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Analysis: What May Be Behind The Ouster Of Peter Rice At Disney

Ron Howard wears a ball cap and stands best to Peter Rice who is in a blue suit and tie.
Ron Howard (left) and Peter Rice (right), then Chairman of Disney General Entertainment Content, attends the premiere of FX's "Under The Banner Of Heaven" in Hollywood in April.
(Jerod Harris
/
Getty Images)
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In the real world, employees are rewarded — not punished — for talent and ambition.

Yet Hollywood doesn’t exist in the real world, which is the easiest way to fathom Disney’s firing of Peter Rice.

Full disclosure: I first met Rice decades ago and consider him a friend. He also serves on the board of KPCC/LAist parent company Southern California Public Radio.

News that he was ousted as chairman of Walt Disney Television and the co-chair of Disney Media Networks came out Thursday. Rice was not only one of Disney’s most respected executives but also the rare manager of both a successful television and movie studio (he formerly ran Fox Searchlight, before Disney bought most of Fox in 2019 for $71 billion).

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According to one of Rice’s professional colleagues, who spoke on condition of anonymity, Disney CEO Bob Chapek fired Rice in a seven-minute meeting, without offering Rice (as is Hollywood custom) some sort of producing deal.

Making the surprise dismissal feel more like an episode of “Game of Thrones,” Chapek replaced Rice with Dana Walden, previously Chairman of Entertainment for Walt Disney Television, whose career Rice has shepherded for nearly 30 years.

Disney said nothing about Rice’s tenure at Disney, which included his overseeing ABC Entertainment, ABC News, Disney Television Studios, Freeform, FX, Hulu Originals and National Geographic Content. Instead, in a statement, it said only that Rice “is leaving the company.”

I spoke with another of Rice’s non-Disney colleagues, who also spoke on condition of anonymity. And her assessment was identical to the first professional colleague: Chapek fired Rice because he feared Rice might succeed him.

Chapek took over Disney from former CEO Bob Iger in early 2020, just before the pandemic devastated almost every single Disney business, especially its theme parks, which Chapek previously ran before his promotion.

Under Chapek, Disney has invested heavily in its nascent streaming platforms. Yet even as Disney Plus is signing millions of new subscribers, it and the Hulu and ESPN streaming services are hemorrhaging money, losing nearly $900 million in the most recent fiscal year.

But the Chapek-Rice fallout didn’t appear to start over content. Rather, it was Florida’s homophobic “Don’t Say Gay” legislation, which was signed into law in March.

Chapek initially refused to condemn the bill, infuriating many company employees, including staff who identify as LGBTQ. Before Chapek changed his mind (sparking an anti-Disney backlash from Florida’s legislators), Rice was public about what he thought of the state’s "Parental Rights in Education" bill.

“Personally, I see this law as a violation of fundamental human rights,” Rice said. “And I condemn any attempt to marginalize individuals on the basis of their identity.”

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That kind of moral insubordination likely wasn’t appreciated by Chapek, but Rice’s apparently greater sin (which wasn’t his doing) was that many people in Hollywood saw him as a potential Chapek successor.

Rice recently signed a new Disney contract, so he won’t be short of funds, and he’ll likely land a plum job. But the moral of the story will last longer than Chapek’s tenure: if you want to get ahead, don’t do your job too well.

What questions do you have about film, TV, music, or arts and entertainment?
John Horn host our weekly podcast Retake, asking: Do the stories that Hollywood tells about itself really reflect what's going on?