UPDATED with more details: Disney has confirmed the exit of Peter Rice and the ascension of Dana Walden. Release — which barely mentions Rice or any reason he got sacked — is below the story we revealed at 8:18 AM PT.
Disney has fired Peter Rice from his post as chairman of Disney General Entertainment Content. The studio has named Dana Walden, Chairman of Entertainment, Walt Disney Television, to succeed him., Both of them came over when Disney swallowed Fox and are considered among the most accomplished creative execs in town. The move marks a high-profile restructuring shift made by Disney CEO Bob Chapek, as he continues to put his mark on the studio post Bob Iger.
It is also a thunderbolt move that has left those around Hollywood speechless, partly for the clumsy chain of events, but also in upsetting an executive structure that has worked so well, as Rice and Walden have worked well together for so long. In Rice, Disney had an exec who not only had strong talent ties, but understands the areas of sports, news and finance. Executives like that don’t grow on trees, several prominent industry players said.
“You can never have enough good creative executives, and they had as good a lineup of creative execs working in one place as you could find,” said one. “Why would you get rid of a great one and shackle the other — a gifted creative executive — with unfamiliar areas like news and corporate tasks, giving them less time to spend on creative?”
Anger over the development toward Chapek is running high today. Another source, noting the hastily prepared vote of confidence by the Disney board toward Chapek this morning after the Rice firing, even though same board has not given him a new contract, added: “If they had full confidence, they would never leave their CEO with less than a year on his contract. The vote of confidence is laughable, it seems like the thing they do before they send you out to the firing squad.”
Speaking of the firing squad, Rice was not given the courtesy of a cigarette and a blindfold. He was completely blindsided yesterday by the move after receiving nothing but praise by his boss for the past two years, sources tell Deadline. So were many of his colleagues at Disney who did not see this coming. Rice did not start telling his team until this morning, we hear, but he did raise eyebrows by canceling last-minute an appearance at The Old Man premiere last night since the talent-friendly executive has been a fixture at every major event for the divisions in his portfolio.
Both Rice and Walden are very well regarded execs, and Rice had to spend the past few months fending off wide rumors that Warner Bros Discovery chief David Zaslav would tap him to leave Disney to run the entertainment business for him. When it was clear Zaslav wanted execs to report directly to him, Rice pulled himself out of the running for that and declined other high-profile opportunities outside of Disney. He signed a three-year deal around six months ago, and received one of the biggest bonus checks given anyone at a studio below the CEO level. There were no rumors of discord between Rice, Walden and FX head John Landgraf, making this a shocking mystery.
Depending what Chapek and Walden do next, Rice’s ouster could eliminate a layer in the highly structured Disney hierarchy in the vein of what Zaslav is doing at WBD. Having so many top TV executives weigh in on programming decisions had been a source of frustration for some Disney creative talent as making decisions has taken awhile and sometimes there has been conflicting feedback.
Prominent industry sources are picking their jaws off the ground right now, and the feeling is that much like the “Don’t Say Gay” waffle that put Disney and Chapek in such a rough place, this also hasn’t gone down well in town this morning. Walden, who worked closely with Rice and other execs including FX’s John Landgraf, was told about this an hour before Rice was summoned to a very brief meeting with Chapek and let go, sources said.
Walden has been negotiating her contract at an opportune time, following a string of successes for programming she oversees, including Onyx Collective’s Oscar win for Summer of Soul, ABC’s breakout Abbott Elementary and Hulu Originals’ hits Only Murders in the Building, Dopesick and The Kardashians. She has long enjoyed close relationships with talent.
Removing Rice from this equation will create challenges, as Walden expands her duties that were covered by Rice. Speculation is that Rice’s transgression, if you want to call it that, was being high in the rumor mill as a potential replacement for Chapek, whose rocky go of things since succeeding Iger has left questions of whether he would be re-upped with a contract up next February. That puts a Shakespearean spin on all this: Could Chapek have gotten rid of an exec who had been rumored to be a contender to ascend to the CEO position when Iger exited, with more recent rumors following questions about Chapek’s chances at tenure?
