Disney and the rest of the world were hit hard by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Various factions of the Disney empire were hit, not just films but television, sports, and obviously, theme parks, which is the company’s biggest source of revenue. Iger stayed on to help Chapek with the transition, but this created a feud between the two creators. Chapek then decided to pivot hard to streaming and making big announcements for Disney+ streaming projects, even forcing Marvel Studios President Kevin Feige and Lucasfilm President Kathleen Kennedy to announce projects early in development and not ready to announce and push for more streaming material.


Chapek made many public mistakes for Disney, from getting into a public lawsuit with Scarlett Johansson regarding the decision to release Black Widow on streaming the same day as theaters, which violated her contract, to not speaking out against Florida’s Parental Rights in Education Act, which is commonly referred to in the press as the Don’t Say Gay bill. Two years into his tenure, Chapek was ousted from the company, and Iger was brought back in to clean up the mess.

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This upset Nelson Peltz, who began his proxy fight for control of Disney in January 2023, just two months after Chapek left. Peltz did like the reappointment of Iger or the departure of Chapek. For those who don’t know, a proxy fight is an unfriendly contest for control over an organization that occurs when a corporation’s stockholders develop opposition, which normally revolves around the direction or management of a company. Corporate activists attempt to get shareholders to use their proxy votes, votes by one individual or institution as the authorized representative of another, to install new management.

The proxy fight seemingly ended in February 2023 after Disney unveiled a vast restructuring plan and cut costs with 7,000 layoffs. Yet in October 2023, Peltz and Trian Partners increased their stake in Disney, pushing for another proxy fight with the goal of gaining at least three board seats at the company. They are backed by billions of dollars in Disney stock, and Iger also has plenty of support behind him, which will come to a head on April 3, 2024.

Bob Iger and the Disney Board of Directors


Bob Iger was Disney’s CEO from 2005 to 2020 and saw arguably one of the biggest booms in the company’s history. He is now only behind Walt Disney himself in terms of shaping the company. Yet since Iger has come back, he has undergone a lot of hurdles, from dealing with the long-term impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic to the dual WGA and SAG-AFTRA strike, which Iger did handly terribly in the press with many bad quotes, including writer’s not being “realistic.”

Since then, he has done a lot to ensure in the press that he is taking control of the company and steering it to greater success, particularly following a string of box office flops in 2023. He announced the silent cancellation of projects, one of which was likely greenlit by Bob Chapek during the gap between 2020 and 2022, with the goal of making more material for Disney+.


Bob Iger and the Disney board of directors have received plenty of support behind them. George Lucas, the creator of Star Wars and the single biggest owner of Disney stock following the company’s purchase of Lucasfilm, put his support behind Iger, as noted by CNBC, and threw some shade at Peltz, who has no history of working in entertainment when he said:

“Creating magic is not for amateurs. When I sold Lucasfilm just over a decade ago, I was delighted to become a Disney shareholder because of my longtime admiration for its iconic brand and Bob Iger’s leadership. When Bob recently returned to the company during a difficult time, I was relieved. No one knows Disney better. … I have voted all of my shares for Disney’s 12 directors and urge other shareholders to do the same.”

Iger also has support from JPMorgan CEO Jamie Dimon, Laurene Powell Jobs, the widow of former Pixar head Steve Jobs, and former Disney CEO Michael Eisner, who Iger replaced. According to Variety, Iger and Disney even got support from the families of Walt Disney and Roy Disney, including Abigail Disney, which is a big deal considering she has a long history of critiquing Iger over his pay packages and the company’s treatment of employees across various divisions. In the letter penned by Abigail E. Disney, Roy P. Disney, Susan Disney Lord, and Tim Disney, they said:


“What concerns us most about these hedge-fund-backed opportunists is that they have little to no knowledge of what Disney truly means to people like you. They haven’t made any arguments for why they should be entrusted with the keys to the kingdom our family built. To the contrary, their ‘I alone can fix it’ mentality makes clear that they are not interested in preserving the Disney magic, but stripping it to the bone to make a quick profit for themselves.”

They continued, “Disney is lucky to be led by people who are looking to the future while drawing guidance from our cherished past. As The Walt Disney Company charts its path forward, it is imperative that the strategy Bob Iger, his management team, and the Board of Directors have implemented is not disrupted by those motivated by nothing more than their own self-interest,” they explained. “Disney stories are filled with heroes and villains. We know who the villains are in this story, and we know they cannot be entrusted with protecting this company’s rich legacy or guiding its bright future.” It is clear that even among people who some would consider enemies of Iger’s, he and the Disney board of directors are a more trustworthy bet than those knocking at the door to take control of the company.


Nelson Peltz and Trian Partners’ Role With Disney

Nelson Peltz is a billionaire businessman and investor. He is the co-founder of Trian Partners, a hedge fund management company that has pushed for significant change at some of America’s largest corporations. Peltz is notable for being the former director of H.J. Heinz Company, a non-executive chairman of Wendy’s, and The Madison Square Garden Company. Trian Partners has invested in companies like Family Dollar, DuPont, PepsiCo, and Proctor & Gamble, just to name a few.

Peltz and Trian Partners support does not come from creatives or anyone within Disney but from outside services. The proxy advisory service Institutional Shareholder Services (ISS) and Egan-Jones are two of Peltz’s biggest supporters right now. Both companies are citing Disney CEO Bob Iger’s lack of long-term succession plans following the disastrous tenure of Bob Chapek, who succeeded Iger and then was forced out with Iger coming back in to replace them.


