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Disney CEO’s Headaches Abound Even After Major Proxy War Win

Disney CEO’s Headaches Abound Even After Major Proxy War Win
Bob Iger, chief executive officer of Walt Disney Co., walks to lunch during the Allen & Co. Media and Technology Conference in Sun Valley, Idaho, US, on Wednesday, July 12, 2023. The summit is typically a hotbed for etching out mergers over handshakes, but could take on a much different tone this year against the backdrop of lackluster deal volume, inflation and higher interest rates.

After several grueling months waging a costly, $40 million campaign to win over investors, battling opponents in the press, settling a thorny political spat in Florida and unfurling a series of initiatives, Bob Iger has finally defeated billionaire activist investor Nelson Peltz. 

Now the real challenge begins.

On Wednesday at the annual meeting of Walt Disney Co., shareholders elected all of management’s choices to the board, turning aside the nomination of Peltz, while also rejecting his ally, former Disney finance chief Jay Rasulo, and a slate from another dissident group. Iger was reelected with 94% support, according to people familiar with the matter, who asked not to be identified discussing results that haven’t been announced publicly, while Peltz garnered 31% of the votes. In other words, a rout.

Yet in the aftermath of the victory, Iger’s ultimate legacy at Disney still hangs in the balance with many big challenges unresolved — from reviving a struggling movie business, to identifying the company’s next chief executive officer, to turning a profit in Disney’s streaming division to evolving ESPN, cable TV’s most popular sports network, into an online video giant.

On Wednesday, Iger, 73, sounded relieved to put the proxy battle behind him and get on to the main event.

“We’re eager to focus 100% of our attention on our most important priorities, growth and value creation for our shareholders and creative excellence,” Iger said.

In the near term, the film arm of the company, which serves as the bedrock of Disney’s brand and powers sales of its theme-park tickets and merchandise, is set to get a boost from summer titles such as Deadpool & Wolverine from Marvel Studios and Inside Out 2 from Pixar. But the long-term appeal of some of the company’s crucial franchises remains in question. Over the past year, multiple big-budget releases including Indiana Jones and the Dial of DestinyThe Marvels and Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania failed to turn a profit. After several projects died in development, Lucasfilm won’t deliver its next Star Wars title until 2026 — seven years after the last movie.

To allow more time to focus on quality and to push back production and marketing costs, Iger has delayed the release of some films all the way through 2031. In February, Disney announced it was making a change in leadership, elevating Searchlight’s David Greenbaum to run its live-action motion-picture business.

Meanwhile, following Disney’s most recent earnings report in February, Iger unveiled several moves to tantalize investors, such as a $1.5 billion investment in Fortnite maker Epic Games, an increase in the dividend and a $3 billion stock repurchase. All of which sent the shares surging.

But perhaps the biggest unresolved threat to Iger’s legacy is how he will ultimately replace himself. Since first taking on the CEO role two decades ago, Iger has repeatedly extended his time at the company while fumbling through the succession process and driving off several heirs apparent.

To address the concerns, Disney has appointed former Morgan Stanley CEO James Gorman to the board, where he serves on the succession planning committee alongside Chairman Mark Parker and other members. Everyone will be watching closely as Iger and his potential replacements grapple for answers to Disney’s many tests.

Iger has said that Disney’s streaming business, which to date has generated losses of more than $11 billion, will turn a profit for the first time this fiscal year. To achieve this, Iger has hiked prices, introduced advertising tiers and is integrating the adult-skewing Hulu streaming service into Disney+ to reduce subscriber churn. Supervising the effort are Dana Walden and Alan Bergman, the co-chairs of Disney’s entertainment division and two of four internal candidates identified as potential Iger successors.

The other two candidates are Josh D’Amaro, who oversees Disney’s crucial parks business, and Jimmy Pitaro, who runs ESPN. Iger has handed D’Amaro a $60 billion budget to spend on modernizing and expanding the company’s theme parks over the next decade.

For his part, Pitaro has been tasked with transitioning ESPN to a streaming product sometime in 2025, as well as partnering with a strategic investor to accelerate its online transformation at a time when profit in the traditional TV business is contracting and the cost of acquiring top sports rights continues to escalate. Disney has also partnered with Warner Bros. Discovery Inc. and Fox Corp. to create a sports streaming joint venture that will launch later this year.

If the succession process doesn’t go smoothly again, Peltz may not be the last restless billionaire to try and forcefully intervene in Disney’s future. On Wednesday, Elon Musk, who has spent months publicly needling Iger, jumped on X (formerly Twitter) and suggested that if Peltz won a board seat, he’d happily start buying Disney shares.

During an appearance on CNBC on Thursday, Iger said he plans on continuing to ignore Musk’s comments, which he described as having “no relevance” to him or Disney. Iger added that lately the culture war noise around Disney “has quieted down.” “The term ‘woke’ is thrown around rather liberally, no pun intended in that regard — I think a lot of people don’t even understand really what it means,” Iger said. “The bottom line is that infusing messaging as a sort of number one priority in our films and TV shows is not what we’re up to. They need to be entertaining.”

“I’ve often said that one of the greatest attributes of Disney is the mere fact that people expect so much from us,” Iger said at the annual meeting. “We welcome that challenge because it motivates us.”

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