The rise and fall of Disney government Kareem Daniel

For greater than a decade, Kareem Daniel faithfully adopted the Walt Disney Co. script for achievement.

The 48-year-old government had a Stanford MBA. He began as an intern and held key management roles with divisions together with the Imagineers, the vaunted designers of theme park rides. He was a film buff and an unabashed fan of Disney properties — his favourite toy as a boy was the Millennium Falcon, the hulking spaceship from “Star Wars.”

His ascent accelerated in 2020 when his mentor, Bob Chapek, turned Disney’s chief government. Daniel was tapped to run client merchandise, and 5 months later, he hurdled over extra skilled executives to guide a large new and controversial enterprise unit.

For Disney’s Black workers, Daniel’s rise was a degree of pleasure. His promotion got here after a summer time of protests over the homicide of George Floyd in Minneapolis, and media firms had been beneath the microscope for his or her lack of variety within the C-suite.

“There was an African American male at the top — that was huge,” mentioned a former Disney government who wasn’t approved to talk publicly. “It seemed that he was suddenly in the succession line.”

He was the czar in control of $30 billion a yr in program spending, deciding launch methods for Disney’s films and TV exhibits, steering them to streaming companies, Disney+, ESPN+ or Hulu, theaters or one of many firm’s TV channels.

That modified final month, when Disney’s board of administrators abruptly fired Chapek and introduced again the Burbank big’s revered former chief government Bob Iger, lower than a yr after he had mentioned goodbye. Iger’s first act was to announce a assessment of Daniel’s division — Disney Media & Leisure Distribution, generally known as DMED — and present Daniel the door.

Disney insiders cheered the dismantling of the maligned DMED (pronounced Dee-med). The transfer promised to unwind what many mentioned was one among Chapek’s greatest errors in his almost three years as Disney’s CEO. Daniel and Chapek had designed a construction that was meant to streamline decision-making to spice up Disney’s portfolio of direct-to-consumer apps — which, on the time, had been in vogue on Wall Avenue. Monetary executives, not those that developed the programming, had been within the driver’s seat.

However the association fostered resentment amongst inventive executives within the movie and TV studios who felt their authority was slipping away.

Daniel’s tenure atop DMED and subsequent ouster was a basic case of company politics unfolding on the world’s strongest leisure firm. It’s frequent apply for a brand new regime to briskly push apart a fired CEO’s closest deputies and allies, and Daniel’s proximity to Chapek put him nicely throughout the blast radius. (Daniel additionally acted as Chapek’s chief of workers in 2020 earlier than being tapped to guide DMED.)

Eliminating Daniel was a fast and symbolic means for Iger to sign a clear break with the prior regime and restore stability to an organization that had been rattled by infighting, a falling inventory value, the lingering results of the COVID-19 pandemic, political battles in Florida and larger than anticipated monetary losses in streaming.

“Kareem’s crime was that he was close to Chapek and that he helped design and led an organizational construct that was hated by the creatives,” mentioned one former Disney government.

Iger created a job power to restructure Disney once more, returning clout to the inventive heads, in a swift rebuke of Chapek’s management.

“The announcement I made last week about DMED, which is a work in progress, is designed to do one thing: to restore to the creative businesses the control, responsibility, and accountability over what we create,” Iger mentioned in a Monday morning city corridor with workers on Disney’s Burbank lot. “That’s how this company has been structured for most of its history, and that’s how it will be structured going forward.”

The shake-up was harking back to one other Iger transfer years in the past.

Beneath his predecessor, Michael Eisner, key decision-making was centralized in a strategic planning enterprise unit run by former government Peter Murphy, whose domineering fashion infuriated inventive executives. After Iger was named CEO in 2005, Murphy was stripped of energy and the strategic planning group was dramatically downsized with the same aim of returning accountability to inventive leaders.

“When you get to certain levels in our industry, structural issues and corporate politics become involved,” mentioned one Disney government who was not approved to remark. “The stakes are very high.”

