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Is ‘woke’ Disney on the rocks?

Published in Blog on November 09, 2023 by Jakob Fay

This week, the Walt Disney Company named a new chief financial officer (CFO) amid ongoing concerns about the company’s financial security. Hugh Johnston, highly successful Vice Chairman and Chief Financial Officer of PepsiCo, will officially assume the position on December 4, 2023.

“Disney is such a storied company, with the most beloved brands in the world and a strong financial foundation to support the company of the future that [CEO Bob Iger] and his team are building,” the PepsiCo veteran said in a statement. “Very few companies have withstood the test of time that Disney has, making the company as rare as it is special. I share Bob’s enthusiasm for Disney’s future, and I am incredibly excited to join this management team in this moment of opportunity and possibility.”

Despite Johnston’s faith that the company enjoys a “strong financial foundation,” several other metrics are less promising. While the international entertainment conglomerate continues to rake in tens of billions of dollars annually, recent developments have frustrated executives, crashed several costly projects, and divided fans.

In 2022, the house that Mickey built took a highly publicized foray into partisan politics, announcing their opposition to Florida’s so-called “Don’t Say Gay” bill and pledging to include “many, many, many LGBTQIA characters in our stories.”

Backlash surrounding the company’s “not-at-all-secret gay agenda,” a term coined by executive producer Latoya Raveneau, escalated into an open feud with Republican Governor Ron DeSantis, who stripped away Walt Disney World’s self-governing privileges, which enabled the park to act as an independent county government. The studio clapped back with a lawsuit claiming that the governor had violated the company’s First Amendment rights.

“Governor DeSantis and certain Republican lawmakers made it very clear that they were signing this new bill [revoking the park district’s self-government] in order to punish Disney’s special status because many Disney employees had expressed disagreement with the ‘Don’t say Gay’” bill,” the lawsuit asserts.

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The entertainment studio’s thrust for “woke” politics is not particularly unique in the business world, where environmental, social, and governance (ESG) scores encourage organizations to prioritize corporate diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) to clinch sustainable funding. The Walt Disney Company’s website proudly boasts about its
“impact,” or “social responsibility,” in these areas. For example, the website’s Diversity and Inclusion statement notes that Splash Mountain, the fan-favorite log flume ride, was closed earlier this year to make the attraction “more inclusive.” This example perfectly highlights how corporate social responsibility works—while the decision to “reimagine” Splash Mountain was controversial among fans, Disney was proud to showcase it to investors.

However, while robust ESG scores are highly coveted, it seems not even Disney’s increased diversity efforts can resuscitate their flagging business. Public debate now centers around whether the beloved entertainment giant has simply hit a lull (as it has sometimes done before) or whether it is because of the emphasis on DEI that the lucrative brand is stalling. Many fans certainly seem to think it is the latter of the two scenarios—or both.

No doubt, since entering its new, more “politically-conscious” era, Disney has struggled to live up to the company’s 100-year reputation, not to mention generate reliable profits. Many of the studio’s latest film releases have faltered at the box office, with multiple costly bombs (Lightyear, Strange World, Elemetal, Indiana Jones and the Dial of Density). Lightyear, which featured a controversial same-sex kiss, reportedly lost the studio $106 million (it did not help that lead actor Chris Evans called those who objected to the kiss “idiots”). Strange World, Disney’s first movie with a gay lead, lost nearly $200 million, claiming the dubious title of 2022’s biggest Hollywood flop. In 2023, not even everyone’s favorite whip-cracking adventurer could turn things around: According to Fortune, “Lucasfilm’s fifth Indiana Jones installment is shaping up to be a disaster of epic proportions for parent company Disney and its veteran CEO, Bob Iger.”

Additionally, the company has faced significant criticism for buying up allegedly more successful companies, including Pixar, Star Wars, and Marvel, all of which have also hit recent lulls. In the opinion of many fans, Disney has “ruined” these brands, along with its own. “The House of Mouse should invest less in diversity, equity, and inclusion, and more in crafting a good story that honors the legacies of the franchises it seems so desperate to ruin” has become a popular refrain.

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In Florida, the epicenter of the studio’s woes, Disney’s theme park subsidiary was forced to close its swanky, $2,500-a-night Star Wars hotel in September, less than two years after opening, and scuttle a planned
$1 billion expansion. While neither of these projects were inherently political, they simply reiterate that Walt's enduring flagship has hit troubled waters. If anything, they highlight that $6,000-per-family experiences are impractical for a “family-friendly” company.

For a company whose primary concern should be entertaining children and families with wholesome content, Disney’s fast-track dive into leftist politics is concerning, to say the least. In less than a month, the multi-billion dollar corporation evolved from a company that temporarily abstained from involvement in Florida’s parental rights debate to one that actively seeks out ways to support political causes—particularly ones that pit them against parents.

Of course, Disney has strayed from its roots in family-friendly entertainment for years, but only recently has it pulled back the curtain on just how alienated from parents—choosing instead to chase “woke” investors—the company has become.

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