How Disney Almost Died

Bob Iger sits in a chair at the long conference table and gazes through a glass wall at Apple's campus entrance. It's after hours, and quiet, and he's thankful for that. This is a critical meeting. A pivotal moment. Everything hangs in the balance.

Disney animation is a real mess.

It’s a sickening thought, but it's exactly what he said two weeks earlier to his entire Disney board. They were aghast. It was his first meeting as CEO. And he didn’t stop there. He spelled it all out. No Disney characters from the past ten years were featured in parades. They weren’t winsome enough. Over the past decade Disney animation had suffered nearly half a billion dollars in losses. It was unsustainable, a terminal trajectory. Meanwhile Pixar came out of nowhere to become the gold standard in entertainment. He shared the results of a shocking internal study to drive the point home. Pixar was number one among mothers with young children. Disney wasn’t even a close second. His message was clear, almost brutal. But it had the intended effect. He got the green light for this meeting tonight.

Bob turns his attention back into the room, to the giant dry erase board that commands the opposite wall. A lithe figure stands before it. Black mock turtleneck. Blue jeans. Balance sneakers. The round spectacles of an iconoclast.

Steve Jobs. The enigmatic CEO of Apple, and owner of Pixar.

Bob called Steve soon after that fateful Disney Board meeting. "I have a crazy idea. Can I come see you in a day or two to discuss it?”

“Tell me now,” Steve had replied. He wasn’t one to wait, and crazy was his playground.

“Alright, then.” Bob remembered composing himself, his nerves strained. The moment felt surreal. “What if Disney were to buy Pixar?” It was a wild thought; a Hail Mary pass; a way to save Disney while expanding Pixar's influence, but he'd half expected Steve to hang up on him, or to erupt with laughter.

“You know,” Steve had replied after a quiet pause. “That’s not the craziest idea in the world.”

So here they are, tonight, in Apple's boardroom. They're alone. Titans of the modern world, conjuring the future.

“I love whiteboard exercises,” says Steve. He’s energetic, enigmatic, impassioned. “An entire vision–all the thoughts, designs and calculations–can be drawn at the whim of whoever holds the felt pen.”

Unsurprisingly, Steve holds the pen.

He turns to the whiteboard to explore the possibility of Disney buying Pixar. He writes “Pros” on one side and “Cons” on the other.

Pros and Cons, written on a whiteboard.

“You start,” Steve offers kindly. “Got any pros?”

“I have some thoughts,” says Bob. “But you first.”

“Fine,” says Steve. He muses while twiddling the marker. “I’ve got some cons.”

He writes with gusto.

Disney’s culture will destroy Pixar.

It’s a savage first line. And what’s worse, they both know it’s true. The meeting goes downhill from here. Over the next few hours cons abound while pros remain few, until Bob sighs with the realization that it will never work.

And freeze.

We pause the scene.

A man folding his hands.

Bob sits in his chair, looking at the bad news on the board. Handsome, charismatic, the consummate leader, but losing the deal. And Steve stands with his arms raised, marker in hand, like a conductor, or a magician, one part Wozniak, two parts Bob Dylan.

The terms are stacked against the deal. Anyone can see that. But contrary to appearances these moments will play out in a surprising way. Disney will indeed buy Pixar within the year and jealously guard Pixar’s identity into the future. It'll become the pattern by which Disney buys Marvel, and Star Wars, and 20th Century Fox. Disney, king of the old world, once floundering, will be king of the new.

Yes, this is a critical meeting. A pivotal moment. Everything hangs in the balance.

But do you see?

There, on the board?

What Steve wrote first?

As worlds collide, and industries change, as old ways fall and new ones rise, what’s his first concern? Budgets and timelines? Profits and projections? Products, services, and sales?


It's Culture.

His first concern is protecting Pixar’s culture. Because that’s where the magic is made. When it comes to creative work—any work—culture’s not a byproduct. It’s the catalyst. It’s must be the first concern. That’s the truth of the titans.

Disney almost died by fading away. No one noticed the negative impact of their broken culture, not from the inside, not to the degree it deserved. The sickness grew slowly as the magic bled away.

But culture is a living thing. It can be revived. With some intentionality, positive culture can spread like wildfire. Pixar's culture will soon set Disney aflame. The rest is history.

And now, decades later, these stories continue to swirl, and inspire, and rise into a groundswell. Do you feel it? A surge of people who recognize the preeminence of culture; a tidal wave of those who want to enjoy their work environments, who value connection, collaboration, and their humanity above all. They'll go where culture leads, seek where culture calls. They'll follow the magic.

It’s a sea change. A pivotal moment. Everything hangs in the balance.

Those of us who lead, we need to pay attention. We must rise with the tide or we'll be left behind; seize the wave before the magic is gone. And we’d better get swimming, as Bob Dylan sang in The Times, They Are a-Changin’.

Ocean waves - the end.

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This article is based on Bob Iger’s own account in his book The Ride of a Lifetime. It's a fantastic read!

From Unsplash:

Cover by Jayme McColgan

Folded hands by Jacob Bentzinger

Ocean by Shifaaz shamoon