Peter Bart: Short Of Cloning, How Can Bob Iger Find Ideal Replacement For Himself?

Peter Bart Column BadgeMy wife and I were shopping in Beverly Hills not long ago when we noticed Bob Iger emerging from a Starbucks, coffee in hand. He dispensed the customary hugs and chatted briefly. With a cordial smile, the Disney chief confided that he enjoyed the ritual of launching new cruise ships more than opening theme parks – especially one as complex as Disney’s $5.5 billion Shanghai adventure.

That was one iteration of Bob Iger: the cool, seemingly relaxed man about town. Then there’s the other Iger: the corporate patriarch who wakes up daily well before 5 AM, exercises rigorously and arrives before fellow executives at Disney’s Burbank fortress, where he runs his sprawling empire with a fierce discipline. It’s this Iger iteration who presided over this week’s sudden dismissal of his apparent corporate successor, Tom Staggs, thus hurling Disney into yet another one of its periodic succession dramas.

In so doing, Iger has unintentionally raised this tactical question: Having assembled a dazzling array of all-star companies – Pixar, Marvel, Lucasfilm, et al. — can anyone but Iger effectively orchestrate their competing interests and intrigues? Apparently the Disney board of directors didn’t feel Staggs could do so, despite his 15 years of experience at Disney and his leadership of several key divisions. Staggs is essentially a technocrat; but is the Disney job more diplomatic than technocratic?

Bloomberg Breakfast - 2014 Tribeca Film FestivalDisney’s investors, as well as its army of employees, nervously wonder whether the oncoming battle of succession will be as unruly (and expensive) as the Jeffrey Katzenberg and Michael Ovitz melodramas (combined cost over $500 million) and the stormy retirement of the brilliant if temperamental Michael Eisner.

Iger’s history of executive appointments is itself instructive on this issue. When signs of disarray started appearing on Disney’s film side three years ago, Iger turned not to a hot-shot young production type but rather to the then 70-year-old Alan Horn, a man with long-established skills not only as a forceful executive but also as a diplomat. The Disney movie machine is now functioning with smooth precision, advancing a stunning lineup of franchises and tentpoles deftly attached to propitious release dates. Horn’s movie universe encompasses sci-fi (Star Wars), animation (Pixar and Disney), superheroes (Marvel) as well as modestly budget in-house films.

Horn’s regime has experienced its bumps – Tomorrowland and The Finest Hours, for example. Yet the Disney portfolio represents a relative sea of calm compared with the intense pressures confronting rival studios. Consider the challenging landscape: At Sony, which has suffered a succession of traumas, Tom Rothman, working with a staff (and inventory) mainly inherited from Amy Pascal, will unveil his first summer slate. Warner Bros’  ruling trio of production executives is committed to a full-fledged superhero strategy as the key to reversing its disappointing 2015 slate. The production team at Paramount is under pressure to demonstrate that the studio is still in the film business. At Fox, newly installed Stacey Snider needs to build on the unexpected momentum created by the idiosyncratic Deadpool. And Universal, having basked in unstinting praise for its mixed bag of hits, must prove that it can continue to generate box office success without a Disney-like slate of franchises.Tom Staggs Leaving DisneyIt was a Warner Bros executive who told me, “Alan Horn is the only guy in town with a bulletproof slate, and he’s also the only guy who has nothing to prove.” In terms of personality, Horn is the anti-Rothman – steadfastly calm, organized, moderate in his opinions. During his years at Warner Bros, I once encountered him after he’d had a difficult meeting with a stubborn producer, and he told me: “I think I should have lost my temper during that meeting, but I don’t like to. I should have yelled at him, but I’m not a yeller.” I was amused by his self-criticism but admired it.

Given its formidable costs, wildly contrasting themes and topics and the distinctive personalities involved, the Disney slate would challenge any executive’s temperament. To solve his management problem on the movie side, Bob Iger surprised colleagues by looking to a different company, and to a different generation. He likely will have to emulate that initiative in choosing his corporate successor. The Disney he has created is not so much a company as a nation-state. That’s a tough role to fill.

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