The Bob Iger era at Disney is over

Departing the Magic Kingdom.
Departing the Magic Kingdom.
Image: Dan Steinberg/Invision for the Television Academy/AP Images
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Bob Iger, who led Disney for 15 years during a period of enormous growth, is stepping down as CEO effective immediately, the company announced today. He will be succeeded by Bob Chapek, the most recent head of Disney’s theme parks.

The sudden move surprised media observers. Iger was expected to stay in his role through 2021 to help provide stability as Disney continues incorporating the Fox assets it purchased in 2017 and rolls out its nascent streaming service, Disney+, around the world. He will, however, remain with Disney as executive chairman and “direct the company’s creative endeavors,” the company said in a statement.

“With the successful launch of Disney’s direct-to-consumer businesses and the integration of Twenty-First Century Fox well underway, I believe this is the optimal time to transition to a new CEO,” Iger said.

The choice of Chapek as successor also came as a mild surprise. If the position was going to go to someone inside Disney, most observers considered Kevin Mayer, the head of the company’s streaming enterprises, to be the logical choice, as the Mouse House focuses more on online video. Chapek had been in charge of consumer products before he moved to parks.

Iger was named president and COO of Disney in 2000 and then CEO in 2005. Before that, he had been a president at ABC Television, both before and after Disney bought the network.

During his tenure as CEO, Disney became the biggest entertainment company in the world. It bought Pixar for $7 billion in 2006; Marvel for $4 billion in 2009; Lucasfilm for $4 billion in 2012; Fox’s entertainment assets for $71 billion in 2017; and then last year launched a global streaming service, Disney+, to compete with Netflix. Disney+ already has nearly 30 million subscribers just three months after launching, and is quickly expanding into more territories.

The Iger era saw Disney come to utterly dominate the global box office. In 2019, Disney broke virtually every record in existence, thanks to blockbusters like Avengers: Endgame and Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker. The studio was responsible for about a third of the US box office in 2019, more than double the next-closest company.

But Iger has ultimately staked his legacy on Disney+, and the company’s ability to transition to a streaming-focused business without sacrificing the integrity of any of its other segments. The streaming service is the culmination of all of the massive acquisitions made over the course of Iger’s time as CEO.

On a call with investors and reporters this afternoon, Iger insisted the decision was not due to any unforeseen circumstances (some observers had speculated he might be in poor health) but rather that he plans to focus more on the creative side of the business while Chapek runs day-to-day operations.

Chapek’s challenges are as big as they are immediate: Disney’s parks and movie businesses are both suffering as the coronavirus outbreak spreads around the world, forcing parks to close and film sets to temporarily shut down. Meanwhile, Disney+ will expand into several countries in Western Europe on March 24 and then to India on March 29. The Mouse House does not have time to bid its longtime leader adieu. There’s much work to be done.