- Disney broke multiple box-office records last year with mega hits like “Avengers: Endgame” and “The Lion King.”
- The company’s film executives, from Walt Disney Studios cochairman Alan Horn to Marvel Studios president Kevin Feige, have built an empire of lucrative assets.
- Here are the 14 power players that have shaped Disney into the studio that everyone else is trying to catch up to.
- Click here for more BI Prime stories.
Disney is a box-office titan with some of the most popular movie franchises in history at its disposal.
The company earned $3.76 billion domestically and $11.12 billion globally in 2019, both box-office records. It made up 33% of the domestic market share last year — 38% if you count its releases from Fox, which the studio acquired last March (it has since been renamed 20th Century Studios).
It’s thanks to a film team that has positioned Disney’s lucrative assets as the entertainment properties to beat. Under former CEO Bob Iger’s leadership and in the span of under 15 years, Disney has acquired animation studio Pixar, home of “Toy Story” and “The Incredibles”; Marvel, home of the Avengers; Lucasfilm, home of the “Star Wars” franchise; and 20th Century, which houses the upcoming “Avatar” sequels.
Iger stepped down as CEO in late February and was succeeded by Bob Chapek, the former chairman of Disney parks, experiences, and products. Iger will remain with the company through 2021 as executive chairman, focusing on the creative side of the business. During an investor call, Iger called that his first priority now that there’s a strategy in place for the Fox integration and Disney Plus has launched.
But Disney’s success wasn’t all on Iger. There’s a group of executives in charge of those valuable assets.
For instance, Walt Disney Studios cochairman Alan Horn, a former Warner Bros. executive, has spearheaded Disney’s film strategy since 2012. He now has Alan Bergman, the former Walt Disney Studios president, at his side as cochairman.
Disney is unlikely to come close to its unprecedented 2019 box office this year, especially if the coronavirus continues to spread, and the market could be more evenly distributed between studios. But the company still has a stacked lineup, both in 2020 and beyond, that could guarantee its dominance for the next decade. With the growing Marvel Cinematic Universe, “Avatar” sequels on the way, and more, Disney isn’t slowing down any time soon.
That doesn’t mean it hasn’t experienced hiccups, though.
In January, Emma Watts, who oversaw 20th Century during the acquisition, resigned, leaving one of the key positions currently vacant in the Disney empire. Her departure comes at a time when Disney is dealing with box-office disappointments it inherited from the studio, such as last year’s “Dark Phoenix” and, more recently, “The Call of the Wild.”
Iger knew that the integration would take time.
“It will probably take a solid year, maybe two years, before we can have an impact on the films in production,” Iger said during a Q3 earnings call last year. “We’re all confident we’re going to turn around the results of Fox live action.”
Fortunately, there are more than enough key executives to pick up the slack until Disney decides on Watts’ replacement.
If you have a tip about Disney, Marvel, or “Star Wars,” contact the author at [email protected] or DM him on Twitter @TravClark2.
Here are the main players who handle the feature film side at Disney:
Alan Horn — cochairman and chief creative officer of The Walt Disney Studios
Disney announced last year that Horn would take on the additional role of chief creative officer of Walt Disney Studios while Alan Bergman joined him as cochairman.
Horn has overseen the development, production, and marketing of Disney’s films since 2012 after leaving Warner Bros., where he was unexpectedly forced out despite a series of hits that included the “Harry Potter” franchise.
“Hiring Alan was the equivalent of a team signing the greatest free agent on the market, and we were very lucky that he was a free agent,” Iger told The New York Times in 2014.
The leaders of Disney’s lucrative assets like Lucasfilm’s Kathleen Kennedy and Marvel Studios’ Kevin Feige report to Horn.
Disney took on rare box-office misfires with its acquisition of Fox’s film studio last year, including the X-Men movie “Dark Phoenix.” Horn and Bergman sent an email to Fox staff last March saying that it would “take some time to reach our future fully integrated state.”
But that didn’t stop Disney from releasing six movies last year that grossed $1 billion and breaking box-office records both domestically and globally. Under Horn, Disney has grown into a major force.
