DealBook Summit 2023 Bob Iger Interview Transcript

Speaker 1 (00:25):

Please welcome Andrew Ross Sorkin and his guest, the CEO of the Walt Disney Company, Bob Iger.

Andrew Ross Sorkin (00:39):

Bob Iger is here. Thank you, Bob for being here. Of course, one of the most influential CEOs in the country. You okay, Jeff? Okay.

Jeff Salmonfeld (00:48):

I want to be on the [inaudible 00:00:51].

Andrew Ross Sorkin (00:51):

Jeff Salmonfeld, everybody making an entrance, an entrance. Bob Iger is here as I just mentioned. He is one of the most influential CEOs in the country, leading one of the most iconic companies. He had retired, as we all know, but just over a year ago, he returned to be Disney’s CEO once again.

(01:07)
It was supposed to be for two years. It’s now going to be four. Oprah’s called Bob one of the greatest business leaders of our time. But today, as we all know, the Mouse House facing a number of big, big challenges, and we’re going to talk about them all. The streaming business’s efforts to cut now more than $7 billion in costs. The activists will get into the second-longest labor strike in Hollywood. AI, DeSantis, wokeism, succession, creativity, China. We’re going to try to touch all of it.

Bob Iger (01:34):

If you don’t mind. This should be a five-minute interview. I got to get back to work.

Andrew Ross Sorkin (01:37):

You got to get back to work.

Bob Iger (01:38):

Do all those things.

Andrew Ross Sorkin (01:39):

Here’s where I’m going to start with this. A year ago, you’re sitting around your house, maybe puttering around, I don’t know. You think you’re about to get a phone call from Susan Arnold, who’s on the board.

Bob Iger (01:51):

Chairman of the board.

Andrew Ross Sorkin (01:51):

Chairman of the board.

Bob Iger (01:52):

Was.

Andrew Ross Sorkin (01:53):

And you think that that call might be asking you back and you say to Willow Bay, your wife, what?

Bob Iger (02:03):

Well, I was aware that Susan Arnold, the then chairman, wanted to talk to me. And I got a sense that the board was making a decision to make a change at the CEO level at Disney, and that they might ask me to step back in.

Andrew Ross Sorkin (02:18):

And you say to her?

Bob Iger (02:19):

And I said to Willow, “I’m getting this call. It’s possible that I could get asked back.” She immediately said, “Well, maybe not. They may want your advice.”

Andrew Ross Sorkin (02:29):

She didn’t think you were getting the call for that?

Bob Iger (02:30):

She wasn’t sure. And I said, “Well, what if I get asked.” And interesting, until maybe a day or two before, first of all, I was not seeking to return to Disney at all. And until a day or two before, I was not anticipating I ever would. And so I asked Willow, “What do you think?” And she said, “Well, they might not ask you, but if they do,” she thought I had to say yes. And I asked why, and she quickly reminded me what I already knew. She said, “You ran the company for over 15 years. You’ve been at the company or you were at the company for almost 50 years. You owe it to the company if the board wants you back, because they obviously don’t feel they have an alternative, at least not at that moment. Then you owe it to them to say yes.” It was very quick, and I realized as I heard her words, she was absolutely right.

Andrew Ross Sorkin (03:19):

Okay. What does she say now?

Bob Iger (03:21):

I haven’t talked to her about it. What does she say now? Interesting, maybe surprise you. I don’t bring that much work home with me. I like to leave the job at the office when I can.

Andrew Ross Sorkin (03:37):

But you didn’t think it was going to be like this?

Bob Iger (03:38):

I’m just as interested in her work. No. We’ve had conversations about it being much more challenging than I expected. I felt that from the beginning when I came back, but I’m not daunted by it. It’s just a lot more work. Nor is she daunted on my behalf.

Andrew Ross Sorkin (03:54):

You said that you didn’t want to come back, but there’s been a lot of reporting that you never really wanted to leave. And even people now say, “Well, is he really going to leave in two years from now again?” That you were frustrated.

Bob Iger (04:05):

Now first of all…

Andrew Ross Sorkin (04:06):

You were frustrated with Bob Chapek.

