How Bob Iger’s Big Bets on Pixar, Marvel and Lucasfilm Changed Disney’s Fortunes

James Rainey
Variety

Before the opening of Shanghai Disney last June, Robert Iger sampled every item on every menu throughout the sprawling theme park. When the Walt Disney Co. needed a voice artist to put words in the mouth of Donald Duck for a new animated series, Iger picked the actor. He reviewed the dailies that led to Disney’s biggest blockbuster in years, “Star Wars: The Force Awakens,” ready to relay his thoughts to Lucasfilm boss Kathleen Kennedy before dawn the following day. And now he’s plotting the entertainment delivery mechanisms of the future — the latest being a partnership that will put ABC, ESPN, and other Disney-owned channels on a new live-streaming service from Hulu.

The sun never sets on the Disney empire, nor on the responsibilities and interests of Iger, the chairman/CEO for the past 11 years. His top lieutenants describe a leader who presses relentlessly for quality.

“He sits at the top of the most successful entertainment company in the world, but deep down, he’s a person who is never at rest and who is never complacent about success or about being in that position,” says Ben Sherwood, president of the Disney/ABC Television Group.

Iger’s tenure is best known for the acquisition of three other entertainment companies — Pixar, Marvel Studios, and “Star Wars” maker Lucasfilm — that have produced a string of blockbuster films while recharging the characters and storylines that power consumer products, TV shows, and theme-park attractions.

Alan Horn, who Iger hired to jump-start the conglomerate’s sagging film studio, says the CEO’s big bets are indicative of at least two attributes many leaders don’t possess.

“They require both vision and courage,” says Horn, chairman of the Walt Disney Studios. “You have people who have vision, who can have great ideas, but they don’t have the courage to follow through. And you can have people with courage — they’re ready to jump — but they don’t have the vision to know what to jump
at. Bob has both the vision and the courage.”

Producer Brian Grazer, co-founder of Imagine Entertainment, tells how he has seen his long-time friend pumped up by the blockbuster deals. “He gets very, very energized to suit up for those big games,” says Grazer, who speaks to Iger several times a week. “It excites him, and it adrenalizes him.”

Marvel Studios president Kevin Feige notes that, despite running “the whole shebang” of the Disney company, Iger finds time to “read every script and have notes on every script.” The CEO also watches raw footage from films, giving “very good” notes on all of the works in progress.

The makers of the upcoming “Star Wars” films recount a similar relationship with Iger. Working in London on “The Force Awakens,” Kennedy recalls how she would sometimes get calls from him as early as 4 a.m. or 5 a.m. (PT), offering his thoughts on dailies or marketing materials.

J.J. Abrams, the director of the film, says that given the massive financial stakes riding on a “Star Wars” success, “what struck me most of all was how hands-off he was.” Abrams adds: “There was no corporate mandate. There was no mandate. There was just a respect” for the filmmakers.

The CEO’s involvement extends to the television side of the conglomerate, where Iger is determined to help push ABC out of its current third-place position among the broadcast networks. When ABC joined a fierce bidding war last year to land the conspiracy drama “Designated Survivor,” Iger offered to call the show’s executive producer, Simon Kinberg, whom he knew from previous film projects at Disney.

The intercession from the corporate kingpin helped close the deal for the series, starring Kiefer Sutherland, which has become one of the network’s biggest hits.

Iger moved quickly to patch over rough relationships that greeted him when he became CEO in October 2005. He reached a detente with a pair of dissident former company directors — Roy Disney and Stanley Gold — who had opposed his appointment as the replacement for outgoing chief executive Michael Eisner. In less than two weeks, his announcement of a deal with Apple signaled a smoothing of what had been a troubled relationship with the computer maker’s mercurial leader, Steve Jobs. Three months after that, Jobs agreed to sell Disney the thriving Pixar Animation Studios for $7.4 billion.

“I had my doubts. But I was wrong and he was right,” Gold says today. “He settled things down immediately [after Eisner’s tempestuous reign], he got earnings up, he got the stock up. How can you get even close to criticizing him? He has done a really good job.”

One bump in Iger’s tenure has been identifying his successor. After an extended beauty contest between two insiders, parks and resorts chief Tom Staggs was elevated last year to the position of chief operating officer, Iger’s heir apparent. But by last April, the Disney board had raised doubts about Stagg’s readiness and Iger’s No. 2 was forced to step aside.

Iger assured Wall Street analysts this month that Disney’s leaders are engaged in “robust” succession planning, and that he expects to secure the company’s next CEO in time for his announced June 2018 departure.

Iger has extended his departure date before, and many insiders are making no secret that they hope the 65-year-old leader might postpone his exit one more time.

“I am firmly in the denial camp,” says TV chief Sherwood. “I am … choosing to operate every day without thinking about mid-2018.”

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