Alan Bergman — cochairman of The Walt Disney Studios
Working alongside Horn as cochairman of the studio, Bergman oversees its business affairs, legal, labor relations, operations, and technology teams while also looking over Walt Disney Animation Studios and Pixar Animation Studios.
From 2005 to 2019, Bergman was the president of Walt Disney Studios, and oversaw its incredible rise to box office dominance.
But Bergman certainly had the firepower to do it, as on his watch the “Star Wars” franchise was brought to life and broke box-office records, live-action releases of Disney animated classics dazzled audiences, and the Marvel Cinematic Universe was a cash cow.
Horn simply calls Bergman his “partner in crime,” while Iger has said that Bergman’s leadership has been key to making “our Studios the gold standard of the industry.” It’s clear Bergman, who has been with the company since 1996, will certainly continue to play a major role in the company going forward.
Steve Gilula and Nancy Utley — cochairs of Searchlight Pictures
Though the acquisition of Fox by Disney has not paid off so far at the box office, as the existing slate of titles under 20th Century haven’t been huge hits (to be fair, most have been dreadful), its indie label, Searchlight Pictures, keeps performing well. And you have to give credit to its longtime leaders, Steve Gilula and Nancy Utley.
Since the duo came on to run Searchlight in 2009, they have overseen the release of memorable titles that have both earned Oscars and been box-office hits. The list ranges from “Black Swan” to “12 Years a Slave” to “The Shape of Water,” and most recently “Jojo Rabbit.” All of those went home with Oscar gold in main categories (“12 Years a Slave” and “The Shape of Water” both won best picture).
The over-150 titles released by Searchlight have collectively totaled a worldwide box office north of $5 billion.
Though change often happens when two companies merge, it seems so far nothing drastic has happened to Searchlight except that the “Fox” name in front of it has been spiked.
“The core business of the kinds of movies we make, how we release them, and what our campaigns are, we have full support and we continue to have the same independence that we had under Fox. So that’s been fantastic,” Gilula told Box Office Pro about working with Disney.
Jennifer Lee — chief creative officer of Walt Disney Animation Studios
Lee and Pixar Studios creative chief Pete Docter are splitting John Lasseter’s former duties. Lasseter oversaw both Disney and Pixar’s animation studios as their creative chief before leaving the company in 2018 after allegations of misconduct. They both report to Horn.
Lee was the first woman to direct a Disney animated feature and the first woman to direct a movie that grossed over $1 billion worldwide (“Frozen”). She codirected “Frozen” and its sequel “Frozen II,” which made a combined $2.7 billion worldwide. Also among her animation work is 2012’s “Wreck-It Ralph,” which she cowrote as her first work at Disney.
Lee’s salary is equal to Docter’s, who has been with Pixar for three decades, according to The New York Times.
Lee did not have an animation background prior to “Wreck-It Ralph.” She worked at Random House in New York before pursuing a master’s degree in film at Columbia University, according to The Times.
Sean Bailey — president of Walt Disney Studios Motion Picture
Bailey has been president of Disney’s live-action production for a decade, having first been named to the role in 2010. In that time, he’s helped usher in Disney’s era of remakes, including last year’s “Aladdin” and “The Lion King,” which both earned more than $1 billion worldwide.
Bailey addressed the studio’s lack of original movies and its dependence on its library in an interview with The Hollywood Reporter in 2018.
“I think of ‘original’ in an interesting way,” he said. “One pretty esteemed filmmaker we work with said using IP is a better art of war. You take the high ground, rather than fight up the hill.”
He added that Disney is making original streaming movies for Disney Plus, which launched in November and already had 28.6 million subscribers as of February. He told THR the ambition for his particular division was to make up to five movies a year for the service.
Bailey said at the time that he wouldn’t be involved with the former Fox movies like the “Avatar” sequels, but with Emma Watts out as 20th Century’s president, leadership is absent at the studio.
Clark Spencer — president of Walt Disney Animation Studios
It’s safe to call Clark Spencer a Disney “lifer.”
