Former Disney CEO Bob Iger, in his first interview since stepping away as executive chairman of the company, discussed the fate of movie theaters, competing with Netflix and yes, the metaverse, in a conversation with New York Times‘ Kara Swisher.
“Because I am not working for Disney I am liberated, I can say anything about anybody,” Iger joked during the conversation, adding that he was reluctant to “single anyone out.”
However, he did have frank thoughts on the fate of movie theaters, which he believes will be permanently altered by the pandemic and the rise of streaming services.
“I don’t think it’s death [of theatrical movies], I think it is a severe injury that maybe doesn’t heal. Not fatal to some,” Iger said, adding that consumers “will be much more discerning about what movies they want to see out of the home.
“I think what you are going to see is far fewer films released for the big screen,” Iger told Swisher on the Times‘ sway podcast.
Iger also addressed the rise of streaming and the push to get Disney into the space with Disney+. But he also discussed an epiphany he had regarding Netflix, which at one point had the streaming rights to Disney’s films.
“They were helping to build their platform on the back of our movies. … They deserve a lot of credit,” Iger said. “I woke up one day and thought, ‘We are basically selling nuclear weapons technology to a third-world country, and now they are using it against us.’”
And so, Iger and Disney took back those rights and sought to create a new war chest of IP. And when Rupert Murdoch called Iger and discussed selling Fox’s entertainment assets, Iger knew that the deal would be necessary to be competitive in the streaming space.
“I was thinking at the time, knowing that we were going to launch Disney+ and enter the streaming business, that if we had National Geographic and simpsons and Avatar and the whole library, that we would have the scale to [compete],” he said.
But he also expressed pessimism about big technology companies successfully competing with firms like Disney, despite their significant investment in content.
“There is no question that deep-pocketed technology companies, Apple being a great example, Amazon being another, have figured out that if they have great intellectual property, if they tell great stories, it will help their businesses,” Iger said. “I don’t want to suggest [Apple and Amazon’s entertainment divisions] are loss-leader businesses, but they are in those businesses for other reasons.”
But as the tech world shifts toward the next phase of the internet, what some call the “metaverse” and what Iger calls “Internet 3.0,” he believes that Disney has a critical piece of the puzzle.
“To survive in an Internet 3.0 world, you need to have some really compelling intellectual property,” he said. “I think that Internet 3.0, which will definitely be a more compelling experience, certainly more immersive and dimensional, there will be a lot to that in terms of a future, call it a metaverse. I don’t think there will be one metaverse; it will be dispersed. You may have an avatar, but you can go all over the place, and I think that it is likely to develop into something real as an experience.”
However, I have acknowledged that the “toxic culture” on platforms like Twitter and Facebook could only become worse in that hypothetical future.
“I am thinking about telling my kids that they should think about creating technology tools for moderating behavior in Internet 3.0,” Iger said. “Something Disney should think about as it talks about creating a metaverse themselves is moderating and monitoring behavior.”
And he discussed his final board retreat, where The Hollywood Reporter’s Kim Masters reported that he implored those in attendance to not become too reliant on data. His successor, Bob Chapek, has leaned on data for his decision-making, though in a memo earlier this month the CEO said that “storytelling excellence” remains a pillar of the company.
“In a world and business that is awash with data, it is tempting to use data to answer all of our questions, including creative questions,” he said at the retreat. “I urge all of you not to do that.”
Acknowledging the accuracy of the comments to Swisher, Iger expanded on those thoughts, saying that while it is useful to find out what people like about something after the fact, creative decisions still need to be made based on some level of instinct.
“If we had tried to mine all the data that we had at the time, to determine whether we should make a superhero movie that was about, essentially, an Afro-futuristic world with a Black cast, the data would have said don’t do that, and Black Panther never would have been made,” he said.