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As Disney flails, Hollywood weighs a possible Bob Iger comeback

Last month, while Disney CEO Bob Chapek was grappling with the fallout from his fumbling response to Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” law, his predecessor Bob Iger was racing around the Caribbean in the Aquarius, a 184-foot super yacht. “Looks like Bob has a lot of confidence with me at the helm,” his racing partner, the Hollywood mogul Brian Grazer, quipped in an Instagram post, showing Iger grimacing behind him in mock exasperation. “Aquarius did go on to win the race (once I passed the wheel over!!).” The irony wasn’t lost on Hollywood insiders, who questioned whether 71-year-old Iger, who stepped down as executive chairman in December, would be able to restrain himself from reaching for the wheel at Disney after a series of missteps by Chapek. After initially staying silent on the Florida law — which bars teachers from discussing sexual orientation or gender identity with students unless they’re in the fourth grade or higher — Chapek eventually condemned it after outraged LGBTQ Disney employees piped up. Chapek’s flip-flop has drawn heat from critics on both the left and right. A letter from Pixar employees slammed Disney’s “hollow” claims of support while some corporate workers staged a walkout, among other dustups. Meanwhile, Florida lawmakers approved a bill on Wednesday to strip Disney World of its special self-governing status over its public opposition to the “Don’t Say Gay” law. “I don’t think this would have happened under Iger,” said a source who has worked for both men. “Disney now finds itself in the middle of a culture war and it shouldn’t have been there.” “Chapek’s contract is up in a year and a half,” another Hollywood executive added. “I’d be worried.” The flubs in the “Don’t Say Gay” saga have included more than just the flip-flop, sources told The Post. Scrambling to shore up employee support last month, Chapek announced during a Disney shareholder’s meeting that the Mouse House would donate $5 million to the Human Rights Campaign for LGBTQ causes. HRC refused the money, The Post has learned, partly because Disney didn’t secure acceptance from the group before publicly announcing it and putting out a press release. The gesture landed with a thud when HRC said publicly it would refuse the donation until Disney took “meaningful action” to combat the legislation. HRC didn’t respond to a request for comment. The flub showed 61-year-old Chapek’s lack of polish, particularly when it comes to managing people, insiders said. That’s in stark contrast to Iger, who has earned a reputation for a high “EQ,” or emotional quotient, according to one source close to the company. “Bob Chapek isn’t confident in diffusing situations,” according to the source. “He clams up. Chapek doesn’t read the room well.” Last year, Chapek got ripped for his handling of the “Black Widow” debacle, in which Scarlett Johansson sued Disney over her compensation for starring in the superhero flick. Disney lashed out, kicking off a public war of words with Johansson’s powerful agent Bryan Lourd, who runs talent agency CAA. The suit was settled in September. To many, the “Black Widow” drama signaled a break from Disney’s usual buttoned-up, talent-focused approach under Iger. A source familiar with Chapek’s leadership style said he’s “shorter” and “more clipped” with colleagues in difficult situations. “He’s not famous for his people skills,” said one source who has worked with Chapek. Another person with knowledge offered: “You can tell when Chapek is angry because he turns red.” Iger, meanwhile, is a “master” at not showing his true feelings, is “super disciplined” and able to “compartmentalize” his anger, the source said. His emotions tend to come out in private, “behind closed doors” after a tense meeting or uncomfortable encounter, the source said. It’s no secret that the two have failed to get along. According to CNBC, when Iger decided to stick around as executive chairman to deal with the fallout from the pandemic, it enraged the Chapek, who had just taken over as CEO. The execs stopped talking for the nearly two years that Iger remained onboard, according to the network. “They’re obviously two very different people,” said the source. “When Iger took over, he was more interested in surrounding himself with people who could advance his thinking.” “He’s got more charm than Chapek,” the source added, noting that Iger also had “a willingness to learn from people.” The source pointed to the departures of longtime Disney general counsel Alan Braverman and corporate communications chief Zenia Mucha help explain Chapek’s mistakes. “He has listened to the wrong people. The team he has been