After joining the company in 1993, he quickly rose up the ranks in the animation department and became the vice president of finance and operations at Walt Disney Feature Animation. He was involved in the purchase of Miramax Films in the 1990s, and later turned to producing Disney titles like “Bolt,” “Wreck-It Ralph,” and “Zootopia” (which won a best animated feature Oscar).
Having done it all, he was the clear choice to become president of Walt Disney Animation Studios in August. He got the role when his predecessor, Andrew Millstein, went to become copresident of Fox Animation.
Next on the Disney Animation slate is “Raya the Last Dragon,” in which a warrior named Raya goes in search of a last dragon in the world. Awkwafina has been cast in the movie.
Pete Docter — chief creative officer of Pixar Animation Studios
Docter has directed three features for Pixar — 2001’s “Monsters, Inc.,” 2009’s “Up,” and 2015’s “Inside Out.” His fourth, “Soul,” will be released this year.
Docter also had a hand in conceiving the story for the first two “Toy Story” movies and “Wall-E.” Needless to say, he’s a Pixar veteran. He joined the company in 1990 as one of its first animators.
Docter was promoted to Pixar’s creative chief when John Lasseter left the company. He and Disney Animation Studios creative chief Jennifer Lee are splitting Lasseter’s duties.
“The way Pixar has been set up, it’s a really communal group effort but it’s also very personal,” Docter told The Independent in 2015, before he had been named Pixar’s creative chief.
He still feels the same way, except now he has a little more leverage.
“It’s a very interesting process, but most of the time, everybody tries to get on board with what it is you’re trying to do and help problem solve in that direction,” he told Indiewire in June.
Jim Morris — president of Pixar Animation Studios
This veteran producer, whose credits range from “Wall-E” to Disney Plus’ “Forky Asks a Question,” has been the president of Pixar since 2014.
Since then, Morris has overseen many of the company’s biggest hits, including “Finding Dory,” “Incredibles 2,” and “Toy Story 4” (which won the best animated feature Oscar).
Before joining Pixar, Morris did visual effects for Industrial Light & Magic starting in the 1980s. It led to him becoming its executive in charge of production for 13 years where he oversaw the evolution of the VFX art thanks to movies that came through ILM like “Jurassic Park,” “Forrest Gump,” and the “Star Wars” prequels.
Recently, Morris was one of the leaders who navigated the company through the departure of Lasseter. In an interview with Vulture in November, Morris said that women have come to make up half of Pixar’s creative-approval team and that it is making a push to diversify the filmmakers it hires.
“I would say, yes, the company’s quite a bit different now,” Morris said. “[Pete Docter has] been very supportive of letting filmmakers basically have the keys to the car. We will judge how they drive it but we won’t tell them how to drive it.”
Morris manages Pixar’s production of its features, shorts, streaming and DVD content, as well as theme park rides. In August, he was also brought on in a supervising role at Blue Sky Studios, which is part of Fox Animation.
Kevin Feige — Marvel Studios president and chief creative officer of Marvel
As the man behind the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Feige has produced 23 box-office hits in a row and built the highest-grossing movie franchise of all time, which includes “Avengers: Endgame” — the biggest movie ever.
So it was no surprise when he was promoted and named the chief creative officer of Marvel in October. In the role, he oversees the creative direction of Marvel’s movies, comics, and TV shows, on top of his role as Marvel Studios president.
The MCU, despite its popularity, isn’t without criticism, particularly about its lack of diversity. “Captain Marvel,” released last year, was the first MCU movie with a solo female character as the headliner. But that movie and 2018’s “Black Panther,” which starred a predominantly black cast, signal a shift. Black Widow is finally starring in a solo movie this year; the upcoming “Eternals” will feature openly gay characters; and next year’s “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings” will be the first MCU movie to star an Asian superhero.
“We wanted to keep showcasing heroes from the comics that represent the world that goes to see our movies,” Feige said in December of “Black Panther” and “Captain Marvel.” “So our intention was always to continue to do that. What’s exciting is that both those movies were such big hits that it squashed any sort of question otherwise.”
