Inside Disney’s Hunt to Replace Bob Iger as CEO: Bibbidi Bobbidi Who Will It Be?

Last October, Bob Iger donned shades and a ceremonial black robe to help choose the finalists for the Disney employees’ Halloween costume contest. It was a warm day on the studio lot in Burbank, California, and the CEO’s top lieutenants joined him to help with the judging. A George Lucas look-alike paraded by, which made Iger smile, then a merry Mary Poppins. But it had been a painful year at the Magic Kingdom, and the group representing Disneyland’s Haunted Mansion tilted a little dark. One of them hoisted a sign with a hatchet, dripping blood, a picture of Iger altered so he was smiling like Jack Nicholson in The Shining and the words, “I’m BaaaCK!! 4 DAYS A WEEK BABY!!” The hatchet was presumably a symbol for cuts and layoffs, the creepy prose a reference to Iger’s unpopular return-to-work policy. “The vibe has been tough,” one Disney employee told us earlier this year. “They really put us through the ringer.”

In November 2022, Iger made a surprise return to Disney following a much-heralded (and very brief) retirement to clean up the messes created by his handpicked successor, Bob Chapek, and deal with a radically altered entertainment landscape. Within a year, he eliminated 8,000 positions as part of a $7.5 billion cost cutting plan. Several of the company’s recent sequels, live-action remakes, and IP efforts had disappointed at the box office. Wall Street was pressuring him to make Disney+ profitable. The debilitating actors and writers strikes were underway. And billionaire activist investor Nelson Peltz was threatening an assault on the Magic Kingdom. The CEO’s latest contract is set to expire at the end of 2026, after he turns 75, and some of the lieutenants who helped him judge the costume contest are now in the running to be America’s next top Iger.

Iger has always been clear: He loves running Disney. But if he was reluctant to retire in the past, he doesn’t appear to be now. By many accounts, the succession question is now a top priority as he and the Disney board narrow in on a handful of internal candidates and consider potential external candidates. The board essentially rubber-stamped Iger’s last choice. It won’t this time. “Bob Chapek may be the biggest mistake Bob Iger made in his career,” says Bank of America analyst Jessica Reif Ehrlich. A source with close ties to Disney puts it more colorfully: “The board royally fucked up last time.”

Disney’s board is now stacked with executives who handled their own smooth handoffs. A source familiar with the process says the company won’t make a decision this year. Ideally, it will in 2025 so Iger can bring the CEO in waiting up to speed and show them Disney’s version of the nuclear codes. It’s said that there are now four key internal candidates, who have to figure out how to lobby for the job without looking like they’re lobbying for the job: Disney Entertainment cochairmen Dana Walden and Alan Bergman, ESPN chairman Jimmy Pitaro, and Disney Experiences chairman Josh D’Amaro. There’s also a massive Disney workforce treading on the tippiest of toes. “People don’t know which horse to bet on,” says the source with close ties. “They’re afraid to cross anybody.”

Anyone who thinks Succession was entirely about the Murdochs hasn’t spent much time studying Disney. Michael Eisner, who preceded Iger as CEO, left the company after a shareholder revolt. Eisner was a charming but capricious executive who hadn’t always been convinced Iger was ideal for the job. Iger had joined Disney in 1996, following its acquisition of Capital Cities/ABC, having worked his way up from weatherman at a small cable station to top TV exec. Here’s the with-friends-like-these memo Eisner wrote confidants on the board about Iger when he was mulling potential replacements years before his departure: “He is not an enlightened or brilliantly creative man, but with a strong board he absolutely could do the job.”

Once Iger had the gig, he also found it hard to relinquish. After extending his contract several times, he set up a bake-off between two of his top lieutenants with an eye toward succession. Later, Iger reportedly lost confidence in the winning baker, who quickly left the company. Iger’s contract was extended again in 2017. “I’m serious about it this time,” he told an audience, meaning his retirement as CEO. Later that year, Disney announced a deal ultimately worth more than $70 billion to acquire the lion’s share of 21st Century Fox’s film and TV assets and re-upped his contract again. Though he finally stepped down as CEO in 2020, he didn’t even truly retire, instead becoming executive chairman for another 22 months. Chapek took over right in time for the devastating pandemic—and his relationship with Iger reportedly disintegrated. He didn’t last three years in the role.

