Bob Iger Talks About Disney and Marvel Problems

At the New York Times’ DealBook Summit earlier today (via CNBC), Bob Iger talked about Disney’s recent failures and what caused them, and his scapegoats probably won’t surprise you. They’re a mix of streaming, the pandemic, Bob Chapek, and executives not exerting enough control over film productions. There is one surprise buried in there, but it’s not being widely reported, which is fine because, although it’s true, it’s almost certainly an issue Iger won’t try to correct.

To start, Iger lamented that streaming is making people stay home rather than going to the movies, making sure to tell everyone what a great deal Disney+ is for the consumer:

“The experience of accessing [the films] and watching them in the home is better than it ever was… And [it’s] a bargain when you think about it. Streaming Disney+ you can get for $7 a month. That’s a lot cheaper than taking your whole family to a film. So, I think the bar is now raised in terms of quality about what gets people out of their homes, into movie theaters.”

Pimping aside, he has a point, but not about Disney+ or even streaming in general. He’s correct that the quality of the movies Disney is putting out is the problem, but it’s not because Disney+ is any great shakes. Disney+ has about 145 million subscribers worldwide at the moment, but they can barely get one million to watch their Marvel or Star Wars shows. If people are watching anything on Disney+, it’s the old stuff, the classic Disney or pre-Endgame Marvel or Star Wars before Mickey got his gloved claws into it. And, to Iger’s real point, when something comes along that attracts an audience, people still go to the movies; Barbie, Oppenheimer, Top Gun: Maverick, Spider-Man: No Way Home, John Wick: Chapter 4, The Super Mario Bros. Movie, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3, Equalizer 3, and Puss in Boots: The Last Wish were all hits because people liked them. Streaming isn’t the problem; bad movies are.

Iger then talked about The Marvels and the record-breaking box office bomb it ended up being. What caused Marvel’s latest would-be blockbuster to crash and burn?

“‘The Marvels’ was shot during Covid… There wasn’t as much supervision on the set, so to speak, where we have executives [that are] really looking over what’s being done day after day after day.”

The problem with The Marvels was that it didn’t have enough studio interference? This should be revealing to anyone who’s been paying attention to how these films are put together, especially lately. There have been reports for a long time that Marvel executives meddle in the filmmaking process more than pretty much any studio, and it’s gotten worse since Avengers: Endgame. Taking The Marvels as an example, director Nia DaCosta has said that the movie is ultimately Kevin Feige’s more than it is hers. And anyone who’s seen The Marvels knows that movie was chopped into kindling in the editing process, which I doubt was supervised by DaCosta and other creatives. But, according to Iger, this is still not enough studio control to make a good movie.

This highlights another problem with the later Marvel films: they hire directors who are unsuited or unprepared for the job. Before The Marvels, Nia DaCosta directed two movies – an indie crime film called Little Woods and a remake of Candyman, the latter of which had a budget of $25 million and almost certainly cost more than Little Woods. So why is she being thrown $275 million to make a sci-fi superhero adventure? Not only is it tonally different from the movies she’s made, but it’s a much larger production. They’ll say they wanted a black woman because of diversity, but the real reason they went after DaCosta is because she had a price tag a lot lower than someone who’s proven they can handle a movie like The Marvels. Cate Shortland, Destin Daniel Cretton, and Chloé Zhao similarly had only a few small films under their belts before being handed big-budget Marvel movies. Even Taika Waititi only made some small movies before he got to turn Thor into a walking parody of himself. This worked for them once with the Russo Brothers (some would say Waititi as well; I wouldn’t), but that was a fluke; it’s been a disaster since.

Tying into this, Iger talked about the ridiculous budgets Disney gives to their movies now, albeit in a roundabout way:

“And I’m not sure another studio will ever achieve some of the numbers that we achieved. I mean, we got to the point where if a film didn’t do a billion dollars in global box office, we were disappointed… That’s an unbelievably high standard and I think we have to get more realistic.”

He says this under the guise of patting himself on the back for Disney’s successes under his first stint as CEO, but reading between the lines, the real problem with this is the insane amount of money they spend on their movies. A film making under $1 billion isn’t a disappointment because it doesn’t measure up to past successes; it’s a disappointment because it cost so much to make, reshoot, reshoot again, market, and distribute that it has to make close to $1 billion to see a profit, and considerably more to have been a worthwhile investment. To be fair, Iger has talked about managing budgets in the past. But their stinginess in getting experienced and reliable filmmakers makes the costs of their movies even more egregious. Why penny-pinch on the director and spend obscene amounts on special effects? I know these are big sci-fi action movies, but if you look at other films that look much better for much less, you see how unnecessary the effects budget is. Added to that, VFX artists have said that because so many Marvel directors are inexperienced with these kinds of films, they often don’t know what they want from the effects, which necessitates tons of extra work and revisions that wrack up costs and produce sloppy results. Spending more on the right director would save money all around.

Related to that is the glut of sequels that have come out of Disney, some perhaps ill-advised. Iger has something to say about that, too.

“I don’t want to apologize for making sequels… Some of them have done extraordinarily well and they’ve been good films, too. I think you there has to be a reason to make them, you have to have a good story.”

“It doesn’t mean we’re not going to continue to make them… We’re making a number of them now right as a matter of fact. But we will only greenlight a sequel if we believe the story that the creators want to tell is worth telling.”

I don’t know about that. Remember that earnings call where Iger suddenly announced sequels to three of their biggest hits, Toy Story, Frozen, and Zootopia? Did those three great ideas that were “worth telling” all just pop up at the same time? That seems unlikely; it does seem like a good party line, however, and it gels with what Tim Allen said about Toy Story 5. This sounds like a publicity spin more than a new policy.

But it’s not Bob Iger’s fault; heavens, no. Iger once again identifies former CEO Bob Chapek as the source of Disney’s problems (per Fox Business):

“I was disappointed in what I was seeing, both during the transition period when I was still there and while I was out. But I really worked hard at distancing myself from it because I couldn’t do anything about it. In a way, it wasn’t my business at all, really. It was his business to run… I worked hard to build the company into what it was over that period, a long period of time. I was proud of those accomplishments. It hurts when something that you’ve put your heart and soul into and you care about so much is going through a difficult time… I’ve spent a year since I came back fixing a lot of problems that the company has had and dealing with a lot of challenges, some that were brought on by decisions that were made by my predecessor…”

Iger has been shameless in his scapegoating of Chapek, and we’re far enough removed from Chapek’s ouster now that it’s looking pathetic. It’s been widely reported that Iger had much more control than he lets on while Chapek was CEO; CNBC points out that Iger remained the executive chairman of Disney for the better part of two years when Chapek took over to “oversee creative output.” He was making a lot of the decisions he now derides, and he can get away with it because Chapek was the public face of the company. I’d feel bad for Chapek if he wasn’t fully compensated for being Iger’s fall guy.

That’s why I take his new insistence on prioritizing story over messaging with a grain of salt that is accompanied by many other grains of salt. This one is tougher to find because the entertainment media sites aren’t reporting on it, but CNBC reporter Alex Sherman tweeted about Iger’s statement on his personal account:

He’s once again blaming Chapek, which by now should convince no one. But I don’t believe this, especially because nobody is reporting on it. It’s just another bout of lip service to try to convince at least a few skeptics that Disney is going to stop stressing identity politics. I’ll believe it when the rumors of a female Silver Surfer turn out to be false, unless he plans on blaming Chapek for that, too.

But rest assured, everyone: his focus is on making Marvel great again:

“I’ve been very public about it saying and I would say right now my number one priority is to help the studio turn around creatively.”

Well, that’s a load off.

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