This is Why Disney is in Trouble

In what should have been a year of jubilation for Disney, marking its 100th anniversary, 2023 has instead unfolded as a year rife with challenges and disappointments. The studio has found itself embroiled in a series of crises that have not only tarnished its reputation but also echoed darker times from its past.

A key issue for Disney this year has been the lukewarm reception to its Marvel Studios projects, like ‘Secret Invasion’ and ‘Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania,’ which have fueled a general ambivalence towards the Marvel Cinematic Universe. High-budget films such as ‘Haunted Mansion’ and ‘Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny’ have also underperformed, adding to the studio’s woes. Compounding these issues are the controversial comments made by Disney CEO Bob Iger regarding Hollywood strikes, as well as serious legal challenges, including allegations of gender pay discrimination and a lawsuit involving the company’s historical association with Harvey Weinstein’s Miramax.

A Year of Endless Turbulence for Disney

Bob Iger’s return as CEO in November 2022, following the short tenure of his successor Bob Chapek, was expected to stabilize the company. However, Disney has continued to face turmoil, indicating deeper-rooted issues than those that could be resolved by a change in leadership. Contrary to some online theorists attributing Disney’s problems to modern societal changes, the company’s current struggles are more deeply connected to its reluctance to move away from its tried-and-tested formulas and an over-reliance on past glories.

Disney’s History: A Saga of Corporate Drama

To understand the depth of Disney’s historical challenges, one can turn to James B. Stewart’s ‘DisneyWar.’ This book offers an in-depth look at Michael Eisner’s era as Disney’s CEO, a period that started with great promise but ended with his removal following a shareholder revolt led by Roy E. Disney. ‘DisneyWar’ also explores earlier difficult phases in Disney’s history, particularly highlighting the post-Walt Disney era under CEO Ron Miller in the early 1980s. It was a time when Disney, still reeling from the loss of its founder, seemed unable to adapt and innovate, stuck in patterns of the past.

Disney’s Leadership Challenges: Stuck in the Past

The marketing strategies employed by Disney in the early 1980s perfectly illustrate the company’s struggles to adapt to changing times. At that point, Disney’s approach was heavily reliant on word-of-mouth promotion, a tactic deeply rooted in Walt Disney’s own philosophy. This strategy, however, was out of sync with the evolving landscape of the film industry, especially as movies began to be released across numerous theaters simultaneously. As a consequence, innovative films like “Tron” didn’t perform as expected at the box office.

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This conservative approach extended beyond marketing. Internally, decisions, particularly within the animation division, were often made while pondering, “What Would Walt Do?” This mindset, though reverential, rendered Disney an outdated entity in the public’s perception, as it continually tried to replicate its past successes instead of forging new paths.

The Eisner and Wells Era: A Brief Renaissance

The arrival of Michael Eisner as CEO and Frank Wells as President marked a transformative period for The Walt Disney Company, ushering in a phase of prosperity. However, this era was not destined to last indefinitely. “DisneyWar,” the detailed account of this period, paints a vivid picture of the challenges faced internally. After the tragic death of Wells in a helicopter accident, Eisner found himself at the helm, overseeing vast expanses of the company’s operations.

Under Eisner’s leadership, internal strife and corporate politics became commonplace. The atmosphere was one of extreme caution, with the fear of stepping out of line pervading the company culture. This tension suggests a corporate environment more focused on internal disputes than on creative innovation.

One significant misstep during Eisner’s tenure was his reluctance to fully embrace the groundbreaking storytelling potential of Pixar Animation Studios. “DisneyWar” portrays Eisner as a key factor in the near breakdown of Disney’s partnership with Pixar. Furthermore, Eisner’s ideas for new theme parks, such as Disney’s California Adventure, were criticized for being unimaginatively tied to the past. This resistance to innovation and fresh ideas eventually contributed to Eisner’s ousting from the company, paving the way for Bob Iger’s ascension as the CEO of Disney.

