Hollywood is skeptical that Disney CEO Bob Iger will step down in 2026 as successor search continues

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The search for Disney’s next CEO has become a chaotic mess as activist investors push for seats on the company’s board — and Hollywood insiders are skeptical that any of the top contenders will be ready when Bob Iger is slated to step down in 2026.

The Mouse House is hoping to fend off billionaire Nelson Peltz and his firm Trian Fund Management, who are demanding two board seats in a fierce proxy battle that will come to a head at the company’s annual shareholder meeting on Wednesday.

The heat is on to get the plan right this time — and Disney’s murky succession plan is playing into the hands of the activists: Critics note that Iger returned as Disney’s CEO in late 2022 in order to undo the damage from the two-year, volatile tenure Bob Chapek — his own, handpicked successor.

Disney is in the middle of a chaotic search for its new CEO in 2026 — although some believe Bob Iger will stay with the company.
Disney is in the middle of a chaotic search for its new CEO in 2026 — although some believe Bob Iger will stay with the company.
The heat is on for Disney to pick a successor for CEO Bob Iger, who is slated to step down in 2026. Los Angeles Times via Getty Images
The heat is on for Disney to pick a successor for CEO Bob Iger, who is slated to step down in 2026. Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

Sources point out that one frontrunner in the race, Dana Walden, the company’s highly respected head of TV, would be the first female CEO of Disney in its 100-year history — giving the move a feeling of turning the page on the Iger era.

“Dana [Walden] is a real player,” said a studio exec, who praised the TV boss’ relationships with talent, and called her a leading contender.

“She would be the most Hollywood and entertainment-industry friendly,” chimed in another source close to Walden. “She is a deep state Hollywood insider, born and raised in Studio City, vacations with other TV moguls.”

Nevertheless, the 59-year-old, former CEO of Fox Television Group also has “very few qualifications to run a global, 250,000-employee business with complex financial, strategic and geopolitical challenges,” the source added.

Indeed, some insiders are candidly hoping that 73-year-old Iger extends his contract one more time before hanging up his Mouse ears for good. Reps for Disney, Iger and Walden did not comment.

Dana Walden, the TV boss, is the frontrunner for Iger’s job, but sources said she isn’t ready to run a multi-dimensional business. FilmMagic
Dana Walden, the TV boss, is the frontrunner for Iger’s job, but sources said she isn’t ready to run a multi-dimensional business. FilmMagic

“It wouldn’t surprise me if he stays,” the Disney source said of Iger. “He is ageless and there aren’t many internal successors who are ready.”

However, a source close to Disney pointed out that Walden’s experience is similar to what Iger’s was before he was named CEO.

In addition to Walden, the company is reportedly considering three other internal candidates — ESPN’s Jimmy Pitaro, theme parks boss Josh D’Amaro and film head Alan Bergman — to elevate to the role of president or chief operating officer, Bloomberg reported earlier this month.

Iger plans to name a successor and help train them before departing in two years, CNBC reported on Monday. But a former Disney exec said the move is “classic Disney” and that it doesn’t necessarily mean that any of the four will clinch the top job — or that Iger won’t extend his deal for another term.

“It’s the Disney succession playbook. [Former CEO Michael] Eisner made Iger president and COO. Iger made [chief financial officer Tom] Staggs COO and then dumped him,” the source said, adding that it would give the promoted exec “time to be tutored and tested, and jettisoned if necessary.”

Activist investor Nelson Peltz and Trian Fund Management are pushing for two board seats, in order to weigh in on the company’s CEO succession planning. REUTERS
Activist investor Nelson Peltz and Trian Fund Management are pushing for two board seats, in order to weigh in on the company’s CEO succession planning. REUTERS

Insiders say Staggs also has reemerged as a potential successor, as has his partner at media firm Candle Media, Kevin Mayer, who helmed Disney’s streaming business. Mayer also was passed over for Iger’s job in favor of Chapek. Mayer left Disney shortly after.

Two sources close to Iger told The Post that the exec is adamant about retiring in 2026 — but both added that the sentiment sounds all too familiar. Iger initially planned to retire in 2015, but he renewed his contract four times before handing the reins to Chapek.

“It’s really hard to tell what Bob thinks. He’s a very disciplined corporate player,” a source with knowledge told The Post. “This last time around was something he felt he had to do because he f–ked up the succession the first time around.”

