Walt Disney Co. Chief Executive Bob Chapek has been leading the Burbank entertainment giant since February 2020, taking the role just before the COVID-19 pandemic shuttered its businesses.
Since then the narratives around Chapek’s tenure have largely been defined by people other than Chapek.
The Indiana native and three-decade Disney veteran was judged less by what he was than what he was not (e.g., he was not his revered, charismatic predecessor, Bob Iger). He took the heat for a high-profile legal battle with “Black Widow” star Scarlett Johansson over box office bonuses. And most glaringly, he let himself get caught between employees who wanted him to speak out forcefully against Florida’s Parental Rights in Education bill (dubbed “Don’t Say Gay” legislation by advocates) and conservative politicians and media figures who attacked him when he belatedly did so.
But now, with the backing of Disney’s board and a recent three-year contract extension, Chapek has an opportunity to turn to a new phase in his reign and close the books on those rocky early days.
Chapek over the weekend hosted thousands of Disney fans at his first D23 Expo as CEO at the Anaheim Convention Center, where the company previewed a bevy of new movies and shows for Disney+, teased James Cameron’s “Avatar” sequel and movies from Marvel Studios, Lucasfilm, Disney Animation and Pixar. Much of the content is designed to boost Disney+, which has 152 million subscribers.
“I think what this represents now is a chance for me to speak for myself, rather than other folks speaking for me and trying to create an identity as to who I am,” Chapek said in an interview at D23. “Thanks to COVID finally being in the rearview mirror, it’s a little bit liberating that I can speak for myself and show people where I want the company to go.”
Chapek spoke to The Times about the possibility of integrating Hulu with Disney+, the theatrical movie business and his ideas about how Disney can play in the metaverse.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Now that you’ve got the three-year contract extension, do you feel like you’ve been able to turn the page on the earlier part of your tenure?
My timing was impeccable, because I got the job and I think within a week we closed the company. That put us in an unfortunate situation, not only in terms of my lack of being able to speak for myself in the world because we were all locked down at home, but also because of the financial pressures that were put on our operation. You have essentially all of your revenue shut down and the heavy debt load from the Fox acquisition. You’re just trying to do what you can for your employee base to try to keep them going. So you’ve got no money coming in and a lot of money going out.
I was trying to do this new job from a computer from my home in Westlake Village. And there was a null-set. I had been in the Hollywood business for 19 years on the movie studio side. Then I spent the last 10 years not doing that. So people are like, “Who is this guy?”
So I think what this represents now is a chance for me to speak for myself, rather than other folks speaking for me and trying to create an identity as to who I am. Thanks to COVID finally being in the rearview mirror, it’s a little bit liberating that I can speak for myself and show people where I want the company to go, and I think this D23 Expo is the perfect place to do that. And the 100th anniversary is a perfect catalyst for us to lay out our new strategic direction.
After the political firestorm in Florida over what critics dubbed the “Don’t Say Gay” bill, have you been able to regain the trust of employees?
The advantage of having 200,000 employees is that we get to listen to 200,000 different points of view. It gave me an opportunity to get very close to those folks, because we listened. We took their points of view into account and we assimilated them into the more modern interpretation of what the Walt Disney Co. can be and will be in the future.
In hindsight, it actually acted as a big opportunity to welcome them in the fold, take their input and program our business around the needs of all of our constituents. The art of this job is to take the needs of all our constituents and blend them together. Our cast members have always been an important part of that. And really, for the first time, we got to hear their opinions on these things that might have been festering quietly before people felt more comfortable expressing their points of view.
Disney has had much success iterating on existing franchises. Do you think the company is doing enough to make sure that it is generating new franchises and IP for the next 100 years?
Well, I think if you sit through the animation panel that we had two days ago, you’ll see that a lot of the ideas are original. For us, it’s about a blend. It’s about a portfolio.
In terms of things that do have roots in IP, you can look at something like the “Star Wars” universe or the Marvel Universe, and I don’t think there’s any reason for anybody to suggest they might be less than vibrant. If you’re Kevin Feige, the move to streaming has given you the ability to tell stories in a different way. I don’t think “WandaVision” ever would have gotten made without a streaming service. I don’t think “The Mandalorian” gets made without that.
We have 11,000 Marvel characters. We have 11,000 stories to tell. We haven’t even scratched the surface. I don’t see that as limiting at all.
You’re making so much stuff exclusively for Disney+. How do theatrical releases for movies fit into your strategy? Does box office ever return to pre-pandemic levels?
The theatrical business is and always has been an incredibly important part of our overall way to reach consumers and show our films in their absolute best setting. We’re as committed to theatrical as we always have been. Part of the reason that we’ve completely ramped up on spending on new content is that we want to fully satiate theatrical exhibition as one distribution channel. But we’ll do that with films that have the highest propensity to succeed in this new world order.
We also want to make sure that we have enough content to fully satiate the opportunity in streaming, and that is much more than we ever dreamed it was. Now we’re finally getting to a steady state on both, and that’s a very good thing for us. I think theatrical will come back. I don’t think it’ll come back at the same level. Nor do I think it will come back necessarily in the same way that it’s always been. I think it’s going to be a business driven by blockbusters.
That’s already happened.
That’s already happened. We do have huge blockbusters that will live a full life in theatrical exhibition, but without the unnecessary requirement of us sitting on an asset for six months waiting for that next window to open up. On our films, we’ve been somewhere in the 30-to-45 day window from theatrical to streaming.
What’s really stood out to me in the panels over the last week is that, prior to this, filmmakers would almost sheepishly talk about their film going to streaming. Now, there’s no sense of that at all. They’re proud of it. It’s a completely legitimized distribution channel. And guess what. They’ve now caught up to the consumer.
There’s a theory that Disney has trained consumers to no longer go to theaters because they can just wait 30 or 45 days to see movies on Disney+.
It’s rhetoric that people like to promote that somehow people don’t go to theaters because films are available on Disney+. I don’t believe that. When a film does over a billion dollars in box office, consumers know that it’s coming to Disney+, and it’s not stopping them.
Are you interested in merging Hulu with Disney+ or more closely integrating Hulu’s more non-Disney branded content with Disney+? Right now you’re limited because Comcast still owns a stake in Hulu, which you’ll be able to buy out in 2024 or perhaps before.
When you ask our Disney+ consumers the No. 1 thing they want, yes, they want more Marvel. Yes, they want more “Star Wars.” But the No. 1 thing they really want is more general entertainment. And once we [buy out Comcast’s stake], we will be able to entertain questions like that as to whether we manage it more like we have in Europe, where there’s a six-brand tile on Disney+; or we manage it as a “soft bundle,” which is what we have now; or move to more of a “hard bundle” in the future.
Just for the folks at home, a “hard bundle” would give viewers access to all of these services from the same app, whereas now you get them separately even if you’re paying with one credit card.
Right. So there are going to be some people I think, eventually, who are going to want a frictionless experience. The consumer essentially dictates everything.
You’ve spoken before about your general ideas about a Disney “metaverse,” as a way of having virtual worlds interact with how people experience Disney in real life through the parks. What’s an example of how that kind of thing could work?
Ninety percent of our consumers around the world will never have a chance to experience our Disney parks. The question is, how can we build some experience that approximates it. It’s going to be different, but maybe there are things that you can’t do in real life that you can do with next-generation storytelling. Maybe you really want to get off the Haunted Mansion ride and go see that ballroom dancing scene. I can assure you that a lot of fans want to do that. You can get off any attraction at any spot and go explore Pirates of the Caribbean. Wouldn’t that be cool? Even if you have access to a park, we can make that happen in a digital sense.