Did a Feud Between Disney CEOs Trigger the Black Widow Fiasco?
Be careful what you wish for.
That’s apparently the cautionary tale for Bob Chapek as he navigates the pitfalls of his still-new job.
Seemingly out of nowhere, Chapek replaced his old boss, Bob Iger, as the CEO of The Walt Disney Company.
At the time, Iger indicated that he would stay through the end of 2021 to manage Disney’s “creative endeavors” in place.
Black Widow definitely counts as one of those projects. Yet, somehow, it’s turned into a huge black eye for the company.
Did a feud between Disney’s current and former CEO actually trigger the Black Widow fiasco? Well…
The Current Trending Stories
The Wrap, one of the more respected Hollywood analyses sites, recently posted a Members Only article.
The article follows in the wake of another similar, subscriber-only piece from Business Insider.
I’ve read both reports and don’t agree with much of what either article has to say, at least in terms of the controversies they’re suggesting.
When the Business Insider piece came out, I did a bit of investigating, as it followed a report from April of 2020 that inferred something similar.
Here are the pertinent details from the three articles.
When Iger named Chapek as his replacement, the move surprised insiders, myself included.
At the time, Kevin Mayer appeared likely as the heir apparent at Disney. But, unfortunately for him, Mayer couldn’t gain the full support of the board on a short timeline.
Iger wanted out immediately. So, he spoke with Disney’s Board of Directors at the end of 2019 about Chapek as a successor.
Iger stayed in power as the Executive Chairman at Disney and also the Chairman of the Board. Even now, he’s Chapek’s boss.
Who’s the Boss?
In April of 2020, several stories indicated that Iger had reclaimed control of Disney to help it navigate the uncertainty of the pandemic’s early days.
Later in 2020, Chapek promoted a relative unknown, Kareem Daniel, as the head of Media and Entertainment Distribution (DMED).
Daniel is effectively the decider at Disney, the one who controls the purse strings on projects and chooses their release patterns.
In other words, Daniels and Chapek ultimately picked the Black Widow release pattern that has proven so controversial.
These two executives believed it was in the company’s best financial interest to sell the film on Premier Access in addition to the theatrical release.
I’ve previously discussed the financial aspects of this decision on this site and MarvelBlog. The gist is that Disney earned more net revenue this way.
The flip side involves the (justifiable) volcanic rage of Scarlett Johansson.
Hollywood is a weird place wherein artistic sensibilities pair with greed for power/celebrity.
Perhaps the best analogy I can make involves the culture shock when IBM executives in suits first met Apple executives wearing flip-flops and shorts.
Different businesses develop their social norms, and the ones in Hollywood seem arcane to outsiders.
Only a tiny percentage of people can navigate this strange realm of ego and creativity. However, Bob Iger has demonstrated that he’s among the best at it.
When Bob Chapek gained his new CEO title, critics questioned his lack of experience in dealing with Hollywood talent.
During the conference call, Iger defended him by stating, “the nature of the job will lead to Chapek developing the same skills in time.”
Apparently, we haven’t reached that time yet.
Black Widow Indeed
In nature, the term black widow refers to a female spider who mates and then kills another spider.
Symbolically, the name of this particular Marvel movie feels perfect for what has happened.
Over the years, Scarlett Johansson has suffered several Marvel-related indignities through no fault of her own.
A powerful voice at Marvel possessed what I would politely describe as outdated perspectives about women. Yes, he was a raging sexist of the highest order.
Unfortunately, due to the nature of Disney’s acquisition of Marvel, this individual gained outsized control and influence in the early days of the MCU.
Due to this behind-the-scenes drama, Black Widow didn’t receive a standalone movie at the natural time in the franchise’s history.
I would argue Black Widow should have entered production soon after Marvel’s The Avengers, a 2012 release.
Instead, Johansson waited nearly a decade for her chance as a female action heroine in a standalone project.
Similarly, Marvel and Disney failed to meet expectations regarding Black Widow merchandise. Here’s a Vanity Fair article from 2015 about the fiasco.
Folks, Scarlett Johansson has earned several huge paychecks from Disney. However, she’s also faced frequent questions about subject matter beyond her control.
Before July of 2021, the actress held her tongue. She even recently agreed to work with Disney on another potential title, the film adaptation of Tower of Terror.
What caused a patient, reasonable woman to turn on Disney? She maintains that she lost a fortune due to the day-and-date strategy of Black Widow.
Disney points out that her contract paid her $20 million, which has been a standard price for celebrities in projects like this going back to the 1980s.
Johansson believes that she personally lost $50 million because the film wasn’t exclusive to theaters. A court may decide whether she’s right.
What Does Black Widow Have to Do with Iger and Chapek?
Bob Iger has turned check-writing into an art form. Just the other day, I read an AP article from 2009 that questioned how the Marvel acquisition would pay for itself.
This analysis came out after Iger had excelled with the Pixar purchase but before he did the same with Star Wars.
Iger has staked a claim as the greatest evaluator and collector of IP since the days of Kirk Kerkorian and Ted Turner.
Meanwhile, Chapek relied heavily on IP for theme park attractions. So, he has demonstrable skill in this area.
What he doesn’t have is experience in dealing with Hollywood talent. If you follow the movie industry, you may recall that Jason Kilar just suffered the same fate.
The two men share parallels in that they’re trying to run arguably the two most revered film businesses ever during a pandemic.
They’re taking on that task while also battling disruption in media consumption. That’s why both leaders committed to their streaming services.
Unfortunately, neither of them communicated well with the talent. In Kilar’s case, it’s going to get him fired.
With Chapek, these two recent reports place the blame squarely at his feet for impractical, possibly arrogant conduct.
For the body of 15 years, Disney’s film division involved an easily understandable infrastructure with Alan Horn at the top, reporting to Iger.
Chapek wanted something similar, which led to the ascension of Daniel. However, Chapek lacks the relationships with Hollywood talent.
A reasonable person would have relied on Iger to massage any hiccups in the process.
Alas, these sources hint – unsourced, I should add – that Iger and Chapek barely speak. For this reason, the Black Widow situation escalated quickly.
Ignoring Good Advice
Marvel’s leader, Kevin Feige, reportedly asked Disney to make good with Johansson.
Perhaps no one else at Disney understands Hollywood better than Feige. In fact, he’s royalty as the most powerful film producer on the planet.
The MCU’s box office will cross $23 billion next month. To them, $50 million seems like chump change, as box office reflects only a small part of Marvel’s revenue.
We must factor in ancillary monies from merchandising plus the fact that the new television shows drive subscriptions on Disney+, Disney’s most important core business today.
Chapek jeopardized all that in his suddenly public feud with Johansson. Even worse, the whole thing was avoidable if he had just listened to Feige.
Alternatively, Iger could have gotten involved. While these inflammatory headlines point to a rift between the two Disney CEOs, I recognize something more alarming.
I worry that Chapek fears perceived weakness if/when he leans on Iger to smooth things over with talent.
As strange as this sounds, Chapek is already approaching 18 months as CEO.
To him, utilizing Iger may feel like having to move back in with your parents after college.
Plus, the new Disney has grown more powerful than ever before. It’s a Fortune 50 company hovering at 27 as I type this.
Chapek is in charge now, and he may want Hollywood to understand he does things his own way. Iger might have taken the diplomatic route with the talent.
Apparently, Chapek will burn bridges as needed to make a point. Is this a smart way to lead?
I suspect Iger would say no, but, circling back to the college graduate analogy, you must let your child make their own mistakes.
Disney made a rare unforced error with Scarlett Johansson. Its CEO must learn from this misstep.
Feature Image: Disney