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Disney Re-Ups Peter Rice Amid ScarJo Lawsuit Drama

Matthew Belloni
August 8, 2021

One narrative accompanying Scarlett Johansson’s bombshell lawsuit against Disney is whether new C.E.O. Bob Chapek can maintain the company’s status as a desirable place for top talent to work. A related question is how much Chapek, who has no experience making films or television shows and has declared his focus to be direct-to-consumer digital distribution, values the executives overseeing those talent relationships and the creation of the actual content.

Marvel Studios president Kevin Feige has been the subject of endless debate because of his connection to Johansson’s Black Widow and his anger over Disney’s handling of her dispute. But in the upper ranks of the company, it was no secret that Peter Rice, chairman of Disney’s General Entertainment Content unit and the company’s top television executive, was nearing the end of his contract, and it was hardly a sure thing that either Rice or Disney would want to re-up. After all, the company reorganization instituted by Chapek in October was perceived by some to have diminished Rice’s influence, separating TV content creation under Rice from oversight of how that content would be distributed, which went to Kareem Daniel, another executive without Hollywood experience. Rice’s name has been floated lately in connection with other jobs outside the company.

But Rice just closed a new deal, I’m told. Disney may not announce this (a rep declined to comment), but given the uproar over the ScarJo suit and the company’s public statement attacking her, maybe it should. Besides muting some of the Chapek haters, the move maintains stability in the creative leadership structure at a time when Disney has been upended to serve its streaming-first strategy. Rice instituted his own reorganization in November, eliminating the outlet-specific fiefdoms at ABC, Freeform, Hulu, 20th Television, and others, and centralizing support functions like marketing and publicity. More changes are coming, I’m told.

Rice is an interesting Hollywood figure: a mild-mannered Brit with deep family ties to the Murdochs who successfully transitioned from running the Fox Searchlight specialty film unit to Fox’s television assets. Bob Iger considered him an executive prize in Disney’s 2018 acquisition of 21st Century Fox, and while some thought Rice was even a candidate for the C.E.O. job, others wondered whether he would thrive as a relative outsider in the Disney culture. In the role, Rice has been playing traffic cop among the various TV units, figuring out what to do with Hulu, and overseeing Disney’s efforts to replace traditional backend compensation with the new “S.B.E.” formulas that reduce huge payouts—a shift that has angered some on the talent side. (You can read my column about Disney’s new “socialism” here.)

Rice is overseeing an enviable content machine, even if he now must hand that content off to others to determine what to do with it. We’ll see if that works. Such are the pros and cons of modern media company executive jobs.