In a wide-spanning interview with The New York Times Sunday, Disney Chairman/CEO Bob Iger downplayed comments he made during a quarterly earnings call last month about the struggles of 20th Century Fox, which reported an operational loss of $170 million in its first quarter since being acquired by Disney.
“One of the biggest issues we faced in the quarter was the performance of the Fox film business,” Iger said during the Aug. 6 call. “It was well below what it had been and well below what we thought it would be when we did the acquisition.”
Iger refuted NYT writer Maureen Dowd’s suggestion in Sunday’s story that former Fox owner Rupert Murdoch had taken advantage of him, and rejected the idea that Disney was having buyers’ remorse after it inherited films like “Dark Phoenix” that tanked at the box office.
“It wasn’t a slap-down,” Iger said. “It was an admission that the movies that they had made failed. And I actually gave then a tremendous amount of cover by saying that when companies are bought, processes and decision making can come to a halt.”
“There were problems at that studio well before the deal was announced,” he went on. “But the reason I did not believe that it was something we should be concerned about is because it’s a short-term problem. And with the talent that we have at our studio, that are now supervising with some of their executives all the movies that they decide to make and how they are made, I’m convinced that the turnaround can happen. It’s not a snap your fingers, but it’s not 10 years of lost value. It’s a year and a half.”
Iger did note in the earnings call that Disney is more optimistic about some of the Fox films coming up on the release slate, most notably “Ford v. Ferrari,” which received strong reviews at its Toronto premiere this month. In addition, Iger told Dowd that he still thinks it’s “way too early” to make a final judgment on whether Disney paid the right price for Fox, and that he is still on good terms with Murdoch.
Iger spoke with NYT prior to the release of his memoir, “The Ride of A Lifetime: Lessons Learned from 15 Years as CEO of the Walt Disney Company,” which is available Sept. 23. He discussed with Dowd several major passages from the book, including working for an ABC producer who flashed his genitalia at him in 1974; his struggle to convince the Disney board that he should succeed Michael Eisner as the company’s CEO; and the landmark deals he made to acquire Lucasfilm and Marvel Studios, transforming Disney into a box office behemoth that will blow past $3 billion in 2019 domestic grosses and have a strong chance at becoming the first studio to gross $10 billion worldwide.
“Rupert [Murdoch] was crazed that we bought Lucas,” Iger said. “[Fox was] the distributor of all of George’s movies, and he was very disappointed in his people. ‘Why didn’t you think of this?'”
But even such runaway success comes with some mistakes. Iger acknowledged that they misjudged the audience’s appetite for “Star Wars,” as last year’s “Solo” became the lowest grossing film in the history of the franchise. While “Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker” is expected to be another $1 billion hit for Disney, the studio will not release another installment in the series in theaters until 2022, focusing instead on “Star Wars” titles for their Disney+ streaming service like “The Mandalorian” and an untitled Obi-Wan Kenobi series starring Ewan McGregor.
“I just think that we might’ve put a little bit too much in the marketplace too fast,” Iger admitted, though adding, “I think the storytelling capabilities of the company are endless because of the talent we have at the company, and the talent we have at the company is better than it’s ever been, in part because of the influx of people from Fox.”
And as for widespread fears that Disney’s dominance over the last four years is leading to a pop culture monopoly, Iger doesn’t believe it.
“Look, no one will ever have a monopoly on mythology or storytelling — not us or anybody.”