Bob Iger (04:08):

That reporting is completely inaccurate. Completely. I had been CEO for about 15 years. I said I started the company in 1974 at ABC. It had been around a long time. There were plenty of things in the world that I was interested in that I either wanted to do or wanted to learn more about. I had not really had a day off in I don’t even remember. And I was thoroughly enthusiastic.

Andrew Ross Sorkin (04:31):

But you were frustrated.

Bob Iger (04:31):

Plus I felt that I had accomplished so much during my former tenure, including opening the Disneyland in Shanghai and going to the streaming business very successfully. And it wasn’t about being bored. It wasn’t about lack of challenge. It was just the time was ready.

Andrew Ross Sorkin (04:49):

But fair to say you were frustrated. You were watching this company.

Bob Iger (04:52):

I was frustrated about what? When I was out-

Andrew Ross Sorkin (04:54):

From the outside. On the outside. You’re now-

Bob Iger (04:57):

You were asking me about whether that [inaudible 00:04:59]

Andrew Ross Sorkin (04:58):

You ever wanted to leave in the beginning.

Bob Iger (04:59):

The answer is I did, which is why I left.

Andrew Ross Sorkin (05:01):

Okay, but now you’re on the outside.

Bob Iger (05:03):

Right.

Andrew Ross Sorkin (05:04):

And you’re watching-

Bob Iger (05:04):

Busy doing other things.

Andrew Ross Sorkin (05:05):

Doing other things, but Bob Chapek’s in that role.

Bob Iger (05:08):

Yes.

Andrew Ross Sorkin (05:08):

And you were thinking what?

Bob Iger (05:14):

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 one, I couldn’t do anything about. It in a way it wasn’t my business at all, really. It was his business to run.

(05:33)
And again, I was not happy with what I was seeing. I worked hard to build the company into what it was over that long period of time. I was proud of those accomplishments. It hurts when something that you’ve put your heart and soul into and that you care about so much is going through a difficult time.

Andrew Ross Sorkin (05:51):

Okay. Let’s then talk about successions because there’s a lot of people in this room, business leaders who have to think about their own succession, other types of succession. What was your mistake then, to the degree you think that Bob Chapek was a mistake, I assume you imagine it’s maybe one of your biggest.

Bob Iger (06:05):

Well, first of all, I’m not the only one that may have considered a mistake. The board obviously had its issues with Bob.

Andrew Ross Sorkin (06:15):

But you knew him well.

Bob Iger (06:17):

He worked for me for quite a long time. I’ve tried hard to conduct my own post-mortem just so that we as a company don’t do it again. What did we do wrong? And we’ve discovered certain things that perhaps we could have done better, but there were also a lot of unknowables. And I don’t want to get into any of the-

Andrew Ross Sorkin (06:36):

But is there a lesson for you in terms of who you’re supposed to listen to? In terms of…

Bob Iger (06:43):

It was interesting when the vice president was talking about it, no job that really trains you for this job. In many respects, that’s true at Disney too. It’s a large, very complex company that’s in the public eye all the time. There’s interest from just about every sector of society in Disney.

(07:04)
And it takes a certain type to be able to not only compartmentalize when it comes to managing issues and problems, but I think it takes a certain constitution, a tremendous amount of energy, a tremendous amount of patience, the ability to communicate on multiple subjects, sometimes back to back to back to back. And I think that when we make the decision again and the succession-

Andrew Ross Sorkin (07:28):

Yeah, what will be different this time?

Bob Iger (07:30):

The succession process at Disney, first of all, is robust right now. It didn’t-

Andrew Ross Sorkin (07:34):

But was it not robust the first time?

Bob Iger (07:36):

It was. It was. But I think we’re approaching it differently, and I just don’t want to… It’s just not something that I feel other than saying that we’re aggressively pursuing succession, there’s no more detail that I want to give.

Andrew Ross Sorkin (07:50):

Do you think in two years you really will step down?

Bob Iger (07:54):

Given the list of things that I have to do? Yeah, I’m definitely going to step down.

Andrew Ross Sorkin (07:59):

Well, you could say, given the list of things you have to do.

Bob Iger (08:01):

Now, we’re attacking each one of them. I’m confident we will do so successfully.

