As it struggles to beat back streaming losses, box-office disappointments and debates around offloading divisions like ESPN and ABC, Walt Disney Corp. has to put out fires on another front: dissatisfied investors.
Activist shareholder Nelson Peltz, the co-founder of Trian Fund Management, which owns $3 billion in Disney stock, announced his intention Thursday to seek more than two seats on Disney’s board of directors, the latest in several months of needling the Disney leadership after CEO Robert Iger’s return.
Iger indicated that proxy fights would have to be dealt with but that they would be low on the list of challenges facing his second time round at the helm.
“I’m not going to get distracted by any of that,” Iger said at the recent New York Times DealBook summit. “We’ve to obviously contend with them in some form, but don’t force me to take my eyes off the ball and lose focus in terms of managing the company.”
Disney and Iger have a formidable to-do list: revenue downturns in TV and film, combined with a post-pandemic environment hitting every part of the business from leisure to entertainment, have positioned the company for a long road to a comeback. Amid the business recovery, the board of directors is dealing with pushback from some of its biggest shareholders. Peltz, who has been jockeying for board power for more than a year, contended in his statement that “investor confidence is low” and “key strategic questions loom” as the company tries to turn a corner under Iger.
“Since we gave Disney the opportunity to prove it could ‘right the ship’ last February, up to our re-engagement weeks ago, shareholders lost ~$70 billion of value,” the statement announced. “Trian intends to take our case for change directly to shareholders.”
The company defended itself against Peltz and Trian’s statement by issuing one of its own that stressed cost savings of up to $7 billion from restructuring over the last twelve months. The statement also emphasized the alliance between Peltz and Isaac Perlmutter, owner of 78% of the shares Peltz is using as leverage and a terminated Disney employee who the company alleges has “a personal agenda against” Iger.
Peltz and Trian ended a similar bid for board representation nearly a year ago, in which they outlined what the firm saw as poor capital allocation and corporate strategy, leading to lackluster DTC performance “despite significant IP advantage.”
Streaming losses stood at $387 billion at the end of the fourth quarter in September for Disney, an improvement from the $1.4 billion in losses the previous year. Iger, who returned to replace Robert Chapek in November 2022, chalked up the period of disappointments to a focus on quantity over quality and the rising costs of sports rights hitting the ESPN division.
“Disney creatives may have been spread too thin trying to develop numerous Marvel storylines for both theaters and streaming,” said Dave Heger, an analyst at Edward Jones.
Iger, admitting that the quality of Disney studio output had suffered in recent years, blamed a lack of executive supervision on sets during COVID as well as a frenzy to create content for streaming.
“Quantity diluted quality, and Marvel suffered greatly from that,” he said. “Right now, my number one priority is to turn around the studio creatively.”