On Tuesday, the entertainment industry was rocked by the seemingly out-of-the-blue announcement that Bob Iger, the lauded CEO of the Walt Disney Company, was going to step down from the company and that his successor, Bob Chapek, would become the new CEO “effective immediately.” While Chapek is a nearly 30-year veteran of the company, he is far from a household name and his appointment, to many, is hugely controversial.
This isn’t the abrupt, all-out brawl that accompanied the last transition of power, when Michael Eisner was ousted from the company following a groundswell of support from embittered nephew Roy E. Disney, fervent Internet supporters and, eventually, the board. Nor is it as dramatic as the circumstances that led to Eisner and Frank Wells being appointed to the company in the early 1980s, when the company was facing greenmail attempts and hostile takeovers. Instead, this was a quiet decision, made on a sleepy Tuesday, that could have far-reaching implications for the entire company and, by extension, the entertainment world as a whole.
But first thing’s first: Who is Bob Chapek?
Chapek, who has a degree in microbiology and worked in brand management for H. J. Heinz before his Disney role, came to Disney in the early 1990s, working for the company’s home entertainment unit, which at that time was booming.
Chapek helped oversee the controversial direct-to-video sequels to popular animated Disney classics, and worked alongside Asad Ayez, another prominent Disney executive who is now currently President of Marketing. While at home video, he also implemented the Disney Vault strategy, borrowed from the company’s longstanding theatrical distribution model of releasing films into theaters every seven years. This time, he would sequester the home video distribution of, say, Sleeping Beauty, only periodically making it available to the public. This created insatiable demand and a secondary market, partially fed by the cheapy sequels, which were never placed in the vault. While the vault idea for the company’s movies has more or less been put in a deep freeze, Chapek is still very interested in the Disney Vault concept (more on that in a minute). His time at home video, though, established a pattern (he would make controversial decisions that would annoy a lot of people but ultimately lead to a flabbergasting amount of profitability) that would follow Chapek throughout his time at Disney and will undoubtedly continue with his new leadership role.
For two years Chapek worked as the president of distribution at Walt Disney Studios. Then, in 2011, Chapek moved over to Disney Consumer Products, replacing Andrew Mooney, the man who created the blockbuster Disney Princess and Disney Fairies franchises (Chapek worked on the Tinker Bell films at home entertainment) and who oversaw the hugely successful Cars brand, as president. (In fairness, Mooney also created several lackluster attempts at brand extensions, like Disney Bunnies and, um, Disney Dragonkind.) Chapek came in at an exciting time for the company, as DCP oversaw videogames (everything from mobile games to console titles like Disney Infinity) and the retail, distribution, and licensing of titles from Bob Iger’s ever-expanding portfolio, which now included Pixar, Marvel, and, a year after Chapek started, Lucasfilm. Chapek also oversaw the Frozen merchandise juggernaut, which together with brands like Winnie the Pooh and Mickey and Friends, made for a truly unstoppable division of the company.
When Chapek moved to Chairman of Disney Parks and Resorts in 2015, in time for Disneyland’s glittery 60th anniversary, it wasn’t much of a surprise. It was even less of a surprise when, in 2018, the company dismantled what was then known as Consumer Products and Interactive Media, folding it under a new segment, dubbed Disney Parks, Experiences, and Products. Chapek once again oversaw both Disney Parks and Consumer Products, making for a more streamlined, synergistic approach that fit well within the modern Disney company. It also lessened financial risk. If, say, nobody is buying Ralph Breaks the Internet merchandise, they’re still going to be visiting Disneyland and springing for a $50 sweatshirt.
While heading Parks and Resorts, Chapek made a number of controversial decisions: He reduced the scope and scale of Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge, the 14-acre Star Wars-themed expansion to both Disneyland and Disney’s Hollywood Studios in Florida, cutting live entertainment offerings, the interactive characters (bounty hunters, aliens, and droids) that had been promised publicly on numerous occasions (this past summer he stated that the “cast members are the characters,” which is entirely too much pressure to put on an Orange County teenager making $10 an hour) and, in Disneyland’s case, a third attraction that would allow you to ride on the back of a giant wooly beast. (This unbuilt attraction was the reason for the costly shortening of the Disneyland Railroad track and the Rivers of America.) It was these shortcomings that led to the initial failure of Galaxy’s Edge in Disneyland, a summer-long stretch of bad luck that saw Chapek throwing everything he could to try to entice people into the park (a daytime flash mob! A return of the Main Street Electrical Parade! Insanely cheap tickets!)
Chapek also initiated an unnecessary redo of Paradise Pier in Disney California Adventure, transforming it from a turn-of-the-century boardwalk into Pixar Pier, where you can, I don’t know, eat a giant Incredibles-themed cookie. (Iger just said that he disagreed with Chapek over the re-theming of the land’s signature rollercoaster, California Screamin’. Iger hated the name Incredicoaster. Chapek won out.)
He was also still obsessed with the Disney Vault concept, only this time he wanted to bring it to the Disney Parks. He even helped introduce the concept in a 2017 commercial for the Main Street Electrical Parade, dubbed “Vault,” which showed a cast member walking through a vast warehouse full of forgotten Disney artifacts: Captain Rex from Star Tours, Sam the eagle from America Sings, a Flying Saucer from Tomorrowland. Privately, he mulled over the idea of running a 3D film festival in the Tomorrowland Theater in Disneyland, bringing back classics like Magic Journeys and Captain EO before the end of the 60th celebration. And what would it take to show the original ride film inside Star Tours?
