Every year, Laughing Place names the top 10 Most Fascinating Disney People, highlighting those involved with the Walt Disney Company that everyday fans might not be so familiar with. Below are the first nine entrants to this year’s list, with our Disney Person of the Day to be named on New Year’s Eve.
Here are some of 2018’s Most Fascinating Disney People:
The Israel-born CEO of Oracle, Safra Catz, joined Disney’s Board of Directors this year. After starting at the tech company in 1999, Catz was added to their Board of Directors in 2001. Amongst her accomplishments is driving Oracle’s $10.3 billion takeover of PeopleSoft.
At the time of her joining the Disney Board, Bob Iger said, “Ms. Catz has led Oracle through a period of tremendous growth and innovation since taking the helm in 2014, driving the company’s impressive acquisition strategy and expanding its operations.”
Catz herself said “I am honored to join Disney’s board. For almost 100 years, Disney has continued to innovate and deliver an unparalleled customer experience. As technology and entertainment further converge, it’s an exciting time for the company and I look forward to working with the board in continuing Disney’s rich legacy of innovation.”
Disney had two high-profile tech leaders depart the Board with Twitter’s Jack Dorsey and Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg exiting. With Disney getting into the streaming business and social media companies getting into the entertainment business, there were too many conflicts of interest. Adding Catz, Disney gets some technological expertise while also having someone who has orchestrated large acquisitions, which will be crucial as Disney integrates 20th Century Fox.
Another leader with technology experience joining the Board is Francis deSouza. The Ethiopian-born executive is currently President and CEO of Illumina, which applies technology to genetic analysis. He has served in his current role since 2016 and joined the organization in 2013. Prior to being named President and CEO, deSouza already had an impressive resume that included co-founding Flash Communications which was acquired by Microsoft in 1998. He left in 2001 to found IMlogic which was acquired by Symantec in 2006 where he remained until 2013.
Bob Iger said, “Mr. deSouza has overseen the development of groundbreaking genomics technology at Illumina that pushes the boundaries of science, significantly impacting the well-being of people around the world.”
While deSouza said, “It is a privilege to be a part of such an iconic institution. At both Disney and Illumina, we have very similar goals: to touch people’s lives. Disney does it through first-class storytelling and Illumina does it through cutting-edge science.”
As someone who has both entrepreneurial and big business experience, he will be able to provide a unique perspective while guiding Disney into its post-Fox and streaming future.
I don’t know if you have noticed, but the international trade landscape has gotten a bit complicated in recent years. As a global company, Disney needs to carefully navigate the international business waters, particularly when working with their international partners such as those at Shanghai Disneyland. With Fox’s strong international portfolio, that need will even increase in the coming year. This is perhaps why they added Michael Froman to the Board.
Froman is currently Vice Chairman and President, Strategic Growth at Mastercard Incorporated. But perhaps more interesting is his career in public service. He served as United States Trade Representative in the Executive Office of the President from 2013 to 2017, and as Assistant to the President and Deputy National Security Advisor for International Economic Policy from 2009 to 2013. He also served in the Clinton administration in both the Treasury Department and the White House. He currently serves as a Distinguished Fellow of the Council on Foreign Relations.
“Given his broad experience and extraordinary career spanning both the public and private sectors, Mike brings a unique perspective that will be extremely valuable as we continue to build the future of Disney,” said Bob Iger. “In particular, his keen insights into finance, international trade, and government partnerships make him a great fit for our Board during this dynamic era of innovation and global growth.”
Froman said, “The Walt Disney Company is an iconic brand that has the power to inspire generation after generation. I am honored to join the Board and share my experiences and insights to help this great company explore new opportunities around the world.”
International expansion has always been one of Bob Iger’s strategic priorities. With the desire to make a big push across the globe with a suite of streaming services, insight to the world beyond our own backyard will prove valuable.
When the position of Chief Creative Officer at Pixar opened up, there was not a lot of speculation about who would fills John Lasseter’s shoes. Pete Docter was the obvious choice. The writer and director of Up, Inside Out, and Monsters Inc. is known for his geniality, mentorship, and respect of animation history. He was one of Pixar’s first employees in 1990 and is a charter member of the Brain Trust that provides guidance on all of Pixar’s films. He won two Academy Awards for Best Animated Feature (Up and Inside Out). All of the films he has directed scored at least 96% on Rotten Tomatoes.
Disney Studios head Alan Horn said, “Pete, the genius creative force behind Up, Inside Out, and Monsters, Inc., has been an integral part of Pixar almost since the beginning and is a huge part of its industry-leading success.”
