Cookies help us deliver our Services. By using our Services, you agree to our use of cookies. Learn More.

The Rumored Feud Between Disney CEOs Bob Chapek And Bob Iger Explained

The movies, theme parks, and media created by the Walt Disney Company present a world of music, joy, and harmony, where even the most contentious families or enemies can find common ground and heal their wounds. But reality, sadly, is not a Disney movie, and the mechanics behind running a mammoth corporation like Disney are often far from a fairy tale — especially in terms of the relationships between executives. This is nothing new for Disney, of course, as anyone who followed the epic 1990s struggles around former Disney Animation head Jeffrey Katzenberg knows, and the latest iteration of Disney's internal conflict has emerged in the rapport between current CEO Bob Chapek and former CEO Bob Iger, with persistent rumors suggesting that the two have a frayed dynamic.

Now, these are rumors and should be taken with a grain of salt, especially since the people involved have denied or offered no comment on accusations of a rift between them. However, the recurring appearance of reports that Chapek and Iger have grown chilly with one another, not to mention recent bouts of controversy in Chapek's handling of Disney, make it impossible not to speculate on the duo's dynamic. The ongoing rumors suggest several different factors behind Chapek and Iger allegedly growing apart, and getting into the nitty-gritty of those factors reminds us all that running Disney is no magic kingdom.

Where did Bob Chapek come from?

To understand the current state of Bob Chapek and Bob Iger's dynamic, one must first understand the career trajectory of the current Disney CEO. Chapek's story at Disney dates back to the 1990s, when he was appointed the head of Disney's home video division. Arriving on the job in 1993, Chapek's primary legacy in this sector of the company was keeping the employees looking toward the future. He was adamant about getting Disney to embrace DVDs and Blu-Rays, choices that ensured the company would stick around in an ever-evolving home media landscape.

Chapek's ideas proved fruitful enough that he stuck around at Disney's home video arm for more than a decade, eventually becoming President of Buena Vista Home Entertainment. Afterward, he bounced around, working for Walt Disney Studios as President of Distribution, serving as President of Disney Consumer Products, and being named chairman of Walt Disney Parks and Resorts. That last gig was a particularly expansive responsibility that earned Chapek enough goodwill that he was given command over the Consumer Products arm again, while maintaining his Parks leadership position, in 2018. Chapek has had decades of experience running major divisions at Disney, and all of that was before he secured his most prominent position yet.

The timing of Chapek's rise to power

In February 2020, an era officially ended: Disney CEO Bob Iger was finally leaving the company after multiple delays postponed his exit from the Mouse House. At a shareholder's meeting, Iger announced that Bob Chapek would be following in the footsteps of himself, Michael Eisner, and only a few other men to become the seventh Disney CEO, with Iger planning to leave the company gradually before handing the reins entirely to Chapek.

Whatever plans there were for Chapek's integration into the CEO role were shattered just a month after this announcement, when the COVID-19 pandemic became a global health crisis, causing movie theaters and Disney theme parks to promptly close. No reopening dates were on the horizon and the long-term ramifications for traditional media entities were unknown. There's never an ideal scenario for a new CEO to enter a demanding and high-profile job, but the COVID-19 pandemic provided an especially uneasy atmosphere for Chapek to begin his tenure as Disney's leader.

Iger stuck around

By April 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic had upended all major media businesses for a month — there was no more stability in sight than on the first day everything had shut down. In the middle of this chaos, Bob Iger stepped up to the plate to help Disney navigate its new reality. The New York Times broke the news that Iger, despite previously saying he would step down promptly to allow Bob Chapek to take over, was resuming most of his duties as the CEO at Disney. Chapek wasn't being tossed out, but Iger was working alongside him to help guide Disney's next move in turbulent times.

This was a seismic development that set the stage for conflict down the line, and that wasn't helped by the public response to Iger's continued participation at Disney. Iger's participation included showing up as a reassuring presence during the company's second-quarter earnings call in May 2020, a surprise appearance for someone who was supposed to have left the company behind. There have been few public comments from either of these two CEO's on their personal feelings about Iger's enduring presence, but it was an awkward development.

