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Disney CEO Fires Top Entertainment Exec Peter Rice In Major Surprise

Peter Rice, wearing a tuxedo, stands in front of a purple 20th Century Fox step-and-repeat background. A blonde woman in white is behind him, to his right.
File: Then-Fox Networks Group Chairman/CEO Peter Rice (R) attends the 72nd Annual Golden Globe Awards at the Beverly Hilton on Jan. 11, 2015 in Beverly Hills.
(Mark Davis
Getty Images for Fox Searchlight Pictures)
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The entertainment industry's era of significant change continued Thursday with the surprise firing of Disney General Entertainment Content Chairman Peter Rice.

According to reporting by my colleague John Horn, he was dismissed by Disney CEO Bob Chapek in a seven-minute conversation.

The move comes as Chapek faces criticism both inside and outside of the company over a variety of decisions. The most high-profile controversy: The company’s slow response to Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” legislation even as it prepared to move around 2,000 employees from Southern California to Florida.

The decision to initially stay out of the debate, sparked criticism from both outside and inside Disney, with a number of employees speaking out publicly. The legislation, which restricts teaching about sexual orientation and gender identity, has widely been seen as anti-LGBTQ+.

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Why Now?

Chapek took over from former Disney CEO Bob Iger in February 2020. He now has less than a year remaining on his contract as CEO, which is up at the end of February 2023 and has yet to be renewed.

Why fire Rice now? Much of the industry speculation is focused on Rice — who is very well respected in Hollywood — being a leading internal candidate if Chapek were to be replaced at the end of his contract.

There's also the fact that Rice spoke out about the Florida “Don’t Say Gay” legislation ahead of Chapek. His remarks came after Chapek pledged a $5 million donation from the company to organizations working to protect LGBTQ+ rights, a response some saw as delayed.

Rice said in a statement that he saw the law as “a violation of fundamental human rights, and I condemn any attempt to marginalize individuals on the basis of their identity." He added, "I appreciate that Bob recognized that we must do more to support the LGBTQ+ community."

Chapek has also been under fire with questions raised about the economics of streaming across the industry. Disney+ launched in November 2019 near the end of Iger’s tenure, experiencing rapid early growth — but like other streamers, Disney faces a potential plateau in its growth following big spending on both episodic shows and releasing movies to the platform that were originally intended for theatrical release.

It’s been a period of huge spending in streaming as companies have fought for subscribers, with the view that not all of the current services will survive. Netflix recently reported a loss in subscribers for the first time and several streaming services announced they will either add or look into adding advertising-supported options. Many Disney fans have been critical of Chapek’s reign as well, with a marked increase in both pricing and upsells at the company’s theme parks.

Board Support For Chapek

In its own statement, Disney’s Board of Directors voiced support for Chapek on Thursday. The statement from Disney board chair Susan Arnold said:

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“The strength of The Walt Disney Company’s businesses coming out of the pandemic is a testament to Bob’s leadership and vision for the company’s future. In this important time of business growth and transformation, we are committed to keeping Disney on the successful path it is on today, and Bob and his leadership team have the support and confidence of the Board.”

A news release from the company announced that Dana Walden will replace Rice and will report directly to Chapek. Walden is Rice’s former deputy and longtime colleague — the company noted their close working relationship in its announcement. She moves up from a position as chairman of the television division. Both Rice and Walden came to Disney from Fox during its acquisition.

“Dana is a dynamic, collaborative leader and cultural force who in just three years has transformed our television business into a content powerhouse that consistently delivers the entertainment audiences crave,” Chapek said in a statement.

The position Walden’s taking on includes oversight for both entertainment and news programming on broadcast, streaming, and cable. Brands under her oversight include ABC, Disney, Freeform, FX, Hulu, and National Geographic. Some of her successes that Disney touted in the announcement include ABC’s Abbott Elementary, Onyx Collective’s documentary Summer of Soul, and Hulu programs ranging from Only Murders in the Building to The Kardashians.

“It is an incredible honor to be asked to lead this amazingly talented team — they are truly the absolute best in every respect — and I am grateful to Bob for this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” Walden said in Disney’s press statement.

Note: Peter Rice serves as a trustee for Southern California Public Radio, which includes LAist and KPCC. He has no involvement in newsroom coverage.

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Updated June 9, 2022 at 4:29 PM PDT
This story updates with additional reporting from John Horn.