The Dana Walden Discourse at Disney

Dana Walden
Dana Walden, newly minted Chairman of Disney General Entertainment Content. Photo: John Sciulli/Getty Images
Matthew Belloni
June 16, 2022

She’d never say so publicly, but Dana Walden has to be annoyed by how her big promotion played out. Walden has thrived for thirty years at Fox and Disney, most of that tenure paired with another male executive—first Gary Newman, then Peter Rice—who was considered the “business” mind while she handled the creative execution that generated all the value: Modern Family, Homeland, Empire, This Is Us, Ryan Murphy before he damaged his brand at Netflix. All pure profit, and better content, qualitatively, than most of the populist stuff that becomes megahits. Finally, at 58, Walden has ascended to the top TV job, the entire general entertainment empire, the role that reports to the C.E.O.—and instead of a media coronation, the headlines are all about the man she’s replacing. Ooof.

That’s not Walden’s fault, of course. There’s the usual sexism at play here. But she can mostly thank her new boss, Bob Chapek, for abruptly firing Rice nine months after renewing his $20 million-a-year contract, then allowing the news to leak before a Disney press release could spin the move. So instead of a fantastic creative executive scoring a job that she’s clearly qualified to occupy, the story was Chapek sacking a potential rival without notice, likely forcing Disney to cough up about $50 million in severance when the same decision last summer would have cost nothing, and botching the kind of executive transition that his predecessor, Bob Iger, had handled relatively smoothly, with everyone from Rich Ross to Anne Sweeney to Tom Staggs. The situation left Walden—one of the smartest and toughest executives in TV, as well as one of the most diligent curators of her own image—to watch as a bystander at her own party while the story spun out of Disney’s control. It had to drive her nuts.

Walden was also caught between her own ambitions and her personal friendship with Rice. I’ve heard the same rumors you have; about how Dana was maybe whispering in Chapek’s ear, prodding him about her future at the company, and reminding him that she, not Rice, streamlined the development and production teams for ABC Studios, 20th Television and the rest of the non-Marvel, non-Lucasfilm TV content. And it was she who had the better relationships with creators—the Liz Meriwethers, the Dan Fogelmans, the Lee Danielses—who make the shows that actually matter to Disney. Not Rice, who, by the way, wasn’t even a television executive until 2017. 

Who knows for sure (she declined to speak for this column, as did Disney), but I doubt Walden would undermine Rice like that—or at least not in an overt, him-or-me way. They’re actual friends (cue the cynical narrator: “Nobody in Hollywood is actually friends”), she knows his stellar reputation, and, more tangibly, she proved her loyalty to Newman at Fox, serving as a co-leader long after it would have been appropriate to ask for only one key to that kingdom. And if she did grease the transition? Would we all be talking about it if Rice and Walden were both men?   

Walden is politically savvy enough to read the room, recognize that Chapek and his mini-me, Kareem Daniel, would eventually not vibe with Rice—especially after Rice’s role was diminished in favor of Daniel’s group—and just let it play out. This may not seem like a compliment, but I mean it as one: Walden was basically genetically engineered to be a modern TV executive. She’s smart, buttoned-up, a little icy, a stickler for rules in a business where people are easily schmoozed, cordial and chatty at a lunch, but not too chatty. (The old pitch to creators used to be that if you want hugs, you sign with Peter Roth at Warner Bros. Television, but if you want a killer who will fight for your show, you go to Walden at 20th.) 

Walden was also raised in L.A.’s Westside shark tank and programmed with all the relevant experience: Creative taste, marketing and promotion instincts (she started as a publicist), friendships with the right people, no enemies who matter, an inability to hear “no” when she wants a “yes,” and, perhaps most important, an effective manager of her own bosses. I ribbed her a little last week about her penchant for ostentatious personal press, but since she arrived at Disney in 2019, she’s actually kept the spotlight mostly off herself, undoubtedly knowing that Disney frowns on that stuff in a way that Fox didn’t. (Though Walden is still one of only a handful of Hollywood executives who employs her own personal publicist, despite the existence of a very competent Disney communications executive whose job is to manage her press.)  Whatever Walden does, it works, and it’s easy to see why the talent and the top agents generally like working with her.

That term “talent friendly” gets thrown around a lot. Too much. I usually interpret it as simply meaning “more money,” and Walden has certainly made a lot of her creators rich, especially in the old backend days at 20th TV. At Disney, she and Rice have both been under pressure to shift deals to Netflix-style upfront payments and bonuses—and, as I’ve detailed, that has made Disney more frugal than some rivals. A retired judge called her and Rice out for cheating the creators of Bones out of millions. (The case settled.) And the so-called “S.B.E.” formulas have begun to siphon long-tail value away from creators, prompting tough conversations everywhere, but especially at Disney. 

