• 2023 has been a turbulent year for Disney, with public ambivalence toward Marvel Studios projects and costly box office failures.
  • Disney’s current problems reflect past dark periods in the company’s history, when it was stuck in the past and chasing past successes.
  • A lack of new leadership and stagnant ideas have contributed to Disney’s difficulties, but bringing in fresh thinking could help turn things around.

While 2023 is technically Disney’s 100th anniversary, it’s not exactly a magical year in the studio’s history. Instead of being inundated with hits and recognition for its management of the business, the studio experienced endless turmoil all year. First, the various Marvel Studios projects (namely derided endeavors such as Secret Invasion And Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania) caused the public to have an ambivalent attitude towards the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Projects such as Haunted Mansion And Indiana Jones and the Dial of Doom turned into a costly box office flop. Disney CEO Bob Iger drew justifiable criticism after his brutal comments about the Hollywood strikes. Plus, there are shady lawsuits that Disney is involved in, including allegations that it engaged in gender-discriminatory pay practices, and that the studio is being sued (along with other companies). Julia Osmond for his role in supporting Harvey Weinstein (convicted sexual predator Miramax was owned by Disney from 1993 to 2010).

Needless to say, 2023 has been a nightmare year for Disney, especially after Bob Iger’s sudden return as CEO in November 2022 following his successor. Bob Chapek I didn’t work in this position for even three years. Instead of restoring stability to Disney, the House of Mouse found itself embroiled in further chaos, reflecting that the company’s turmoil extends beyond just one CEO. While online racist conspiracy theorists will argue that Disney’s woes are due to “wokeness,” an actor as talented as Rachel Zegler be Snow White now or “Disney is doing Love Error remake with transgender people” (actually, that last idea sounds kind of cool), Disney’s problems go back to its past. The company’s biggest challenges in 2023 echo other dark periods in the company’s history, when the “happiest place on Earth” was rotten from top to bottom.

Disney’s history is full of all sorts of corporate dramas.

The Black Cauldron 1985
Image via Walt Disney Pictures

One of the most entertaining books you’ll ever read about drama in the entertainment industry is James B. Stewart to me DisneyWar. This text tells Michael Eisner Disney’s tenure as CEO, a regime that began with endless promises and ended with Eisner’s ouster from the company after a shareholder revolt led by Roy E. Disney (nephew of Walt Disney). It’s also a book that touches on two of the darkest periods in Disney’s history, which most strongly reflect the company’s woes in 2023. The first of these periods occurred in the early 1980s, when Ron Miller was CEO of The Walt Disney Company. DisneyWar Disney takes over Since Walt Disney’s death in 1967, the company has become dangerously stuck in the past.

A great example of this is how the marketing approach to major Disney films back in 1982 was to simply let the films do the talking. The then marketing chief of Walt Disney Pictures, like Walt Disney, believed that word of mouth was all a film needed to become a hit. This practice was inconsistent with how, by the 1980s, films were shown simultaneously in hundreds of theaters. As a result, potentially game-changing features such as Throne failed at the box office. Meanwhile, almost every move in the studio (especially in the animation department) was filtered through the thought process of “What would Walt do?” In an attempt to recapture the company’s past successes, The Walt Disney Company has now become a hidden relic in the public eye.

Enter CEO Michael Eisner and President Frank Wellswhich ushered in a new era of prosperity for The Walt Disney Company… but no era lasts forever. DisneyWar chronicles how Eisner ruled much of the company by the mid-1990s (Wells died tragically in a helicopter crash and was never replaced). Not only that, but petty disagreements and corporate politics dictated his every move. If the anecdotes captured in DisneyWar are even partly true, it is surprising that The Walt Disney Company produced anything at all during this era. Everyone was walking on eggshells, and once again, Disney now became a studio chasing the past rather than introducing new ideas.

In particular, Eisner’s reluctance to accept a fresh story from Pixar Animation Studios (DisneyWar credits Eisner as the main reason why Disney and Pixar almost failed to continue their partnership), and his banal ideas for new theme parks such as Disney’s California Adventure also disappointed the past. Unsurprisingly, Eisner was forced to leave the company in the mid-2000s, allowing Iger to take over as Disney’s CEO.

How do Disney’s problems today reflect the past?

