Bob Chapek was pretty mediocre at cutting costs and doing what Disney used to do: Make movies that appeal to the masses.
He was a fair amusement-park operator as far as that goes, while his streaming strategy was a work in progress.
But he definitely failed at trying to navigate the modern CEO’s burden: Politics and a woke workforce.
Chapek will be replaced by Bob Iger, who during his long and largely successful reign as Disney CEO certainly wasn’t some raging conservative. He institutionalized wokeism at the House of Mouse on everything from diversity mandates to climate issues to the content of its movies.
That gave him credence among elites in DC and the media, even if long-term progressive doctrines are a terrible business model for a company looking for mass appeal in a country as divided as ours. Recall: Chapek at least initially wanted to avoid commenting on the contentious Florida law that banned teaching sex-ed to children in kindergarten through third grade. It was unfairly dubbed the “don’t say gay law” by lefties, including Iger himself, who while in what looked like semi-retirement took to Twitter to bash the law, rally Disney’s progressive employees and force Chapek to reverse course.
Chapek walked into the right cross from GOP heavyweight champion Ron DeSantis, the governor of Florida. DeSantis has since used Disney’s leftward lurch as fodder for his political ambitions. He made an example of the company by removing its special tax status, and made doctrinaire wokeness imposed by business and political elites a dominate theme in his political ascendancy.
He cruised to victory in this month’s gubernatorial election and he may be our next president. He did it on the backs of woke Disney even if it’s one of the state’s biggest employers.
Which brings us back to why Chapek got the ax. Looking ridiculous on wokeness wasn’t his only failing. Disney shares are down more than 50% over the past year, even when including Monday’s decent rally on his ouster.
His most recent earnings report was a disaster in style, which angered the Disney board as much as his awkward about face on the Florida sex-ed law. Disney reported lower than expected fourth-quarter results that Chapek tried to spin it as something not-so-bad just before companywide layoffs.
To be sure, streaming isn’t easy for anyone, but Chapek’s plan to make it profitable by 2024 seems to be a stretch, since in its recent quarter it lost $1.4 billion. There’s a looming recession that could eat into the one part of the business that’s doing well and subsidizing the streaming losses: theme parks.
Activist shareholders are circling. First Dan Loeb of Third Point, the savvy trader that he is, saw Chapek’s blood in the water early on in August. He announced a stake and demanded a whole series of measures including possible spinoff of its ESPN subsidiary. Loeb backed off the ESPN sale, but activists kept coming. Nelson Peltz of Trian is in the mix also demanding cost cutting and a board seat.
If you notice, none of the big shareholders or activists are demanding more wokeness. Privately, I am told they are wary of Disney’s gratuitous measures to promote diversity, climate change and progressive pet projects that turns off at least half of the country, and maybe more. They point to a lesbian kissing scene in the latest iteration of the children’s movie “Lightyear” as proof of wokeness run amok.
They probably won’t publicly demand the end of leftism from Iger. They probably won’t have to because Iger, for all his history of virtue signaling, can read a balance sheet. He’s smart enough to sense the mood of the country that virtue signaling plays well among the tweeting left but not so well with Disney customers.
Proof: Buzz Lightyear pretty much fizzled because parents just don’t like corporations proselytizing to their kids.
My bet: Iger will make nice with DeSantis. He might even try to sell the company to an outfit like Apple, which can use the content and has the balance sheet to pay up.
Iger certainly won’t make Disney anti-woke. But based on his experience, he’ll be smarter about it than Chapek was.