It didn’t take long for Bob Iger to remind the Disney staff what his values were. The former and now returning CEO announced Monday that Disney’s restructuring under his leadership would both honor and respect “creativity as the heart and soul of who we are” over a reliance on data-driven decision making. And for the first time since Iger turned things over to now-ousted CEO Bob Chapek, it’ll be the creatives, not the technology and product teams, who call the shots at Disney.
For nearly three years, all Disney creators turned over their work to something called DMED, aka Disney Media & Entertainment Distribution, a division led by Chapek’s, No. 2 Kareem Daniel. DMED, not the creative divisions, would then make the call on whether a film would get a theatrical release or go to streaming, and how much marketing it received. That’s how “Dancing With the Stars” moved from ABC to Disney+ and why Pixar’s “Luca” and “Turning Red” skipped theaters. On Monday, Iger’s first big move was to let Daniel go.
With Iger back in charge, the responsibility returns to the people who made it. Disney Studios head Alan Bergman, general entertainment lead Dana Walden, and ESPN chairman James Pitaro have now been charged with breaking down Chapek’s silos and restructuring his Disney restructure.
One Disney insider told IndieWire that everyone knew DMED as a source of tension, with “so much angst” that never got resolved. “Iger definitely seemed more in tune with the creative side,” one Disney insider told IndieWire of Iger’s return. “The directive the board gave him was you’ve got two years to figure it out and put the succession plan in place… and we’re hopeful that we’ll have that north star.”
However Iger chooses to reunite Disney’s creative and distribution, the ongoing evolution of streaming and theatrical means it won’t be the same system he left with his exit in February 2020. One analyst who spoke with IndieWire wondered if Iger might show some flexibility when it comes to theatrical windows. He said Chapek seemed indifferent to theatrical beyond the most obvious franchise titles, a perspective that dinged Pixar’s brand reputation by making them Disney+ exclusives.
The company’s re-organization will be important to those outside of Disney as well. One producer told IndieWire it never seemed clear whether a project was clearly for Disney, Disney+, 20th Century, FX, or Hulu. From a storytelling perspective, it was “not an ideal place to set up content.”
“It was a place you had to write off unless you were there for a specific reason,” the producer said, describing it as a place you wanted talent to work only if it meant they could collaborate with the likes of a Kevin Feige or John Landgraf. “You didn’t bring pitches there, didn’t bring specs there. It was not an exciting place to work and became like a factory.”
The producer predicts that with Daniel out, Iger could elevate the likes of Walden, Feige or Landgraf to bigger roles and demonstrate that Disney is a company that values its creative talent. To that end, the producer says Iger will spend these next few months on a “water-bottle tour” meeting with agents and talent to rebuild the trust lost under Chapek.
One talent manager said that while she still set up talent at Disney during the Chapek era, Disney under his leadership felt “unstable” and lacked the understanding of what actors, creatives or other staff want and expect. Iger may not be able to solve all of Disney’s problems, but the manager sees Iger’s relationship with the industry as easy, friendly, and above all, safe, exactly what Disney needs.
“Iger is charm personified and in this town, that goes a long way,” the manager said.