2018 Disney Person of the Year: Peter Rice

Let me tell you a story: There was once an executive at an entertainment company who spent his entire career working for a major entertainment company who rose through the ranks and ended up being one of the company’s senior leaders. Then, out of the blue, it is announced that their employer is being sold to The Walt Disney Company, which then finds this individual named to lead Disney’s TV business.

Now here is a question… who am I talking about — Bob Iger or Peter Rice?

The answer could be both. The follow-up question is obviously, will history repeat itself, with Peter Rice running The Walt Disney Company?

Rice, who is from the United Kingdom, started at 20th Century Fox’s film division with an internship he received thanks to a relationship his father had with Rupert Murdoch. But any claims of nepotism were washed away due to his performance. In fact, in the backstabbing world of Hollywood, he is nearly universally liked. He is described as having a low-key style and impeccable manners and immune to Hollywood’s self-indulgence.

At the movie studio, Rice worked on films such as Moulin Rouge, Independence Day,  and the X-Men. In 2000 he went to Fox Searchlight where they released hits such as Juno, The Last King of Scotland, Bend it Like Beckham, Little Miss Sunshine, Sideways, and Napoleon Dynamite. He then transitioned to television where he oversaw the Fox network, 20th Century Fox Television, FX Networks, Fox Sports, and National Geographic. His continued success led to him being named President of 21st Century Fox in 2017.

At Disney, he will be Chairman, Walt Disney Television and co-chair, Disney Media Networks, where he will have oversight of all non-sports channels. This means that while he is losing oversight of Fox, he will be gaining ABC, ABC Studios, ABC News, Disney Channel, Disney Junior, Disney XD, and Freeform. He will also retain oversight of Twentieth Century Fox Television, FX Networks and FX Productions, Fox 21 Television Studios, and the National Geographic channels.

Yet, isn’t Disney’s TV business shrinking? Why name Rice the head of a dying business? While television is seeing challenges through cord-cutting and other services such as Netflix, Bob Iger’s vision for Disney relies on Rice making killer content for the entire Disney ecosystem. While the television channels will continue, Disney will need even more content for their streaming services. Disney Channel, in addition to producing shows and movies for their channels, will be making additional content for Disney+, such as a High School Musical Series. National Geographic is also listed as one of the founding brands of Disney+. ABC Studios, the Fox TV Studios, and FX will be called upon to make additional content for a growing Hulu.

The growing a20rray of programming will require a strong creative executive to deliver. While Disney maintains that they are not trying to compete with Netflix, but Bob has been clear that he believes in quality over quantity. And making quality programming isn’t as easy as it sounds. But Bob has put his faith in Rice and if the transplant can deliver, he may have a very bright future at Disney.

But can an outsider be incorporated into and eventually lead Disney from the outside? After all, Disney has the strongest corporate culture in Hollywood. I would be quick to remind you that the same questions were asked about Bob Iger. And while no Disney CEO could be perfect, Iger has embraced the company’s legacy through initiatives such as D23, revived and invested in Disney Animation, and spent heavily in the parks including the well-received makeover of Disney California Adventure.

For his part, Rice has been quick to point out that Disney is only one of two studios that were founded by artists. It is also the only studio to have never been sold. He often brings up Disney’s creative legacy as a reason that he is excited about joining the Disney family. He also eschews the typical Hollywood scene that Disney has always been one-step removed from. He also has done his homework on Disney’s history and legacy, much like Bob did.

Will Peter Rice be the next CEO of Disney? I have no idea. But as Disney is a company that has embraced sequels and remakes, perhaps this new version of the Bob Iger story, may be the most important of them all.