On Tuesday, Bob Iger announced that he is stepping down from his role as the CEO of Disney to a less demanding position as executive chairman of the company. But before I discuss the future of Disney, I’d like to give some background on the company’s past.
Micheal Eisner, who served as Disney’s CEO from 1984 to 2005, once famously wrote:
“We have no obligation to make art. We have no obligation to make history. We have no obligation to make a statement. But to make money, it is often important to make history, to make art, or to make some significant statement … In order to make money, we must always make entertaining movies, and if we make entertaining movies, at times we will reliably make history, art, a statement, or all three.”
These words were circulated around the Hollywood community and inevitably trickled down to Eisner’s protege and eventual replacement, Bob Iger. He took these words as gospel. Over Iger’s 14 years as CEO of Disney, the company has pursued aggressive, high-risk acquisitions that include the acclaimed Pixar Studios, a majority stake in the streaming giant Hulu, LucasFilm, Marvel Entertainment and, most recently, 20th Century Studios. As of 2020, 13 out of the top 20 grossing films of all time were made under Iger’s tenure, including smash hits like “Frozen” and “Avengers: Endgame.” Iger’s time as head of Disney marked an incredibly profitable period for the company and its investors.
Iger’s replacement, Bob Chapek, has worked at Disney for over 27 years. He formerly had the position of Chairman of Disney Parks, Experiences and Products, where he supervised projects like the new Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge themepark and the rebranding of the classic Disneyland ride Tower of Terror into Guardians of the Galaxy – Mission: BREAKOUT! This controversial decision angered many diehard Disney Parks fans, who thought Chapek was throwing away Disneyland’s history in favor of profits. This all begs the question: what does a Disney monopoly mean for the art of film and animation?
Remember Eisner’s words at the beginning of this article: “We have no obligation to make art. We have no obligation to make history. We have no obligation to make a statement.” Over the past decade, Disney has banked on nostalgia by reliably producing a live-action remake of a beloved Disney animated film every six months or so. These films are incredibly profitable: 2019’s “The Lion King” made over $1.657 billion in the box office alone. However, do these remakes actually add anything new to film as a medium? Will they last in the public consciousness? In my opinion, no. Disney is just repackaging old stories and wrapping them in a shiny, woke bow to make them more palatable for modern audiences. Disney has no obligation to make art; Disney has no obligation to make history. Disney’s only obligation and goal is to make money.
However, I would argue that the jig is up. Audiences and critics are beginning to turn to new sources for their entertainment. I don’t think that it is a coincidence that a South Korean film, “Parasite,” swept the stubbornly Eurocentric Oscars and countless other American awards. In 2019, Sony’s film “Spider-man: Into the Spider-Verse” introduced groundbreaking animation styles and techniques that propelled it to an Oscar win over two Disney-Pixar franchise sequels, “Incredibles 2” and “Ralph Breaks the Internet.” Although Pixar’s “Toy Story 4” secured the win for Animated Feature Film in 2020, “Frozen 2” wasn’t even nominated for an Academy Award. Notably, three movies from smaller studios, “Klaus,” “I Lost My Body” and “Missing Link,” were given nominations instead.
Bob Iger has built a strong and stable legacy at Disney, and Bob Chapek will reliably follow in his footsteps. What this means is a future of mostly sequels and live action remakes: a stagnant time for the art of film at Disney. However, as a lover of film and animation, I hope that Disney will prove me wrong and begin to produce films with the intention of making something truly revolutionary, not just palatable.