The day after Disney shocked Hollywood by unceremoniously sending Bob Chapek as CEO, sources with ties to the company say discontent among some board members had become so great that there was discussion about replacing Chapek as early as the directors’ meeting at the end of the year. June in Florida.
At the time, sources say, some on the board wanted to replace Chapek and appoint one of them, Nike chairman Mark Parker, as interim CEO while they searched for a new permanent leader. But a source says Parker turned down the part even when the idea came up more than once. Aside from Parker, these sources say, General Motors executive Mary Barra also advocated replacing Chapek at the June meeting. (Neither Parker nor Barra responded to requests for comment.)
By this point, Chapek had already racked up a series of widely mocked moves. Aside from the much-publicized public conflict over Scarlett Johansson’s compensation, Chapek’s flip-flop over Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” law first agitated Disney staff and then drew the ire of Governor Ron DeSantis. Another controversy erupted after Chapek’s abrupt and particularly brutal firing of Peter Rice, the well-known president of entertainment and programming. “Chapek chose another negative news cycle when he just got back on his feet,” said a veteran communications manager at the time.
But sources say board chair Susan Arnold was in favor of Chapek. “Susan sided with Chapek from the start, even before that [Iger] left,” says one. She tried to put Iger back in his box. Each time she said, ‘Let Chapek run the company.’”
In the wake of Rice’s firing, Arnold issued a supposedly unanimous statement of the board’s “confidence and support” for Chapek. But many in the industry had noted that the board had yet to renew Chapek’s contract, which was due to expire in February 2023. Once again, top industry executives rolled their eyes. “You let the CEO leave within a year of his contract ending,” a major industry player said at the time. “That in itself is a declaration of non-support. A vote of confidence is nonsense.”
When the board discussed Chapek’s contract at the end of that month, some wanted to extend it for just two years, according to one report. But Arnold argued that this would undermine Chapek too severely. An apparent compromise was reached: Chapek’s contract was extended for three years, but retroactively, making his deal last just over two years.
Meanwhile, dissatisfaction with Chapek grew and reached a tipping point with the most recent earnings call and a subsequent message to staff about a hiring freeze, layoffs and other cost cuts that caused major turmoil within the company. Two high-level sources — who felt they should have been notified — say they were totally blindsided by the memo and left to find out what else they could spend money on and what was now off limits.
All the while, Iger’s disapproval of Chapek was no secret to anyone. He allegedly warned at a December 2021 board meeting in New York, just before he left the company, that Disney’s culture could change quickly and for the worse. It was the last time he spoke to Chapek.
In recent months, Iger has spent his time handling his investments, sailing his yacht, working on a book, and even talking to producer Brian Grazer about a movie based on the book. Lucky 666: The impossible mission that changed the war in the Pacific. Until his phone rang. It was Susan Arnold. Iger hadn’t spoken to her since his last lunch with the board in New York last December.
When the end came for Chapek, even a Disney-connected source who isn’t a Chapek fan was shocked at the way it went. “He hasn’t been able to say goodbye or say, ‘I’ve decided to step down,'” this person says. Recalling reports that Rice had also been unceremoniously fired after his own brief encounter with Chapek, this individual added, “I bet it broke Chapek’s record of firing Rice in seven minutes. They called [Chapek] and said, ‘You’re gone. Our lawyers will call your lawyers.’ No explanation from him, no comment from him, no mercy. It’s fucking insane.”
As far as current and even former Disney insiders go, the change felt insane, though welcome. “While it’s also a wow,” says one, “in a weird way it felt inevitable.” Another noted that Iger has already undertaken a reorganization to reverse the reorganization mandated by Chapek, who had shifted power over financial decisions to creative executives. “I’m glad he’s going to put everything back to how it was,” says this person. “As if Chapek was never there.” Iger and Chapek declined to comment.
Another Disney veteran notes the stunning irony: “Bob Iger messed up succession at Disney for 15 years. When he finally did, it was a huge mess. It’s extraordinary that [Iger] is the man they chose to come back to. It speaks to his reputation and the board’s lack of options and ineptitude. How could they have ended up in this place? How could this happen?”
Additional reporting by Alex Weprin.