The Reflection of Disney’s Historical Challenges in its Contemporary Struggles

Disney’s approach in the 2010s, particularly under the leadership of Bob Iger, laid the groundwork for the problems it faces today. The strategy during this era was heavily tilted towards a blockbuster-only focus, sidelining smaller, original projects. The elimination of the Touchstone Pictures label, known for producing original films for adult audiences, and relegating non-blockbuster Disney films to streaming platforms, was a significant shift. While this strategy yielded box office successes like “Captain America: Civil War” and “Finding Dory,” it also meant the absence of unexpected hits that had previously defined Disney’s success, such as “Pretty Woman” or “The Sixth Sense.” Ironically, the period also saw significant financial losses with big-budget projects like “The Lone Ranger” and “Solo: A Star Wars Story.”

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This narrowed focus placed immense pressure on a few select franchises. While this strategy appeared viable between 2015 and 2019, it proved problematic in the rapidly evolving entertainment landscape. The lack of diverse and robust pop culture offerings left Disney overly reliant on a handful of properties from Lucasfilm, Marvel Studios, and its own blockbuster films. The acquisition of 20th Century Studios and its reduced output under Disney further exemplified this issue, as its limited slate could not compensate for underperforming major releases.

Disney’s current reliance on Marvel properties, Star Wars spin-offs, and live-action remakes is reminiscent of its strategies in the 1980s, indicating a return to familiar patterns rather than innovation. This similarity suggests a stagnation in creative risk-taking, much like during the tenure of Ron Miller in the 1980s.

Another echo of the past is the lack of new leadership and ideas within the company. Bob Iger, nearing two decades at Disney’s helm, has seen no clear successor emerge. Similarly, Sean Bailey’s long tenure as president of production at Walt Disney Pictures and Alan Bergman’s extended leadership at Walt Disney Studios reflect a continuity that, while stable, may also contribute to a lack of fresh ideas. Kevin Feige at Marvel Studios and Thomas Schumacher at Disney Theatrical Group, along with Jim Morris at Pixar Animation Studios, exemplify this trend of prolonged leadership, raising questions about the company’s ability to innovate and take risks.

The Repetition of Mistakes in Disney’s Recent Acquisitions

Disney’s current stagnation is not only evident in its creative output but also in its corporate decisions, particularly regarding acquisitions. This pattern closely mirrors the final years of Michael Eisner’s leadership. During Eisner’s tenure, costly purchases like the ABC/Capital Cities merger in 1996 and the acquisition of Fox Family in 2001 proved to be challenging, with ABC becoming a recurring problem for Disney.

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In a similar vein, the Iger era is marked by the acquisition of 20th Century Fox and other News Corp. media assets. While the inclusion of franchises like “Avatar,” “The Simpsons,” and various Fox/Marvel characters is beneficial, Disney has struggled to integrate the broader array of creative projects it inherited. The company seems uncertain about how to effectively utilize assets like FX or the 20th Century Fox film studio. This situation reflects Disney’s recurring theme of making substantial, splashy investments that fail to yield long-term benefits, indicating a cycle of repeating past mistakes.

Prospects for Disney’s Recovery and Renewal

The issues facing modern Disney are deep-rooted and multifaceted, echoing struggles from different periods of the company’s history. The current state of Walt Disney Pictures, for example, parallels the directionless periods of the early 1980s and 2000s. However, a common thread in these challenges is the stagnation at the executive level. Whether under Ron Miller, Michael Eisner, or Bob Iger, Disney has historically faltered when its leadership becomes overly entrenched and fixated on past successes.

Despite these challenges, Disney’s history also offers hope. The introduction of new, dynamic leadership has previously revitalized the company. Michael Eisner’s entry after Miller’s departure and Bob Iger’s succession of Eisner are testament to the positive impact fresh leadership can have. Therefore, infusing new blood into the executive ranks, especially with younger, more innovative minds, could provide the necessary impetus for change. This could not only benefit the company but also enrich global pop culture with diverse and engaging content.

Disney’s ability to evolve and adapt is not a lost cause. As demonstrated in the past, transformative leadership can steer the company away from its current state of stagnation. A fresh perspective on Disney’s identity and its project portfolio could mark the beginning of a new, prosperous era for the entertainment giant.

“DisneyWar” by James B. Stewart, which offers an insightful look into Disney’s tumultuous history, is available for those interested in exploring these themes further.

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