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- Bob Iger stepped down from his role as Disney CEO on Tuesday and longtime Disney exec Bob Chapek took his place.
- Iger led the company through major acquisitions and record-breaking box office success, but he leaves the role at an uncertain time for Disney's future.
- The Wuhan coronavirus has already impacted Disney's business, concerns are being raised about Disney Plus, and the Fox merger has yet to pay off at the box office.
- Visit Business Insider's homepage for more stories.
Iger will remain with Disney as executive chairman through 2021, when his contract expires, and focus on its creative endeavors during his remaining time, the company said.
"In thinking about what I want to accomplish before I leave the company at the end of '21, getting everything right creatively would be my No. 1 goal," Iger told The New York Times. "I could not do that if I were running the company on a day-to-day basis."
Iger has downplayed the hasty nature of the announcement. He said during an investor call on Tuesday that it was "not accelerated for any particular reason" and that Chapek was identified "quite some time ago" as his likely successor.
But that hasn't convinced everyone. Investment firm Barclays called the announcement "abrupt and sudden" in a note on Tuesday.
"Given that Iger will remain with the company until his contract ends, it is not clear why the company felt the urgency to undertake the transition immediately," the note said. "Incrementally, the company did not name a successor to Chapek, which also seems to imply that the timing of the transition wasn't planned."
Iger led the company through major acquisitions and to unprecedented box-office success in his 15 years as CEO, and he undoubtedly leaves his role on a high note. But he also leaves the role at an uncertain time and the decision raises major questions about Disney's future.
Here they are:
1. How will the Wuhan coronavirus impact Disney's business?
Perhaps the biggest question hanging over Disney's Tuesday announcement was whether the Wuhan coronavirus, which has killed more than 2,000 people, had any impact on the decision, and how the virus could impact Disney's business going forward.
Research firm Rosenblatt mentioned the coronavirus in a note on Wednesday, saying that Iger now has time to focus on laying "the framework for the next decade of Disney content" while Chapek takes control of the day-to-day business.
"The coronavirus is increasingly spreading outside of China which, if continues, would likely demand greater allocation of time from the CEO of Disney," the note said. "This could have ultimately taken away from Bob Iger's focus on content creation, a specialty of his. Leaving Bob Chapek, a Disney veteran with 27 years with the company to run the day-to-day business while Bob Iger is still in the building seems like a good reallocation of resources to us."
Still, the coronavirus has already affected Disney. The Shanghai Disneyland resort (which Chapek was instrumental in opening) is closed because of concerns over the virus. In its earnings call earlier this month, Disney estimated that the park's quarterly operating income could drop by $135 million if it remains closed for two months.
Disney's global box office during the coronavirus outbreak is another topic of concern, notably its big-budget, live-action "Mulan" remake. China's nearly 70,000 theaters are closed in response to the coronavirus and the country, which is the second biggest theatrical market in the world behind the US, was expected to be a major force in the movie's international box-office haul.
It's unknown when China's theaters will reopen. "Mulan" has a global release date of March 27, but it's likely that the movie's China release will be postponed — a potentially damaging scenario considering its $200 million production budget.
"The longer this tragic situation continues, the greater the impact will be on all of the studios, their movies, and indeed all of the arts in China," Paul Dergarabedian, the Comscore senior media analyst, told Business Insider. "Of course, there will still be a natural hesitation to avoid public spaces even when the situation is contained, so release dates for the 2020 overall movie slate in China could change dramatically."
2. Is Disney Plus in trouble?
An essential part of Iger's legacy will be the launch of Disney's streaming service, Disney Plus, which debuted in November. Disney announced earlier this month that the service had 28.6 million subscribers. Its live-action "Star Wars" TV series, "The Mandalorian," was immensely popular with audiences and the show's breakout star, Baby Yoda, is an internet sensation.
But concerns are starting to be raised about the service's future.
Bernstein analyst Todd Juenger wrote in a recent report that Disney Plus had probably already reached its peak net adds and "there will probably never be another year where Disney Plus adds as many subscribers as it did in the first year, or frankly in its first quarter."
Many analysts believed that Kevin Mayer, Disney's head of direct-to-consumer and international, would succeed Iger. And the fact that he didn't land the job could signal incoming challenges for Disney Plus.
