Bob Chapek’s Empire of Insecurity 

Peter Rice
Former Disney executive Peter Rice. Photo: Roy Rochlin/WireImage
Matthew Belloni
June 9, 2022

Let’s say you’re Peter Rice. You’ve been running Disney’s general entertainment operation for a few years now, the past two under C.E.O. Bob Chapek, and things are going pretty well. Hulu, ABC, Disney+, the news division—with exceptions, the shows are getting better and more frequent, and your judgment and taste are helping grow subscribers. You supported Chapek’s controversial restructuring of the organization, even though it arguably diminished your power, and you get along fine with Kareem Daniel, Chapek’s right-hand-man. Your talent relationships are great, and you’re one of the few content executives who can credibly talk to filmmakers, actors, advertisers, journalists, showrunners, shareholders, and owners. You’re in a good place.  

So you think it’s nothing when you’re asked to meet with Chapek on a random Wednesday in Burbank. After all, if the new boss didn’t want you on his team, the professional thing to do would have been to say so before you re-upped your deal for three years last summer, right? Or if there was a problem since then, Chapek definitely would have told you at least once that he’d like things done differently. And he certainly would have offered constructive criticism, like all good managers do. If, God forbid, Chapek did want you gone for some reason, maybe as a fall guy for a Disney stock chart that looks like the final drop on Splash Mountain, or because of the industry chatter that you might do a better job as C.E.O. than him, he’ll certainly respect you enough to let you exit on your own terms—either for another gig or for a Disney producing deal, with all the usual nice things said about you in a press release. That’s just how things are done.    

You see where this is going. Instead, according to sources, Rice sits down with Chapek, who informs him that it’s not personal but he’s just not a “good fit” for the company. Rice asks why, Chapek doesn’t explain why. Rice asks for an example of something he should have done differently, Chapek doesn’t provide one. And that’s that. Just a few minutes. Like Rice is a Disneyland costumed character who’s creeping out his fellow Goofys. A press release is prepared to announce that Dana Walden, Rice’s deputy, is taking over. And no, despite Rice’s profile in town, his decades of talent goodwill, and the fact that Chapek already has a problem with the talent community, there is not a single flattering word in the release about Rice. It’s a pure, old-fashioned Hollywood execution. You at least gotta admire how little Chapek cares about optics.

My favorite Peter Rice story took place years ago outside the old Dominick’s on Beverly. Rice was hosting the holiday party for Fox Searchlight, the Murdoch specialty film division he steered from indie afterthought to Oscar perennial, and as the festivities wound down, we were all waiting for our cars. Rice exited the venue, took absolutely zero notice of the line, quickly grabbed his keys from the top of the valet box, where he had clearly asked them to be placed, slipped the valet a tip, and let himself into his own car, parked halfway down the block. It wasn’t that he had cut a line, or even that he’d pre-arranged his swift exit. It’s that he did it in plain sight without anyone noticing. Very smooth, very effective, and never in the spotlight.

That’s been the Rice way throughout his career. It’s what caused Rupert, a longtime friend of Rice’s father, who helped him move his British presses off Fleet Street, to keep promoting him, giving him Searchlight in his early 30s. In 2017, Rice slid from a film studio into the top television job, pretty rare. Then when Disney bought the Fox assets and James Murdoch was lobbying C.E.O. Bob Iger for a major role, it was the Brit, not Rupert’s boy, who got the top TV job. Rice kept a lower profile than many at his level—no ostentatious magazine spreads, like his peer Dana Walden favors, no deviating from the company line, internally or externally—and he usually positioned himself as the adult in the room. He is someone who will drive a hard bargain with talent, as he did in his efforts to switch Disney to a Netflix-style compensation system that avoids profit participations, but who actually enjoys the content he produced (an increasing rarity in executive suites) and relishes taking risks on artists. If Rice ever called a journalist who didn’t work for him, it was to try to keep his name out of a story, not to get himself credit.      

That’s part of why this firing has enraged so many people at the upper levels of Hollywood. Sure, the easy interpretation is that Chapek simply eliminated a rival before that rival could eliminate him. In that way, it’s Michael Eisner’s refusal to promote Jeffrey Katzenberg all over again. Executive insecurity on full display. The Disney stock has cratered another third in 2022, after finishing 2021 as the lowest-performer of the entire Dow. The streaming future is unclear, despite Disney going “all in,” as Chapek used to say. The Florida debacle has done lasting damage to the brand, and the Scarlett Johansson blowup has altered how the town thinks of the world’s biggest entertainment company. So, of course, the media has mentioned that Rice, an entrenched and well-liked content executive with decades of favors banked, might be a good pivot for a Disney leader. Could Chapek, who waited in the wings as Iger went through several potential successors before landing on him in early 2020, really not stand the usual industry gossip?

