Disney Is Rotting From the Head Down


The Big Picture

  • 2023 has been a tumultuous year for Disney, with public ambivalence towards Marvel Studios projects and costly box office flops.
  • Disney’s current issues reflect past dark periods in the company’s history, where it was stuck in the past and chasing past successes.
  • Lack of new leadership and stagnant ideas have contributed to Disney’s struggles, but injecting fresh perspectives could help turn things around.

Though 2023 has technically been the 100th anniversary of Disney, this year in the studio’s history has been anything but magical. Rather than being awash with hits and acclaim for its business management, the studio has been going through endless turbulence all year. For starters, the various Marvel Studios projects (namely derided endeavors like Secret Invasion and Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania) have inspired public ambivalence towards the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Projects like Haunted Mansion and Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny turned into costly box office flops. Disney CEO Bob Iger drew justifiable lambasting after his cruel comments about Hollywood strikes. Then there are the dark lawsuits Disney is embroiled in, including allegations about engaging in gender discriminatory paying practices as well as the studio being sued (alongside other companies) by Julia Osmond for its role in enabling Harvey Weinstein (this convicted sexual predators company Miramax was owned by Disney from 1993 to 2010).

Needless to say, 2023 has been a nightmare year for Disney, especially coming off Bob Iger’s sudden return to the role of CEO in November 2022 after his successor Bob Chapek didn’t even last three years in the job. Rather than bringing stability back to Disney, the Mouse House has been embroiled in further mayhem reflecting how turmoil at the company goes deeper than just one CEO. While racist conspiracy theorists online will posit that Disney’s woes are about “wokeness”, a talented actor like Rachel Zegler being Snow White now, or “Disney doing a Love Bug remake with trans people” (actually, that last idea sounds kind of dope), the issues with Disney are rooted in its past. The company’s biggest issues in 2023 echo other dark periods of the company’s history when everything was rotted from the head down at “the happiest place on Earth.”

Disney’s History Is One Riddled With All Kinds of Corporate Drama

Image via Walt Disney Pictures

One of the most compelling books you can ever read about drama in the entertainment industry is the James B. Stewart tome DisneyWar. This text chronicles Michael Eisner’s tenure as CEO of Disney, a regime that began with endless promise and concluded with Eisner being ousted from the company after a shareholder revolt spearheaded by Roy E. Disney (the nephew of Walt Disney). It’s also a book that touches upon the two darkest periods of Disney’s history that most heavily echo the company’s woes in 2023. The first of those periods came in the early 1980s when Ron Miller was the CEO of The Walt Disney Company. DisneyWar captures Disney in the wake of Walt Disney’s passing in 1967 as a company stuck in the past to a dangerous degree.

A perfect example of this is how the marketing approach to major Disney movies, as late as 1982, was to simply let the features themselves do the talking. The then-head of marketing at Walt Disney Pictures believed, like Walt Disney, that word-of-mouth was all that a movie needed to be a hit. This practice didn’t fit with the way motion pictures were unleashed into hundreds of theaters at once by the 1980s. As a result, potentially game-changing features like Tron flopped at the box office. Meanwhile, nearly every measure at the studio (particularly in the animation division) was filtered through a thought process of “What Would Walt Do?” In trying to recapture the past successes of the company, The Walt Disney Company was now an arcane relic in the eyes of the public.

Enter CEO Michael Eisner and President Frank Wells, who ushered in a new age of prosperity for The Walt Disney Company…but no age lasts forever. DisneyWar chronicles how, by the mid-1990s, Eisner was ruling over so much of the company (Wells had tragically died in a helicopter accident and had never been replaced). Not only that, but petty disagreements and corporate politics dictated his every move. If the anecdotes captured in DisneyWar are even a fraction of the truth, then it’s a wonder anything got produced at The Walt Disney Company in this era. Everyone was walking on so many eggshells and, once again, Disney was now a studio chasing the past rather than innovating with new ideas.

Specifically, Eisner’s unwillingness to embrace the fresh storytelling of Pixar Animation Studios (DisneyWar captures Eisner as the primary reason Disney and Pixar nearly failed to continue their partnership) and his cornball notions for newer theme parks like Disney’s California Adventure were also frustratingly in the past. No wonder Eisner was forced out of the company by the mid-2000s, which allowed Iger to take over as CEO of Disney.

How Do Disney’s Modern Problems Echo the Past?

