The day after Disney shocked Hollywood by unceremoniously delegating Bob Chapek as CEO, sources connected to the company said discontent among some board members had grown to the point where discussions about replacing Chapek began at the board meeting in late June Florida.
According to sources at the time, some board members wanted to replace Chapek and appoint one of their own, Nike Chairman Mark Parker, as interim CEO while also looking for a new permanent head. But a source says Parker turned down the role, even though the idea came up more than once. Aside from Parker, these sources say, General Motors chief executive Mary Barra also endorsed replacing Chapek at the June meeting. (Neither Parker nor Barra responded to requests for comment.)
By this point, Chapek had already amassed a string of widely derided moves. Aside from the much-discussed public strife over Scarlett Johansson’s compensation, Chapek’s flip-flop about Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” law first enraged Disney employees and then angered Gov. Ron DeSantis. Another controversy erupted after Chapek’s abrupt and particularly brutal firing of Peter Rice, the respected entertainment and programming chairman. “Chapek chose another negative news cycle when he was just getting back on the ground,” a longtime communications executive said at the time.
But sources say CEO Susan Arnold was a supporter of Chapek. “Susan was on Chapek’s side from the start, even before that [Iger] left,” says one. “She tried to put Iger back in his box. At every step she said, ‘Let Chapek run the company.’”
Following Rice’s firing, Arnold released what was said to be a unanimous board statement of “trust and support” for Chapek. However, many in the industry had noted that the board had yet to extend Chapek’s contract, which was due to expire in February 2023. Once again, top industry executives rolled their eyes. “They let the CEO get there within a year of his contract expiring,” said one industry leader at the time. “That alone is a statement of non-support. A vote of confidence is nonsense.”
When the board discussed Chapek’s contract at the end of the month, some only wanted to extend it by two years, according to a report. But Arnold argued that doing so would undercut Chapek too much. An apparent compromise was reached: Chapek’s contract was extended by three years, but backdated, leaving just over two years on his deal.
Meanwhile, dissatisfaction with Chapek built and reached a tipping point with the recent earnings call and subsequent communication to employees about a hiring freeze, layoffs and other cost-cutting measures that caused deep concern within the company. Two senior sources – who felt they should have been given a heads-up – said they were taken by surprise by the memo and went on a quest to see what else they could spend money on and what was now off-limits .
Throughout, Iger’s disapproval of Chapek was no secret to anyone. He reportedly warned at a December 2021 board meeting in New York shortly before leaving the company that Disney’s culture could change negatively and rapidly. It was the last time he spoke to Chapek.
Over the past few months, Iger has spent his time tending to his investments, sailing his yacht, working on a book and even speaking to producer Brian Grazer about a film based on the book Lucky 666: The Mission Impossible That Changed the War in the Pacific. Until his phone rang. It was Susan Arnold. Iger had not 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 expressed shock at the way it went down. “He couldn’t say goodbye or say, ‘I’ve decided to resign,'” says this person. Recalling reports that Rice was also summarily fired after his own brief meeting with Chapek, this person adds, “I’ll bet you that firing Rice in seven minutes broke Chapek’s record. they called [Chapek] and said, “You’re out. Our lawyers are calling your lawyers.” No testimony from him, no comment from him, no mercy. It’s fucking crazy.”
For current and even former Disney Insiders, the change felt crazy, while welcome. “As much as it’s a wow,” says one, “in a weird way it felt inevitable.” Another noted that Iger had already undergone a reorganization to undo the Chapek-imposed reorganization that took power over had shifted financial decisions away from creative executives. “I’m glad he’s going to put everything back the way it was,” says this person. “As if Chapek had never been there.” Iger and Chapek declined to comment.
Another Disney veteran observed the startling irony: “Bob Iger screwed up the Disney succession for 15 years. When he finally did, it was a colossal mess. This is extraordinary [Iger] is the guy they chose to come back. It speaks to his reputation and the lack of options and incompetence of the board. How did they get to this place? How could that happen?”
Additional reporting by Alex Weprin.