Iger handpicked Bob Chapek as his successor in 2020. But Chapeak’s run as CEO was volatile and he was pushed out two years later when Iger retook the helm. REUTERS
Iger handpicked Bob Chapek as his successor in 2020. But Chapeak’s run as CEO was volatile and he was pushed out two years later when Iger retook the helm. REUTERS

“He says, ‘I want out. I’m tired. It’s miserable, it’s no fun,’” the source continued. “Maybe. Or maybe he wants to stay forever? I don’t know because he’s said that to me before. He said ‘I want to get out but then he stayed.’”

Iger’s wife, Willow Bay, who is the dean of University of Southern California’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism, just renewed her five-year deal, and Iger isn’t great at enjoying his free time for very long, a source said. In the end, most believe that no one can do the job like Iger can — and that anyone who tries will probably fail.

“It’s like trying to follow Michael Jordan,” a source said.

Sources pointed to D’Amaro as a strong contender because of his essential experience running Disney’s all-important parks, experiences and products business.

Former Disney exec Tom Staggs was elevated to COO in a move that many saw as a trial-run to take over as CEO. Iger passed over Staggs, and renewed his contract instead. REUTERS
Former Disney exec Tom Staggs was elevated to COO in a move that many saw as a trial-run to take over as CEO. Iger passed over Staggs, and renewed his contract instead. REUTERS

“The first time around, it was a parks guy,” a Disney insider said, referring to Chapek. “It didn’t work out too well but that doesn’t mean that parks guys as a group are horrible executives and can’t run the Walt Disney company.”

The “well-liked, friendly exec” may have deep “operational experience” but he has little creative experience, a second Disney source said.

“He’s Chapek 2.0,” the source deadpanned. “He doesn’t know Hollywood or the entertainment and sports businesses which make up more than two-thirds of the company.”

The source close to Disney disputed that D’Amaro lacked creative experience, noting his work with the Disney Imagineering program.

Bergman, the company’s CFO, also could have trouble being viewed as a credible candidate, with insiders calling him a “bean counter” who is “not well liked or at all creative.”

Josh D’Amaro, the head of Disney’s parks business, is seen by some as a strong contender for Iger’s job. Getty Images for SXSW
Josh D’Amaro, the head of Disney’s parks business, is seen by some as a strong contender for Iger’s job. Getty Images for SXSW

Pitaro, on the other hand, has been successful running three segments of the company, digital, consumer products and now ESPN. Despite his broad range of senior leadership experience, as well as his acumen for working with talent and sealing big deals, he “isn’t seen as a visionary or a big picture strategist,” the source said.

“I think he is pigeonholed as a sports guy and I don’t think he’s seen as Disney CEO material – whatever that means,” the source said.

Ahead of Wednesday’s big meeting, Trian has been lobbying for Peltz and former Disney chief financial officer Jay Rasulo to grab board seats and play an active role in picking the Mouse House’s next CEO.

Sources close to Trian told The Post that Disney’s board hasn’t changed from when Chapek was selected as CEO. They added that the special committee that is overseeing the succession planning needs to spend “quality time” with the four candidates.

ESPN boss Jimmy Pitaro arguably has the most experience to run Disney but a source said he isn’t viewed internally as a serious contender. AP
ESPN boss Jimmy Pitaro arguably has the most experience to run Disney but a source said he isn’t viewed internally as a serious contender. AP

“These things take time. Having Nelson and Jay be part of the process would ensure that the internal candidates are vetted,” a source close to Trian said, noting that the process should be open to external candidates, too.

Trian declined to comment.

Influential proxy advisory service ISS has backed Trian, citing “strategic missteps” leading up to Disney’s prior botched CEO transition, adding that Peltz’s “considerable experience” on other boards would be beneficial.

Proxy advisors Egan-Jones and Glass Lewis have also backed Trian, while Iger and Disney have received public backing from George Lucas, Laurene Powell Jobs and several members of the Disney family.

The chaotic succession race has become one of the central issues in the bitter proxy battle, which will come to an end this week. AP
The chaotic succession race has become one of the central issues in the bitter proxy battle, which will come to an end this week. AP

They are confident that Iger and the Disney board will avoid picking another Chapek, who bungled the company’s response to Gov. Ron DeSantis’ so-called “Don’t Say Gay” legislation, botched negotiations with Hollywood star Scarlett Johansson and hiked prices to high at Disney’s theme parks.

Whatever gets decided on Wednesday, the stakes are high not only for Disney, but for Hollywood in general, according to well-placed sources.

“Disney is really important to us as an industry,” said a CEO at a rival media company. “An industry is like a river. When things are going well for an industry, the current is with you. As much as we are competitors, we need the industry to get its act together.”

These larger factors also could keep Iger at the helm of Disney for years to come, the source added.

“I think he will stay,” the exec said with a smile.