Andrew Ross Sorkin (08:06):

Let’s talk about that list for a second, because one of the things you did, and I want to get your thinking and just understanding how you think about it. You went on television over the summer from Sun Valley, and you put out a lot of things on the table. You said, “We’re thinking about selling ABC and the linear channels. We’re thinking about finding a partner for ESPN. We’re in the midst of trying to figure out with Hulu.” You’ve now resolved that. You talked about some of the creative challenge.

(08:30)
You put everything out there. And by the way, the folks at ABC just up this way, almost had a heart attack when they heard all of this. What was your thinking in terms of, just take us inside the thinking of saying that all aloud? A lot of CEOs try to wait until they have each deal done.

Bob Iger (08:52):

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, some that are just basically the result of a tremendous amount of disruption in the world and in our business. And including dealing with the business model that those linear channels have rested on and have succeeded on top of for decades.

(09:19)
And sometimes when I am looking for a reaction to my own thought process, I like to test that process in public, particularly in ways that I might be able to actually get a reaction from the investment community. My thought was at the time that I would essentially be public with some of that thought process. I think what I said about the media networks at the time was that everything was on the table and they might not be core to our company. I think I went that far.

(09:53)
And that was a means of my saying to Wall Street or the investment community that our heads were not

Bob Iger (10:00):

… out in the sand about the challenges that those businesses were having. I did not want to get accused of being kind of an old media executive. That we’re a company that had already shown an ability to basically adapt in new circumstances. So I wanted to, one, convey that; and two, see what the reaction would be. Would it be applauded? Would it not?

(10:19)
I did not say they were for sale. The coverage of what I said, said they were for sale. There’s a theme here, by the way. A little bit. Just in terms of what is being written about us-

Andrew Ross Sorkin (10:29):

Is it for sale?

Bob Iger (10:31):

… and what is accurate. No, it is not for sale, but like all of our assets, we constantly are evaluating what is their value to the company today? What could the value be tomorrow? Is it a growth business? Is it a business that-

Andrew Ross Sorkin (10:44):

But do you like the business still?

Bob Iger (10:45):

… is going to contract?

Andrew Ross Sorkin (10:46):

I mean, there’s been a big question about the linear channels, of whether they’re worth keeping.

Bob Iger (10:49):

Here’s what we’ve discovered. In this process, which has been unbelievably rigorous at the company, and involves a number of executives who are managing those businesses, we’ve determined a few things. One, that they can be run more efficiently, with some difficult choices. You mentioned cutting over $7 billion in costs. We can do that. Second, they can be run in partnership with those businesses that sit atop the new business model, which is streaming, and there are a means of aggregating audience, of amortizing cost, of basically aggregating audience, reaching more and different people.

(11:25)
And so we actually, through this process of being more public about what might happen or what could happen, and really rolling up our sleeves and figuring out is this something we should do? Should they be divested? Should they be kept? If they are kept, how should they be run? And actually, they’re being run much more efficiently today than they were in July when I made those comments.

Andrew Ross Sorkin (11:46):

Let me ask you a different question. You ultimately bought Hulu from Comcast, but you said the following. You said there are seven or eight platforms in the streaming business alone that are in general entertainment. That’s a tough business to be in competitively, and it’s not our strongest suit.

Bob Iger (12:01):

When I came back to the company, and the company had been through a difficult time, partially because of COVID, and the balance sheet wasn’t as strong then, it is much stronger now, than I would’ve liked it to have been, I asked the question, do we write Comcast a check for what could be $9 billion, or should we consider selling it to them? Is the business unique enough, valuable enough to us long-term, for us to write them the check and buy the whole thing, or the opposite? And I created a rigorous process to determine what is the right answer to that question.

(12:33)
I worried that there was in general entertainment programming, unlike Disney and Pixar and Marvel, that it’s not as differentiated, maybe not as valuable. But then, through this process, determined that owning the whole thing had real value, because partnering that business with the other branded streaming business, Disney+, could actually create a huge opportunity for us, and thus we decided to keep it rather than sell it.

Andrew Ross Sorkin (12:58):

Let me ask you about that IP. You just mentioned Pixar and Marvel, and so many of these other things. Very recently, as you’ve seen, because you get the box office numbers every weekend, a number of these films have not performed. They have not performed the way they used to. People question the creative magic at Disney. You can look at the Marvels. I’m curious why you think that disappointed. You could look at Wish, Indiana Jones. What’s happened?

