Michael Eisner, the former Walt Disney chief who currently runs holding company Tornante, was upbeat about his two successors at Disney, Bob Iger and Bob Chapek. The former officially left the hallowed halls as of December 31 and the latter, in place for almost a year, is firing up.
“I am a big fan of Disney. I am a fan of both Bobs. Yes I hired him [Chapek]. Is he the same executive as I am, or Bob [Iger] is, or anybody is? He is his own guy. He was very good at Disney when I was there. He took our home video business from a rental to a sell-through business. That was very risky. He did a very good job in the parks. I am a shareholder. I think he’s going to do very well,” Eisner said Wednesday in an interview on CNBC.
Iger stepped down a year before his contract was over in a shocker in February 2020 after a stellar run, saying he wanted to go out on top. He became executive chairman with a mandate to focus on content for a transition year as the company named Chapek CEO. It’s been a long goodbye, and industry players have wondered how Iger is taking the change.
“We’ve talked about it,” Eisner said. “Having 50 unanswered emails, and seven scripts you haven’t read and 30 phone calls you haven’t returned… Getting off that treadmill is not a horrible thing. I think he is interested in writing another book, looking at his opportunities. He is not 25 years old, as I’m not. Between ABC and Disney, he spent many years at one institution. I think he is coming up for air and you will hear about him and things he will be doing and his wife Willow [Bay] will be doing in the future.”
“There is no loser here. I don’t think the shareholders are losers here, or the consumers are losers here, or certainly either of them” — Iger or Chapek.
Disney, Eisner indicated, has historically done pretty well. “Bob [Iger] did extremely well. We did OK. I wouldn’t discount Disney. Disney went through… this pandemic. That does change a lot of things. I wouldn’t throw away your Disney tickets to the theme parks quite so early.” Investors have taken a more grudging stance on the company starting last year as streaming growth slowed. The stock had been a Wall Street darling in 2020 on the explosive growth of Disney+ despite pandemic woes that shuttered parks and halted production.
Asked for thoughts on streaming, Eisner said it’s evolving and great but won’t replace live events. “I was one of the first investors in Netflix,” he said. Tornante’s BoJack Horseman was the streamer’s first original animated series. “Netflix told me they were never going into animation. Then they went into animation. They were never going into sports, they’re going into sports. [Not exactly, though Reed Hastings told German magazine Der Speigel in September the company might consider a bid for Formula 1 rights.] The company is moving into games.
“They weren’t going to make motion pictures. Apple wasn’t going to make motion pictures. Steve Jobs told me they were never going to make content. All that has changed, for the better,” Eisner said.
“I believe that the streaming business is here to stay,” he said, ticking off Netflix, Disney+, Amazon, Apple and HBO Max. “That doesn’t mean theaters outside the home are going away. I believe moviegoing will return. Spider-Man has shown us that it will. But soon the middle level movies will come back” too.
On the TV side, Eisner said he is excited by the success of subtitled shows that cross the globe like Squid Game and Fauda.
Eisner spoke to CNBC after agreeing last week to sell one of Tornante’s prized investments, the Topps trading card business, to digital sportswear group Fanatics. The deal was reported at $500 million but Eisner told CNBC it was well over that. It was not a fun deal for him to make — Fanatics forced it by securing a 20-year contract with Major League Baseball through 2045, cutting Topps out and forcing it to cancel a planned IPO. “We were surprised,” Eisner said.
But it has upside. “It puts me back where I haven’t left anyway, into products that I don’t have to license. That I don’t have to go around the world and beg for a license from the Premier League or from the World Cup or from Major League Baseball.”