After Iger returned as CEO, the board tacked an extra two years onto his new contract to give him enough time to get succession right. Disney is the second biggest entertainment company in the world, after Netflix. It’s worth more than $200 billion and has swallowed, among other things, Lucasfilm, Marvel, and most of Fox. It operates more like a small country (population: 225,000) than your average entertainment conglomerate. Many of its workers—or cast members as they’re earnestly called in the parks division—are loyal to the company in a way that borders on nationalism. Who could possibly oversee it all?

One Disney employee characterizes the race as “an open ball game,” but most Hollywood insiders believe that it’s Walden’s job to lose. “The word about succession is that it’s all Dana all the time,” says a top agent. Walden, 59, is a longtime TV executive with a Svengali-​like ability to woo talent. She also has a close relationship with Iger, her neighbor in tony Brentwood, where they regularly stroll among the mansions. Walden’s three-decade-long career in television likely reminds Iger of his own path to the top, even if that means she might have blind spots when it comes to the theme parks or the ESPN business. A former Disney executive who worked closely with Walden says, “I think she could be great, but it’s not going to be a slam dunk.”

Others, meanwhile, are convinced that D’Amaro, 53, will take the throne. When he travels to the theme parks, people line up to meet him. Tall and silver-haired, D’Amaro is the executive who seems most built in Iger’s mold, able to charm hourly workers and visiting dignitaries in equal measure. In Hollywood, however, he’s a relative unknown. “Josh has a very Iger-like cult of personality,” says another former Disney executive. “Does he understand how to operate a media business though? Especially a media business that is dealing with the onset of AI and all these other threats to the business? I don’t know.”

Pitaro, 54, and Bergman, 58, are less obvious choices for CEO, though there’s still time. The former is well-liked and has a background running Disney Interactive that gives him perspective on how to position Disney for a streaming future. But he’s got his hands full launching the flagship ESPN streaming service and a sports streaming joint venture. As for Bergman, he’s a veteran finance executive who assumed sole control of Disney’s film business two years ago. He’s now focused on reenergizing the movie slate after an uneven few years for Pixar, Marvel, and Lucasfilm.

Disney employees, to their credit, can be as tight-lipped as the Secret Service. Iger and the executives in contention to replace him did not comment for this story, but a spokesman sent a statement, which read in part: “The Disney Board is engaged in a robust and thorough succession planning process to identify Disney’s next CEO and there are currently no designated frontrunners among the very strong candidates being considered, despite any uninformed speculation to the contrary.” Interviews with more than 40 sources, both inside Disney and out, paint a picture of a beloved brand that has a chance to set Hollywood’s course for years to come if it can just settle on the right captain.

On November 20, 2022, Walden stopped by the American Music Awards, which ABC was broadcasting from Downtown LA, then hurried to Dodger Stadium for Elton John’s farewell tour, which Disney+ live streamed. As if that weren’t enough excitement for one evening, an email hit every Disney inbox that night: Iger was coming back. When staffers got the announcement, some were momentarily confused—“We thought we’d clicked on an old email,” recalls an executive—and then they were elated. Less than three years earlier, Iger had handed the CEO reins to Chapek, a Disney veteran who had shepherded the theme park and consumer products businesses to new heights. Now Chapek was out, and Iger—who’d been sporting a salt-and-pepper retirement beard and boasting about his carefree new life—was returning for a second stint leading the company.

The years that Chapek ran the company were rough on morale. Yes, the pandemic was a nightmare that decimated theme parks and movie theaters overnight. But Chapek, a hard-nosed number cruncher from Indiana, made some profound PR gaffes, like the poor handling of a lawsuit brought by Scarlett Johansson over the streaming release of Black Widow and his initially out-of-touch response to Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” bill, which eroded trust with Disney’s progressive employee base. (Chapek changed course on the latter.) When Iger returned, Disney’s stock surged. The man who’d overseen one of the most prosperous periods in Disney history was once again in charge of Mickey, Buzz Lightyear, Iron Man, and Han Solo. “We were all relieved,” an executive says.

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