Storm clouds continue to swirl at the Walt Disney Company surrounding the tenure of CEO Bob Chapek.
His ascension to the post was made a more difficult transition both by the fact that he was replacing one of the most influential executives in Disney history in Bob Iger, along with the fact that the global COVID-19 pandemic rocked the West within a month after he took over. Anyone taking over in those circumstances deserves patience.
But Chapek hasn’t done much to quell those concerns, and instead has seemed to add to them. He had a falling-out with Iger, such that they rarely talk any more. His approach to releasing Black Widow led to a lawsuit from star Scarlett Johansson. He ignited a firestorm after controversial comments over the “Parental Rights in Education” bill in Florida, which led to widespread criticism. Just recently he fired respected Disney entertainment chairman Peter Rice, to the shock and confusion of nearly everyone in Hollywood.
This all comes as Chapek’s contract is reportedly set to expire in nine months. Though it sounds like the expectation is he’ll receive a new contract soon, it nonetheless is true that no such deal has been reached yet. There has been some insider speculation for months about whether he’s on solid ground or in danger of losing his job, but it’s unclear what direction the board will take. The thing that makes this further problematic for Chapek is the fact that most of these issues could have been easily avoided. Even if the same decision was reached, the way to go about it could have been significantly improved. Instead, Chapek has done nothing to help the fact that, based on many reports, he’s unpopular among those in Hollywood. He’s only added to that.
In all of this he’s still living in Iger’s shadow, of course, which is unfair to anyone. Iger was far from perfect in his extended tenure as Disney CEO, but he was known for being extremely talent-friendly and for breathing new life into the company. Under Iger’s watch, The Walt Disney Company made blockbuster purchases of Pixar, Marvel Entertainment, Lucasfilm, 20th Century Fox and more. They dramatically improved their animation division, added their two biggest brands in Marvel and Star Wars, added a wealth of new content from Fox and Hulu and others, opened new theme parks, and launched the Disney+ streaming service. And somehow, Iger managed to do all of that while seemingly maintaining a very positive reputation among insiders.
None of that has happened with Chapek. Not only has he yet to make a signature move, but he also has yet to make a positive impression. The company is fine, overall, but there are certainly questions about its leadership. And because of that, as I’ve written before, it makes Kathy Kennedy all the more important to Lucasfilm. She is one of the most accomplished producers in movie history, the hand-picked successor to George Lucas, and a beloved figure by Hollywood. At Star Wars Celebration recently, Jon Favreau lavished praise on her, calling her the best producer in the world.
But we also need to understand what it is that the studio head and producer on projects actually does. Though certainly involved in the storytelling aspects of things, Kennedy’s role is just as much to actually make sure projects happen. It’s working with studios and filmmakers and others to pull off whatever logistics and details and planning and development needs to happen. So in a time of such uncertainty at Disney, with executives being ousted and Chapek’s tightening grip allowing more and more to slip away, what Lucasfilm needs more than anything is a leader who knows how to navigate the business, who is strong enough and respected enough to leverage influence, and who can provide steady leadership. Kennedy does all of that. And Star Wars fans are fortunate that she’s running the company in a time like this.