Scene from Tron 1982
Image via Disney

Even the glory years of Bob Iger in the 2010s (when Disney exploited early Marvel Studios movies and Star Wars sequels) set up troubles down the road. For one thing, Disney under Iger moved towards a blockbuster-only mentality for movies. This included getting rid of the Touchstone Pictures label (which produced original adult-skewing movies) and sending non-tentpole Walt Disney Pictures releases to streaming if they even existed at all. On paper, this sounded like a foolproof plan that put all of Disney’s theatrical revenue plans in the hands of Captain America: Civil War, Finding Dory, and other hits. However, it also ensured there were few, if any, surprise hits from Disney in the 2010s. The studio didn’t have to risk a bomb like Reign of Fire, but its 2010s were devoid of cheap sleeper hits like Pretty Woman, The Sixth Sense, and The Proposal. Ironically, expensive Disney flops from Iger’s 2010s reign like The Lone Ranger, The BFG, and Solo: A Star Wars Story lost way more money than Touchstone duds like When in Rome!

The limited film slate put a lot of pressure on just a handful of brands to carry the day. That may have seemed like no problem from 2015 to 2019, but in the modern world, it’s a critical issue. Disney doesn’t have any other major pop culture properties that can compensate for lower box office hauls of Lucasfilm, Marvel Studios, or Walt Disney Pictures blockbusters. Even newly acquired “adult” studio 20th Century Studios has slimmed down its annual slate under Disney ownership to just a handful of theatrical titles a year. There’s no way two or three 20th Century Studios releases can mitigate the box office woes of Quantumania or Jungle Cruise. Disney’s current slate of major films and TV shows (reliant on Marvel properties, Star Wars spin-offs, and live-action remakes of animated classics) is heavily reminiscent of the company’s default output in the 1980s. Echoes of the past are the order of the day in both eras of Disney and that reliance on the familiar has led to the conglomerate, much like in its time under Ron Miller, falling asleep at the wheel.

Then there’s a key element of Michael Eisner’s final decade at Disney that has now come back to haunt the company in the 2020s: the lack of new corporate blood. Bob Iger is coming up on his second decade at the helm of the entire Disney corporation (give or take those few years Bob Chapek was in charge) and there’s still no clear successor for him as the company’s CEO. Similarly, Sean Bailey has been residing as president of production of Walt Disney Pictures (the film arm of the Disney brass) since 2010. For comparison’s sake, Alan Horn was president of Walt Disney Pictures from 2012 to 2021. Bailey was in that same position before and after Horn’s reign! The current chairman of Walt Disney Studios, Alan Bergman, has been in a leadership position at this division since 2005, Kevin Feige hasn’t budged as the head of Marvel Studios since 2007, Disney Theatrical Group CCO Thomas Schumacher has been at the company since 1988, while even Pixar Animation Studios president Jim Morris is coming up on ten years of holding that leadership position. Disney’s leaders in 2010 and 2023 are largely indistinguishable, which helps explain why there has been a lack of fresh new ideas of risk-taking at the company.

With few newcomers in leadership to help push the outfit into new directions, Disney has become stagnant, just like it did in the final years of Eisner’s leadership. Also frighteningly similar to those last years of Eisner’s tenure? A super costly entertainment purchase that Disney clearly doesn’t know what to do with. For Eisner, it was the ABC/Capital Cities merger in 1996, a transaction that led to ABC becoming a constant problem for the Disney corporation (there was also the regrettable Fox Family purchase in 2001). For the Iger era of the company, it’s the purchase of 20th Century Fox and other News Corp. media companies. Disney loves having Avatar, The Simpsons, and the various Fox/Marvel characters around…but the rest of the creative projects the Mouse House purchased are an awkward fit for the company. Disney constantly seems at a loss on what to do with things like FX or 20th Century Fox. This conglomerate has once again succumbed to spending lots of money on splashy purchases that don’t pay off in the long run.

Can Disney Recover From These Struggles?

We’ve only scratched the surface here of the problems modern Disney is facing and how they parallel earlier eras of torment for the company. The struggles of Walt Disney Pictures in the early 2020s, for instance, totally echo how adrift this division was in the early 80s and 2000s. However, the key similarity in The Walt Disney Company’s challenges throughout the years is at the executive level. Whether the ruler is Ron Miller, Michael Eisner, or Bob Iger, Disney as a company always stumbles when its leadership has both been around too long and become toxically enamored with the past.

But nothing is entirely doom and gloom. Injecting new leadership (particularly leadership from younger individuals) into the company in countless departments would give it a massive kick in the pants. A fresh perspective on what Disney can be as a company and especially what kind of projects it should lean on would serve both this conglomerate and pop culture consumers globally very well. After all, Michael Eisner helped turn Disney around when he stepped in to rule the company after Miller’s ouster, while Iger lent fresh energy to the entity once he took over from Eisner. Disney is currently rotting from the head down, but as the past has shown, that doesn’t need to be the status quo forever.

DisneyWar by James B. Stewart is available for purchase now.

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