Upon accepting his new role, Docter said, “I am excited and humbled to be asked to take on this role. It is not something I take lightly; making films at Pixar has been my chronic obsession since I started here 28 years ago. I am fortunate to work alongside some of the most talented people on the planet, and together we will keep pushing animation in new directions, using the latest technology to tell stories we hope will surprise and delight audiences around the world.”
Unlike Lasseter, Docter will report to Horn instead of Iger which brings the position inline with other studio heads such as Marvel’s Kevin Feige and Lucasfilm’s Kathleen Kennedy.
Jennifer Lee is much newer to animation than Pete Docter, having joined Walt Disney Animation Studios in 2011 as co-writer of Wreck-It Ralph. Her short term stint, was extended when she was named writer and co-director of Frozen. That phenomenon put a bow on the Disney Animation rebirth that had been building since The Princess and the Frog.
The success of Frozen opened new creative outlets for Lee. She was Tony nominated for the book of the Frozen Broadway musical. She also wrote Disney’s A Wrinkle in Time adaptation. Lee is also a member of the Disney Story Trust.
Horn said about Lee, “Jenn, in bringing her bold vision to the boundary-breaking Frozen, has helped infuse Disney Animation with a new and exciting perspective.”
“I am deeply grateful to everyone at Walt Disney Animation Studios and The Walt Disney Company for this opportunity,” said Lee. “Animation is the most collaborative art form in the world, and it is with the partnership of my fellow filmmakers, artists, and innovators that we look ahead to the future. My hope is to support the incredible talent we have, find new voices, and work together to tell original stories. The great films of Disney Animation – the films I loved as a kid and my daughter has grown up loving – are magical, timeless, and full of heart, and it is our goal to create films that carry on and grow this 95-year legacy for future generations.”
The next film from Disney Animation with be Frozen 2, which is once again co-directed by Lee and Chris Buck. What may be more insightful will be the animated film following her directing encore. While we don’t know what it will be, it will show how Lee can be a leader in addition to a creative voice. With different creative leaders at Pixar and Disney Animation, one would expect studios to have some additional diversity in storytelling that will keep the studio styles unique. As Disney fans, we hope both studios have continued success.
With the recent restructuring, Bob Chapek has taken on some additional duties. In addition to his Parks and Resort oversight, he added Consumer Products to his purview. He is no stranger to that business as he lead it before moving over to the parks division. In fact, the only segment of Disney that Chapek doesn’t have experience in is television. He served as president of distribution for The Walt Disney Studios, where he managed the Company’s film content distribution strategy across multiple platforms, and president of Walt Disney Studios Home Entertainment during which he led the organization to record-setting performances and played a key role in the commercialization of the Studio’s film business. Chapek has been with Disney for over 25 years.
As has been a favorite past-time for many years, betting on who will takeover Disney after Iger continues. While the expansion of responsibilities may make Chapek a candidate, he hasn’t received as much attention as other suitors. This is because the parks have been stable and have seen growth through playing to their traditional strengths: push technology to deliver memorable vacation experiences. There isn’t a major sea change like is being seen in the media business which will have to be navigated by other executives.
But the media perception belies the strength of the business and the growth it has seen. From game-changing experiences like Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge to growth initiatives like three new cruise ships and a reinvention of Walt Disney Studios in Paris, Disney is making huge investments. While maybe not as splashy to the CNBC crowd as Disney+ and 20th Century Fox, Disney is spending more on theme park investments in the next five years than they paid for Pixar, Marvel, and Lucasfilm combined.
Chapek has found success. While the media business is challenged by systemic changes in the market, he has seen revenue growing. The big question for Chapek is whether those in charge think he can run the company at large. Building amazing experiences and then raising prices has been the park’s gameplan since the Eisner days. While building experiences are not always an easy layup, you don’t have to deal with massive changes in the global theme park landscape at the pace ABC and ESPN do.
Tom Staggs was once head of the parks business until he was named heir apparent. Despite finding creative and fiscal success at the parks, the Board felt he struggled to find solutions for the big-picture challenges the company faced. Would Chapek be able to face that challenge?
If Chapek is not receiving his fair share of attention, Kevin Mayer has the opposite problem. The recently named Chairman of Direct-to-Consumer and International is leading the future of Disney’s distribution business with oversight of ESPN+ and Disney+. He also leads Disney’s International business which is set for major growth following the 20th Century Fox acquisition.
Also part of this business is ad-sales for all of Disney’s outlets and Disney’s Movies Anywhere service which provides access to purchased films across distributors from several studios. He also oversees Disney’s role in Hulu, with which Disney is set to take majority control over.
