Bob Iger, Acknowledging ‘Challenging Times,’ Meets With Disney Employees

It was part pep rally and part therapy session: For 45 minutes on Monday, Robert A. Iger stood inside a film soundstage in Burbank, Calif., and fielded questions from Disney employees about the company’s dramatic turn from Hollywood juggernaut to streaming-era cautionary tale.

Are you going to sell Disney to Apple? Will our hiring freeze remain in place? Do traditional TV businesses like the Disney-owned ABC have a future?

“These are challenging times, and I feel that now that I have assumed this role again,” Mr. Iger said, according to four Disney employees who attended the town hall, two of whom provided The New York Times with audio recordings of the event. “There is a lot we have to do and quickly.”

Mr. Iger downplayed chatter that Disney was potentially seeking safety in the arms of Apple as “pure speculation” and said cost cutting efforts, including a hiring freeze, would remain in place.

“If you look long term at the future of linear TV, it would be wise to be skeptical or pessimistic about it,” Mr. Iger said, exhibiting some of the trademark candor that has always made him stand out as a Hollywood executive. “How that manifests itself in our company I don’t know.”

The Race to Rule Streaming TV

  • A Surprising Shake-Up: After a disastrous earnings announcement, which included Disney reporting $1.5 billion in losses at its streaming division, the company ousted Bob Chapek as chief executive and announced that Robert A. Iger would return.
  • Sunday Ticket Talks: Google, Apple, Amazon and ESPN are all interested in landing rights to stream N.F.L. games. Now negotiations are going into overtime.
  • Theatrical Releases: Netflix agreed to some exclusive theatrical distribution for two new films — “Glass Onion” and “Matilda the Musical” — but it’s not clear exhibitors will get much more.
  • Netflix’s Rebound: The streaming giant said that it added more than 2.4 million subscribers in the third quarter, snapping a streak of customer losses that spurred unease among investors.

Mr. Iger, 71, retired as Disney’s chief executive in 2020 after a celebrated 15-year run, but was rehired on Nov. 20 after the company’s board fired his hand-selected successor, Bob Chapek. After enduring a tumultuous year marked by executive firings, a plunging stock price, demands by activist investors and attacks from conservative pundits and politicians, Disney employees seemed overjoyed to see Mr. Iger, according to the attendees, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss a private event.

Wearing a cardigan and crisp white shirt with no tie, Mr. Iger came onstage to extended applause. He quipped that the welcome — and the realization of how much work was in front of him — had him on the edge of tears. (The crowd gave him a standing ovation when the town hall concluded.)

Mr. Iger has moved quickly to restore Disney’s old management structure.Credit…Disney

Since the surprise ouster of Mr. Chapek, 62, a little more than a week ago, additional changes have come rapidly at Disney. Mr. Chapek, for instance, had restructured the company to give priority to its streaming services (Disney+, Hulu and ESPN+). In doing so, Mr. Chapek took away distribution and profit-and-loss responsibility from the executives who run Disney’s movie and television studios. Mr. Iger promptly set about putting the old structure back in place.

Also last week, Mr. Chapek’s top lieutenant, Kareem Daniel, was shown the door, as was Arthur Bochner, who helped write Mr. Chapek’s prepared comments on earnings conference calls and previously served as his chief of staff. In what was viewed as a petty move, someone removed a tribute to Mr. Chapek from the side of a small themed building at Castaway Cay, a Disney-owned island in the Bahamas that serves as a Disney Cruise Line activity port.

Mr. Iger did not mention Mr. Chapek by name on Monday. But Mr. Iger’s repudiation of his tenure was clear.

Dismantling the structural changes that Mr. Chapek had put in place — changes that Mr. Chapek had called wildly successful — would “restore control, responsibility and accountability to the creative businesses,” Mr. Iger said. He added that empowering Disney’s creative executives and cultivating a company culture where creativity can bloom was his No. 1 priority.

“I’m obsessed with it, and I’m obsessed with it for a reason — because it drives this company,” Mr. Iger said.

“It’s not about how much we create about how great the things are that we do create,” Mr. Iger continued, perhaps in a swipe toward the avalanche of content that Disney and other media companies have been dumping on streaming services to drive subscription growth.

One employee asked about Disney’s commitment to L.G.B.T.Q. storytelling going forward. In the spring, Disney became a political piñata among conservative pundits, partly because it had started to add openly gay, lesbian and queer characters to its animated movies.

“One of the core values of our storytelling is inclusion and acceptance and tolerance, and we can’t lose that,” Mr. Iger said.

“We’re not going to make everyone happy all the time, and we’re not going to try to,” he added. “We’re certainly not going to lessen our core values in order to make everyone happy all the time.”

At one point, Mr. Iger referenced the song “What’d I Miss?” from the musical “Hamilton,” in which Thomas Jefferson returns to the United States from France and sings, “There is no more status quo, but the sun comes up and the world still spins.”

“That’s how I feel,” Mr. Iger said. “The status quo is gone. A lot has changed. But the sun is still shining, and our world and our Disney world is still spinning.”

John Koblin contributed reporting.

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