Lucas’s comment about Peltz having no experience working in entertainment and having no practical business skills in the field he is inserting himself into is worth noting. Peltz is the father of actress Nicola Peltz, who he reportedly forced into getting cast as Katara in the 2010 film The Last Airbender. His lack of film knowledge was also highlighted when Peltz himself discussed whether Kevin Feige would be removed, “I’m not ready to say that, but I question his record.” This should be a big red flag for any financial person.

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Regardless of what one might think of recent MCU films, to question the track record of one of the most successful film producers working in Hollywood that has given Disney eight billion dollar movies (Avengers: Endgame, Avengers: Infinity War, The Avengers, Black Panther, Avengers: Age of Ultron, Iron Man 3, Captain America: Civil War, and Captain Marvel) alongside one of the most successful franchises in the world that has set the template for every major studio in Hollywood to copy is crazy.

In fact, Marvel is a significant factor in this proxy fight. One of Peltz’s most prominent backers is Ike Perlmutter, the former CEO of Marvel Entertainment, who was fired in 2022. Perlmutter had gained a terrible reputation at Disney, both for his micromanaging and cheapness regarding the company.

For years, he vetoed Marvel from making both a Black Panther and Captain Marvel movie while also not allowing Gamora or Black Widow on any Marvel merchandise because he did not believe that girls bought toys. Perlmutter was the reason the X-Men were downplayed in the comics for so long and even canceled the Fantastic Four comic because he did not want to promote characters for other film studios. Purlmutter’s money-pinching peaked when Bob Iger had to step in and have Marvel Studios report directly to Walt Disney Pictures instead of Marvel Studios following a major dispute between Kevin Feige and Purlmutter regarding the ending of Captain America: Civil War.


Perlmutter has put a lot of weight behind Peltz and appears to be upset with how Iger and Disney treated him. He likely has issues with Feige and Iger and has found a common ally in Peltz, as they seem to share the same business sensibilities but also personal politics, which might be the key factor here.

It Is Politically Motivated (But It Isn’t Disney Pushing Politics)

It is worth noting that his biggest supporter is Ike Perlmutter. Perlmutter is a notable recluse and a major supporter of former President Donald Trump. Perlmutter clearly has an agenda and wants to use Peltz’s seat on the board to influence Disney. Peltz is described as a notable Republican donor, yet he identifies more as a centrist. Peltz supported Trump’s reelection in 2020 and voted for him, but following the storming of the United States Capitol on January 6, 2021, he said he regretted his vote. While Peltz did say he is reluctantly voting for Trump now that he appears to be the 2024 Republican nominee due to his skepticism over Biden’s age and health (Biden is only four years older than Trump), he is still choosing to vote for him so he does align with him in some way.


While in the middle of his proxy battle with Disney, Peltz was also an early supporter of Ron DeSantis’s presidential campaign. DeSantis notably started a major culture war with Disney after the company spoke out on Florida’s Parental Rights in Education Act, commonly known as the Don’t Say Gay Bill, and Disney filed suit against DeSantis and several others, accusing them of retaliating against protected speech. While it isn’t entirely fair to accuse Peltz of trying to get a seat on the board of Disney to drop the lawsuit, it is clear he is politically motivated and likely will push for messaging he finds okay. Nelson Peltz recently said:

“Why do I have to have a Marvel [movie] that’s all women? Not that I have anything against women, but why do I have to do that? Why can’t I have Marvels that are both? Why do I need an all-Black cast? People go to watch a movie or a show to be entertained. They don’t go to get a message.”


Obviously, there is a lot to unpack with that statement. The first is that The Marvels did not have an all-woman cast, nor did Black Panther: Wakanda Forever have an all-Black cast. If those are issues, why are movies with all-white casts not part of this equation? It also ignores the fact that both Black Panther and Captain Marvel made $1 billion worldwide, and while The Marvels was a flop, Black Panther: Wakanda Forever grossed $859.2 million worldwide, making it the fourth-highest-grossing movie of 2022 behind only Avatar: The Way of Water, Top Gun: Maverick, and Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness. The idea that these films featuring diverse casts have a message in them is a smoke screen and done in bad faith by Peltz, but also hypocritical.


He, with his own mindset and thought process, is a message that will bleed out into other Disney movies. One has to wonder why his messaging is okay but not the supposed messaging of The Marvels or Black Panther: Wakanda Forever. An honest examination shows there isn’t. Despite them trying to say Disney is pushing a message or forcing politics or diversity into their films and television shows, it is, in fact, people like Peltz and Perlmutter who are pushing a message. It’s only okay for them when they do it because it confirms their worldview.

While it certainly is gross to take the backing of one billionaire over another, it is clear that the fight for Disney is being done in bad faith by an outside source who is unhappy with the way a company is moving in terms of politics. Disney had a rough few years after some historic highs, but it is not because of “forced diversity” but instead due to real outside factors like the COVID-19 pandemic, the change in the streaming landscape, and the WGA and SAG-AFTRA strike impacting them.


There is a chance that if Peltz gains seats on the Disney board, it could have long-term impacts that would hurt the company for years to come and bleed out into the consumer with worse products, as he prioritizes only business and politics. Iger might not be perfect, but based on his track record, it is clear that he knows how to balance the art and business aspects of the company.

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