Both were scrapped for licensing and budgetary concerns but out of that emerged a series of after-hours, hard-ticketed events that would “throwback” to different periods of Disneyland history: On 90s night, I was handed one of the decoder cards that accompanied the storied opening of the Indiana Jones Adventure in 1995. And most impressively, Chapek resurrected Videopolis–the teen dance club that emerged in the mid 1980s using leftover AV equipment from the 1984 Olympics–for 80s Night, complete with its original sign. Under Chapek, ticket prices rose across all domestic parks. The last increase was earlier this month. On a peak day, visiting Disneyland will now cost you over $200.
But if you want to understand what makes Chapek such a controversial figure–and such a baffling choice for a position that requires regular interviews and public interactions–look no further than last summer’s D23 Expo. Chapek, who is a somewhat wooden public speaker, lacking both the boundless energy of Eisner and the we-got-this regality of Iger, primarily focused on his proposed rejuvenation of Florida’s EPCOT. Designed by Walt himself as an Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow, it eventually opened as a science and discovery park, where people could learn about the technology of tomorrow and enjoy a stroll around a permanent World’s Fair. It has gone through changes throughout the years (a Frozen-themed attraction replaced a beloved ride in Norway, for instance) and it’s clear that the park needed a refresh. But what Chapek made incredibly clear was that the old EPCOT was dead.
“I believe that every inch of our parks should be magical. I believe that every attraction should tell a story that resonates with guests of all ages, which is why we’re putting in more Disney, more Pixar, more Marvel and more Star Wars into our parks,” he began his presentation. “Every live show and spectacular should bring your favorite stories to life in thrilling ways. I believe every hotel should bring you closer to the magic.”
When he got to unveiling the new EPCOT, this was reinforced loudly: Instead of a tribute to the history of communication, the park’s signature attraction Spaceship Earth would now be about “storytelling.” Concept art revealed an image of Moana, who would also be at the center of a new walkthrough water feature that was originally just based around the different types of water (rivers, estuaries, etc). The Guardians of the Galaxy are overtaking the Universe of Energy and a Beauty and the Beast-themed film would debut in the French pavilion, alongside a Ratatouille-themed ride opening this summer. Mary Poppins would be coming to the UK pavilion (I’ve since heard that project has quietly been canceled). And a new “festival center” would open in the middle of the park, to reinforce the park’s “festivals” that run throughout the year (Food & Wine, Flower & Garden, etc.) and double-underline Chapek’s commitment to profitability and merchandise.
The urge to make guests’ experiences more magical is understandable, as is the emphasis on preexisting properties, especially given Chapek’s background in consumer products. What rustled the Disney theme park community was that he seemed to be forgetting that merchandise behemoths like Pirates of the Caribbean were based on original ideas that began in the parks, ditto Figment and Haunted Mansion, properties that sell millions of dollars of merchandise every year and ones that were dreamed up in the halls of Imagineering in Glendale, California. They felt that EPCOT’s utopian dream of the future was being replaced by something more callous and commercial. But this is what Chapek does.
Which brings us to another question: Is Chapek a surprise choice as a successor?
The short answer is no. Two other proposed Iger successors, Tom Staggs, who was the COO before parting ways with the company following an Iger contract extension in 2016, was also Chairman of Walt Disney Parks and Resorts (he was the one who greenlit the more ambitious version of Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge). Ditto Jay Rasulo, who is also no longer with the company and who served in the same position as Staggs and Chapek. Rasulo took over for the much-maligned Paul Pressler, whose aggressively economic approach to the parks led to disrepair and death. With Chapek’s combined background of Parks, Consumer Products, Home Video and Disney Studios, he seems like a great candidate. Few in the company have had that much experience in that many business units. And it’s clear that he faces a number of tasks at hand: Oversee the global theme parks while several are shut down due to the coronavirus outbreak, manage the integration of the 20th Century Fox assets, continue to prioritize the company’s new direct-to-consumer platform Disney+, and, of course, make sure all of those promised EPCOT improvements are accomplished for Walt Disney World’s 50th anniversary next year.
Iger had attempted retirement several times before, only to get roped back in by either the board’s pressure or because of some colossal undertaking like the Fox deal. (Iger is nothing if not an expert portfolio manager.) His memoir, Ride of a Lifetime, released last year, was supposed to coincide with the start of his presidential campaign. (There has been much speculation in the past 24 hours about whether he’ll run himself or be someone’s running mate.) Iger says he will be “hands-on” during what he describes as a 22-month transition period, serving as the chair of the Disney board. And it might be worth noting, finally, that at the time of Iger’s implementation, he wasn’t seen as a sure thing. He was a former New York weatherman who worked his way through ABC and into the boardroom (the indispensable Disney War by James B. Stewart paints him as a hard worker who stumbled into the role, Iger stresses in his memoir that he is “not a creative”). Shortly after his appointment, Iger acquired Pixar, which would be the first in a number of salvos that would engender good faith and help put Disney at the top (buying Marvel, Fox and Lucasfilm, opening a theme park in mainland China, launching a direct-to-consumer Netflix competitor, the list goes on). He’s leaving the company after a string of colossal windfalls and only a few minor bumps and bruises (like the $500 million acquisition of Maker that is comfortably left out of his memoir). This is the textbook definition of going out on top.
It’ll be interesting to see if Chapek takes big swings, or if he’ll simply be the shepherd of another Disney sea change: Getting Disney+ to where it needs to be, making sure all the Fox puzzle pieces fit just right, and getting through this coronavirus scare, before the board chooses a younger, more creatively nimble executive to take his place. (I also wonder if Chapek will be the one to spearhead the long-talked-about expansion of the Disney Parks brand into South America.) Whatever ends up happening with Chapek, one thing’s for sure: The next few years are going to be a wild ride.