Disney's outgoing CEO turned the media conglomerate into a tech company. The question now: Can his heir continue that trend?
Longtime Disney chief Bob Iger announced Tuesday he's stepping back from the role immediately, though he'll stay on as president through 2021. He is being replaced by Disney veteran Bob Chapek, the current head of Disney Parks, Experiences and Products.
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"On paper, Chapek's cross-company experience makes him better-suited to be CEO of Disney than when Iger was appointed CEO in 2005," advisers at LightShed Partners wrote in a note.
Still, Iger oversaw a huge, digital transformation at Disney since succeeding Michael Eisner in 2005. He rekindled a partnership with Apple, helped the company gain full control of Hulu, and topped it off with the launch of the Disney+ streaming service late last year. And he'll stay involved in his role as executive chairman directing "creative endeavors" until the end of 2021.
Those are large shoes to fill for his successor. But Chapek has his own track record in technical innovation.
An early digital adopter
Chapek joined Disney in 1993 and has worked in most parts of the company since, including helping oversee the Disney Vault home video strategy back when people actually bought physical media. He also helped steer digital distribution strategies, including major deals like with Apple's iTunes that Iger helped make a reality.
"Bob Chapek has been at the forefront of new technology for many years, and has the expertise and track record to guide and consolidate our future distribution efforts," Rich Ross, then head of Walt Disney Studios, said in 2009 when naming Chapek president of distribution, according to Variety.
From 2011 to 2015, Chapek led Disney's consumer products division, where the company says "he drove the technology-led transformation" while guiding everything from retail to app licensing. Then he took over parks, before a 2018 reorganization essentially put him in charge of parks, resorts, as well as his previous consumer products purview.
Speaking of parks …
Parks is one of Disney's largest endeavors, and it expanded greatly on Chapek's watch, with the opening of the company's first mainland China outpost, Shanghai Disney Resort, and the launch of Star Wars: Galaxy's Edge at Disneyland and Disney World.
Parks are actually a huge hub of innovation for things like frictionless ticketing and payments, and while Chapek was in charge, Disney led the pack with its RFID chip-equipped MagicBands — a (sometimes controversial) bracelet that serves as a connector for almost everything visitors can do in the parks and resorts.
The future is immersive
Star Wars: Galaxy's Edge was built on the technology prototyped via MagicBands, as well as other park innovations, to create an immersive experience where everything, including gift shops, rides and "cast members," are themed and supposed to transport visitors to a commercialized science fiction play world using a combination of technology, design and storytelling. Not quite "Westworld," but it's definitely trying to head in that direction.
"It feels like you're actually in Batuu. That's unique," Chapek told CNN last year. "We're really part of a big machine, a big story-telling machine, but we do it in a physical world."
That speaks to the kind of world-building Disney is going to need to keep doing under Chapek's leadership as it continues to build its various cinematic universes and experiment with new kinds of media frontiers, including virtual reality. In fact, Disney is already doing some of this now in parks through an attraction called The Void, where visitors can have virtual reality experiences that feature Disney properties like "Wreck-it Ralph" or "Star Wars."
But what about streaming?
One of the few areas in the company Chapek has less experience in is also a big part of its future: streaming. In fact, some Wall Street watchers thought the head of Disney's direct-to-consumer division, Kevin Mayer, would end up in the top spot because of his work in that arena.
That includes advisers at LightShed, who noted Chapek "has zero ties to the TV business." When it comes to streaming, Chapek, they wrote, "is the execution/operations exec," not the "strategy guy."
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But that may be where timing comes into play. Disney+ is already up and running, and much of the strategy is already in place, so Chapek is in more of a caretaker role — especially with Iger continuing to help steer the ship from the executive chairman spot.With the plumbing already in place for streaming, there are plenty of other areas where Chapek could try to innovate — and declining theater ticket sales suggest that figuring out a path forward for theatrical releases might be a good next target. Maybe the one-time theme-park exec's history building big story-telling experiences can help as cinema learns how to make use of VR.