Scene from Tron 1982.
Image via Disney

Even Bob Iger’s glory years in the 2010s (when Disney used early Marvel Studios films and star Wars sequels) create problems in the future. First, Disney under Iger has shifted to a blockbuster-only mentality. This included getting rid of the Touchstone Pictures label (which produced original adult films) and sending substandard Walt Disney Pictures releases to streaming, if they existed at all. On paper, it looked like a foolproof plan that would put all of Disney’s theater revenue plans in check Captain America: Civil War, Finding Doryand other hits. However, it also ensured that there were few, if any, surprise hits from Disney in the 2010s. The studio didn’t have to risk such a bomb as Kingdom of Firebut in the 2010s there were no such cheap hits as Pretty Woman, Sixth SenseAnd Offer. Ironically, Disney’s expensive flops during the Iger years in the 2010s The lone ranger, The BFGAnd Solo: A Star Wars Story lost a lot more money than those Touchstone items When in Rome!

The limited number of films put enormous pressure on only a few brands to make it big. This may not have seemed like a problem between 2015 and 2019, but in today’s world it is a critical issue. Disney has no other major pop culture properties to offset the weak box office performance of blockbusters from Lucasfilm, Marvel Studios or Walt Disney Pictures. Even the newly acquired adult studio 20th Century Studios has reduced its annual slate of Disney-owned films to just a handful of theatrical films per year. Two or three releases from 20th Century Studios will do nothing to alleviate the film’s box office woes. Quantumania or Jungle Cruise. Current list of major Disney films and TV shows (depending on Marvel properties, star Wars spin-offs and remakes of classic animated films) are very reminiscent of the company’s standard output in the 1980s. Echoes of the past are commonplace in both Disney eras, and this reliance on the familiar has led to the conglomerate, as it did under Ron Miller, falling asleep at the wheel..

Plus, there’s a key element of Michael Eisner’s last decade at Disney that is now haunting the company again in the 2020s: lack of new corporate blood. Bob Iger is approaching his second decade at the helm of the entire Disney corporation (give or take those few years under Bob Chapek), and he still has no clear successor as CEO of the company. Similarly, Sean Bailey has served as President of Production for Walt Disney Pictures (the film division of Disney management) since 2010. By comparison, Alan Horn was president of Walt Disney Pictures from 2012 to 2021. Bailey held the same position. before and after Horn’s reign! Current Chairman of Walt Disney Studios, Alan Bergmanhas held a leadership position in this division since 2005, Kevin Feige has not budged as the head of Marvel Studios since 2007, director of the Disney Theatrical Group. Thomas Schumacher has been working in the company since 1988, and is even the president of Pixar Animation Studios Jim Morris approaching a decade in this leadership position. Disney’s leaders in 2010 and 2023 are virtually indistinguishable, which helps explain why the company lacks fresh ideas about risk-taking.

With few leadership newcomers to help move the company in new directions, Disney is as stagnant as it was during the final years of Eisner’s tenure. Also eerily similar to those last years of Eisner’s reign? A super expensive entertainment purchase that Disney clearly doesn’t know what to do with. For Eisner, it was the merger of ABC and Capital Cities in 1996, a deal that led to ABC becoming an ongoing problem for the Disney corporation (also the unfortunate purchase of Fox Family in 2001). For the Iger era, it’s the purchase of 20th Century Fox and other News Corp. media companies. Disney loves to have Avatar, The Simpsonsand various Fox/Marvel characters… but the rest of the creative projects bought by the House of Mouse are not a good fit for the company. Disney always seems to have no idea what to do with things like FX or 20th Century Fox. This conglomerate has again succumbed to spending big money on splashy purchases that don’t pay off in the long run.

Can Disney recover from this struggle?

We’ve only scratched the surface here of the challenges facing modern Disney and how they parallel previous eras of torment for the company. For example, Walt Disney Pictures’ struggles in the early 2020s mirror exactly how the division was adrift in the early 1980s and 2000s. However, the key similarity in The Walt Disney Company’s problems over the years is at the executive level. Whether Ron Miller, Michael Eisner, or Bob Iger is in charge, Disney as a company always stumbles when its management is both in business too long and falls into a toxic love affair with the past.

But nothing is completely doom and gloom. Introducing new leadership (especially from young people) into the company in countless departments would be a huge kick in the ass. A fresh look at what Disney can be as a company, and especially what projects it should pursue, will greatly benefit both the conglomerate and pop culture consumers around the world. After all, Michael Eisner helped turn Disney around when he took over the company after Miller was fired, and Iger injected new energy into the company when he took over from Eisner. Disney is now rotting from head to toe but as the past has shown, this doesn’t have to stay the same forever.

DisneyWar James B. Stewart is available for purchase now.

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