Bob Chapek’s move baffles insiders – The Hollywood Reporter

One of the media’s most powerful executives was meeting with a group of people on the morning of June 9, when he heard the news that Disney CEO Bob Chapek had abruptly fired president of entertainment and programming Peter Rice.

“Chapek just made another big mistake,” this executive announced. The market may have agreed: Disney shares were down nearly 4 percent when the news became public, a bigger decline than the market as a whole on Thursday.

Chapek’s decision to fire a respected, long-time executive as unceremoniously as possible unleashed waves of bewilderment and, for many, outrage — from the highest circles of Hollywood power to lower-ranking players. “There are very few things that surprise me,” says another of the industry’s most experienced executives. “It stuns me.”

Several insiders tell The Hollywood Reporter that the firing was another in a string of Chapek blunders, from Disney’s legal confrontation with Scarlett Johansson to the failure of Florida’s so-called “Don’t Say Gay” law. “Chapek picked another negative news cycle when he was just getting his feet back on the ground,” says a longtime communications executive.

Also receiving negative criticism was the board’s statement of “trust and support” for Chapek by President Susan Arnold. Some high-profile executives at other companies said the board has already sent a message of something less than complete confidence by failing, so far, to renew Chapek’s contract with just a few months to go before it expires. “You let the CEO arrive within a year of his contract expiring,” says one former industry player. “That in itself is a statement of non-support. A vote of confidence is absurd. It is the most Mickey Mouse company. It’s so dysfunctional.”

Some speculate that the board may now extend Chapek’s contract at an upcoming meeting. But, once again, there were the negative comparisons to former Disney chairman and CEO Bob Iger. “Can you imagine, when Bob Iger fired Anne Sweeney [the former president of Disney/ABC Television Group] that the board would issue a statement?” says an observer with previous connections to Disney.

Meanwhile, many Disney insiders reacted to the news with horror. “It’s awful,” says one. “It’s not good for the company. Morale is terrible.” Another adds: “I wonder if Chapek was aware that Rice held Zoom town halls and Q&A during the pandemic that really made him a presence in the lives of us grassroots schlubs.”

It wasn’t just Rice’s dismissal, but the way in which it was done that fueled the outrage. “When you fire the guy like that, everyone says, ‘Is this what he’s going to do to me?’” says a high-level executive at a Disney competitor. A source with ties to the company notes: “At Disney, at this level, you don’t treat [an executive] thus. You give him a production contract, you give him a cover story, you give him a party, you walk them out the door. If you have to execute someone, there are ways to do it. It’s the lack of touch. it’s like this guy [Chapek] doesn’t know how things are done in our city.” (Sweeney, for example, was allowed to announce her own departure in 2014, months before her official departure, saying she wanted to get more involved in the creative side of the business. And just a few days ago, Warner Bros. Discovery boss David Zaslav introduced Toby Emmerich at Warner Bros. with a soft-landing production deal.)

While Chapek is said to have cited a bad cultural fit at his brief meeting to end Rice, no explanation was given by Disney and sources say Rice received none at her meeting with Chapek. Many speculated that Chapek was reacting to the idea that Rice, who has had a long career in film and television, could have been seen as a successor — and could have been seen as positioning himself that way. Says a top industry executive: “My theory is that Chapek thought, ‘This guy is trying to kill me. Fuck him.’” (It might be worth noting that when Disney became involved in a backlash against the Florida law, Rice issued her own memo saying, “Personally, I view this law as a violation of fundamental human rights.” )

Says the source connected to Disney: “During all the press about the [Ron] DeSantis fiasco, it’s incredibly uncomfortable for a CEO whose power is fading to have the person who is seen as his successor sitting in the room with you. You kill that person.” It wouldn’t be a new phenomenon at Disney: Iger dispatched COO Tom Staggs in 2016, when Staggs was widely seen as Iger’s successor, and Michael Eisner abruptly fired Jeffrey Katzenberg, who was pushing for reassurances that he was next in line, in 1994.

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