Mayer first joined Disney in 1993 and lead the strategy and business development for the online and television business. He then transitioned to be Executive Vice President of the Internet group where he lead websites such as ESPN.com and ABCNews.com
He left Disney in 2000 to become Chairman and CEO on Clear Channel Communications internet group. He rejoined Disney in 2005 as Executive Vice President, Corporate Strategy Officer. Interestingly, this move came as Bob Iger deemphasized Disney’s strategy group’s involvement in business decisions giving more oversight to Disney’s various units.
As head of strategy, Mayer oversaw acquisitions of Pixar, Marvel, Lucasfilm, Club Penguin, Playdom, and Maker Studios. Obviously, Disney’s successful acquisitions outpace their failures and Disney is seen as being masterful at integrating big deals.
That being said, executing a deal and dreaming it up are two different things. Bob Iger is known for his strong vision which led to the major acquisitions that have marked his tenure. It was hard to determine where Bob Iger’s desires ended and Kevin’s execution began. Now that he has his own business to run, his leadership will be easier to assess.
He has a risky path ahead of him. While ESPN+ has found early success, Hulu is still losing a significant amount of money. The success of Disney+ will not be known for sometime due to its late 2019 launch. It is not uncommon for “hot” leaders to struggle when moved or promoted. Kevin Mayer has a lot riding on Disney’s future. Wall Street’s eye will be on him.
Disneyland’s hometown environment is one of its key charms. Its avid fan base and market of locals makes anytime a new President of the Disneyland Resort is named, it is newsworthy as that individual will instantly become known to the Disney fan community. Such was the case with Josh D’Amaro.
Unlike others who got their start at Walt Disney World, D’Amaro began his Disney journey in 1998 as a senior business planner. He grew through the organization and then moved to Consumer Products. After stints with Adventures by Disney and Hong Kong Disneyland, D’Amaro became vice president of Disney’s Animal Kingdom and then became senior vice president Resorts and Transportation.
“I am incredibly excited to be returning to the place where I began my Disney career nearly 20 years ago,” D’Amaro said. “I look forward to working closely with my fellow cast members, overseeing the Disneyland Resort during such an exciting period of growth, and once again becoming a member of the Orange County community.”
D’Amaro has often been seen walking through the park. He has engaged the cast and can be seen giving guests high-fives as the park opens for the morning.
Of course, D’Amaro did inherit his fair share of challenges such as labor deals and a strained relationship with the city of Anaheim. That being said, Disneyland did sign a new labor agreement and hit the reset button with the city by tearing up controversial deals.
In the coming year, D’Amaro will have to lead the operational launch of Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge, while also trying to develop a future of the land-constrained resort. Will Disney build another hotel? What will the Marvel experiences be? Will we ever get a third gate? It will be interesting to see how Josh leads Disneyland into an exciting future.
Disney has seen a large exodus of talent to Netflix. On the creative side, Shonda Rhimes and Kenya Barris departed ABC Studios for the freedom and large amount of cash the streamer can provide. Even 20th Century Fox saw the high-profile exit of producer Ryan Murphy. But until recently, the departures came from the creative side and not the executive suite. That was, until the departure of ABC head Channing Dungey who left to be reunited with Barris and Rhimes. Tapped to fill her shoes is Karey Burke, the head of Freeform original programming.
Regarding Burke, Bob Iger said, “Over the past four years at Freeform, and throughout her career, Karey has proven herself a gifted leader with a strong track record of developing unique programming. Karey’s attention to, and intimate knowledge of, the audience, and a commitment to quality will be a great addition to the creative team at ABC.”
At Freeform, Burke found ironically found success with Kenya Barris’s grown-ish, as well as The Bold Type and Marvel’s Cloak & Dagger at Freeform where she has been since 2014. Before her time at Disney she had stints at NBC and as an independent producer.
Burke comes at a time of change at Disney’s media business. She will need to settle into the new leadership structure which will see a large influx of executives from 21st Century Fox. She will also need to figure out where the ABC Networks place should be at Disney with much attention being given to new businesses such as Hulu and Disney+.
One of the reasons that Disney is getting into the streaming business is the freedom it provides. Without having to fit in a network schedule, larger budgets, and greater creative freedom, many high-profile creative leaders are flocking to Netflix and other services of that ilk. Burke will need to find a way to make appealing content that fits the broadcast mold. It will be interesting to see what her development slate looks like and what her vision for ABC will be.
Stay tuned to Laughing Place to see who our Disney Person of the Year is!