Inside the real-life ‘Succession’ story playing out at Disney to replace CEO Bob Iger

 (GC Images)
(GC Images)

It’s a tale torn straight from the Disney playbook: an ageing king in search of an heir to unite his kingdom and live happily ever after.

Except this is no fairytale and the kingdom in question is one of the most successful entertainment companies to ever exist, with a $238bn market cap and interests spanning the entire globe.

Bob Iger, Disney’s 75-year-old CEO, has reportedly made it his chief priority to finally find a suitable successor following one unsuccessful retirement, a global pandemic and a series of floundering big-money franchises in desperate need of revival.

According to Vanity Fair, the entertainment giant has narrowed down Iger’s list of successors to four candidates, with plans in place to hand over the mantle in 2026 – and crucially avoid a repeat of the 2022 disaster that saw Iger return to pick up the pieces within just three years.

Dubbed the real life “Succession”, Iger extended his contract multiple times before finally retiring in 2020 with the handpicked Bob Chapek given the Disney crown just in time for the pandemic and subsequent global financial crisis.

Re-instated Disney CEO Bob Iger at the 2014 Vanity Fair New Establishment Summit (Getty Images for Vanity Fair)
Re-instated Disney CEO Bob Iger at the 2014 Vanity Fair New Establishment Summit (Getty Images for Vanity Fair)

Chapek’s relationship with Iger is said to have broken down during this rocky period and he was ousted in 2022 with the former CEO reinstated.

“Bob Chapek may be the biggest mistake Bob Iger made in his career,” Bank of America analyst Jessica Reif Ehrlich told Vanity Fair. A source inside Disney told the publication: “The board royally f****d up last time.”

Chapek had pushed the company towards producing exclusive content for Disney+, while several of the company’s sequels, live-action remakes, and IP offerings underwhelmed at the box office.

While Chapek was CEO, numerous films premiered and flopped, including Haunted Mansion, Indiana Jones: Dial of Destiny, The Marvels, and Wish, with each film reportedly costing Disney millions of dollars.

The search this time however comes against a tougher financial backdrop with the streaming giant lagging behind Netflix and Amazon Prime in the race for eyeballs.

All three organisations took massive hits to their market caps either in 2021 or early 2022.

But while Amazon and Netflix have managed to bring themselves close to or even above their pre-drop peaks, Disney is still lagging approximately $170bn behind its March 2021 figure of $375.15bn.

Disney’s Pixar Animation Studios is cutting 14 per cent of its workforce as Iger does some major restructuring as part of a broader $7.5bn cost cutting plan which is said to have seen 8,000 positions axed since 2022.

Iger is now reversing his successor-turned-predecessor’s work in an effort to bring in an ethos of quality over quantity – while Wall Street simultaneously pushes for a return to profits.

Now-ousted CEO Bob Chapek at the 2022 Academy Awards (Getty Images)
Now-ousted CEO Bob Chapek at the 2022 Academy Awards (Getty Images)

This means more productions will be made as feature films that screen first in cinemas before being moved onto the Disney+ streaming platform.

Heir to Disney

The people tapped as candidates for the CEO position are Dana Walden, Alan Bergman, Jimmy Pitaro, and Josh D’Amaro.

Co-chairman of Disney Entertainment Dana Walden, 59, seems to be a favourite, having moved to The Disney Company from The Fox Television Group in 2019.

She has plenty of experience in running massive businesses and is understood to be friends with Mr Iger, who is also her neighbour in Brentwood, California.

Fellow co-chairman, 58-year-old Mr Bergman, meanwhile, is a finance man who has learned about the film-making process, once impressing Hollywood giant James Cameron when Avatar was still a work in progress.

With a job dealing primarily with Disney’s streaming and sports, Mr Pitaro, 54, might be more of an outlier in this list considering Mr Iger is keen to not focus on Disney+ as the company’s sole source of success.

Mr D’Amaro has been credited with having a personable character similar to Mr Iger himself, but the 53-year-old’s role as chairman of Disney experiences means he has not been tested in the film and tv studios as some of his rivals.

Although, the SAG-AFTRA strikes in 2023 affected all aspects of film producing with the exception of one: theme parks.

In September last year, Disney announced it wanted to expand parks and cruise lines by doubling their park spending nearly $30 billion to approximately $60 billion.

If the last few decades of The Disney Company’s leadership history has taught us anything, it is to not assume everything is as cut and dry as it may seem.

Mr Iger himself got the seat in 2005 when his predecessor, Michael Eisner, left after a shareholder revolt dubbed "save Disney".

Since then, it has been Mr Iger who steered the company through acquiring Lucasfilm, Marvel, and most of 21st Century Fox, and navigating the rise of streaming.

He also fended off billionaire investor Nelson Peltz and his armoury of more than $3 billion shares in the company from winning two seats on the Disney board.

With all eyes on who will rule next, Bob Iger will know better than most that there’s far more at stake than magical beans in this kingdom.