Disenchanted Disney Staffers See the Looming Mass Layoff as a Way Off the Roller Coaster
With CEO Bob Iger committed to reducing the Walt Disney Company’s massive debt by laying off as many as 7,000 of its “cast members” as early as next week, the temperature inside the company is veering between nervous energy and strange relief as the threat of joblessness looms.
“I’d be happy to be laid off” or a variation thereof is something TheWrap heard from multiple Disney employees, most of whom spoke on the condition of anonymity.
That’s prompted by a combination of general anxiety, a stagnant creative environment and the shared sensation that during the pandemic, and particularly under the short-lived leadership of Bob Chapek, that the company has become a much less magical place to be. The abrupt departure of Marvel executive Victoria Alonso in the past week, with little internal explanation offered, only added to the unease.
Disney’s financial strains have been exacerbated by a series of decisions Iger pushed for, from the $71 billion he agreed to pay for Fox’s entertainment assets, burdening it with debt, to the expensive push to compete with Netflix in streaming to the Wall Street-pleasing promise to restore Disney’s dividend at the end of the year. All of those choices mean less money for cast members’ salaries and for the creative works they produce. Though 7,000 layoffs are a small percentage of the company’s workforce, which numbered 223,000 employees in October, the number still strikes many as jarring.
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A mix of anxiety and indifference
All of this discombobulation has left Disney staffers with mixed feelings about the coming layoffs, which will extend beyond the rank and file to include potential executive exits.
Some feel indifferent about Disney’s future, given that the company has cooled on Disney+, once thought to be the most exciting and promising unit of the company. It has put forward a less-than-inspiring calendar of movie titles, mostly stuffed with live-action remakes of animated features like this summer’s “The Little Mermaid,” along with Marvel movies, which have been on shakier ground of late, and animated projects from Walt Disney Animation Studios and Pixar.
Adding to the consternation, an individual with knowledge told TheWrap, Disney isn’t renewing the contracts of many project hires, known as “green badges” due to the color of their company ID (full-time employees have blue badges). Many of these contracts are expiring now or very soon, leaving teams that relied on the contractors to do much of the heavy lifting high and dry. And everyone we talked to is unhappy with the four-days-a-week return-to-office edict that Iger recently implemented. “Nobody is in a good mood,” one staffer said.
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This has led many to try and figure out their exit plan. Back-of-the-envelope math is being done all over the company, with most (especially if they’re in a higher position), welcoming the time and freedom that would come with a potential voluntary resignation if they were offered. Historically, Disney has offered generous severance, particularly to executives: A 2009 plan in the middle of that year’s recession (and another Disney layoff period) offered a minimum of 26 weeks to anyone at the vice president level and CNN reported at the time other employees would get about 60 days.
A Disney representative didn’t respond to our request for comment.
An abrupt transformation
The Walt Disney Company has changed dramatically since 2020, employees said. This kind of transformation hadn’t been felt since 1984, when the company went from being a family-run business to a media powerhouse with the appointment of Michael Eisner and Frank Wells in the top positions.
During the height of the pandemic, the company’s theme parks were closed and cruise ships grounded, the lucrative live sports that serves as the lifeblood for ESPN suspended and movie theaters locked shut. Chapek seized on the opportunity to remake the company, issuing a Disney-wide restructuring that included, among other things, the forced relocation of Walt Disney Imagineering, previously seen as the creative crown jewel of the company, to Florida and a companywide emphasis on streaming with Disney+.
But now that the tumultuous Chapek era is over and Iger is back to pick up the pieces, the returning CEO is looking to undo many of the organizational decisions his predecessor enacted while making major cuts to the budget in an effort to appease Wall Street. Those decisions may be necessary, but they amount to more whiplash on an organization that has felt a lot of sudden movement recently.
The pending layoffs weigh over a company that turns 100 in October. This is a company that resisted job cuts even during the Great Depression, until the box office failures of “Fantasia” and “Pinocchio” forced its hand. Iger now faces a similar confluence of creative stagnation and financial pressure. The Walt Disney Company he’s running in 2023 is very different from the one he handed to Chapek in early 2020. And according to those we spoke to, not for the better.
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