Disney defeats critics after bruising battle

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Mickey and MinnieImage source, Getty images

Disney has won a boardroom battle against critics who had accused the media giant of botching its streaming strategy and losing its creative spark.

Activist investors, including Nelson Peltz of Trian Management, had sought seats on the company’s board of directors, which they said was too close to Disney’s leadership.

They pledged to push for priorities such as higher profits.

A majority of shareholders voted to maintain the company’s current board.

At its shareholder meeting on Wednesday, Disney said its board nominees had been elected by a “substantial margin” with a final vote to be disclosed later.

But the hard-fought battle raised pointed questions about struggles at Disney’s film and television business, and cast a shadow over the legacy of long-time leader Bob Iger.

“All we want is for Disney to get back to making great content and delighting consumers and for Disney to create sustainable long-term value for shareholders,” Mr Peltz said at the shareholder meeting on Wednesday.

Mr Peltz is known for his fights with big companies such as fast food chain Wendy’s and Procter & Gamble, maker of brands such as Pampers and Vick’s.

He had criticised Disney for responding too slowly as pay television subscribers started to flee in 2015 and said big gambles, such as Mr Iger’s decision to buy a hefty chunk of Rupert Murdoch’s media empire in 2019, had not paid off.

Trian and another firm, Blackwells Capital, said the board had overpaid executives and bungled its responsibility to pick a new chief executive.

They also called for a review of Disney’s studio operations, noting a streak of films that have disappointed at the box office.

The debate coincided with pressure Disney has been under from right-wing activists, who have accused the firm of “going woke”.

Concern about how Disney is handling culture wars issues prompted several questions from shareholders at Wednesday’s meeting, where separate shareholder proposals focused on Disney’s political and charitable donations and its policies for trans employees were also defeated.

Disney had urged shareholders to vote against those proposals and to back the current board. It said new faces threatened to disrupt progress that the company has been making.

“As we gather today, we stand on a far more solid foundation,” Mr Iger said in remarks at the meeting after the results were announced. “We have turned the corner and entered a new positive era for the Walt Disney company.”

Mr Iger had retired as chief executive in 2020, but Disney’s board abruptly re-installed him as boss in 2022, ousting his successor amid complaints about the company’s streaming business and other issues.

Soon after his return Mr Iger announced a reorganisation and thousands of job cuts in a bid to improve the company’s profits. He is now planning to step aside at the end of 2026.

But the investor battle was costly for both sides.

Trian estimated it would spend $25m million trying to win over shareholders, blitzing social media platforms with adverts aimed at everyday investors, while Disney claimed a spend of $40m.

But Mr Iger won out – gaining support from major shareholders including Star Wars creator George Lucas, the widow of Steve Jobs, Laurene Powell Jobs, and members of the Disney family.

Mr Peltz had been working with Ike Perlmutter, the former chair of Marvel, who was fired from Disney last year and had previously clashed with Mr Iger.

Disney said Mr Perlmutter had “a longstanding personal agenda against” Mr Iger, which would have made it difficult for the two sides to work together.

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