Bob Iger (13:27):

Well, I think you have to look at it a couple of ways. First of all, I think the movie business is changing, actually. Box office today is about 75% of what it was pre-COVID. I think we have conditioned the audience to expect that these films will be on streaming platforms relatively quickly, and that the experience of accessing them and watching them in the home is better than it ever was. One, easier to access in terms of the technology; two, just the visuals. Better sets in your living room than before. And a bargain, when you think about it. Streaming Disney+, you can get it for $7 a month. That’s a lot cheaper than taking your whole family to a film.

(14:10)
So I think the bar is now raised in terms of quality about what gets people out of their homes into movie theaters. Some of it is just being part of basically the social wave. Certainly, Barbie and Oppenheimer did that for two other studios, and so I think that’s one thing. Second, in our particular case, and specifically about those films, some of those films, they were not as good. They were not as high in quality, not everyone that you mentioned, as some of their predecessors, our films, and as they should have been, particularly in this environment.

Andrew Ross Sorkin (14:42):

Why do you think that was?

Bob Iger (14:44):

Well, the Marvels was shot during COVID. There wasn’t as much supervision on the set, so to speak, where we have executives there really looking over what’s being done day after day after day. And that was a result mostly of COVID, but at the same time, we increased our output tremendously to feed the streaming platforms. Too much, by the way.

Andrew Ross Sorkin (15:03):

Mistake?

Bob Iger (15:04):

Definite mistake, and quality needs attention. To deliver quality, it doesn’t happen by accident, and the quantity, in our case, diluted quality, and Marvel suffered greatly from that. So there are different reasons. And I’m the first. I’ve been very public about it. I would say right now my number-one priority is to help the studio turn around creatively.

(15:26)
Now, let’s also put it in perspective. We set the bar so high. Year after year after year, we had the best performance in the business probably for a decade, and I’m not sure another studio will ever achieve some of the numbers that we achieved with multiple. 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.

(15:52)
A couple of the films you mentioned, by the way, which is interesting about kind of the new world order, did okay at the box office. Elemental is a good example, about 500 million at the box office. By the way, to some studios, that would be a gigantic hit. When Disney has a $500 million film, it’s a failure, which is interesting, but then it went on Disney+ and had massive consumption, so that says something. Maybe people didn’t perceive it was the kind of film they needed to see in the theaters, but they certainly, when they discovered it on Disney+, enjoyed it.

Andrew Ross Sorkin (16:24):

Let me ask you about this, about franchises, and the value of IP. I don’t think actually most people have ever read this letter, so I’m going to read it aloud if I could. This was a letter written in 1966 by Walt Disney, the man himself. He was two months before dying from lung cancer, he was this heavy smoker, and he wrote this to shareholders about what he said makes us tick here at the Disney Organization.

(16:45)
He said, “Many people have asked, why don’t you make another Mary Poppins? Well, by nature, I’m a born experimenter. To this day, I don’t believe in sequels. I can’t follow popular cycles. I have to move on to new things. There are many new worlds to conquer. As a matter of fact, people have been asking us to make sequels ever since Mickey Mouse first became a star. We have bowed only on one occasion to the cry to repeat ourselves.”

(17:07)
“Back in the ’30s, The Three Little Pigs was an enormous hit, and the cry went out, ‘Give us more pigs!’ I could not see how we could possibly top pigs with pigs, but we tried, and I doubt whether any one of you reading this can name the other cartoons in which the pigs appeared. We didn’t make the same mistake with Snow White. When it was a huge hit, the shout went out for more dwarfs. Top dwarfs with dwarfs, why try?”

(17:28)
“Right now, we’re not thinking about making another Mary Poppins. We never will. Perhaps there’ll be other ventures with equal critical and financial success, but we know we cannot hit a home run with the bases loaded every time we go to the plate. We also know the only way we can even get to first base is by constantly going to bat and continuing to swing.” What would Walt think now?

Bob Iger (17:53):

I’m going to talk to him later, and maybe I’ll let you know. I don’t know. I actually think about that a lot. About five years ago, we put Walt’s office back together again as it existed the day he passed. We had saved everything that was in it, and there had been photographs taken of everything, including the order of the books on the shelves, and we decided kind of out of respect for him, we would just return it to what it looked like then. Interesting you mentioned he was a smoker. It’s filled with ashtrays. Wherever you go, there’s an ashtray.

