EXCLUSIVE… UPDATE: Sources now tell me that all three female executives in employments disputes with the Walt Disney Co have settled — including one today. This is many months after the women lost their jobs in a Department Of Consumer Products reorganization set in motion nearly a year ago by Marvel boss Ike Perlmutter who is Disney’s 2nd largest shareholder. Former DCP head of fashion and home products Pam Lifford, former chief financial officer Anne Gates, and former DCP HR exec Susan Cole Hill were all represented by the same attorney with the Pasadena law firm Hadsell, Stormer, Keeny, Richardson and Rennick which has sued Disney in other employee rights cases. According to my sources, the three women, who are all African Americans, referred to themselves as “The Help” – a reference to last summer’s hit DreamWorks movie distributed by Disney and set during the civil rights movement about black maids in Mississippi.
The reorganization took place in September 2011 but the negotiations for the exit settlements dragged on. Some insiders claim the law firm didn’t return Disney’s calls because it first wanted a story damaging to Perlmutter to appear in the media. An article appeared on Thursday, and Disney and Marvel and Perlmutter now are in damage control mode. Financial Times LA-based correspondent Matthew Garrahan broke the news about these three African-American female execs, their respective job status after their boss Andy Mooney was replaced as the head of DCP, and their hiring an attorney. At the time he wrote that only one of the three women had settled with Disney.
But the FT story also reported that, when African-American actor Terrence Howard was replaced by African-American actor Don Cheadle in the role of Colonel Jim Rhodes for Iron Man 2, “Perlmutter apparently told Mr. Mooney the change cut costs. He allegedly added words to the effect that no one would notice because black people ‘look the same’,” Garrahan wrote. A Marvel spokesperson told the FT in a statement: “Mr. Perlmutter and all of Marvel have a long record of diversity in the workplace and on movie sets around the world as evidenced by both Mr. Perlmutter’s own history and Marvel’s management team.”
There’s also conflicting descriptions of a formal complaint with Disney
Human Resources about Perlmutter filed by former CFO Anne Gates before she left the company. Several sources told me it was a racial complaint but others say it wasn’t race-related.
The last thing Disney wants is bad press about the reclusive (Forbes found this 1985 photo, right), opinionated, parsimonious, and incredibly successful 69-year-old Perlmutter. (The Los Angeles Times, ever obliging to advertisers, didn’t even mention the FT accusations in its clip-job story about Perlmutter appearing later Thursday.) Perlmutter’s influence inside Disney is gigantic ever since his $4B sale of Marvel to Mouse House CEO Bob Iger in 2009. I reported back in April that one of the reasons Rich Ross was summarily fired as chairman of the Walt Disney Studios was because the Marvel Entertainment CEO was a very vocal detractor. The comic book, TV, and film company boss is a notoriously tough customer eager to back-seat manage everything. (As I quoted a source saying in April: “Iger has real problems. Bob thought he could handle him. But Ike is uncharmable.”)
Related: Why Rich Ross Was Fired At Disney
High-ranking Marvel sources today tell me that the FT‘s implication that Perlmutter is racist is “proposterous”. The insiders also claim, about what Perlmutter allegedly said to Mooney, “he [Mooney] never complained about it at the time and then only 5 months later”. Other insiders acknowledge that “it looks bad” that the African-American trio were reorganized out of their jobs but claim the FT‘s information is coming from “disgruntled employees” who have tried to “peddle accusations against Ike” to other media outlets for many months. Trying to give me some context about Perlmutter, one insider made the point that he was “of a different generation and an Israeli immigrant and owner of a private company” whose blunt style is at odds with a public corporate environment like Disney. But these people who know him all flatly deny that he has demonstrated racism.
It’s not unusual that the budget-obsessed megalomaniac Perlmutter who many consider a merchandising and toy licensing genius was behind the Disney DCP reorganization because of Marvel’s huge importance to Disney’s future fortunes. (Jeffrey Katzenberg did similar when Universal began to distribute DreamWorks SKG product and when Paramount made the deal to distribute DreamWorks Animation toons.) Sources tell me Disney’s DCP needed reorganizing because it was still in “High School Musical–Hannah Montana” mode. To ramp up for Marvel’s aggressive release schedule, Perlmutter approved the replacement of Mooney with Bob Chapek, Disney’s former home entertainment head who helped secure Hollywood’s adoption of Blu-ray discs, and DCP’s top licensing job to Marvel exec Josh Silverman. Now DCP focuses on its big TV/film franchises rather than individual product categories.
According to the FT, many executives moved on after the reorganization. Gates and Lifford both were offered lateral moves at the same pay. Hill left after her role was eliminated. The attorney they’ve hired and his employee rights law firm are well-known to Disney. Stormer filed a class-action lawsuit last year for employees who worked at its theme park hotel. His firm just this week joined with the American Civil Liberties Union and filed a federal lawsuit against Disney for discrimination on behalf of a Muslim former Disneyland employee for wearing the hijab headscarf at work (read it here).