In his zealous pursuit of mega-deals, Bob Iger has not always met with warm welcomes. When he first showed Steve Jobs one of his pet projects, Jobs bluntly dismissed it as “a piece of crap.” George Lucas, upon selling his company to Iger, blurted on television that he’d sold out to “white slavers.” When Ike Perlmutter, the crusty president of Marvel, finally consented to a meal with Iger, he served up a lonely banana.
Robert Iger’s newly published account of his Disney career is titled Ride of a Lifetime, but Rough Ride may be more appropriate. His climb through a brutal corporate culture reflects his unique tact and patience in out-waiting and outsmarting his high-powered rivals.
To be sure, the persona Iger wanted to emerge from this mogul memoir is not that of a corporate warrior, but rather of a consistently gracious and self-effacing underdog – one who relentlessly pursued his vision. This depiction is consistent with the Iger I’ve personally encountered in business and social situations over the years, always generous with hugs and genial conversation.
Hence his book, on one level, depicts a conflict between man and mission. At age 68, his Disney mission is to devour all around him, or, as the New York Times put it, “to colonize our minds and transform fandom into a form of mass obedience.”
So which is the real Iger?
Last week, Iger escorted a New York Times reporter around the Disneyland theme park in Anaheim, dispensing charm while praising the park’s success — “Hollywood’s Nice Guy,” proclaimed the headline. The day after the visit, however, a press release disclosed that the leaders of Disney’s theme parks from Anaheim to Paris had been fired; it seems that, while prices have kept going up, attendance has not. Even the bow of Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge failed to produce its mandated numbers.
Lucas’ Star Wars mini-empire itself poses a microcosmic insight into Iger’s education in the care and feeding of talent. With Jobs’ help, Iger courted the brilliant if socially remote Lucas, carefully negotiating issues of control — even story lines for future movies. At the eleventh hour, dreading loss of control, Lucas hired Kathy Kennedy to run Lucasfilm, without advising Iger. When J.J. Abrams was brought in to direct their first venture, Iger told him in jest that it was a essentially a $4 billion movie; Abrams didn’t think that was funny.
Lucas registered further angst, Iger writes, when Disney discarded one of his several story treatments for the ongoing Star Wars saga. Writes Iger: ”I should have talked him through this and avoided angering him.”
But creative conflicts became a key element in Iger’s studio scenario. Dealing with Marvel, Iger perceived that Perlmutter, a rough-hewn Israeli, “did not respond well to Hollywood slickness.” Hence Iger decided to rescue producer Kevin Feige, splitting Marvel’s movie unit from the rest of the company. Iger also has to overcome Marvel’s resistance to the idea of a female or a black superhero, thus mobilizing support for Feige’s Black Panther venture.
Distracted by Marvel problems, Iger further had to overcome his own mistakes in hiring the Disney Channel’s Rich Ross to run the Disney studio. ”I had wanted to make a bold choice,” he reflected, but instead made a bad one. With disasters like John Carter and The Lone Ranger looming, he reached out for the canny veteran, Alan Horn, to take over studio reins.
Amidst these intrigues, Iger never lost focus on his overriding objective -– acquisition. He held regular meetings with the wily Rupert Murdoch, who was still jealous of Iger’s Lucasfilm buy. Murdoch even questioned whether Iger still considered running for the U.S. presidency, as rumors had suggested. Iger’s response was that he had no such ambition. But he sensed that a timely Disney bid for 21st Century Fox might be well received.
Eager for a deal, Iger was jolted by news that his longtime rival, Comcast’s Brian Roberts, was determined to outbid him for the Fox assets. True to form, in June 2018, Comcast topped Disney’s $28-a-share offer by bidding $35. With the Fox board about to meet, Iger mobilized a quick flight to London to personally confront Murdoch with a new bid: $38, half cash, half stock.
But secrecy was now the key: “Comcast tracks the movements of competitors’ private jets,” a suspicious Iger writes. Hence his team landed not in London but in Belfast, then chartered another plane for London and registered under a fake name at a hotel where he’d never stayed.
The secretive strategy worked: When a reporter from CNBC tracked Iger to his London hotel to tell him that Comcast had dropped out, a thrilled Iger blurted “holy crap” to an international TV audience.
The $71 billion Fox deal, on top of his other acquisitions, confirmed iger’s mission for dominance, but also set up its potential peril. The intimate “magic kingdom” that Walt Disney had once envisioned had become a global monster.
Bob Iger had achieved his global objectives, as detailed in his book. But would that vision now come back to haunt him? How much “bigness” could the Disney brand survive?