(18:24)
And every once in a while, I go in, not to smoke by the way, I don’t smoke, but I go into his office, just to sort of feel the presence. I know that sounds a little weird, but it’s kind of a nice way to relax and appreciate the legacy of the company. And the first thing you really realize, if you study Walt, is that Walt was unbelievable at adapting to change.

(18:45)
First of all, he loved technology, he loved to use technology, and he also knew that the world was not a static place. That was true for his theme parks, that was true for his movies, for television, everything that he did. He was a true innovator, and an innovator is someone who never stands still. Now, when that quote, I think you at one point read it to me, and I think we had just done a sequel to Mary Poppins, I thought, “Wow, this is good timing.”

(19:12)
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 there has to be a reason to make them, you have to have a good story. And often, the story is not as strong as the original story. That can be a problem, but it just has to have a reason. You have to have a reason to make it beyond the commerce. There has to be an artistic reason to make it, and we’ve made too many.

(19:42)
It doesn’t mean we’re not going to continue to make them. We’re making a number of them now, as a matter of fact, including to some of our best films. But we will only greenlight a sequel if we believe the story that the creators want to tell is worthwhile.

Andrew Ross Sorkin (19:57):

Do you think then you can make originals? Or do you think that the franchise

Bob Iger (19:59):

Well, I think it has to be a blend.

Andrew Ross Sorkin (20:00):

… Chai’s game is still the only game that’s going to work [inaudible 00:20:03]-

Bob Iger (20:02):

Well, I think it has to be a blend. It has to be a blend. You can’t just resort to everything that you’ve made. Although I will say that the risk is sometimes less when you start with a sequel because it is some known value. We’re making one with Toy Story, for instance.

Andrew Ross Sorkin (20:17):

What would Walt think of sports? You’re trying to figure out what to do with ESPN. Would he like that you have sports or would he be telling you you got to do something else?

Bob Iger (20:27):

I think Walt would love sports. Sports is just a phenomenal entertainment form. As unpredictable as it gets, and it’s interesting in today’s world with as many choices as people have, look at how sports has stood tall in a sea of unbelievable choice.

Andrew Ross Sorkin (20:43):

I want to ask you about the deal that you say you’re trying to negotiate, and there’s lots of news reports about different folks, leagues you’re talking to, technology you’re talking to about getting a minority investment in here.

(20:53)
This is Rich Greenfield who asked the following, he says, “We do not understand how any of these investment ideas would solve ESPN’s number one problem: the cost of sports rights is rising faster than revenues, period. Sure, there could be excitement about one or more of them overpaying to own a piece of ESPN,” he says, “but that does not fix, improve ESPN’s, long-term financial prospects.” What could you do to change the economics of this?

Bob Iger (21:22):

First of all, sports, as I mentioned, is very unique in today’s world. When you think about entertainment forums that have an ability to basically bring the world together en masse at one moment, tell me what’s better than sports to do that.

(21:36)
Just look at ratings, when you look at the top, I don’t know how many television shows in history, every one of them is a Super Bowl. Almost every one of the top-rated shows is a sports show. People love sports and we have an unbelievably unique position in the world of sports, particularly television sports, in ESPN with a great brand and a true aggregator of sports and a business that convenes people in an unbelievably impactful way. We want to stay in that business. It is a healthy business for us today, and it will continue to be a healthy business, but like our other businesses, it has relied on a business model that is not as robust as it used to be. So the goal for us-

Andrew Ross Sorkin (22:17):

But you think there’s enough revenue to pay for-

Bob Iger (22:19):

Yes.

Andrew Ross Sorkin (22:20):

So you think Rich is wrong on this?

Bob Iger (22:22):

I’m not sure there was anything right about what you just read, I like him, but I’m not getting advice from him right now.

(22:35)
We want to migrate it from the old business model to the new business model, and when you think about it, streaming is perfect for sports because you can create a destination that has infinite shelf space. You can put not just one, that’s not one program and one program slot in one channel, but as we do on ESPN+ right now, you can choose 50 different sports going on at one point at one time, easy to use and obviously it lends itself to mobile. It lends itself to games like fantasy. We believe it will lend itself to sports betting, which we’re also going into.

