Okay, whether or not you think it is justified, Bob Chapek, CEO of The Walt Disney Company, has had a lot of hate thrown at him since he took over the position from Bob Iger in 2020. No matter what decisions he makes, the man seems to receive nothing but criticism from fans the world over, including, admittedly, on this site. For crying out loud, he was blatantly booed when he took the stage at the 2022 D23 Expo.
In the week leading up to this article’s publication, and seeing the miles of comment threats shouting some version of “bald Bob bad,” I felt that someone from the Disney fandom had to share some positive light on his short and trying tenure. So here I am to do just that. Yes, Disney Parks are not the most financially-friendly places to be right now. Yes, the new attractions and movie projects leave a lot to be desired. And, yes, Disney has become a front in a brooding American culture war. All of these tough times and the unprecedented pandemic-justified events that came before it define a memorable part of history, and historic times call for historic business leadership. I am convinced that Robert Alan (Bob) Chapek will emerge as a positive character in this chapter of American Corporate History.
Here are three reasons why:
Bob Chapek Got Disney Through the Pandemic
For all of the love and praise his legacy receives, I seriously doubt that Bob Iger knew how to save money. Yes, the man made plenty of historic business moves that led to an overall increase in revenue for The Walt Disney Company. But that is not the same as being frugal, which is a virtue that his successor is continuously criticized for.
Bob Iger led The Walt Disney Company through unprecedented Theme Park development and Hollywood expansion, from the establishment of the Shanghai Disney Resort and the “fixing” of Disney California Adventure Park to the acquisition of Lucasfilm, Marvel Studios, and 20th Century Fox. The man knew how to spend money in a way that got people excited. But every yes man needs a man willing to say no. That man was Bob Chapek.
Think about it like this: It’s December 2019. Nine months ago, The Walt Disney Company completed its acquisition merger with 20th Century Fox at the cost of $71.3 billion. Just over three months ago, bank-breaking expansions at Disney Parks, Experiences, and Products were announced at the 2019 D23 Expo. Those expansions included the first of three massive new cruise ships and the development of a second “private island” destination in The Bahamas; a complete overhaul of EPCOT’s Future World area that demanded state-of-the-art technological innovations; the promise of Avengers Campus at Disney California Adventure and Walt Disney Studios Park; the creation of Star Wars: Galactic Starcruiser on top of the just-completed Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge themed land at Disney’s Hollywood Studios Park and its sibling land still under construction at Disneyland Park; a Frozen-themed land is underway at Hong Kong Disneyland Resort, and a Zootopia-themed land is underway at Shanghai Disneyland. Oh, and the entirety of Walt Disney World Resort needs to look good for its 50th Aniversary Celebration set to begin the following year.
All of that work–all of that money–is set into motion on top of all of the exciting and high-budget projects announced by the Studios. Then, all of a sudden, word starts to spread about some new flu-like virus spreading out of Mainland China. Three months later, every single Disney Theme Park, Resort, and Studio is forced to close. Suddenly that continuous windfall of revenue Iger was blessed with was shut off. For the next two and a half years, tourism prosperity and construction developments have been hindered by government mandates and widespread fear. Global supply chains corroded to shambles. Meanwhile, the bill Iger rang up still comes due.
The Walt Disney Company needed Bob Chapek and his frugality to tighten Disney’s belt to keep some growth alive while also paying for what was previously promised.
Bob Chapek is Not Afraid to Experiment with Movies, Disney+
From a matter of storytelling and creativity, I can’t stand Disney’s train of CGI-smothered “live-action” remakes. Besides Jon Favreau’s The Jungle Book, the remakes have felt like nothing but rounds of lazy recycling that rely on a generation’s nostalgia and demands for the closest thing they can get to official “woke” politically-correct re-writes. However, there is something about the projects that actually shows strategic genius. These remakes serve as essentially risk-free stages for experimentation and technological development.
Let’s look at the use of live animals in movies, for example. It could be argued that it is in part thanks to the work of Walt Disney Studios and its subsidies that Togo, starring Willem Dafoe, will be one of the last movies to use real-life animals during filming. Technology has advanced so much that CGI-created animals can now serve as a believable replacement. But let’s look at two examples of incorporating CGI animals into a “live-action” remake: 20th Century Studios’ The Call of the Wild and Disney’s remake of The Lion King. Sure, some blame can be put on the pandemic for Harrison Ford’s adaptation of Jack London’s novel, but there are still outside reasons to show that Disney’s remake would always do better. If not for the nostalgia behind the 1994 animated feature, then to probably at least see Beyonce play Nala.
With the help of Kareem Daniel, Chairman of Disney Media and Entertainment Distribution, the Chapek-led Walt Disney Company has been able to use Disney+ as a way to further the profitability of that remake-reliant experimentation. Why else would a feature film from Walt Disney Studios directed by Rober Zemeckis and starring Tom Hanks, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, and Luke Evans end up anywhere other than a traditional theatrical run? It is all a market test of filmmaking technology and “socially aware” storytelling without having to worry about not getting a decent return from a theatrical run.
Chapek also realized the need to experiment with and expand the digital and streaming side of The Walt Disney Company because it was its most profitable side. The past few years have continued to prove that when people are unable or unwilling to travel or get construction projects done, or serve customers, they are still willing to work and spend money from the comfort of their own homes. Just look at the success of Disney’s Encanto, which bombed at the box office. Chapek has had the short-term intuition to foster what is profitable in this tumultuous time. It’s pretty interesting.
Bob Chapek is Not Here to Make Friends (And He Can Deal with That)
Bob Chapek is a hard-nosed bulldog who is not afraid to do what needs to be done to keep Disney’s head above water and moving forward. After 15 years of apparent “yes-man” prosperity, Disney Fanatics and stockholders were finally told “no.” No, we can’t open the Theme Parks right now. No, we can’t continue dividend payments for the time being. No, we can’t afford to send this movie to theaters. No, we can’t go through with certain Theme Park plans that are not already underway. No, we can’t lower prices.
One also has to think about the “real” immediate power Chapek has over the different company divisions and ponder, no, he can’t stop the “woke” Reimagine Tomorrow programs. No, he can’t stop people from making politically-motivated (and dividing) casting and story decisions. No, he can’t stop the changes being made to beloved classic rides.
The bulldog is not there to worry about popular opinions. We are still picking up the pieces from the pandemic, and the most profitably optimal course is the one that needs to be charted–especially with a possible recession looming on the horizon. He is doing what needs to be done from a corporate and investor perspective.
But no matter how much validity numbers show, I don’t think anyone reading this piece can really understand how much non-stop ugly verbal hatred a single man has taken over nearly the past three years. To keep calm and carry on in the overall best interest of a company and its constituents while taking a consistent onslaught of hate shows a level of discipline and resolve that demands serious respect.
We can all look with our 20/20 hindsight and cry, “oh, he should have done this or that,” and “bald Bob bad,” but we have to accept reality at the end of the day. We have to accept that the overall Theme Park experience is going to be defined by the vocal as an overpriced experience for the quality it presents. We have to accept that the culture war surrounding corporate wokeness and environmental social governance is not going away anytime soon either. But I have reason to believe that when the dust settles, The Walt Disney Company will actually be tighter and stronger than ever before. And the person every Disney Fanatic will have to thank for that stability and security is Bob Chapek.
Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this article are the writer’s and may not reflect the sentiments of Disney Fanatic as a whole.