Disney’s ‘Don’t Say Gay’ Misstep Threatens to Overshadow Chapek’s Reign as CEO

Weeks ago, when he was under internal pressure to speak out against Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” law, Disney CEO Bob Chapek took a surprising approach: He did nothing. His silence angered workers and advocacy groups so much that he eventually regressed. But when Chapek finally condemned the legislation, he provoked politicians and started a weeks-long bad faith crusade against Disney by right-wing media. The ensuing chaos is just the latest in a series of public missteps that threaten to overshadow Chapek’s tenure as leader of one of the world’s most powerful entertainment companies.

Chapek replaced beloved Disney boss Bob Iger as the company’s CEO in 2020 — just before the pandemic was due to close Disney’s parks and theaters. Under Chapek, a longtime Disney executive, the problems arose almost immediately. Amid pandemic closures, Parks employees protested Disneyland Resort’s reopening plans. Chapek enraged theaters and talent alike with Disney Plus hybrid and direct-to-streaming releases, leading to a messy and very public lawsuit by Black Widow star Scarlett Johansson. And he has reportedly aggravated the workforce with a corporate restructuring that culminated in an internal power struggle.

Recently, Disney has faced uproar over the handling of the Florida bill, culminating in corporate strikes and criticism of Chapek by Disney employees and creators and various advocacy groups, including GLAAD and the Human Rights Campaign. It’s one of many business decisions that are very different from how the company was run under Chapek’s predecessor, and it has led to lingering tensions within the company. It has also made Disney the target of right-wing protesters who have called for a Disney boycott.

Disney employees who spoke to The Verge say there’s little chance the chaos surrounding the company’s “Don’t Say Gay” response, in particular, would have happened under Iger’s watchful eye.

Chapek’s reimagined Disney

Chapek’s promotion to head of Disney coincided with a pivotal time for the company. With the launch of Disney Plus in 2019, Disney used its vault of decades of content to take on the streaming giants. This may interest you : Critics of Texas’ push for a “Don’t Say Gay” bill say acknowledging LGBT people is not the same as teaching children about sex.. Chapek made it clear right out of the gate that accelerating Disney’s direct-to-consumer business was at the heart of his vision for the company entering the second century.

But the leadership style shift has seemingly been felt at every level of Disney, from park employees to staff and even talent. Later in the same year that Chapek acquired the company, Disney’s entertainment and media divisions underwent a massive reorganization that positioned Disney Plus as a key revenue source for the company’s future. One of the goals of this reorganization, the company said at the time, “Disney’s creative engines will focus on developing and producing original content for the company’s streaming services.”

“By managing content creation that differs from distribution, we can be more effective and agile in creating the content consumers want most, delivered the way they prefer to consume it,” Chapek said at the time. “Our creative teams will focus on what they do best – creating world-class franchise-based content – ​​while our newly centralized global distribution team will focus on delivering and monetizing that content in the most optimal way possible. all platforms, including Disney Plus, Hulu, ESPN Plus and the upcoming international streaming service Star.”

While Disney positioned its streaming arm as central to its business strategy, unsurprisingly, the restructuring reportedly sparked internal power struggles among longtime executives, CNBC reported last month. Citing sources familiar with the matter, CNBC reported that Chapek had not consulted Iger about the reorganization, and the move sparked “an outburst of internal frustration among some veteran Disney employees who are no longer in control of their divisions’ budgets.” had.”

And then there was the ScarJo drama. Disney, clearly favoring its streaming service and potential subscriber growth for its major streaming service, released Black Widow on Premier Access the same day the film debuted in theaters. Johansson would later sue the company, claiming that the hybrid release model would cut box office bonuses and thus her overall revenue for the highly anticipated Marvel film. Disney responded by publicly disclosing her salary and her decision to collect the expected compensation as “insensitive” — a shocking response for a company that, under Iger, has traditionally been lenient with talent.

Notably, Disney Plus launched in 2019 with no ads. Disney’s former direct-to-consumer boss Kevin Mayer said at a 2019 investor event that “for Disney, for these brands, no ads are the right decision right now.” Under Chapek, Disney Plus plans to offer an ad-supported tier, which will roll out the service later this year. Plus, Disney’s foray into gambling feels like another shift away from the Disney run by Iger, who in 2019 told investors that sports betting wouldn’t be an area of ​​focus for The Walt Disney Company in the near term.

Many of these decisions can be linked to Chapek’s laser focus on the success of Disney Plus and its sister services. (Disney is aggressively marketing the Disney bundle, which adds ESPN Plus and Hulu at a discounted price.) While Disney Plus technically launched under Iger, it will be Chapek who will ultimately be responsible for the company’s streaming success. The pandemic and its impact on Disney’s businesses — from production to parks to theater debuts — have only raised the stakes for a CEO over whom the shadow of his predecessor is looming heavily. And while it’s too early to say if his strategy will work, Chapek seems less concerned with alienating employees or allies if it means getting it done.

