Bob Chapek’s Worst Five Mistakes as Disney CEO
I’m a devout believer that the least excusable mistakes stem from self-inflicted wounds and unforced errors.
When you face challenges and screw up, that’s totally understandable. Everyone struggles with adversity.
When everything is fine, but you unintentionally create your own drama, that’s a sign that you’re your own worst enemy.
For the past 18 months, Disney has fallen into the latter category as leadership has accidentally caused as many screw-ups as it has fixed.
Here are CEO Bob Chapek’s worst five mistakes thus far.
The Scarlett Johansson Fiasco
When Chapek took the job as head of Disney, critics lamented his lack of experience with the Hollywood studio system.
At the time, I dismissed those concerns, as Chapek had headed Disney’s lucrative home video division. As such, he should have known how Hollywood works.
Then, Chapek prioritized Disney+ as the core business model for the entire company. At this point, I felt confident he knew what he was doing because that was the right move.
Alas, Chapek fell too deeply in love with the idea of increasing Disney+ subscriber numbers.
This priority caused him to lose sight of the challenges in working with Hollywood talents.
Chapek released Black Widow on Disney+ without checking whether the film’s star, Scarlett Johansson, minded.
This choice cost her tens of millions of dollars, as her contract rewarded her with a split of box office revenue. Chapek absolutely should have spoken with her first.
In a span of a month, Disney went from hiring the actress for a Tower of Terror movie to calling her ungrateful and selfish…the week she was having a baby.
Thanks to a reportedly massive payment Disney sent to Johansson, the two parties have since made up. It should never have reached that point, though.
Chapek cared too much about his needs and not enough about those of others. It’s going to be a recurring theme here.
The Don’t Say Gay Fiasco
A recent CNBC article referenced Chapek’s perceived lack of emotional intelligence.
I thought of this belief in combination with the recent political dust-up Disney experienced.
Colleagues perceive former CEO Bob Iger as a highly political person with an acute mind for such situations. Chapek is almost childlike by comparison.
That’s not even a dig on Chapek. Iger planned to run for POTUS at one point. Of course, nobody does that unless they understand political machinations.
Conversely, Chapek believes that his best approach is to avoid politics altogether, a legitimate impossibility for a company like Disney.
Not coincidentally, Chapek’s naiveté has already caused Disney to take shots from the left AND right on two different matters.
The more combustible of those situations unfolded over House Bill 1557, the so-called Don’t Say legislation.
Reporters uncovered the fact that Disney had donated to the campaigns of several sponsors of the bill.
The company did this after adding a Fifth Key last year, Inclusion. Unfortunately, there’s…nothing inclusive about the Don’t Say Gay bill.
Chapek’s initial responses to the bill were tepid at best, as he wanted to maintain solid relationships with the legislators.
Then, the CEO found himself in a public spat with Florida’s governor, who recognized an opportunity to score cheap political points off Disney.
Chapek learned a harsh lesson that potential political allies behind closed doors are all too happy to attack Disney in the media for personal gain.
Disney has since stated it will no longer donate to political campaigns.
Chapek has also personally condemned the bill most vigorously, albeit a week too late. He got played here. Period.
The Forced Florida Move Fiasco
The political mistake ties back to a previous choice. Chapek and his team had decided that Florida made more sense as a home base.
The thought process here stems from the high cost of real estate in California relative to Florida.
So, Disney purchased nearly 60 acres of land in Lake Nona, Florida. Then, it required many Golden State employees to switch coasts.
Many of them chose to retire or find other jobs rather than move to Florida.
Many of the workers who have agreed to go to Florida remain in California for the time being.
As you might imagine, some of them are LGBTQ+ or friends/family members of those who are.
These cast members were already reticent to uproot their lives for Disney. However, in the wake of the Don’t Say Gay legislation, such a move feels like a betrayal of their values.
The Wrap has reported that Imagineers have campaigned for Disney to reconsider.
California’s governor has similarly stated his desire to keep Disney on the West Coast in a place that “actually represents the values of your workers.”
That argument is correct, independent of where you may fall on the political spectrum.
Disney employees skew toward the pro-vaccine and anti-Don’t Say Gay side, which is California, not Florida.
Chapek’s ill-considered ruling last year would force those people to move to a place where they already feel unwelcome.
If Disney had merely maintained the status quo, a multi-coastal business operation, none of these headlines would dominate the media.
In short, this debacle was totally avoidable.
The High School Dance Fiasco
The other way that Disney got hit from the left and right happened last week.
During the pandemic, Disney has ramped up its usage of high school performers at theme parks, especially Magic Kingdom.
Disney hasn’t brought back all its union-based performers yet, although it has taken recent steps to do so.
In the interim, these shows have filled the void. However, one of them proved…regrettable.
Apparently, a Texas high school doesn’t know what year it is and still performs a routine featuring “Indianettes.”
Initially, complaints arose about the fact that Disney wasn’t letting the drill team wear their headdresses.
Some folks took offense at that, which is…definitely a take.
Disney allowed the drill team to perform based on an audition tape it had sent. However, once the show started, well, it got awkward fast.
Park officials reeeeeaaally don’t want headlines with “racist chant” in them. It’s bad for business and even worse for the Disney brand. That’s what has happened, though.
This performance should never have gone forward. What I suspect is that the people who formerly approved such shows aren’t with the company now. They left for other gigs.
In that scenario, someone less experienced with vetting is in charge. It’s even possible that nobody was seriously vetting at all.
Someone will be now, though. I can assure you of that.
The Surging Prices Fiasco
We’re all familiar with the maxim that the sum is greater than the parts. That philosophy applies to Disney’s park behavior during the pandemic as well.
Management has altered some aspects of the Disney vacation experience as a tactic to overcome the unprecedented challenges of March 2020 through today.
Many of them have led to price increases. Most of the decisions appear understandable in isolation. In totality, it’s one problematic mistake, though.
Disney has *deep breath* eliminated Magical Express, exchanged free FastPasses for paid Lightning Lane experiences, required Park Passes, temporarily removed the dining plan and most annual passes, and raised many food/drink prices.
Now, you could argue that inflation is real during the pandemic. So, Disney had to do many of these things, and I would agree with you.
In truth, the only decision I believe Disney shouldn’t have made is the removal of Magical Express. Everything else is justifiable.
Even so, Disney has strengthened the belief that its park price increases are out of control.
You can look at the comments section for any Disney discussion, and it’s an inevitable statement from some. “Disney has gotten too expensive.”
Beliefs like that hurt the brand. But, thus far, they’ve had no impact on the bottom line, as Disney just claimed its second-best park performance ever for a fiscal quarter.
Still, if the economy ever suddenly suffered a setback, this unforced error would magnify in scope.
Disney has intentionally left some fans behind, but it may need them later.
Feature Image: Marc Piasecki/Getty Images