Iger explains Marvels flop, too many Disney sequels

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NYT Columnist Andrew Ross Sorkin and C.E.O. of The Walt Disney Company Bob Iger speak during the New York Times annual DealBook summit on November 29, 2023 in New York City. 

Michael M. Santiago | Getty Images

One year after returning to the helm of Disney, Bob Iger said Wednesday his top priority at the company is revitalizing its film studio after a string of box office disappointments including “The Marvels” and “Wish.”

Iger admitted to a number of causes for Disney’s recent fall from theatrical grace, noting that during Covid lockdowns the company conditioned audiences to expect its films on streaming.

“The experience of accessing [the films] and watching them in the home is better than it ever was,” he told Andrew Ross Sorkin at The New York Times’ DealBook Summit. “And [it’s] a bargain when you think about it. Streaming Disney+ you can get for $7 a month. That’s a lot cheaper than taking your whole family to a film. So, I think the bar is now raised in terms of quality about what gets people out of their homes, into movie theaters.”

Quality has been an issue for Disney since it launched its streaming service in late 2019. In increasing its output to feed Disney+, Iger said the company “diluted” its quality, particularly when it came to its Marvel Cinematic Universe features. He said pandemic-related restrictions made it difficult for executives to oversee its increased number of film and television productions.

“‘The Marvels’ was shot during Covid,” he explained. “There wasn’t as much supervision on the set, so to speak, where we have executives [that are] really looking over what’s being done day after day after day.”

Iger stepped down as CEO in early 2020, handing the reins to Bob Chapek, but he stayed on as executive chairman to oversee creative output through the end of 2021. Iger returned as CEO a year ago as the board fired Chapek.

Iger also defended Disney’s theatrical output, suggesting it was a victim of its own success after having dominated the film business for a decade before Covid.

“And I’m not sure another studio will ever achieve some of the numbers that we achieved. I mean, we got to the point where if a film didn’t do a billion dollars in global box office, we were disappointed,” he said. “That’s an unbelievably high standard and I think we have to get more realistic.”

In 2019, Disney was responsible for seven of the nine movies that grossed more than $1 billion globally. However, it’s struggled to connect with audiences since. Aside from last year’s “Avatar: The Way of Water,” acquired as part of Disney’s $71 billion deal for the majority of 21st Century Fox, Disney hasn’t had a movie gross $1 billion since the last Star Wars movie in 2019.

Since then, it’s come close with 2023’s “Guardians of the Galaxy: Vol. 3,” which tallied nearly $900 million at the global box office as well as 2022 titles “Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness” ($955 million), “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever ($859 million) and “Thor: Love and Thunder” ($760 million).

Yet, other big-budget franchise films have flopped. 2023’s “Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny” generated $378 million globally, “Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania” secured $476 million worldwide, low for a Marvel film, and Pixar’s “Lightyear” collected less than $250 million globally in 2022.

Iger also reiterated comments he’s made before about the need for Disney to be more selective about which Marvel superheroes get sequel films and when to bring in fresh stories.

“I don’t want to apologize for making sequels,” Iger said, talking broadly about all of Disney’s properties. “Some of them have done extraordinarily well and they’ve been good films, too. I think you there has to be a reason to make them, you have to have a good story. And often the story doesn’t hold up to is not as strong as the original story. That can be a problem.”

Iger said that there has to be a reason “beyond commerce” to make a follow-up film to a hit, noting that over the last past few years Disney has “made too many.”

“It doesn’t mean we’re not going to continue to make them,” he added. “We’re making a number of them now right as a matter of fact. But we will only greenlight a sequel if we believe the story that the creators want to tell is worth telling.”

Next year, Disney plans to release “Deadpool 3,” “Inside Out 2” and “Mufasa: The Lion King.”

Disclosure: Andrew Ross Sorkin co-hosts “Squawk Box” on CNBC.



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