(23:10)
I think it’s very unique. We’re in a very unique position. All we are doing right now as we prepare to bring it in a much more direct to consumer direction, which is to launch it as its own app, is basically looking for partners, just talking with partners that can actually enhance the prospects.

(23:32)
We’re very confident about the prospects of ESPN as a streaming business, but with a potential partner from the sports side, meaning more content or from the distribution and technology side, we believe our prospects will even be better as it transitions to the new [inaudible 00:23:49]-

Andrew Ross Sorkin (23:48):

How much of saying all this publicly before having a deal is about staving off the activists? You now have value act in this business-

Bob Iger (23:56):

Activists is totally irrelevant in this regard.

Andrew Ross Sorkin (23:59):

Okay. How about Nelson Peltz?

Bob Iger (24:00):

By the way… Well, as it relates to sports?

Andrew Ross Sorkin (24:04):

Well, as it relates to putting all of these businesses effectively either up for sale are saying, “Look, we’re thinking about everything,” so that when Nelson Peltz and Ike Perlmutter-

Bob Iger (24:13):

We haven’t put any of them up for sale.

Andrew Ross Sorkin (24:15):

But I think one of the things you’ve said is, “We’re looking at an option for getting minority investment here. We might be willing to sell the linear channels here. We might be…” When you went public with that, did you know that Nelson Peltz was coming?

Bob Iger (24:29):

I knew that he was potentially interested in requesting a board seat again, but what I said in that interview in July, he was not on my mind at all. There was nothing-

Andrew Ross Sorkin (24:42):

He’s now in your mind.

Bob Iger (24:42):

It was nothing about what I said then that it was in any way related to whether he was going to return as an activist or not.

Andrew Ross Sorkin (24:51):

Can we talk about the activism? So he has now partnered with Ike Perlmutter who used to work with you, you bought Marvel from him. What do you make of that? Do you think this is personal? What is this?

Bob Iger (25:04):

This is not a headline that I’m going to create right now. The board has an obligation to listen to investors, Ike with Nelson, represent a certain amount of shares of our stock. I’m certain that the board will hear them out in terms of what their plans or what their ideas are. That’s obviously something [inaudible 00:25:28] to do.

Andrew Ross Sorkin (25:27):

Let me ask you a culture question.

Bob Iger (25:30):

As you reminded me and the audience, I have a lot to do, I’m not going to get distracted by any of that. In discussing with the board how to best contend with activists, the one thing that is very, very clear that I have actually requested is, fine we have to obviously contend with them in some form, but don’t force me to take my eye off the ball and lose focus in terms of managing the company [inaudible 00:25:57]-

Andrew Ross Sorkin (25:57):

If they get on the board, does that affect you and your ability to keep your eye on the ball? Culturally, people are always trying to figure out, do you just let somebody on the board because maybe that shuts them up? Or if you let them on the board it infects the whole thing? What do you think?

Bob Iger (26:10):

Here’s what I think. The Disney Board, if you look into a person, is a collection of very talented, very experienced people that know a lot about business and the world, that bring to our boardroom a level of expertise and an input and an ability to basically either challenge me on some of my thinking and my decisions or support me or actually help me execute when possible and give me advice.

(26:39)
And there’s a qualification level that is required to sit on the Disney board, and the board will make, not me, the board makes decisions about who’s qualified and who isn’t qualified to be on the board, and if Nelson officially requests a board seat, I’m sure the board will go through a process to determine whether he should have a role on the board or not. But it’s not like we’ve got a number of empty seats, “Come on in, join the Disney board, have fun, have at it. Help us make sequels.”

Andrew Ross Sorkin (27:10):

Let me ask you a different question and maybe it’s a political question. We were talking about ESG earlier this morning with Jamie Dimon, part of what happened while you were gone from the company was a number of films that were greenlit that people were describing as woke, with woke characters, a fight with Desantis, by the time you got back, and I don’t know if people saw images of this, there was a morning outside of Disney World where there were folks literally with flags, swastika flags and Desantis flags-

Bob Iger (27:47):

Anti-gay.