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Chapek’s “Don’t Say Gay” misstep

But Chapek’s handling of Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” law — and his refusal to speak out — is arguably the company’s biggest public embarrassment to date. This may interest you : Florida ‘Don’t Say Gay’ Law Inspires Proposed Ohio Legislation. Disney found himself at odds with interest groups, politicians and his own employees, who staged strikes in March over his response — more specifically, the initial lack of it — to the legislation.

“As we’ve seen time and time again, company statements do very little to change results or change minds,” Chapek wrote to employees in early March in a memo obtained by Variety. He added that he believed that “the best way for our company to create lasting change is through the inspiring content we produce, the welcoming culture we create, and the diverse community organizations we support.”

Multiple employees of Disney parks in Florida, who spoke to The Verge on condition of anonymity to avoid retaliation, said the situation unfolding in recent weeks would almost certainly have been handled differently if Iger had still run the company.

“I know that if [Iger] had still been in charge of the leadership, he would have taken a very different stance from the start and sided with the LGBTQ plus community,” said one employee. “He would have done everything it took Chapek months to do from the start.”

It’s one of the clearest examples yet of Chapek steering the House of Mouse in a very different direction from Iger, the visionary Disney CEO who nurtured creative talent and led Disney into its streaming era. (Iger’s Disney took a radically different stance on similar discriminatory legislation in Georgia in 2016, publicly issuing a statement that it would “take our business elsewhere if legislation permitting discriminatory practices in state law were passed.” .”)

By the time Chapek’s first comments about Disney’s silence made headlines on March 7, Iger, for his part, had already publicly condemned the bill. Quoting a statement by President Joe Biden about the bill, Iger wrote that if passed, the bill would “endanger vulnerable, young LGBTQ people.” Recently, Iger told CNN Plus’s Chris Wallace that speaking out against the bill wasn’t about politics, but about “what’s right and what’s wrong, and that just seemed wrong. It seemed potentially harmful to children.”

Parks employees say Chapek failed to see that this was not only a problem in Florida, but also a problem for Disney employees and their loved ones. Iger, said one person, “knew this company really succeeds because of all of its cast members and all of the employees who make everything happen — all the animators and the various studios that really make these things happen — and it never feels like Bob Chapek really understands that. ”

At the same time, organizers of the Disney Walkout movement — who spoke to The Verge as a group via email — noted that while even Ler has publicly spoken out against discriminatory legislation while running the company, “the political donations to the Florida-based politicians behind the ‘Don’t Say Gay’ law have been around since Iger’s tenure as CEO.” Stopping donations to political figures and groups actively promoting legislation, such as the “Don’t Say Gay” law, is one of the key demands from LGBTQ-plus workers behind the Where Is Chapek initiative. (Amid setbacks, the company said it would pause political donations in Florida.)

While Chapek is dealing with internal fallout, his flip-flop over the company’s position has also outraged people across the political spectrum. As public figures and advocacy groups denounced Disney’s handling of the situation, conservative parents have claimed on social media that they will cancel their Disney Plus subscriptions or boycott Disney parks. Meanwhile, in a theater show that was unlikely to get a real sequel, Republican lawmakers threatened to revoke Disney’s legal privileges in the state in retaliation. In addition, an obviously homophobic rally was held at Disney Studios in Burbank last week, and right-wing media seized the opportunity to blow up the company.

While Disney has publicly said it would like to see the “Don’t Say Gay” law repealed, the strike organizers say there had been no other communication by Disney’s leadership to employees last week about how it is actively addressing that. target works. The group said employees at Disney are “still incredibly frustrated”.

“We are doing our best to be patient and wait to see what the leadership will do, but that patience can only last so long,” the organizers told The Verge. “The words and feelings of many employees have been taken directly into meetings with leadership at all levels, from specific sectors to the C-suite.”

While the group states that executive leadership has contacted employees about their frustration with the company over its response to the bill, they claim there was “a significant lack of transparency – the meetings appear to have taken place with very little awareness in the wider workforce.”

“The participants were hand-selected by HR staff and the list was not announced or disclosed, so the promise people saw in the idea of ​​a ‘listening tour’ has greatly diminished, with many feeling left out of the conversation. We can’t even be sure that those most affected by this law were actually part of the ‘tour,'” the organizers told The Verge.

One could argue that in many of these management shifts, it’s unlikely Chapek would find themselves at odds with employees at virtually every level of the company. But overall, his missteps are impossible to ignore.

Chapek’s contract expires in February 2023. It looks like he will have to answer more than just The Walt Disney Company’s pandemic next year.

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