As the MCU dominates the theatrical experience, it’s setting its sights on the small screen. Feige’s next major endeavor will be to introduce MCU TV shows that will tie directly into the films. The first two of those, “The Falcon and the Winter Soldier” and “WandaVision,” debut later this year.
“These episodes will intersect with the movies in a very big way,” Feige told Variety last year. “It’s a totally new form of storytelling that we get to play with and explore.”
Louis D’Esposito — copresident of Marvel Studios
Kevin Feige may get all the press as the head of the profitable juggernaut that is Marvel Studios, but he’s hardly the only executive who has made a massive contribution to this division of the Disney company.
D’Esposito has been involved since the beginning, when he was brought on to be one of the producers on 2008’s “Iron Man.” A year later, he was promoted to copresident and he’s worked alongside Feige ever since (he stays behind the scenes compared to Feige) in crafting the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
He’s come a long way since being a first assistant director on movies like “Sweet Home Alabama,” “I Still Know What You Did Last Summer,” and “Demolition Man.”
But closing out the first phase of the MCU with the record-breaking “Avengers: Endgame” does not mean the hard work is over. Even before “Endgame” opened and went on to become the highest-grossing movie of all time at the worldwide box office, D’Esposito was focused on the next movie being even better.
“We take a lot of pride in what we do,” he told Variety. “We feel the same pressure on every film. We want it to be great, we want the fans to enjoy it and we want it to be critically acclaimed.”
Kathleen Kennedy — president of Lucasfilm
Since cofounding Amblin Entertainment in 1981 with Steven Spielberg and her husband, fellow producer Frank Marshall, Kathleen Kennedy has produced some of the most memorable movies ever made. And that includes the last seven years while the head of Lucasfilm.
Taking on the role of president of the company after the company that George Lucas founded was bought by Disney, Kennedy has overseen the resurgence of the “Star Wars” franchise after a decade-long hiatus following Lucas’ prequel films.
Now Kennedy is navigating the future of “Star Wars” following the fan backlash for both “The Last Jedi” and “Rise of Skywalker,” which closed out the Skywalker saga. Comments from both her and Bob Iger indicate that the “Star Wars” movies are going to take a pause. Though the success of “The Mandalorian” on Disney Plus proves there’s still an appetite for the franchise going forward.
And while that is going on, Kennedy is also launching another beloved IP from Lucasfilm, “Indiana Jones.” Star Harrison Ford said recently the next movie in the franchise will begin filming in the summer.
Kennedy certainly has a lot of irons in the fire (and has to take a lot of jabs for overseeing such a popular collection of titles), but if anyone can roll with the punches, it’s Kennedy — as Ford commented for a profile of her in Vanity Fair.
“She’s tough, so she can both take it and dish it out, and I mean that in the nicest possible way,” Ford said.
Andrew Millstein and Robert L. Baird — copresidents of Fox Animation
With the Fox deal, Disney also got another animation arm for its arsenal.
Fox Animation wasn’t a major name in the space, as outside of “Titan A.E” and “The Simpsons Movie,” it didn’t have much to brag about.
But inside Fox Animation is the company Blue Sky Studios. Known for the “Ice Age” and “Rio” franchises, Blue Sky has been Fox’s answer over the years to Disney’s animated work in the theatrical space.
Now that they are all one big happy family, Andrew Millstein and Robert L. Baird are currently tasked with overseeing this division.
Baird, whose screenwriting credits include “Monsters University,” “Big Hero 6,” and “Ferdinand,” had been running the creative side of Blue Sky before Disney came on. Now some Disney talent has been added to join Baird. Millstein previously was the president of Walt Disney Animation Studios and oversaw the production and release of such hits as “Frozen,” “Zootopia,” and “Moana.”
Where Fox Animation fits in Disney’s already robust animation output is tough to say. Blue Sky’s first release under Disney, “Spies in Disguise,” earned over $167 million worldwide. That’s not what Disney expects from its animated releases. Millstein and Baird will try to change that going forward.