Andrew Ross Sorkin (27:48):

Anti-gay flags and guns, as families are trying to walk into the park. I’m so curious what you think has happened and how you as a company are supposed to deal with that, and what you feel like you can say and can’t say given this remarkably polarized climate we’re in right now.

Bob Iger (28:07):

You’re talking about our content itself or just positions the company takes on issues?

Andrew Ross Sorkin (28:12):

Both, meaning do you fight with Desantis? Do you create LGBT characters?

Bob Iger (28:18):

So complicated.

(28:20)
Well, let me start with content and your comment about woke characters. Our primary objective in creating content as a company, say for ABC News, which is obviously to inform, but is to entertain, whether it’s sports, whether it’s Disney, whether it’s Marvel, make things that entertain people. And the good news is there’s a marketplace out there that demands entertainment. It’s a fantastic business to be in because of that.

(28:46)
I think what had happened over a period of time, it was building and building, and maybe I think it reached a peak of some sort while I was gone, is that creators lost sight of what their number one objective needed to be. Often when we entertain, and we’ve entertained as a company over the 100 years we’ve been in business, we have entertained with values and having a positive impact on the world in many different ways.

(29:15)
I’ve used Black Panther as a great example of that just in terms of fostering acceptance, or the movie Coco, which Pixar did about the Day of the Dead. I like being able to do that, entertain and if you can infuse it with positive messages, have a good impact on the world, fantastic. But that should not be the objective.

(29:33)
When I came back, what I’ve really tried to do is to return to our roots, which is remember we have to entertain first. It’s not about messages. Again, if your story can have a positive impact, so there’s that. And I’ve worked hard since I’ve been back at reminding the creative community who are our partners, so our employees, that that’s the objective. And I don’t really want to tolerate the opposite, so there’s that.

(29:58)
When it comes time to taking positions

Bob Iger (30:00):

… positions about issues. I have tried really hard over the years, and I’m not calling them politics because a lot of them are not politics. Sometimes it’s what is right and what is wrong. When it comes time to taking positions, I have tried really hard to apply a standard that asks, “Is this relevant to the company? To our people, to our company, to our shareholders?” That’s a very important test. So if we take a position on the environment, if we care about the health of our planet, it’s because we believe that if the planet is not healthy, it will be bad for our business. People are not going to go to theme parks if they can’t breathe the air as a for instance. That’s not politics, that’s business. So if anyone has accused us of being political when it comes to that, they’re just dead wrong.

(30:49)
I could argue the same thing… Interesting to listen to the vice president about immigration. We have over 200,000 employees. We rely on a workforce that is talented, motivated, interested in working for our company. The more diverse it is, the better off we are, the more experienced. So a robust immigration policy is something that actually is pro-business for us as a for instance. There are times when there are subjects that maybe we should not comment on because they’re not relevant, unless they are of such importance to the world. For instance, I think commenting about terrorist acts is perfectly reasonable for the CEO of a large company. By the way, I think it’s interesting when you think about the world and who people listen to and what they expect of leaders. And I just think that there’s a time and a place for companies to weigh in on issues, and it’s actually something that I think CEOs get paid to do.

Andrew Ross Sorkin (31:52):

Let me ask you this.

Bob Iger (31:52):

[inaudible 00:31:53] We have to make decisions like this.

Andrew Ross Sorkin (31:54):

So you made a decision to suspend advertising recently on X.

Bob Iger (31:57):

Yeah. By the way, we should just finish. Can I just come back to one thing regarding Governor DeSantis in Florida? The position that we took with Governor DeSantis in Florida was simply this. The company, while I was gone, decided to take a position against the Don’t Say Gay bill that was moving through the Florida legislature. I won’t comment about what I would’ve done or not done, but the company took that position against it. The governor decided… He got very, very angry at the company when it took that position, and decided to punish the company by basically stripping it of… First he wanted to strip essentially the entity that manages the property that Disney World is on, and then he decided that was impractical, so he would just take out the board and put his own board in.