steering him the wrong way,” the source said. Disney declined to comment for this story. During his two-year tenure, Chapek has faced the unprecedented challenge of a global pandemic, which ravaged the Mouse House’s theme parks, cruises and movie business. In response, the company has raised ticket prices as well as the cost of food and merchandise. The hikes spurred a backlash from customers, who have griped about long lines at Disneyland and Disney World. They also slammed Chapek, calling out his $32.5 million in compensation in 2021, which earned the exec the nickname “Paycheck” on Reddit. Disney also has caught flack over its new “Star Wars” themed hotel that charges between $5,000 and $20,000 for a two-night stay, and which has struggled to fill vacancies. Customers likened the rooms to “windowless bunkers” and griped over stiff prices for alcohol and merchandise at the resort. Despite that noise, Chapek has helped the company rebound financially from pandemic-related lows. One Disney insider praised his operational acumen, noting that he “understands the parks business” and is “very tactical” when it comes to cost management.” Still, Chapek shows “glaring weaknesses” from a financial standpoint, which could lead to another PR disaster and “seal his fate,” a source added. Last year, Disney’s stock was among the five worst-performing stocks in the Dow Jones Industrial Average, according to Investor’s Business Daily. A key stumbling block could be Disney+, which Chapek recently pledged will hit 230 million to 260 million subscribers by fiscal 2024. The streaming service, which houses the Marvel “Avengers” franchise and “Star Wars” series “The Mandalorian,” reported 125 million subscribers as of the first quarter. This week, Netflix sent Disney shares tumbling 5% when it reported its first drop in subscribers in a decade. In the event of a major blowup, there are few people who could step in immediately apart from Iger, who helmed Disney for 15 years, Still, another Iger comeback was mainly met with skepticism from people close to the former exec. “Bob is focused on investing in the metaverse and tech and women-focused start ups,” one source said. “He doesn’t want to come back.” A second source added that the former CEO could conceivably return for a short stint, noting that he has extended his contract several times over the years. “If Iger knew it was was temporary, just to get things on an even keel, it wouldn’t shock me if he returned,” a source close to Iger said. A third source said it would “look bad” if Iger returned because it would send the message that the company “can’t run without him.” Iger declined to comment on the possibility of a return. Alternatively, Disney could call on potential successors like Kevin Mayer, 60, or Tom Staggs, 61. The former Disney execs left the company after they were passed over for the top job. They now run Candle Media, owner of Reese Witherspoon’s Hello Sunshine, MoonBug Entertainment and part of Will Smith and Jada Pinkett Smith’s production company, Westbrook. Staggs and Mayer declined to comment. Sean Griffin, a professor of film and media arts at Southern Methodist University who wrote a book about the ties between Disney and LGBTQ culture, agreed that Iger had a better understanding of perilous political landscapes, but said even he didn’t always get it right. When Georgia lawmakers revealed a bill that banned abortion after six weeks of pregnancy, Iger said it “would be very difficult” to continue filming in the state if the law went into effect, adding: “I think many people who work for us will not want to work there, and we will have to heed their wishes in that regard.” But Griffin noted that under Iger, Disney walked a line between upholding traditional family values and supporting the LGBTQ community. He pointed to a slew of contradictions at the company. For instance, Disney may sell rainbow-colored merchandise for Pride month or work with gay artists like Elton John or the late lyricist Howard Ashman, but it was still was one of the last studios to offer same-sex benefits to partners of employees, Griffin said. He also noted that Disney animation often “winks” at LGBTQ culture through some of its characters but that it isn’t overt enough for mainstream America to necessarily pick it up. “While being welcoming there was always a sense of being welcoming while not trying to aggravate the more conservative family friendly base,” he said, noting that even if Iger was CEO today, he would be pushed to act more decisively than he had in the past. “The country right now is more polarized than ever and that strategy of we want to appease everybody isn’t going to work,” he said. “People want you to pick a side.”

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