Chapek got a vote of confidence from the Disney board this morning following his decision to dismiss Rice, with an observer with longtime Disney ties saying that they were not surprised by the move, just its timing. But had he not been deposed, Rice would have been the strongest internal candidate to replace Chapek, along with Kareem Daniel, chairman of Disney Media and Entertainment Distribution. Was this a factor? No one is saying.
Chapek and Rice had a seemingly good professional relationship and were last seen in public together at the Disney TV upfront, where they both took the stage, and Rice later introduced Chapek to some of the company’s top talent at the company’s party. Rice was also spotted at Warner Bros’ Elvis premiere at Cannes. Unusual to see him at the launch of a film by a rival studio premiere, but Rice was there to support Baz Luhrmann, with whom he made numerous films at Fox, in a relationship that Luhrmann said began on his early film Strictly Ballroom.
The usually private Rice — who recently took a round of meetings with publications that chapped Chapek — signed a new contract just last summer, one that will last several years into the future (until end of 2024), so his payout will be a grand one. Still, had he known of Chapek’s plans, Rice likely would’ve entertained some of the overtures from other companies he received when his previous contract was coming up last year. Instead, he opted to stay at Disney after being persuaded by Chapek to sign a new long-term deal. Given how sudden his ouster was, Rice is expected to take a moment before starting to contemplate his next move. It is not often that an executive of this caliber with extensive TV and film experience becomes available, so there will be suitors.
Meanwhile, Walden’s contract was up this year, and she had been negotiating a new one with Disney over the past couple of months. Chapek appears to have made this a choice between the two executives, giving Walden, who has been on a hot streak, a reason to stay while also removing Rice from his path.
“Dana is a dynamic, collaborative leader and cultural force who in just three years has transformed our television business into a content powerhouse that consistently delivers the entertainment audiences crave,” Chapek said in announcing her promotion.
Chapek’s move ends a long partnership between Rice and Walden who had worked closely together for many years, going back to Fox. The two are known to have a great relationship and mutual admiration for each other, and Walden had been happy to have Rice as her boss for all these years.
The executive shakeup is certain to reverberate throughout the company as it upends the balance of power at the top levels of the TV operation. For instance, Walden and FX chairman Landgraf have co-existed for years, both reporting to Rice. It is unclear how changing that dynamic will impact Landgraf, a very well respected executive. He has been less corporately minded and focused entirely on the creative side of the FX brand in the past couple of years.
In addition to Walden and Landgraf, Rice’s senior executive team included National Geographic’s Courteney Monroe and two heads of divisions he recruited, Disney Branded Entertainment’s Ayo Davis and ABC News’ Kim Godwin.
“Peter Rice is one of the best executives in town and I can’t imagine why Chapek would do this, other than feeling threatened by all the rumors of Peter and Kareem being people who could take his job,” said one prominent source shocked and disappointed by the move. “There’s no cause. This is a big, big loss for the Walt Disney Company.”
We will continue to build out this story with more details, as we hear them. Here is Disney’s official press release confirming the executive shakeup:
BURBANK, Calif., June 9, 2022—The Walt Disney Company has named Dana Walden as Chairman, Disney General Entertainment Content, it was announced today by Bob Chapek, Chief Executive Officer, The Walt Disney Company. In this role, Walden will lead the company’s general entertainment content engine that creates original entertainment and news programming for Disney’s streaming platforms and its cable and broadcast networks. She will have oversight of ABC Entertainment, ABC News, Disney Branded Television, Disney Television Studios, Freeform, FX, Hulu Originals, National Geographic Content and Onyx Collective. Walden previously served as Chairman, Entertainment, Walt Disney Television and succeeds Peter Rice, who is leaving the company. Her appointment is effective immediately, and she will report directly to Chapek.