But “friendliness” can often go beyond money. For instance, there’s the story of what happened, in 2017, when NBC announced at its upfront that the breakout hit This Is Us, a 20th TV production, would shift nights from Tuesdays to Thursdays, opposite the N.F.L. Fogelman freaked, so 10 days later, Walden got in her car and drove to NBC—keep in mind, she was the president of the Fox network at the time—and personally lobbied Bob Greenblatt and his team to reverse the move, which happened. There’s also the fact that while the Warner Bros. and CBS executives were making billions on mostly lowest-common-denominator sitcoms, teen dramas and procedurals, Walden was trying to do the same with a more elevated product. That’s ultimately what makes you talent friendly.

In conversations this week, several insiders mentioned to me that Walden is both loved “and feared.” That means if you have an overall deal with her, and she wants you to do something, you should probably do it—and her way. If not, she’s got a long memory, and your deal will be up soon. To me, that’s not unreasonable; that’s just smart business, especially these days, lest you end up in a J.J. Abrams situation at Warner Bros., where a $250 million deal and slow output can make you a potential victim of a newly cost-conscious regime.

Because I’ve written critically about Disney under Chapek, I get a lot of emails from shareholders. A few asked this week how the Disney TV content machine will differ under Walden, especially since Disney was losing its “adult in the room” in Rice. (This is not investment advice, F.Y.I.) The answer, from my conversations with Disney execs and agents who sell to them: not much, at least not at first. Chapek made this move because he was threatened by Rice—sorry, because Rice was “not a good fit” at Disney—not because of any perceived problem with the content operation. Plus, Walden and Rice were pretty much aligned on the strategy of supporting multiple content silos run by executives with specific content mandates, and the teams at Walden’s new divisions—FX, ABC News, NatGeo, and the branded entertainment unit—are all unchanged, at least for now.

There’s been some anxiety at Searchlight, which was Rice’s pet because he ran it for many years, but the Searchlight TV division seems safe for now. And ABC News, which is outside Walden’s wheelhouse and endures some media scandal every few months, has a new-ish chief in Kim Godwin, and is No. 1 in mornings (Good Morning America) and evenings (World News Tonight). So Walden’s biggest challenge there might just be helping Godwin chart a long term course for GMA if ever Robin Roberts and George Stephanopoulos decide to step down—and managing David Muir’s ego, of course.   

So while we can quibble about whether various shows are hits or misses, the mandate of increased production and differentiating content for Disney+, Hulu, ABC and the other platforms will play out as planned. Walden needs more Disney-branded hits for Disney+, and fewer debacles like the scrapped Beauty and the Beast series. She has to figure out whether any scripted dramas can work on broadcast anymore. But from my eyes, the content on Disney platforms is getting better. And if The Dropout, Only Murders in the Building, and Dopesick perform as expected, Hulu will have three major Emmys contenders next month that are all owned by a Disney studio. And Only Murders, from Fogelman and showrunner John Hoffman, could run for several seasons. (Interestingly, that show is not on an S.B.E. formula, because Fogelman’s deal predates it.)

People forget how insular the TV business is at the very top level. The agents and executives all grew up together, they socialize and stay at each other’s vacation houses, and they treat their kids’ events as business opportunities. Walden’s personal and professional lives, in particular, are almost interchangeable. She’s best friends with Jennifer Salke of Amazon Studios, and is close to Bela Bajaria of Netflix, arguably the other two most powerful female TV buyers. (I once called both Walden and Salke for a story I was managing, not realizing they were together with their families on the same boat; and Walden and Bajaria’s kids went to school together.) Walden is the godmother to Ryan Murphy’s kids, and she spent days in the hospital when one of them was sick, so it’s an easy bet that Murphy, however damaged, will return to Disney when his Netflix deal ends next year, if not sooner.

These people all thrive on being part of the insular TV community; they speak one language; they protect each other’s jobs and stature; and they come to each other’s defenses when challenged. Walden, who has still been in contact with Rice since his firing, is the consummate insider, for better and worse; that’s what Chapek, a Hollywood outsider, got when he promoted her, however much he is losing in Rice. Now Walden must tread carefully around her new boss. He’s gonna hate the inevitable stories that pop up suggesting she might become Disney’s first female C.E.O. And if Walden isn’t careful, she’ll be tossed just like Rice was, insider or not. But something tells me she’ll read the room well.