(32:43)
We felt that was a direct result of the company having exercised its right to free speech, taking the position against the Don’t Say Gay bill, and that punishing us for exercising our right to free speech was anti-American and anti-business, and I felt that it was really important for us to stand up for our rights and simply ask the question. It wasn’t even about the Don’t Say Gay bill at that point. It was about does a company have a right to free speech? And if it exercises that right to free speech, it should not face a retribution because it has done so, and that’s what we thought was going on. So there’s a lawsuit that we filed that is very specific to that. It has nothing to do-

Andrew Ross Sorkin (33:26):

Have you talked to the governor about this?

Bob Iger (33:27):

No, I have not.

Andrew Ross Sorkin (33:28):

Do you want to? Would you like to talk to him?

Bob Iger (33:29):

I offered at some point through intermediaries the ability to have a conversation with him, but he did not take me up on that offer.

Andrew Ross Sorkin (33:40):

I mentioned X, and we’re going to see Elon Musk in a little bit. You stopped advertising on X.

Bob Iger (33:45):

We did.

Andrew Ross Sorkin (33:46):

Tell us about that decision.

Bob Iger (33:52):

I have a lot of respect for Elon and what he’s accomplished, and not just one business, but a few businesses. And we know Elon is larger than life in many respects, and that his name is very much tied to the companies he either has founded or he owns, whether it’s Tesla or SpaceX. SpaceX?

Andrew Ross Sorkin (34:14):

SpaceX.

Bob Iger (34:16):

SpaceX. Or now X. And by him taking the position that he took in quite a public manner, we just felt that the association with that position and Elon Musk and X was not necessarily a positive one for us, and we decided we would pull our advertising. We are now allowing entities at the company to use X as a platform to communicate. ABC News is a good example of that, ESPN and other. We use it for-

Andrew Ross Sorkin (34:46):

But do you anticipate this is a forever?

Bob Iger (34:50):

I haven’t readdressed it since the decision was made.

Andrew Ross Sorkin (34:54):

Do you find it a good advertising platform?

Bob Iger (34:58):

We’ve reached people on a lot of social media platforms. In general, social media has become an effective way for us to communicate, whether it’s marketing message or otherwise. I don’t want to be specific about X itself.

Andrew Ross Sorkin (35:14):

We got to run, but let me ask you one last thing about China. You have a big business in China.

Bob Iger (35:19):

We have a good business in China.

Andrew Ross Sorkin (35:20):

You have a good business in China. We’ve been talking all morning about the threat that China may or may not pose in the future to the United States, to Taiwan. We heard from the president of Taiwan this morning. What is your sense of the risk of something going wrong and the risk to your business? How do you think about that? Would you ever create a second park in China given everything that’s going on, for example?

Bob Iger (35:47):

First of all, when we look at the world, and we are a global company, it’s pretty important in terms of growth to establish our businesses in the two most populous countries in the world, India and China, obviously very different markets. And because, not prior to the last few years, but over the last few decades, because of regulation our access to that market was somewhat limited, certainly can’t own media including streaming platform, television channels we couldn’t own, and so when we looked at our alternatives in terms of how best to enter that market, building a theme park seemed like a great idea. Because even though only tens of millions of people can go there versus billions, if we built it right, which we did, and it became an experience that the people of China love, it would be an extremely positive step for our company. And that’s in fact what we accomplished. We built a fantastic theme park, opened it in 2016 on property that we can expand on.

(36:55)
I’m actually very proud of the fact that we did it because entering the market from other directions was almost an impossibility. And it turned out to be a nicely profitable business for us with some growth prospects. If you are asking me whether I’m as optimistic as I once was about growing our business in China, the answer would be no. I think it’s pretty obvious that issues between our countries, tensions have had an impact on business, not just Disney’s but on other companies as well. And so I’m bullish about Disneyland in Shanghai, and I believe that we will end up expanding that park relatively soon. I guess there’s, to some extent, additional risk associated, but not all the capital that we put in is ours. We have a partner there, and so some of the risk is shared with a local entity. I’m not losing sleep over the risk that we’re taking there at this point, but again, I think I’m somewhat sobered about the prospects of our company and other companies long term, unless things improve.

Andrew Ross Sorkin (38:03):

Bob Iger, everybody. Thank you very, very much.

Bob Iger (38:05):

Thank you.

Andrew Ross Sorkin (38:06):

Thank you very, very much.

Bob Iger (38:06):

That’s fine.

Andrew Ross Sorkin (38:06):

I appreciate it. Thank-

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