Bob Iger: the man who reinvented Disney

Bob Iger is stepping down as head of the entertainment giant after 15 years in charge. He leaves a far stronger company in prime position for the future of film and television.

Long before he became Disney’s “celebrated supreme leader”, Bob Iger was a humble weatherman, starting his career in 1973 at a cable station in Ithaca, New York, “doing that awkward talking-into-space thing while reciting temperatures”, says The New York Times. Last week, he “went out as he came in” – marking his retirement with an unannounced star-turn in front of the weather map on an early morning KABC newscast in Los Angeles. “There is a light rain falling,” he announced. “However, this is just a prelude to a big storm.” Disney fans, who have largely enjoyed an enchanted period in the Magic Kingdom under Iger’s 15-year watch, will be hoping there’s no significance in that.

Iger’s four big deals

Iger’s big achievement has been to leave “a much stronger company than he inherited”, thanks to four key acquisitions, says the Financial Times. In 2006, he bought Pixar Animation (Toy Story, Finding Nemo) from Apple, following that up with Marvel Entertainment and Star Wars creator, Lucasfilm. His 2019 deal to buy 21st Century Fox from Rupert Murdoch for $71bn “sealed his reputation as a master dealmaker” – not least because it paved the way for Disney’s big push into streaming. The timely launch of Disney+ in 2019 not only took the battle to Netflix and Amazon, but saved his firm from catastrophe when Covid-19 struck, forcing the closure of cinemas and entertainment parks worldwide. Within 18 months, the service notched up 100 million subscribers (a feat that took Netflix more than a decade to achieve) ensuring Disney shares rebounded to record highs “even after other sources of revenue evaporated”.

The accepted wisdom in Hollywood is that this success couldn’t have happened to a better man. In a town of sharks, Iger is so renowned for his gentlemanly good manners and “honourable” dealings, that Variety dubbed him “The Cashmere Prince”. The worst his critics can come up is that he has cultivated “a cult of nice”. Perhaps the most inspiring thing, says the Los Angeles Times, is that no-one expected it to happen. Long “under-estimated” in the industry, few expected Iger to land the top job at Disney when his “larger-than-life” predecessor, Michael Eisner, stepped down – he was typecast as “a loyal drone”. And having got the job, expectations were low. As one top Hollywood player told The New York Times: “Nobody expected Bob Iger to be Bob Iger.”

Getting things done

Iger, who these days comes across as “effortlessly elegant”, attributes his success to the hard work and discipline required to get on in life if you view yourself as “unexceptionable”. From early on in his career, “people started relying on me because they knew if they asked me to get something done… I would get it done”. 

That sense of obligation and “sang-froid when things go wrong” dates back to his childhood, says The New York Times. Born in 1951, to a Jewish family in Oceanside, Long Island, his father – a trumpet player who became an advertising executive – suffered from “dark moods”. Bob’s role as the oldest son, as he relates in his memoir, The Ride of a Lifetime, was to be “a calming influence in the house”. As a teenager, he worked as a stock boy in a hardware store, and later as a janitor for his school district. When he started in TV, he dreamed of being the next Walter Cronkite, but “was something of a flop, lasting only a year”, says The New York Times. He took an executive job with ABC, rising steadily up the ranks – a trajectory that continued when ABC was bought by Disney in 1995. Within ten years, he landed the top job.

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