Disney “had the foresight and had the guts and had the support at the board level to go into this new business,” Iger said of direct-to-consumer streaming. “When Covid hit, we at least had something to turn to, and I think it kept the company vibrant because there was a beacon of hope.”
The media veteran made the comments during an interview with SiriusXM. The audio company released short clips and transcripts from the conversation in advance of its April 6 premiere on the show Leadership Matters, hosted by Alan Fleischmann.
One of Fleischmann’s main questions was what Iger, who turned 70 last month, intends to do when his stint as executive chairman winds down at the end of 2021.
“I am excited about life after Disney,” Iger said. “I felt very strongly in moving on, and just seeing what was on the other side. It had nothing to do with being tired. It had nothing to do with frustration.”
Iger has said that he told board members in the fall of 2019 about his plans to surrender the CEO title. Even so, the formal announcement in February of 2020 stunned most people in the entertainment and business worlds. Bob Chapek’s elevation to the top job at the same time also came as a surprise to many inside and outside of Disney. Iger concedes that the moves came across as “abrupt” but he told Fleischmann the select group of internal confidantes were not blindsided. “I did not want to overstay my welcome,” he said. “I wanted the timing to be right, and 15 years [as CEO] felt like enough.”
In his executive chairman role, Iger has focused on the company’s creative pipeline. He said the biggest challenge during the pandemic has been figuring out how to “fuel the platform.” (One negotiation he personally oversaw, according to press accounts, was the shifting of Hamilton from a planned 2021 release to a July 4th streaming debut in 2020.) “We just had so much in the can, so much shot,” he said. Soul, which was ticketed for the Cannes Film Festival and global theatrical play before Covid-19, similarly became a streaming event. Director Pete Docter “finished completely during Covid. I mean, that’s incredible to think about that.”
As far as how he is spending his waning months at the company, Iger said, “I’m doing a little bit of teaching, a little bit of leading by example, a little bit of cajoling. And I imagine that in these next few months, I’ll end up slowly becoming less and less relevant. It is pretty interesting when you suddenly lose that title, your emails start to slow down and certainly the phone calls don’t come as often and it’s pretty clear someone else is running the company. It’s actually pretty interesting from a human perspective, and I don’t mean that negatively at all. It’s just an interesting dynamic.”
Writing is one activity occupying Iger’s time. His memoir, The Ride of a Lifetime, was published by Random House in 2019 when the company was riding high. The drama packed into the ensuing pandemic experience certainly lends itself to a sequel, but Iger didn’t specifically say what exactly his next book would cover. “I started it with just some loose outlines and writing down some thoughts, but I think there’s definitely another chapter or two, or 10 maybe,” he said.
Beyond writing, the former CEO said it is energizing to confront “a complete blank canvas.” He added, “I’m not retiring. I can’t possibly do that. First of all, my wife’s still working, my kids are all out of the house, I’m not gonna sit around the house binge watching television shows. And so I will figure it out, but I am not going to figure it out while I’m still at Disney and I’m not going to over-commit so that by the time I get out, I won’t have any freedom either.”
One item on his wish list, he added, is “a little bit more leisure. … And I’d like more adventure, whatever that is.”
Iger said he looks forward to traveling to Shanghai this spring for the fifth anniversary of Disney’s theme park there. He also said he identified with Chapek seeming “like a kid” when he announced the opening of Disneyland next month after more than a year of complete shutdown.
“There’s something so symbolic about Disneyland reopening,” Iger said. Prominent media coverage of the news, he added, “says a lot about what we’ve been through these last 12 months.”