It’s true that Rice had met with incoming Warner Bros. Discovery C.E.O. David Zaslav last year before he re-upped at Disney, and that Chapek (and many others) knew about those talks. But so what. You fire a guy for being popular and good at his job? Chapek’s insecurities came out in how he treated Iger toward the end, too, cutting him out of decision-making and ignoring Iger’s communications person, who told him not to hire an outsider from BP, Geoff Morrell, to replace her. (Morrell lasted only a few months.) “It’s time for an activist investor to get involved,” one of Disney’s sophisticated shareholders emailed me today. “This was a horrible move. Disney has become uninvestable for me after this event.”

To many, the Rice sacking, at this moment, seems bigger than executive insecurity or the Disney spin, which is that Rice wasn’t a team player, and ran his group as a fiefdom. (I’ve also heard from Disney sources that there was some friction between DMED, Daniels’ distribution unit, and the content divisions, over late delivery of certain shows.) It’s another sign that Chapek, appointed in 2020 from the parks and consumer products divisions, just doesn’t get content. We have the I.P., he seems to be telling the town, so we’ll treat you Hollywood people however we damn well please. Actresses, creative execs, LGBTQ activists—whatever, they’re all just “cast members,” whether they wear name tags or not. It’s nuts how many people reached out to me today to say nice things about Rice. The filmmaker Danny Boyle put out a public statement. Others were just incredulous. “The honor and decency with which he has conducted his business makes him truly beloved in our community,” Boyle’s agent, Robert Newman, told me tonight. “I would say that I would take a bullet for him, but that hardly makes me unique.”

The Disney board is hardly blameless here, either. Let’s break down that bizarre vote of confidence in Chapek that was attributed to Susan Arnold, Disney’s board chair. It was ready to go and inserted into the New York Times story this morning. (Chapek initially wanted to hold the Rice news until after the market closed, I’m told, but he was informed that, yeah, a bloody executive beheading like this might leak early.) Then the comment was circulated by Disney P.R. to the media, saying, in part, “we are committed to keeping Disney on the successful path it is on today, and Bob and his leadership team have the support and confidence of the Board.” Huh?

The fact that Disney put that statement out says a lot more about Chapek and his position right now than anything in the actual statement. To me, he knew that firing a potential replacement would be seen as a sign of weakness, at a time when the word “embattled” has started following him around. So the Arnold endorsement—the first time the board has publicly backed Chapek amid all the missteps and controversies—was intended to head that off. But did it? 

The move was so unusually timed that the Journal, among others, led its headline with the public endorsement, not the Rice firing. But the market wasn’t fooled—Disney dropped 4 percent today—nor will activist shareholders be deterred, and most people I talked to today didn’t put much value on the statement. Remember, Chapek’s contract still hasn’t been renewed beyond February 2023, and the clock is ticking. Maybe his lawyer is deep in negotiations. Maybe. But if the board really wanted to issue a vote of confidence in Chapek, it would have just renewed his contract. Or it could have said that his contract will be renewed. It didn’t do that, so this statement almost read like an NBA owner who vouches for a struggling head coach a couple weeks before firing him. Who knows what the board will do? It’s no more clear today than it was yesterday, and Chapek continues in limbo, having to prove himself somehow in the next couple months in a very difficult market. And now he’ll do it without a super-talented content executive.

As for Rice, sources close to him say he’s not gonna jump right into another job. (Yes, they all say that, until those other jobs come calling.) Not surprisingly, his farewell email leaned into the value of creative talent, imploring his staff to “remain committed to excellence and always recognize that our stories are dependent upon the imagination and artistry of the writers, directors, producers, actors, and craftsman that we have engaged to call Disney home.” 

Rice is still in his mid-50s, and, as one executive pointed out to me, he’s “apprenticed with several of the great media moguls of the last 40 years: Iger, Murdoch, Peter Chernin.” He’ll run another major entertainment company, and probably soon. Added the exec, “He will look back at this moment, as brutally as it was handled, and be thankful that he was set free.”