Disney’s Leadership Defeats Anti-‘Woke’ Investor in a High-Stakes Shareholder Battle

Disney’s Leadership Defeats Anti-‘Woke’ Investor in a High-Stakes Shareholder Battle

In a battle much more reminiscent of Succession than Fantasia, Disney’s kingpin Bob Iger turned back activist investors who attempted to wrest control of the company away from him on Wednesday in a dramatic shareholder vote. 

The vote, which was preceded by vicious campaigning in which both sides spent tens of millions of dollars to sway shareholders, served to solidify Iger’s control over Disney and its direction. A Disney representative said during the livestreamed meeting that Iger’s contingent had won by “substantial margin.” His main antagonist, the billionaire corporate raider Nelson Peltz, had argued that Disney was becoming too “woke” and was failing its shareholders. 

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Bob Iger has led Disney through multiple eras since becoming CEO in 2005. He spearheaded Disney’s acquisitions of Pixar, Marvel and Lucasfilm, expanded its theme park footprint, and pushed the company into the streaming era with Disney+. He has shown a reluctance to relinquish his ironclad grip on the company: He stepped down in 2020 in favor of his handpicked successor, Bob Chapek, only to return two years later. He’s since vowed to relinquish his position in 2026. 

Read More: TIME Businessperson of the Year 2019: Bob Iger

His antagonist Peltz, a corporate raider who previously led campaigns to shake up PepsiCo, P&G, and Wendy’s, has been agitating for Disney to shift its approach for several years. Had Peltz secured a victory, he might have fundamentally reshaped the direction of the company and its priorities. Peltz’s hedge fund Trian Fund Management owns over $3 billion worth of common stock in Disney. In his effort to gain a board seat this year, he sharply criticized the box office performance of Disney’s recent tentpole movies, including The Marvels and Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania, which faced lukewarm reviews and superhero fatigue. 

Disney has had a topsy-turvy last few years at the stock market. The company’s stock is currently $118, which is down significantly from its $197 peak in 2021—but up from $79 in October. Iger slashed about 7,000 jobs last year in an effort to cut costs. This February, Disney delivered a stronger-than-expected earnings report, with Iger promising big returns on upcoming releases like Taylor Swift’s The Eras Tour (Taylor’s Version) on Disney+. He’s also laid out plans to revamp ESPN for the streaming area and to spend $60 billion on new theme park attractions and cruise ships. 

But this was not enough for Peltz. “Fundamentally and crudely, we want the stock to go up,” Peltz said in a video. At Wednesday’s shareholder meeting, he claimed it was “undeniable the shareholders have suffered over the last two years,” adding: “While the last few months have been great for the stock, the long term track record still remains disappointing.” 

Read More: How Marvel Lost Its Way

He and former Disney Chief Financial Officer Jay Rasulo sought to secure two coveted board seats. They argued that Disney should be reaching “Netflix-like margins” of 15-20%. Netflix added 13 million subscribers in the last quarter of 2023. Disney+, in contrast, lost 1.3 million core subscribers in the same time frame and is still not profitable. But the company said that it expected the streaming service to turn a profit this year, thanks in part to a new ad-supported tier, price increases and password-sharing crackdowns. 

Disney’s current Iger-led board received support from George Lucas and institutional giants like BlackRock and T. Rowe Price. Peltz received endorsements from California Public Employees Retirement System (CalPERS) and others.

Peltz’s efforts also reflected the larger cultural wars unfolding in America and specifically around Disney’s position as a national cultural powerhouse. Many right-wing figures have criticized Disney’s alleged turn into “wokeness,” which they said included the casting of a Latina actress, Rachel Zegler, as Snow White, and a Black actress, Halle Bailey, as Ariel in The Little Mermaid. One of Peltz’s allies in the shareholder battle, Egan-Jones, accused Disney of being mired in “the killing fields of the culture wars.” And Disney had been locked in a vicious legal battle with Florida Governor Ron DeSantis before the two sides settled last month.

Peltz complained about Disney’s “woke” efforts in a recent interview with the Financial Times. “Why do I have to have a Marvel [movie] that’s all women?” he asked. “Why do I need an all-Black cast?” In the same interview, he signaled his likely support for Donald Trump in the 2024 election. This week, Elon Musk endorsed Peltz in the shareholder battle (although he does not own any Disney shares).

Bob Iger now has a slew of tough decisions, including about ESPN’s future, who his successor might be, and how the company might navigate a media landscape full of potential mergers. And this might not be Peltz’s last tangle with the company. “Regardless of the outcome of today’s vote,” Peltz said right before the results were announced, “Trian will be watching.”

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