Disney reappointed Bob Iger as its chief executive recently, abruptly replacing his hand-picked successor Bob Chapek, and giving Iger an early goal — find a new replacement during the next two years.
Iger’s attention has quickly turned to the other part of his mandate from the board — the immediate challenges facing Disney’s business, such as the company’s reorganization, cost structure and the future growth of its streaming business. But that hasn’t quelled speculation about who his successor could be.
Media industry executives and company observers are putting together a roster of potential candidates Iger and the board will likely consider in deciding whom to groom for the role next. The pool of possibilities include former Disney executives who were previously considered the future of the Mouse House before being passed over for Chapek, a few internal rising stars and some sleeper picks who are either close to the creative community or already have ties to the company.
Another possibility some consider is that Iger, whose return was applauded by Wall Street and employees, sticks around longer than his two-year contract.
Here’s a look at some of the people who could be next in line to lead Disney.
Calling up from the bench
Before calling Iger, Disney’s board considered a few internal candidates to replace Chapek, but ultimately decided they were too new to take on the various pressures on the company, CNBC previously reported.
One of the candidates considered was Dana Walden, said people familiar with the matter who were not authorized to speak publicly on the topic. She is the head of general entertainment content and in charge of creating original entertainment and news programming for Disney’s streaming platforms, broadcast and cable networks.
Walden’s been known to have a hands-on role with content creators. In Iger’s first memo to employees following his reinstatement, he mentioned Walden as among the top lieutenants who would work with him on Disney’s new structure, which would put “more decision-making back in the hands of our creative teams and rationalizes costs.”
“Disney will likely choose a successor that leads with talent relationship capabilities,” said Eric Schiffer, CEO and chairman of Patriarch Organization and Reputation Management Consultants. “The downfall of Chapek is he maimed Hollywood relationships.”
One of the notable missteps made by Chapek during his quick turn as CEO was his handling of Scarlett Johansson’s pay dispute.
Walden took on her role in June after her boss, Peter Rice, was ousted after clashing with Chapek. Like Rice, Walden came to Disney in 2019 as part of the company’s acquisition of 21st Century Fox’s assets.
When she was promoted, Chapek had called Walden “a dynamic, collaborative leader and cultural force who in just three years has transformed our television business into a content powerhouse.” At the time, Disney’s board had put its support behind Chapek. Still, Walden lacks experience on business decisions, and has focused her time on the creative side.
Meanwhile, Rice may be interested in returning to the company in some capacity and has remained in contact with Iger, people close to the matter said.
Alan Bergman, who’s been with Disney for more than 25 years, is another potential candidate, the people have said. He is the chairman of Disney’s studio content and spearheaded the integration of Iger’s acquisitions into Disney’s overall content pipeline. He also was mentioned in Iger’s first memo.
In addition, Bergman has rapport with many creatives in Hollywood. Disney relies on those relationships, and he might have a softer hand in dealing with talent and agents than what was seen with the Chapek and Johansson dispute. Unlike other top executives at Disney, however, Bergman doesn’t have experience in many other divisions and has focused much of his career on studio content.
Another Disney insider floated as a possible candidate has been Josh D’Amaro, people familiar with the company have said.
D’Amaro is head of Disney’s parks, experiences and products, the same position Chapek held before becoming CEO. His long track record at the company — he began his career at Disney in 1998 and his positions have mostly centered around resorts — could bode well for him.
As does his charisma. D’Amaro is generally well-liked by his peers and the cast members at the parks and considered a strong leader. While there have been complaints by guests at Disney’s domestic parks that prices are steep and the ticket-reservation system is flawed, few have blamed D’Amaro. Instead, Chapek has taken the brunt of criticism, with guests and analysts assuming the former CEO was responsible for setting strict guidelines for driving more revenue at the parks and resorts.
Still, D’Amaro doesn’t have the creative experience that Iger is often lauded for. His resume is concentrated on the resorts and parks businesses.
Rebecca Campbell, who’s currently in charge of Disney’s international content and operations, is another candidate that Iger may favor, people familiar with the matter said.
The executive, who has worked in various divisions of the company after starting on the local TV side in 1997, is also well-liked. However, while she also has experience running the streaming business in Disney+’s earlier days, she was removed from the position and may not have the hands-on business experience to make the tough decisions facing the company’s media business.
If Campbell or Walden were to ascend to the CEO position, it would be the first time Disney had a woman in the top job.
A dark horse candidate from within the organization would be Sean Bailey, the president of Disney Studios, one observer said. Bailey, who’s maintained a relationship with Iger, is well-liked by the creative community.
Kevin Mayer and Tom Staggs were former Disney executives who were also in the running for the job before Iger settled on Chapek in early 2020.
Both left the company after being passed over. Many had pegged Mayer in particular as the likely successor. His name has once again floated back to the top of the list.
“This problem didn’t have to happen,” Engine Gaming and Media Executive Chairman Tom Rogers said on CNBC recently, ticking off the attributes needed for someone in this role, such as understanding the media business, a streaming track record, ability to build up franchise content and being a deal-maker.
“They had that person, it was Kevin Mayer,” said Rogers, the former president of NBC Cable. “They still have that person, he’s still the right choice. The board made a mistake, I hope they don’t make that mistake again.”
Mayer had been Disney’s longtime head of strategy, and was involved in deals like the 21st Century Fox acquisition.
Before Mayer left, he had one of the most important jobs at the company — developing and launching Disney+. Since leaving Disney, he had a short stint as CEO of TikTok and later joined billionaire Len Blavatnik’s investment firm Access Industries and became chairman of sports streamer DAZN.
Mayer and Staggs also run the entertainment startup Candle Media, where they’ve flexed their M&A experience with recent deals like Reese Witherspoon’s Hello Sunshine and children’s content maker CoComelon.
For Mayer or Staggs to return to Disney, Iger would likely have to acquire Candle Media. Mayer has outstanding obligations to acquired companies and has no interest in leaving his current job, according to people familiar with the matter. It’s possible Iger could see CoComelon as a good intellectual property fit for Disney+, although Iger said at a town hall Monday he isn’t interested in any mergers or acquisitions for Disney in the near future.
Somewhat outside of the Disney bubble, Mattel CEO Ynon Kreiz could be another contender, the Disney observer noted. Kreiz has sold two companies to Disney: Fox Kids Europe, which sold a majority stake to Disney in 2001, and Maker Studios in 2012.