Outside players comment on the relationship

A little over a year into Chapek's tenure as Disney CEO, high-profile evaluations of how his stint had gone began creeping into the public discourse. In May 2021, IAC chairman Barry Diller offered his two cents on how the transfer of power at Disney had gone. Diller had some thoughts — very pronounced thoughts, it turned out. "Iger [is] now being pushed to the sidelines by his successor, not very nicely by the way. Certainly doesn't deserve it," Diller remarked in a CNBC interview.

Diller doesn't work at Disney, so it's impossible to know how accurate this comment was. Iger himself told The Hollywood Reporter that, even though Diller is a friend of his, he had no clue where Diller got that impression of his and Chapek's relationship. Still, Diller making such comments publicly speaks to the general perception of Iger and Chapek's dynamic. Long before the "Don't Say Gay" bill controversy erupted, the two were widely seen as being frigid with one another.

Consolidation of power

In October 2020, six months after Bob Chapek was given a seat on Disney's board, he made his first big restructuring move, as everything entertainment-based under the company's purview was consolidated to be overseen by only a handful of individuals. Disney executives said that the shift was done to ensure that the Mouse House could primarily concentrate on the world of streaming. At the time, the phrasing was nebulous enough, and the entertainment landscape so wracked by COVID-informed chaos, that it was difficult to ascertain what the long-term ramifications of this shift would be.

A CNBC article from March 2022, however, revealed the impact that this consolidation had unleashed, including allowing for theatrical movies like "Turning Red" to get switched into streaming-exclusive titles on a dime as well as placing all division budgets under the control of one man, new chairman of Disney Media and Entertainment Distribution Kareem Daniel. It was also revealed that there had been internal complaints from people in Disney's film department that it was more confusing than ever to get basic information about a project's marketing plans or release date under this new management structure. While the CNBC piece notes that Chapek's strategy for the company is similar to Iger's previous long-term plans for Disney, the departures of Iger-era executives such as former Walt Disney Studios Chief Creative Officer Alan Horn and former Hulu president Kelly Campbell may have contributed to what is, according to Variety, a "strained" relationship between the two executives.

The party

Part of the CNBC piece on the disrupted relationship between Bob Iger and Bob Chapek included an anecdote about Iger's going-away party in 2021. Chapek attended this event along with a little over 50 people; however, several sources indicate that Chapek and Iger were not chummy with one another, and the real reflection of their relationship quickly became apparent once everyone sat down, with guests getting cozy at two massive tables.

According to the reports, Iger and Chapek were situated at opposing tables, each surrounded by their own social circles. Iger gravitated more towards big artist and media figures like Steven Spielberg, while Chapek was content to linger with his allies currently employed at Disney. Later, Iger would give a speech commenting on his time at Disney which included glowing anecdotes about several memorable people he'd worked with. Though Chapek had worked at the Mouse House since the 1990s, he was reportedly given only a cursory reference in Iger's speech. "The tension was palpable," said one anonymous guest about this event, which, if true makes the frayed dynamic more apparent than ever before.

The Johansson debacle

In August 2021, Scarlett Johansson launched a lawsuit claiming that Disney's decision to release "Black Widow" simultaneously in theaters and as a Premier Access title on Disney+ hurt the feature's box office total and thus her compensation, which was tied to ticket sales. Disney fired back against this accusation, saying that Johansson was displaying insensitivity towards those impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic, which Disney claimed motivated the change in "Black Widow's" release strategy. It was a staggering sight to see the star of a Disney movie expressing so much frustration with the company.

Depending on who you ask, Bob Iger may have been among those baffled by this development. A report from The Wrap cited once source as saying Iger was astonished by Disney's response to Johansson's lawsuit and placed the blame for the situation's escalation at the feet of Bob Chapek — though Zenia Mucha, then Disney's chief communications officer, responded to this allegation by saying "None of this is true, period." Other sources cited by The Wrap indicated that Iger's failure to smooth things over with Johansson was either a sign of his distance from Chapek or a strategic move to make Chapek look bad. 

Months later, after Johansson received a settlement from Disney, Iger would be asked about this matter by The New York Times. Iger essentially dodged the subject, choosing instead to engage in a broader conversation about shifting release strategies for movies in a post-COVID-19 world and not commenting at all on Chapek.

