‘No Great Options’: The Iger Succession Tarot Card

Bob Iger
Former Disney executive Peter Rice alongside Disney C.E.O. Bob Iger. Photo: Presley Ann/Getty Images
Matthew Belloni
November 27, 2022

Bob Iger doesn’t even set foot and sweater vest on the Disney lot until tomorrow, and all anyone in Hollywood wants to talk about is who’s going to replace him. That’s one of the issues with this bizarre, recycled, “temp” C.E.O. situation: nearly every decision Iger makes in the next two years will be viewed through the prism of how it impacts succession—or whether, as some believe, Iger, now 71, will find a way to stay in that 6th floor office until he’s escorted out via an oval-name-tagged security guard or a coroner.

This is sort of the Disney way, of course. Ron Miller, Walt’s son-in-law, was evicted, kicking and screaming, from the castle in 1984 amid a hostile takeover bid. Then his replacement, Michael Eisner, famously resisted passing the torch, which led to the departure of Jeffrey Katzenberg. Under pressure to eventually name a successor, according to James B. Stewart in the Times, Eisner suggested Barry Diller, right before sending the board a nasty confidential note that “all but guaranteed that Mr. Diller would never succeed him.”

Iger got the job back in 2005, only because Roy E. Disney and other shareholders finally forced out Eisner, who was telling board members that Iger lacked “stature.” (Hilariously, Eisner was among the first to welcome Iger back to Disney via Twitter last week.) So there was precedent when Iger announced, and un-announced, his retirement four separate times. That’s how much Disney C.E.O.s cling to power. And now, while the board will ultimately name a replacement, Iger will have the loudest voice in the room by far. Last thing they want is Bob trashing his successor to anyone who will listen. Again

So who’s got the early juice and how will this all go down? It’s impossible to know for sure. I talked, texted, and emailed with about 20 keen Disney observers this week about the succession issue, and the most common sentiment was “too early” or “no great options… what are you hearing?” Yes, Iger has plenty of Bob Chapek cleanup to do first, but most insiders believe Iger is taking the replacement search seriously from the jump.

After making a bad choice in Chapek, Iger is said to be both motivated to fix his error and he’s clear about what he doesn’t want this time around. He’s said to believe that Disney needs someone with vast experience, of course, but also with an un-entrenched vision, and a great feel for the Disney brand and the DNA of the company—plus the ability to communicate it all to investors and the public. He will consider the optics of the choice, but they will not be determinative. And he has said privately that the person needs to exhibit “courage,” as Iger defines it. Meaning someone willing to go big, or to make an unpopular choice that needs to be made.  

Does this person exist? Or, more important, does Iger believe that this person exists? Unclear. The first sign will be if Iger moves anyone into a president and C.O.O. role, the job he had before becoming C.E.O. Some believe he will institute another job-swap thing, like when he made Tom Staggs (C.F.O.) and Jay Rasulo (Parks) switch roles in a bake off… only to pick Staggs, causing Rasulo to exit, before subsequently deciding that Staggs wasn’t the guy either. Regardless of the set-up, most believe that within a year or 18 months, there will be one or more persons in the heir apparent spot. 

Who? Only Iger seems to know at this point, though many seem to have an opinion on who it should be. So here is the early rundown and buzz, based on my own research and conversations with those in and around Disney. A caveat, of course, that with Iger, the frontrunners have never ultimately fared too well.

The Current Employees

Only five of Iger’s direct reports are considered even semi-credible contenders…

Alan Bergman, 56

Chairman, Disney Studios Content

He’s got… the steady hand; Bergman has worn embroidered mouse ears for more than 25 years, serving as studio president from 2005 to 2019, and successfully integrating all the companies that Iger bought, like Pixar, Lucasfilm, Marvel, and now Fox; he’s played the long game and has the respect of the creative executives.

Yeah, but… he’s not considered creative himself; and despite the tenure at the company, he’s never moved beyond the studio division. 

Josh D’Amaro, 51

Chairman, Disney Parks, Experiences and Products

He’s got… charisma, and is loved by the parks and cruises fans that hated Chapek; a Disney lifer (he’s the most likely of these contenders to sleep in Mickey PJs); and, though it doesn’t matter at all, he’s got by far more Instagram followers (148,000) than his rivals.

Yeah, but… Two words: Bob Chapek; Iger can’t replace the parks guy with the parks guy, can he? And unlike Chapek, D’Amaro hasn’t worked anywhere except parks.

Christine McCarthy, 67

Senior Executive Vice President and Chief Financial Officer

She’s got… financial chops, of course; and her loyalties now seem clear, given the reporting this week about her expressing a lack of confidence in Chapek to the board; Iger and the half-female board would love to name the company’s first woman leader.

Yeah, but… She’s got no creative experience, and is barely younger than Iger; also, as a Chapek right-hand for three years, sitting next to him on all those cringey earnings calls, McCarthy may be perceived as tainted or as having played both sides. Some even question whether Iger will replace her. 

Jimmy Pitaro, 53

Chairman, ESPN and Sports Content

He’s got… charm, and a very profitable (yet declining) unit; plus a good relationship with Iger, to the extent that matters.

Yeah, but… Disney might not even own ESPN in two years; the unit is not very integrated with the rest of the company, and it’s not the crown jewel as it once was; some perceive Pitaro as inexperienced in the broader business or not bold enough for the top job.

