With his predecessor Bob Iger now out of the way, Bob Chapek is fleshing out his vision for The Walt Disney Company.
In an internal memo to staff, the CEO has described three “strategic pillars” that will secure Disney’s success as it heads into its centenary next year. He thanks Iger, who stepped down as CEO in February 2020 but stayed on as executive chairman until the end of last year, for leaving a “tremendous foundation.”
Chapek opens by acknowledging staff’s “talent, dedication, and optimism during the most disruptive time in our company’s history,” singling out those who worked in offices or parks, or balanced work with childcare at home, during the pandemic. “I also appreciate your patience as we begin reopening our offices,” he writes. “Our long-term goal is to provide greater flexibility, and your leaders will be in touch as plans evolve.”
He then moves on to his three pillars. His comments are reproduced below alongside our analysis:
First, storytelling excellence. What makes Disney so unique is that the stories we tell mean something to people. They inspire, give hope, bring us together, illuminate the world around us, and create memories. That is Disney magic, and we must continue to set the creative bar higher and higher. To that end — and in addition to all my other creative meetings — I am establishing a new standing monthly meeting with our senior creative leaders to discuss the opportunities we face as a storytelling enterprise. This will encourage collaboration, sharing of best practices, and stimulate cross-studio ideation.
Analysis: Iger took a strong interest in creative matters: as executive chairman, he focused on this area. Chapek’s background is in the company’s operational side, and he is often painted as a “numbers man” who lacks artistic sensibility.
The CEO clearly resents this assumption, recently telling the Financial Times, “I’ve seen creativity in this company through every lens possible.” He has reportedly become increasingly engaged with creative issues over the past year, and the new monthly meetings seem like a way to further assert himself here.
The memo mentions “cross-studio ideation.” With co-chairman Alan Horn gone, the studios group is now under the sole leadership of chairman Alan Bergman, who is also seen as business-minded rather than creative. It remains to be seen how the leaders of the studios, including Pixar, Marvel, and Lucasfilm, work with him and each other.
Second, innovation. Since Steamboat Willie, we have been the world’s foremost innovative storytellers. That must continue as technology evolves, giving our creative teams new canvases like the metaverse on which to paint. We should be especially innovative as we seek to bring stories to life in new ways — particularly if they enhance what many call our “franchise ecosystem,” which is one of the things that sets us apart.
Analysis: “Metaverse” is the tech buzzword du jour, and Chapek gives no details here. Nor has he elsewhere, really, other than suggesting that the parks and Disney+ will be involved. But the company has very real ambitions here, as indicated by a recent patent for a system that creates immersive virtual environments in venues.
The “franchise ecosystem” is a key legacy of Iger’s. Marvel, Star Wars, Toy Story, The Simpsons, Ice Age: all came under the Disney umbrella through his deal-making savvy. Developing these and home-grown Disney franchises became central to corporate strategy, and record profits ensued. Chapek is confirming that he will retain this approach.
And third, relentless focus on our audience. We are a big company with many constituents and stakeholders, all of whom have a place in our decision-making. But at the end of the day, our most important guide — our North Star — is the consumer. Right now, their behavior tells us and our industry that the way they want to experience entertainment is changing — and changing fast thanks to technology and the pandemic. We must evolve with our audience, not work against them. And so we will put them at the center of every decision we make.
Analysis: Here, Chapek resumes a big theme of his tenure so far: consumers’ changing expectations of how content is delivered to them. With surprising boldness, the CEO has restructured the company to promote the importance of streaming, assigning distribution decisions to a new unit under his ally Kareem Daniel. The unit flexed its muscles last week, announcing that Pixar’s Turning Red would skip theaters and head straight to Disney+.
Whether the pandemic has necessitated change on this scale, or merely given Chapek a pretext for doing what he would have done anyway, is up for debate. And as long as Covid is around, it won’t be clear what audiences want in the long term.
Either way, Disney’s pivot to streaming is well underway. The disruption has angered artists and actors, as well as studio executives, who have lost power to Daniel’s unit. Chapek’s anodyne language cloaks that discord.