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The man who animated Disney

How Robert Iger – a personable and vulnerable radical – became the most successful CEO of the past decade.

At his first board meeting as CEO of the Walt Disney Company in 2005, Robert Iger told the room that Disney movies were irredeemably lame. Over the previous decade, Disney Animation’s output had consisted of mediocrities and flops, and, he said, it was dragging down the whole business. Disney made money from television, theme parks, merchandise and games, but all of its income streams depended, to some degree, on its movies. Few children dreamed of going to Disneyland to meet the heroes of Hercules, or Brother Bear; there was no danger of either Lilo or Stitch becoming best-selling toys.

Just as worryingly, the Disney brand was losing its special place in the hearts of consumers. Iger presented the board with research that showed Disney was no longer the first brand mothers thought of as “good for their family”. Disney had been overtaken in parents’ affections by a new kid on the block: Pixar, which had launched its first movie, Toy Story, just ten years before. Iger’s brutal honesty was uncomfortable and even infuriating for board members to hear, but they listened. Then Iger dropped his bomb. Disney Animation could not be fixed any time soon; it was too far gone. The only viable solution was to buy Pixar.

Objections came thick and fast. Buying Disney’s upstart challenger might be viewed as a very public admission of failure. Pixar would be, as Iger conceded, “wildly expensive”, costing several billion dollars. Then there was the most unpredictable element of any potential deal: Pixar’s CEO and majority shareholder, Steve Jobs. Jobs had been running Pixar alongside his role at Apple. He had already taken Pixar into a distribution agreement with Disney, but the relationship was fractious. Headstrong, abrasive and mercurial, Jobs hated dealing with slow-moving bureaucracies, and had frequently clashed with Iger’s predecessor, Michael Eisner. Iger’s colleagues told him that Jobs would never sell to Disney, and even if he did, he would undermine and disrupt Iger at every step.

Iger remained determined to try. He wanted Pixar’s popular franchises, and he wanted its talented team to help turn Disney Animation around. The day after the board meeting, he got in touch with Jobs: “I spent the morning building up the courage to make the call, and finally did so in the early afternoon. I didn’t reach him, which was a relief, but as I was driving home from the office at around 6.30pm, he returned my call.” After briefly discussing a collaboration Disney and Apple had already embarked on, Iger said he had a “crazy idea” and asked if he could go to see Jobs in a day or two. “Tell me now,” Jobs said, intrigued. Iger parked his car and drew breath. “What do you think about the idea of Disney buying Pixar?” After a long silence, Jobs said, “That’s not the craziest idea I’ve ever heard.”

Disney bought Pixar for $7.4bn. The deal proved more successful than even Iger had hoped, leading to a string of mega-hits, both for Pixar itself and for Disney Animation, which was revitalised under the influence of Pixar’s leaders. The Pixar deal became the first in a series of bold acquisitions made by Disney under Iger. Over the following 13 years, Disney bought Marvel and its constellation of superheroes; the Star Wars franchise from its creator, George Lucas; and most recently 21st Century Fox from Rupert Murdoch. The company also went on a buying spree of the rights to sporting events on behalf of its sports channel, ESPN.

Iger has a good claim to be the most successful CEO of the past decade or so, in any industry. Disney is now a far bigger, more global and more vital organisation than the one he inherited. Iger, who is near retirement, has combined strategic clarity with creative daring: Black Panther, a project he personally championed, might be the most radical innovation in blockbusters of the past 30 years. Under Iger’s leadership, a company in danger of becoming a relic of the 20th century became the dominant entertainment behemoth of the 21st; five out of the ten biggest movies of 2018 were from its stable, including the top three. Disney has the closest thing possible to a lock on the global popular imagination.

If Disney is that rare thing, an old-world media firm that has successfully transitioned to the new, that’s partly because Iger is himself a legacy of the old world.

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Now 68, Iger has worked for three companies without ever leaving a job. He started at the television network ABC, which was bought, first by Capital Cities and then by Disney; on both occasions the new bosses persuaded him to stay on.

Iger didn’t go to a prestigious university. He joined ABC on its lowest rung. His voracious appetite for work, calmness under pressure and ability to get along with people meant he swiftly overtook better-connected and more experienced colleagues. Iger worked in news and sport under the tutelage of Roone Arledge, a masterful orchestrator of live coverage, who hammered into Iger the importance of storytelling, of wringing out every ounce of human drama from any event. Arledge taught Iger to think of politicians and athletes as “characters in unfolding narratives”. Iger helped Arledge turn ABC’s coverage of the 1988 Winter Olympics in Calgary into a ratings success by focusing on the stories of individual athletes, such as a charmingly incompetent British ski jumper known as “Eddie the Eagle”.

One Monday evening shortly after the Olympics, Iger was at home in New York, making dinner for his daughters, when his bosses called. They had just fired the head of ABC Entertainment in Los Angeles, and wanted Iger to take over immediately. This would be the first time in the history of the company that the person in charge of drama and comedy was not from the entertainment world.