“Dana is a dynamic, collaborative leader and cultural force who in just three years has transformed our television business into a content powerhouse that consistently delivers the entertainment audiences crave,” Chapek said. “Her well-earned reputation for championing creative talent and developing programming that truly captures the cultural zeitgeist has resulted in hit after hit, from ABC’s Abbott Elementary and Onyx Collective’s Academy Award-winning Summer of Soul, to Hulu Originals like Only Murders in the Building, Dopesick, The Dropout and The Kardashians. She and Peter have worked closely together for years to create the best programming in the industry, and I can think of no one better than Dana to lead Disney General Entertainment to even greater heights.”
“It is an incredible honor to be asked to lead this amazingly talented team—they are truly the absolute best in every respect—and I am grateful to Bob for this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” Walden said. “Disney General Entertainment’s culture of creative excellence and originality has made us home to many of the most talented creators in the business. I am humbled to lead this team, and I am confident that together, we will continue to build on the foundation of culture-defining entertainment we have achieved so far.”
Walden joined Disney in 2019 with the company’s acquisition of 21st Century Fox, and in her role leading Entertainment for Walt Disney Television, she oversaw Disney Television Studios (20th Television, ABC Signature, 20th Television Animation and Walt Disney Television Alternative), the original entertainment slates and content marketing for ABC, Freeform, Hulu Originals and Onyx Collective.
Under Walden’s leadership, ABC has been the No. 1 entertainment network for three consecutive seasons—the first time that has happened in 25 years. And since assuming leadership of the Hulu Originals slate of series in 2019, the streamer has seen record viewership for the aforementioned hits, as well as The Handmaid’s Tale, Little Fires Everywhere and Nine Perfect Strangers.
At Disney Television Studios, Walden has overseen the production of such iconic and hit series as Grey’s Anatomy, The Simpsons, Family Guy, Bob’s Burgers and 9-1-1. The areas under her oversight have collectively earned an impressive 270 Emmy® nominations and 23 wins since she joined Disney.
Walden previously served as chairman and CEO of Fox Television Group, which included Fox Broadcasting Company, 20th Century Fox Television, Fox 21 Television Studios, Fox Consumer Products and the syndication supplier, 20th Television. In the four years she oversaw Fox Broadcasting Company, she took the network from fourth place to first.
During her 25 years at 21st Century Fox, the studios overseen by Walden amassed 184 Emmy® wins, 29 Golden Globes®, 17 Screen Actors Guild Awards and 24 Peabody Awards and Humanitas Prizes. Additionally, Walden was responsible for numerous No. 1 broadcast hits like This Is Us, Empire and Glee, to multiple Emmy Award winners Modern Family, Homeland, Ally McBeal, Arrested Development, The Practice and Boston Legal. Other landmark series overseen by Walden include 24, How I Met Your Mother, New Girl and Buffy the Vampire Slayer. She has also overseen along with John Landgraf the long and successful partnership between 20th Television and FX and FX Productions, resulting in The Americans, Sons of Anarchy, Pose, American Horror Story and the American Crime Story franchise.
In 2021, she received a Lifetime Achievement Award from Harvard Undergraduate Women in Business. She has received the National Association of Television Program Executive’s Brandon Tartikoff Legacy Award and was named MIPCOM’s Personality of the Year. In 2013, she was inducted into Broadcasting & Cable’s Television Hall of Fame. She has been named Showman of the Year by Variety, Television Showman of the Year by the Publicists of the International Cinematographers Guild, and Executive of the Year in 2019 by The Hollywood Reporter.
Walden began her career at the public relations firm Bender, Goldman & Helper. At Fox, she rose through the ranks in roles that ranged from communications to programming, ultimately serving as executive vice president of Drama before being named head of the studio in 1999. She sits on the board of directors for Live Nation Entertainment and UCLA’s Jonsson Comprehensive Cancer Center. Additionally, she is a member of USC’s President’s Leadership Council and the President’s Circle of the NAACP.
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