Dana Walden, 58

Chairman, Disney General Entertainment Content

She’s got… Huge ambition, A-level savvy, extensive creative experience and deep TV relationships; also has the backing of the talent community (many of whom, not coincidentally, she’s made very rich over the years); looks and speaks the statesperson part; female. 

Yeah, but… Dana’s name came up a lot this week, but let’s pump the brakes a bit. She’s got zero experience in the non-TV parts of Disney, and for most of her career she was paired with Gary Newman, a business-side executive. She’s held her current job for only about five months, is not known by Wall Street, and M&A—the engine of the company for the past 15 years—would be completely new to her. Iger may also consider her too “elastic” for the Disney brand, given her experience with the racier content on Hulu. Let’s see if Bob gives Dana a broader, or totally different, role in the next few months. 

The Recent Employees

Disney’s castoffs have always remained classy (in public) toward the company, which could help facilitate their return…

Kevin Mayer, 60

Founder and Co-C.E.O., Candle Media

He’s got… the ideal dealmaker resume for a company built on M&A over the past two decades. And as the architect of Disney+ and the larger direct-to-consumer strategy, Mayer has a strong claim on the company’s future. He’s also remained friendly with Iger despite being passed over for the top job. My colleague Dylan Byers noted they had lunch recently. 

Yeah, but… There’s a reason Iger didn’t think Mayer was The Guy the first time. Bringing him back might also mean acquiring Candle, his Blackstone-backed startup that has been paying top dollar for content companies (including CoComelon, which would be a great Disney asset). Mayer said in 2021 that he was passed over because Iger “wanted to focus more on the creative side of things” and that “I needed a little bit more seasoning.” Since he left the company, he’s had a short stint running TikTok, done some digital investments, advised Warner Bros. Discovery, and now Candle, but it’s unclear if all that is enough additional seasoning for Iger’s taste.

Peter Rice, 56

Former Chairman, Disney General Entertainment Content

He’s got… solid experience in film, TV, news and sports, from his years with Fox; A-level talent relationships; a cool and collected demeanor; having been fired by Chapek, he’s the town’s most high-profile martyr.

Yeah, but… Iger has always been outwardly laudatory of Rice; internally, however, he was hot and cold on him, alternatively supportive and somewhat dismissive, according to insiders; some thought Iger believed Rice was “raised by wolves” (the Murdochs); and Rice likely wouldn’t return to the company unless Iger basically promised him the top job, which Iger is unlikely to do.

Tom Staggs, 62

Co-C.E.O., Candle Media

He’s got… perhaps the best overall credentials, having been groomed by Iger as C.F.O., parks chief, and then C.O.O; he looks and acts the Disney part; he’s a Spotify board member; plus, Staggs once performed the Heimlich maneuver on Iger so vigorously that he broke one of Iger’s ribs—and saved his life. 

Yeah, but… There’s still said to be bad blood over Iger’s refusal to anoint Staggs in 2016. These guys were close—vacationing, drinking wine together, celebrating Shanghai Disney—but not anymore.  

The Not-So-Recent Employees & More

This category will likely change the most during the search, but already a few names have emerged…

Steve Burke, 64

Former Chairman, NBC Universal

He’s got… a long resume and a longer history with Iger, as the son of Iger’s old boss Dan Burke, and as Iger’s one-time underling at ABC. “I taught him a lot about the TV and radio businesses, and he taught me a lot about navigating the ins and outs of Disney,” Iger wrote of Burke in his book.

Yeah, but… Iger also wrote that Burke leaving for Comcast in the late 90s was “a knife in my back.” Disney and Comcast have been enemies since the Roberts family’s failed takeover bid. Plus, Burke has been “retired” for a few years now, and wouldn’t exactly be a forward-looking pick.

Carolyn Everson, 50

Disney board member; Former President of Instacart and V.P. Global Marketing Solutions of Meta Platforms

She’s got…vast tech and advertising expertise as Disney attempts to replicate the cable bundle in streaming; Harvard Business School MBA; was activist investor Dan Loeb’s recent choice for the board, so he might have bigger plans for her; held her wedding at Walt Disney World (which I’d normally say is a huge character flaw but might help with her outsider narrative).

Yeah, but… she’s primarily an ad sales person; an unknown entity in Hollywood (or anywhere outside of ads, really); and there are other board members with higher profiles that might want the job.

Sheryl Sandberg, 53

Former Chief Operating Officer, Meta Platforms

She’s got… the digital chops, and the public profile, and the A-level tech and C-suite relationships; Sandberg was a serious contender for the job when Chapek was chosen, according to two Disney sources.

Yeah, but… she’s not exactly a friend of the creative community; and the Sandberg of the Lean In days is very different from the Sandberg of today, thanks to the toxicity of Facebook. 

Jeff Shell, 57

C.E.O., NBC Universal

He’s got… the most relevant experience among outside contenders under 60, having run Comcast TV and film units, plus sports, international, news, digital, and even some theme parks experience; Shell’s NBCU deal expires during Iger’s two year timeline, according to sources, and Iger might enjoy poaching from his arch-nemesis Brian Roberts.    

Yeah, but… NBCU’s Peacock and its 15 million subscribers is not a great calling card; despite having worked at Disney early in his career, he’d be considered a major outsider at a company that is not used to that in its leaders.