Iger was vaulting from relative anonymity to one of the most powerful positions in television. He had no reputation in Hollywood, a town in which reputation counts for everything. He had no experience of working with actors and writers and powerful agents. He knew he would be looked upon by everyone he met as an empty suit. He realised the biggest mistake he could make would be trying too hard to impress: “I could be insecure… or I could let my relative blandness – my un-Hollywood-ness – be a kind of mystery that worked to my advantage while I absorbed as much as I could.”

On his first day, Iger was handed 40 scripts to read. He had little idea of even how to have an opinion on them. But as he listened and learned from his new team, he began to realise how much he already knew: “I’d internalised a lot by watching Roone tell stories all these years… There were important lessons about structure and pacing and clarity that I’d absorbed without even knowing it.”

Early in his tenure, Iger made one of the boldest decisions ever taken in TV: commissioning David Lynch, the director of Blue Velvet, to make a deeply idiosyncratic series called Twin Peaks. Despite the misgivings of his bosses, the show’s first series was a critical and commercial hit. Hollywood’s creative geniuses were surprised and impressed. In the years to come, Iger restored ABC’s prime-time fortunes on the back of shows like NYPD Blue and Home Improvement. There were flops too, such as Cop Rock, a police drama set to music, whose failure Iger carefully dissects.

At the end of the 20th century, movie studios and TV networks were combining into giant, multi-tentacled entities with global reach. By the time Disney acquired ABC’s owner, Capital Cities, in 1995, Iger was president and COO of Capital Cities/ABC. Michael Eisner, Disney’s CEO since 1984, did everything he could to persuade Iger to join the merged company except promise to make him number two. Iger agreed anyway. So began the first period of his career to follow a flat trajectory, after years of steep ascent.


Mighty Marvel: Iger personally championed the making of superhero blockbuster Black Panther

Iger respected Eisner, who had lifted the company out of the long doldrums that followed its eponymous founder’s death in 1966. He accompanied Eisner on walks through Disney theme parks, learning from him how to spot a poorly landscaped garden or an obscured sight line. But the two men were very different. Eisner was a pessimist who transmitted his anxiety to those around him; Iger was upbeat and liked to make people feel confident. Eisner was an unembarrassed micromanager; Iger believed in giving talented managers free rein. Eisner took an agonisingly long time over decisions, losing himself in data and analysis; Iger preferred to move quickly and follow intuition.

After admitting to Iger that he was reluctant to make him number two in case his own position was undermined, Eisner finally agreed to do so in 1999. Iger used his new position to explore the opportunities afforded by the internet, which the rest of the company, including Eisner, perceived primarily as a threat. Iger persuaded Steve Jobs to put aside his animus with Eisner and agree to a small but significant new partnership in which Disney supplied content for the video iPod.

But Disney’s shareholders were increasingly vocal about their dissatisfaction with the company’s leadership. ABC’s ratings were in steep decline, as cable channels and DVDs ate into its viewing share. Disney Animation was failing. The ongoing row with Jobs over Pixar was unedifying. At the end of 2004, Eisner announced he would step down after nearly half the shareholders refused to back him in a vote of confidence. Iger was named as the only internal candidate for succession, but he was the underdog. The board needed to signal a change in direction to the stock market, which probably meant the appointment of a high-profile external candidate such as Meg Whitman, former CEO of Hewlett-Packard.

Tainted by the failures of the company’s past decade, Iger had to think hard about how to convince the board he was the future rather than the past. He knew Disney’s business better than anyone and prepared detailed solutions for every problem. But he realised he was in danger of letting the trees obscure the wood: “My overall vision lacked clarity and inspiration.” If he won, it would be because he told the most captivating story of change.

In interviews with the board, Iger laid out three simple priorities. Under his leadership, Disney would strive to regain the pioneering attitude towards technology it embodied when Walt Disney first spotted the potential of animation as a storytelling tool. It would aggressively expand into China and India. Most importantly, Disney would invest heavily in high-quality, highly branded stories.

This was his multibillion-dollar insight. At the time, YouTube was only a year old and Netflix was a DVD delivery service. But it was clear that everything was about to change. Pundits predicted a bottom-up revolution of content creation that would destroy the old world of mass entertainment brands. The internet, it was said, allowed everyone to create their own individual niche; to watch shows designed specifically for their lives. Iger made a different bet. He saw that in a world in which content of every kind was proliferating wildly, consumers needed clearly signposted paths through the overgrown garden. The value of the very best, most popular and famous stories would only increase.

Media commentators like to celebrate “digital natives”, who grew up in the online era, over “digital immigrants”, who remember what life was like before broadband. In doing so they forget that, as in other contexts, immigrants can teach natives a thing or two. In his mission to make Disney viable for the century to come, Iger was applying, on a global scale, lessons he learned in the past one, under Roone Arledge, about the enduring, irresistible draw of character and narrative, and the magic of communally experienced events. He understood that the new world wouldn’t just be about distribution and data. He knew, to his bones, that people will always gather to hear stories of humans doing extraordinary things, whether they be Eddie the Eagle or Black Panther.

