Walt Disney Co. CEO Bob Chapek was grilled by shareholders about Gina Carano’s firing from “The Mandalorian,” when cruise ships would set sail again and the future of Lucasfilm chief Kathleen Kennedy at the entertainment giant’s annual shareholders meeting on Tuesday.
It’s been a tumultuous first year atop Disney for Chapek, who took the reins from Bob Iger in February 2020, shortly before COVID-19 upended the entertainment landscape. And yet, it’s also been a 12-month period that saw Disney’s shares surge on the growth of its streaming offerings. Chapek noted that Disney’s stock went from $79 a year ago to above $200 this week.
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The meeting also came as rates of COVID-19 are plateauing and vaccinations are becoming more widely available, potentially setting the stage for a revival in the film, travel, and media businesses, all pillars of the Disney brand.
“There is good reason to be hopeful…we look forward to better days ahead,” Iger said at the beginning of the call.
Chapek also nodded to the political polarization taking place in the country after a year that has seen historic civil rights protests, as well as a fiercely contested presidential race that ended with false claims by former president Donald Trump of election fraud.
“The fact is that we have a tremendous opportunity now to bring this country back together and unite people,” Chapek said. “One thing we can all agree on is the power of Disney to unite us all.”
And yet, even on the shareholders call signs of that political chasm were on display. Chapek was asked about the company’s decision to fire “The Mandalorian” star Gina Carano after she made a series of statements on social media that likened contemporary political differences to the treatment of Jews in Nazi Germany.
Chapek didn’t directly address Carano, but he did push back against any suggestion of an ideological bias.
“I don’t really see Disney as characterizing itself as right-leaning or left-leaning,” Chapek said. He said that Disney was interested in standing for “values that are universal” such as “decency” and “integrity,” as well as in making “content that is reflective of the rich diversity of the world that we live in.”
That world has changed dramatically since Disney last assembled its investors in March 2020. The COVID-19 pandemic closed movie theaters for months, forcing Disney to postpone many of its major releases or move them to its streaming services. It also meant that many of Disney’s theme parks were unable to welcome visitors for much of 2020, a huge hit to its revenues. However, Disney did enjoy seismic growth in Disney Plus, its Netflix challenger, which became a streaming standout thanks to buzzy debuts like “WandaVision” and “Hamilton,” as well as the second season of “The Mandalorian.” Disney announced that the service now has more than 100 million subscribers worldwide.
“The Mandalorian” is the creation of Jon Favreau, the director of “Jungle Book” and “Iron Man.” It has also been a breakout hit for Lucasfilm at a time when some of its big screen “Star Wars” efforts have met with diminished box office and a waning critical embrace. One shareholder asked if Kennedy, who has run Lucasfilm since 2021, would be fired and replaced with Favreau.
Chapek declared himself “absolutely thrilled” with Kennedy’s performance. “We look forward to having Kathy directing the activities of the entire Lucasfilm operation for many years to come,” he added.
Disney shareholders offered up two proposals that were roundly defeated, one asking the company to disclose “dark money” lobbying payments and the other requesting non-management employees be included on director nominee candidate lists. All ten members of the company’s board of directors were re-elected.
The shareholders meeting served as something of a passing of the baton from Iger, who will serve as executive chairman until December when he will step down, and Chapek, his hand-picked successor. Many shareholders took time to thank Iger for his stewardship of Disney, a period that has seen the company acquire Marvel, Pixar, and Lucasfilm.
“Bob has led this company to amazing heights over the years, and I look forward to continuing to build on his amazing legacy,” Chapek said.
Iger himself appeared to feel the weight of his formal goodbye to Disney shareholders as he prepares to step down from his executive role entirely at year’s end. Iger recalled the circumstances of the company’s first annual meeting after he became CEO in 2005. He declared on that day in March 2006 that “creating quality entertainment is our No. 1 priority,” a mantra that holds true today, Iger said.
“I will leave at the end of December with a strong sense of pride (and) deep appreciation of the very special place that Disney occupies in the hearts of people all over the world,” he said.
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