"The company has made a massive bet on streaming with its ~$70 billion Fox acquisition and the launch of Disney Plus," Barclays said in its note, adding that there was some expectation among investors that Mayer was a CEO candidate.
How audiences respond to Disney Plus' upcoming projects could be a major sign for the service's future. Though it has a deep back catalog of Disney content, Disney Plus is not releasing the volume of new TV shows and movies that Netflix is, placing greater weight on each new release.
Marvel Cinematic Universe TV shows, "The Falcon and the Winter Soldier" and "WandaVision," debut later this year (the latter was moved up from 2021). "The Mandalorian" season two also premieres this fall.
3. What's going on with the 'Star Wars' franchise?
While Disney has a collection of some of the most popular entertainment franchises in the world, from Marvel to Pixar, it hasn't quite figured out what to do with "Star Wars."
Yes, each movie in the new trilogy of the Disney era grossed over $1 billion. But they also each saw a decline from the last one at the box office and the latest, "The Rise of Skywalker," was the worst reviewed "Star Wars" movie in 20 years. And after "Solo: A Star Wars Story" disappointed (it made less than $400 million globally) Iger expressed regret about Disney's annual "Star Wars" release strategy.
"I made the timing decision, and as I look back, I think the mistake that I made — I take the blame — was a little too much, too fast," Iger told The Hollywood Reporter in 2018. "You can expect some slowdown, but that doesn't mean we're not going to make films."
He's reiterated that sentiment more recently, telling Bloomberg in November that there didn't seem to be much demand for "Star Wars" standalone movies.
Disney's "Star Wars" movies have faced production woes, from Ron Howard coming on "Solo" as director late into production, to significant script rewrites and reshoots on "Rogue One." There is a "Star Wars" movie on Disney's release schedule for 2022 that is expected to start a new trilogy, but its writers and producers (David Benioff and D.B. Weiss), exited the project in October. Disney has not announced any updates.
Other "Star Wars" projects have been announced, such as from "The Last Jedi" director Rian Johnson and Marvel Studios president Kevin Feige, but with few details or updates.
Disney also hasn't figured out how to sell "Star Wars" in the crucial Chinese market. "The Rise of Skywalker" flopped in the region and, to put it in perspective, each movie before that made less money combined in China than what "Avengers: Endgame" made there in a week.
With all that in mind, Disney seems to be betting big on Disney Plus when it comes to "Star Wars." "The Mandalorian" is a hit and more live-action series are in development, including a "Rogue One" prequel and an Obi-Wan Kenobi series. Fortunately, "The Mandalorian" suggested that the franchise can make the transition to live-action television with new characters and stories that satisfied fans new and old.
4. How long will it take for the 20th Century movies to pay off?
Disney closed its acquisition of Fox's film studio (which it recently renamed 20th Century Studios) and many of its television assets last year in a deal worth a whopping $71.3 billion. Disney acquired James Cameron's "Avatar" sequels and other major movie assets in the deal — but it has yet to pay off at cinemas.
Most of the 20th Century movies that Disney inherited have been box-office flops. During its Q3 earnings report last year, Disney blamed a $173 million quarterly operating loss largely on the X-Men movie "Dark Phoenix," which was made for $200 million and barely crossed that at the global box office.
Here are some other 20th Century movies that have underperformed since the Disney acquisition:
- "The Art of Racing in the Rain" made $33 million worldwide off of a $20 million production budget.
- Brad Pitt's sci-fi drama "Ad Astra" earned $132 million and was produced for $87.5 million.
- "The Call of the Wild," starring Harrison Ford, performed better than expected over the weekend with $24 million, but that's still disappointing considering its hefty $135 million budget.
20th Century Studios
"It will probably take a solid year, maybe two years, before we can have an impact on the films in production," Iger said during a Q3 earnings call last year. "We're all confident we're going to turn around the results of Fox live action."
Of course, 20th Century's slate had little impact on Disney's box-office dominance in 2019. The company grossed $3.76 billion domestically and $11.12 billion globally in 2019, both box-office records, and released six movies that earned more than $1 billion at the box office — including "Avengers: Endgame," the biggest movie of all time.
But without an "Avengers," "Star Wars," or highly anticipated Pixar sequel on the release schedule this year, 2020 won't reach those heights and the box office will be more evenly distributed between studios — another potential reason that Iger saw now as the right time to step down as CEO and fully dive into the company's creative aspirations.
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