The 'Don't Say Gay' bill

In February 2022, Bob Iger tweeted his response to Florida legislation HB 1557, the Parental Rights in Education bill, nicknamed "Don't Say Gay." The proposed law would forbid all discussion of "sexual orientation or gender identity" in public school classrooms from kindergarten to 3rd grade, "or in a manner that is not age-appropriate or developmentally appropriate for students in accordance with state standards." It also sets up a parental notification system for school support services that could cause LGBTQ kids to be unwillingly outed to their guardians. Iger made his disdain for the bill apparent from the get-go, an important statement given Disney's many ties to the state of Florida. The same quick response, however, would not emerge from Bob Chapek.

In March, The Hollywood Reporter published a piece exploring why Disney had remained silent on the "Don't Say Gay" bill thus far. Per their sources, Chapek was insisting that Disney take a noncommittal approach to the bill due to, among other factors, concern that Disney was appearing "too liberal". The initial vocal opposition and initial radio silence again showed vastly different approaches between Iger and Chapek, and Chapek's response laid the groundwork for a swell of protests against Disney, including from inside the company.

Disney's role in politics

In exploring Disney's initial response to Florida's "Don't Say Gay" bill, The Hollywood Reporter reported that a key difference between Iger and Chapek's approach to handling Disney was in their respective attitudes towards how the company should face hot-button political issues. While Iger was allegedly open to wading into the occasional controversy, Chapek seems less keen, reportedly insisting that Disney remain neutral in the matter of "Don't Say Gay" — his own initial response saw him emphasizing the company's commitment to diversity rather than active political action, though Disney has temporarily stopped all political donations in Florida after having previously given money to the bill's sponsors.

The controversy over this piece of legislation eventually inspired further statements from Disney vowing to help repeal "Don't Say Gay." However, Disney hasn't provided much concrete information about how they plan on doing this, or protesting similar bills, making the future of the company's activism uncertain at best — though things got more interesting when Disney family member Charlee Disney came out as transgender and took a public stand against "Don't Say Gay."

The situation has undeniably had a significant impact on Disney's public image, but it also further underscored the differences between Chapek and his predecessor. If Chapek's relationship with Iger is deteriorating, issues like this one are doubtless a reason why.

'Saint Bob'

In the wake of the controversy over Bob Chapek and Disney's response to the "Don't Say Gay" bill, Variety reported that some Disney employees had started looking to the company's past wistfully, with some members of the staff taking to referring to Bob Iger as "Saint Bob."

It's understandable that the ongoing difficulties of Chapek's tenure would inspire Disney employees to yearn for better times, though this sanctified image of Iger isn't entirely accurate, even when limited to his public image. Disney got itself into plenty of hot water during Iger's time at the head of Disney, including a controversy over the company blacklisting a Los Angeles Times reporter for writing up critical pieces about Disney's business relationships. And of course, there are many who claim that Iger's 2019 purchase of the 20th Century Fox media entities constitutes a monopoly.

Still, reports of Iger becoming "Saint Bob" to some Disney employees indicate a degree of nostalgia for previous leadership. Placing Iger in this revered position while Chapek is mired in controversy only exacerbates the perception that the two are opposites, if not actively at each other's throats.

What is Bob Chapek's future at Disney?

Bob Chapek's time as the CEO of Disney has been tumultuous, to say the least. However, despite ongoing unfavorable public sentiment towards Chapek, it's borderline inconceivable to imagine he'll be ousted from the CEO position any time soon. Chapek's job security depends far more on Disney's financial success rather than its public image, and in that respect, Chapek is looked upon favorably thanks to strong results on Wall Street and the continuously increasing subscriber base of Disney Plus.

With these profits secured, it's clear Chapek will almost certainly maintain his job as CEO even with his contract reportedly up for renewal in February 2023. However, his ongoing problems with responding to crises at Disney have reportedly put him at odds with Bob Iger, as well as with key individuals at Disney such as LGBTQIA+ PIXAR animators, who wrote an open letter to Disney leadership expressing their disappointment in the company's response to the "Don't Say Gay" bill. No CEO at any company maintains perfect relationships with all employees, but the barrage of PR issues under Chapek's watch means that something could be changing in the future, even if it's just how Disney responds to political situations. With potentially choppy waters ahead, one can expect the rumored rift between Iger and Chapek to only get more complicated and compelling from here.