LOS ANGELES, CALIFORNIA - NOVEMBER 18: Robert Iger attends the Stella McCartney  "Get Back" Capsule Collection and documentary release of Peter Jackson's "Get Back" at The Jim Henson Company on November 18, 2021 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Rich Fury/Getty Images)
Here are some of the problems Bob Iger has to fix at Disney
02:25 - Source: CNN Business

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New York CNN  — 

Last year, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis won praise from the right for retaliating against Disney for its CEO’s decision to (rather timidly) wade into the public discourse over a contentious state law.

In that first round of Florida’s GOP vs The Walt Disney Company, DeSantis landed a body blow that ultimately cost Disney CEO Bob Chapek his job.

For DeSantis, a potential presidential contender in 2024, the standoff burnished his reputation on the right as a shrewd leader who won’t be easily pushed around, not even by one of the state’s largest employers.

But now, in round two, DeSantis, age 44, is going up against longtime Disney boss Bob Iger, a Hollywood power player with decades more experience on the national stage. And Iger, at age 72, isn’t pulling any punches.

Here’s the deal: Iger, who retired in 2020 only to return to the helm nearly three years later when Chapek was forced out (more on that later), doesn’t have much time to mess around. He’s given himself a two-year deadline to line up a successor, and he’s got to do that all while trying to reinvigorate a 100-year-old sprawling media conglomerate.

Once upon a time…

To understand how this feud escalated, we have to go back almost exactly a year ago.

In short, Chapek fumbled the ball when he came at DeSantis to criticize Republican legislation that opponents derided as “Don’t Say Gay” because it restricts classroom instruction on issues relating to sexual orientation and gender identity. 

Chapek initially tried to stay neutral on the legislation, but then spoke out after facing a backlash from his own employees — more than 75,000 of whom work in Florida. His wishy-washy approach didn’t sit well on either side of the argument.

DeSantis signed the bill into law, and then set his sights on punishing Disney for daring to challenge him.

To that end, GOP lawmakers voted to dissolve Disney’s independent special tax district known as Reedy Creek. Essentially, the district had operated as a mini state within a state, allowing Disney to control the 25,000 acres that are home to the Walt Disney World Resort and several other properties.

That effort hit a roadblock, though, after it emerged that the region’s towns and counties would be on the hook for $1 billion of Reedy Creek’s debt obligations.

So lawmakers pivoted again, pushing legislation that changed Reedy Creek to the “Central Florida Tourism Oversight District,” to be overseen by a governor-appointed board.

Point, DeSantis.

But in a twist, Disney’s team of lawyers quietly pushed through changes with the Disney-allied board that stripped power from the incoming, DeSantis-appointed board.

(Fun fact: Under a so-called royal lives clause that the incoming board appears to have missed, the Disney-allied members signed their powers to the company, stipulating that its control of the land couldn’t be terminated until — and this is not a joke — 21 years “after the death of the last survivor of the descendants of King Charles III, King of England living as of the date of this declaration.” That’s roughly 100 years, assuming one of the King’s grandchildren lives to age 80.)

“This essentially makes Disney the government,” said Ron Peri, a DeSantis pick for the new board, last week. “This board loses, for practical purposes, the majority of its ability to do anything beyond maintaining the roads and maintaining basic infrastructure.”

Iger speaks out

In the months of squabbling over the future of the special tax district, Iger kept quiet, at least publicly, on the dispute.

Iger was busy making headlines elsewhere, leaving his lawyers to focus on out-maneuvering the GOP legislators.

Last week, Iger announced Disney would lay off 7,000 people as part of a $5.5 billion cost-reduction plan. He also fired Ike Perlmutter, a Marvel executive who had been a thorn in Disney’s side. Another Marvel executive, Victoria Alonso, was also fired after reportedly violating her contract.

It wasn’t until the shareholder meeting Monday that Iger finally weighed in on the DeSantis debacle, calling the governor’s retaliation against Disney “not just anti-business” but “anti-Florida.”

“The company has a right to freedom of speech, just like individuals do,” Iger said. “The governor got very angry about the position that Disney took, and it seems like he’s decided to retaliate against us… in effect to seek to punish a company for its exercise of a constitutional right. And that just seems really wrong to me — against any company or individual, but particularly against a company that means so much to the state that you live in.”

After the Disney lawyers pulled a fast one on him, DeSantis brushed off the news during an event last week, saying:

“There’s a lot of little back-and-forths going on now with the state taking control, but rest assured…you ain’t seen nothing yet.”

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