Hollywood is a place where no matter how fired you are, you’re not fired. At Disney alone, studio chief Jeffrey Katzenberg wasn’t fired when then-chairman and CEO Michael Eisner tossed him out of a window in 1994. Michael Ovitz wasn’t fired when Eisner did the same in 1996. Tom Staggs wasn’t fired when Bob Iger pushed him out as COO in 2016. Even Steve McPherson, who was ousted as head of ABC in 2010 amid a sexual harassment investigation, wasn’t fired. All were allowed to resign.
In the Bob Chapek era, Geoff Morrell, the chief corporate affairs officer who was dispatched at the end of April after three disastrous months, was allowed to resign, saying the new role was “not the right fit.” Aim Peter Rice, a respected executive with a career of more than three decades in the industry? He was straight-up fired June 9 in a brief meeting in Chapek’s office, who had HR chief Paul Richardson by his side. The reaction in Hollywood was swift and damning, and nothing that has emerged in the aftermath regarding the case has altered that impression. At this point, it’s fair to say that the Hollywood community is not fond of Chapek. But if Rice had been given a more graceful exit, industry vets would’ve acknowledged that Chapek was hardly the first to knock off a potential successor in the great tradition of the town. “He’s snatching defeat from the jaws of victory, again,” says a former Disney insider. Adds one of the town’s elder statesmen: “This guy just doesn’t know how to be graceful.”
Chapek was injured in having Dana Walden in place — “a very successful, brilliant, well-liked executive, not on the outside but right there,” who could be promoted to fill Rice’s job, says one veteran with ties to the studio.
Walden is respected and feared enough, protected enough by some of the same industry powers who are disposed to dislike Chapek, that there was no danger she would suffer the kind of blowback that might have been visited on someone seen as an unworthy interloper. So the consensus view would have been that it was hardly surprising that a player as shrewd and ambitious as Walden had managed to jump up yet another rung on the ladder — a rung, as some have noted, that puts her very close to the top. (How does “the first woman CEO of Disney” sound to the board?)
For the record, Disney leaders have offered no explanation why Rice was so roughly treated after a scandal-free (for Hollywood) 30-plus years building a career in the industry. (In 2019, an arbitrator awarded $178 million to the creative team that made the Fox show bones in a dispute over profits from the show, and found that Rice and Walden, then executives at Fox, appeared to have given “false testimony in an attempt to conceal their wrongful acts” and engaged in a “pattern of deceit.” With Disney’s acquisition of Fox pending, then-Disney chief Iger issued a statement of “complete confidence in their character and integrity” while noting that Disney had no involvement in the matter. The dispute was then settled and both are now regarded as scandal-free.)
Some answers have started to leak — many of them presumably from the upper echelons of Disney. Source tell THR there was a group inside the company, including influential CFO Christine McCarthy, who saw Rice as an outsider who never adapted to Disney’s culture. (McCarthy also played a role in ousting Morrell.) But the explanations that have emerged came across as garden-variety power-struggle stuff, well short of explaining the seeming vitriol of the firing. The Wall Street Journal reported on June 13, for example, that there were “tensions with other senior executives” and that Rice had tried to spend unused money in his programming budget. On gambling and drugs? No, to promote Abbott Elementary, dopesick and Only Murders in the Building. Another apparent sin: Rice’s “British mannerisms” made him seem aloof, the Log revealed.
Rice’s tenure at Disney had its difficulties almost from the start. At Fox, he’d had a seemingly charmed rise through the ranks. (His father was close with Rupert Murdoch and helped Murdoch fight organized labor in England in the 1980s.) Having started as an intern, Rice was groomed as few executives in the industry have been through jobs overseeing movies and television. People joked that if his last name were Murdoch, he might have inherited the whole company.
Not long after Disney bought Fox, Rice got into a conflict over greenlight authority with Kevin Mayer, who was preparing to launch the Disney+ streaming service. The two reached an uneasy relaxation but the situation was never truly resolved, sources say. After Mayer exited in May 2020, Chapek restored Rice’s greenlight authority and later renewed Rice’s contract. (While he did earn a bonus, Rice’s pay was cut by $5 million, or 20 percent, to bring his salary into line with Disney norms.) But Chapek also implemented a reorganization that put his trusted associate Kareem Daniel in charge of distribution decisions. How the arrangement is supposed to work — separating creative decisions from financial and distribution calls — baffles many in the industry. Like Chapek, Daniel has experience in consumer products and theme parks but not in creating content.
While Rice was never reported to have complained about the arrangement, it’s not hard to imagine that an executive used to wielding power at Fox, who had fought for his greenlight authority at Disney, might have chafed under it. “No one lost more real estate in that reorganization than Peter,” says a former Disney insider. A top media executive who worked closely with Rice in the Fox era dismisses the reorganization — as do many in the industry — as an opaque and illogical system. “There is no decision that isn’t both a creative and financial decision,” this person says. “You don’t fragment those functions. … Nobody can understand how it works.” If the exec had to deal with it, he adds, “I wouldn’t know how to get out of the car in the morning.”
In the aftermath of the firing, there has been some speculation that Walden had made a subtle play for the job. (Those who have known her the longest believe she is far too skilled a player to do anything overt.) Though her contract is not up until 2023, a longtime television exec says, “I believe she said [to Chapek], ‘What’s my path? Where am I going?’ Implied: ‘You’re losing me. You’re going to be screwed.’ ”
Another TV vet who has worked with Disney says, “Dana is very savvy and would not demand anything. But the more Bob talked to her about what the future looked like and the more you looked at the organizational chart, the more he saw the future. Bob had a [candidate] right there.”
In her June 13 memo to staff, Walden said more about Rice than Chapek did in his own memo announcing the shake-up. “I am very fortunate to have worked alongside Peter Rice for a long time,” Walden wrote. “He is a gifted executive, and I learned a lot from him. I know you all join me in wishing him the best in whatever he chooses to do next.”
This story first appeared in the June 15 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.