For Disney, Iger was perceived as the safe-but-dull choice at a time when the company needed to take a risk. But, just as he did when he moved to Hollywood, Iger unveiled a quietly radical vision and made an unanswerable case for it. With some trepidation, Disney’s board appointed him CEO – without realising quite what a ride he was about to take them on.

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His memoir, The Ride of a Lifetime, is crisply written (Iger made a shrewd choice of collaborator in Joel Lovell, a first-rate magazine journalist). Somewhat ironically it is a little lacking in drama, partly because Iger never fails in a spectacular way, and also because he seems so, well, nice. Of course, most memoirs seek to put their author in the best possible light, but they often do so by portraying them as fearless and far-seeing. Iger does not pretend to genius. He points out that the plan he put to the board when he took over was not a work of blinding revelation but common sense, albeit of an unusually penetrating variety. If he wants to convince us of anything, it’s that you can be powerful and human at the same time.

Take another look at Iger’s description of the day he called Jobs: “I spent the morning building up the courage to make the call… I didn’t reach him, which was a relief.” Successful business leaders, especially male ones, do not often admit moments of vulnerability in their dealings with other men. Iger’s book works as an argument for the importance of emotional intelligence in business, particularly in industries where people love what they make.

His acquisitions were never simply about agreeing a purchase price. He had to convince Jobs, and then Pixar’s creative leaders, that he truly valued what was special about their company. He had to persuade George Lucas to give a part of himself away (“When I die,” Lucas told him, “the first line of my obituary is going to read ‘Star Wars creator George Lucas’.”) Iger is a full-spectrum listener. Time and again, he gives an acute commentary on what the people he dealt with were feeling, as well as what they were saying.

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After the Pixar deal, Jobs became an active member of Disney’s board and an adviser to Iger. The story of how their relationship deepened, in the relatively short time they knew each other, is touching. Iger was born only four years before Jobs but he might have been from a different generation. Iger wears business suits and keeps his hair short. He is fastidiously courteous. Jobs was a child of the counterculture who wore faded jeans and polo-necks, and could shout and scream at people who frustrated him. But Iger liked Jobs’s candour and zeal, while Jobs respected Iger’s unostentatious audacity. When Disney’s bid for Pixar was closing, Jobs took Iger aside to tell him that his cancer had returned. The only other person who knew was Jobs’s wife, Laurene Powell. After her husband’s death, she confided to Iger that Jobs had told her, “I love that guy.”

There are lacunae in Iger’s narrative. He doesn’t discuss a recent controversy over his $65m pay package. Abigail Disney, a scion of the family with no connection to the company, is his most prominent critic. It’s not personal – she calls Iger “brilliant” – but she questions whether such a gulf between the company’s lowest-paid staff and its boss is justifiable. Iger should have addressed this, not least because he is a former long-time Democrat with political ambitions.

I also wanted more insight into the Murdoch deal, which was a long time in the making and required him to navigate the delicate politics of that family. Iger hints at the fury of Lachlan, Rupert’s eldest son, who was expecting to take over a vast empire, only to see Daddy selling off most of it. He tells us nothing about how he managed the ego of James Murdoch, who for a while was allowed to believe he might secure a senior position in the merged company as part of the deal, even though I suspect that Iger would never have assigned him any job more important than, say, driver of the Seven Dwarfs Mine Train. Overall though, The Ride of a Lifetime is an entertaining example of a business memoir whose author does not pretend to be a superhero.

In 2018 Iger and Disney announced the launch of a streaming service, called Disney+. For a monthly fee, significantly lower than a Netflix subscription, viewers will be able to access the company’s library of children’s movies, together with new shows that spin off from Star Wars and the Marvel universe. Disney has relied on middlemen to distribute its content – on movie theatres and TV channels. But these days it makes sense for it to take its branded stories directly to consumers, under its own name.

Disney+ is not expected to turn a profit, at least in its first few years, and its parent company will lose hundreds of millions of dollars in licensing fees – for example, by pulling its movies from Netflix. Iger believes that unless Disney creates this kind of trouble for itself, it risks suffering much worse at the hands of Netflix and others. The new platform isn’t just about gaining subscriptions; it’s about keeping people inside the Disney universe. Instead of selling its content to companies that compete for the attention of consumers, Disney wants consumers coming its way when they want to spend time with Luke Skywalker or Buzz Lightyear.

In 1957, Walt Disney himself made a famous pencil sketch of the many inter-relationships between the various parts of his empire, with arrows pointing every which way, from theme parks to music to TV. At the centre of everything, with multiple arrows whizzing in and out, was Disney’s film business, the beating heart of the brand. Disney’s founder knew that without the cultivation of stories, old and new, the entire elaborate infrastructure of his business would collapse. That was still true in 2005, when Iger took over; Disney+ is a bet on it remaining so. 

Ian Leslie’s books include “Curious: The Desire to Know and Why Your Future Depends On It” (Quercus)

The Ride of a Lifetime
Robert Iger
Bantam Press, 272pp, £20

Ian Leslie is a writer, author of CURIOUS: The Desire to Know and Why Your Future Depends On It, and writer/presenter of BBC R4's Before They Were Famous.

This article appears in the 30 October 2019 issue of the New Statesman, Britain alone