Bob Iger Reasserts Control at Disney as Company Navigates Coronavirus Impact (Report)

Iger departed CEO role in late February right before pandemic shut down parks, cruises and theaters

Bob Iger
Drew Angerer/Getty Images

Less than two months after stepping down as CEO, Bob Iger has reasserted control at Disney as the company navigates the impact caused by the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, according to a New York Times report published Sunday.

In an email to Times media reporter Ben Smith, Iger explained why he had stepped up even after handing the CEO reins to Bob Chapek, the former head of the parks and resorts division. “A crisis of this magnitude, and its impact on Disney, would necessarily result in my actively helping Bob (Chapek) and the company contend with it, particularly since I ran the company for 15 years!” he wrote.

Iger stepped down as CEO on February 25 with Chapek named as his successor. Iger retained the title of executive chairman with every intention of passing the baton. But in the weeks following his departure, the coronavirus pandemic forced closures of all of Disney’s theme parks and cruise ships. (Some analysts estimate Disney lost $500 million just from closing its parks through March alone).

With movie theaters also closed because of the coronavirus, Disney was forced to push back its entire theatrical slate until after the most profitable summer blockbuster season. And its TV division, which includes ABC and ESPN, took a massive hit as productions shut down, sporting events were canceled and advertising receded. (The one asset that has weathered the crisis has been direct-to-consumer streaming service Disney+, which Iger shepherded through in 2019 and as of last week boasted 50 million subscribers).

Then there’s the impact on the workers, or cast members, as Disney refers to them. On Saturday, Walt Disney World in Florida announced 43,000 employees would be furloughed beginning April 19. They join the estimated 30,000 employees furloughed at Disneyland in California, and an unspecified number of employees working in cruise, production and corporate roles. (Iger will forgo a salary during the pandemic.)

Such a far-reaching crisis required leadership. The Times report didn’t delve into how Iger was called — or more accurately, video-called — into action. But within the last week, he has become more vocal about how the company he oversees will change and evolve amid and post-pandemic.

Last Tuesday, Iger teased that more theatrical releases will go to Disney+ (“Onward” was moved on the streaming service after it’s theatrical run was cut short by theater closures, and “Artemis Fowl” will now be streaming only). He also mentioned that parks may take temperatures of guests when the parks reopen, although those dates have not been set yet.

Sunday’s Times report says Iger anticipates ending “expensive old-school television practices” like advertising upfronts (all of which were canceled this spring) and producing pilots for shows that may not air. He also anticipates Disney reopening with less office space and fewer employees, though Iger distanced himself from the latter point, following up in an email to the Times that “any decision about staff reductions will be made by my successor and not me.”

A rep for Disney had no comment on the Times story beyond reiterating that the company’s “leadership structure remains intact” since the Feb. 25 announcement of Chapek’s promotion.

The company has recognized there are no concrete timelines for any changes to its operations, writing in an SEC filing last month that, “We expect the ultimate significance of the impact of these disruptions, including the extent of their adverse impact on our financial and operational results, will be dictated by the length of time that such disruptions continue which will, in turn, depend on the currently unknowable duration of the COVID-19 pandemic and the impact of governmental regulations that might be imposed in response to the pandemic.”

But with Bob Iger back at the helm, the company already seems to be mapping a course through the uncertain waters ahead.