Nonetheless, some had been stunned on the swiftness of Daniel’s dismissal, contemplating his stature at Disney and the corporate’s historic scarcity of individuals of shade in its higher ranks.

“Our town’s not the most tenderhearted, but discarding high-end senior talent? I don’t think it promotes stability,” mentioned one distinguished agent who declined to be recognized to guard enterprise relationships.

Christine McCarthy, CFO of Walt Disney Co.; then-CEO Bob Chapek; Kareem Daniel, then-chairman of Disney Media and Leisure Distribution; and producer Louis D’Esposito attend the “Thor: Love and Thunder” world premiere on the El Capitan Theatre in Hollywood in June.

(Charley Gallay/Getty Pictures for Disney)

Daniel didn’t reply to requests for remark. Disney declined to remark.

Daniel grew up on the South Aspect of Chicago, spending hours studying Marvel and different comics at Chicago Ridge Mall. He additionally developed an enduring fondness for movie.

“My favorite thing growing up was going to the movies,” Daniel mentioned in an interview earlier this yr with Disney’s KABC-TV station, by which he described going to see “The Empire Strikes Back.” “I went with my mom. We were leaving the theater and she saw that joy on my face, and she asked if I wanted to see it again.”

The son of a professor and a nurse, Daniel adopted his sister on the academically rigorous Morgan Park Academy in Chicago, happening to earn his bachelor’s diploma in electrical engineering and an MBA from Stanford College.

In media interviews, Daniel described his want to land a job at Disney.

It was Chapek who opened the door. Whereas Daniel was in graduate faculty, Daniel pushed for an interview and finally met with Chapek, who employed him as an intern. After he earned his MBA, Daniel entered the funding banking world, working about three years at Goldman Sachs. He joined Disney in 2007 in strategic planning, and he ended up engaged on the 2009 acquisition of Marvel Leisure.

He had jobs overseeing distribution technique for Disney’s films, then enterprise technique for client merchandise and video video games earlier than being positioned in a management position at Imagineering, the group that designs Disney’s theme park sights.

Former Imagineer Jim Shull recollects guiding Daniel on a tour of the corporate’s Shanghai park, the place he requested questions in regards to the means of designing park sights, typical for an government coming into an unfamiliar a part of the enterprise.

“He was extremely personable and asked a lot of the right questions,” Shull mentioned. “He was stepping into a world he’d never been part of.”

Kareem Daniel, former chair of DMED in July 2022, in Idaho.  (Photo by Kevin Dietsch/Getty Images)

Kareem Daniel, former chairman of Disney Media and Leisure Distribution, on the Allen & Firm Solar Valley Convention in Idaho final July.

(Kevin Dietsch/Getty Pictures)

At Imagineering, Daniel supported some necessary initiatives, just like the revamping of Splash Mountain, which was impressed by the racist 1946 movie “Song of the South.”

However some Imagineers bristled beneath his backside line-focused administration fashion, mentioned two individuals acquainted with his tenure. In Might 2020, three months after Chapek stepped into the highest job, Daniel was named president of client merchandise, gaming and publishing.

Simply 5 months later, Daniel was working DMED.

Chapek’s thought to restructure Disney could have made sense on paper and on the peak of the pandemic, when sign-ups for Disney+ had been surging. Chapek needed to speed up Disney’s pivot to a primarily direct-to-consumer mannequin.

To assist with that push, Chapek needed Daniel’s group to determine one of the simplest ways to convey Disney’s content material to the general public — both on streaming, in theaters or on channels comparable to ABC, Freeform or FX. In the meantime, the heads of the programming and studio divisions would deal with what they did finest: making exhibits and films.

However in apply, the construction confused outdoors creatives who couldn’t inform who was actually in cost. Division heads felt their energy being stripped.

Internally, there was confusion and awkward boundaries. For instance, the film studio had lengthy loved oversight of theatrical field workplace revenues, however all of the sudden that operate was a part of DMED’s purview.

And Daniel’s group appeared poised to realize much more energy.

In latest months, consultants from the advisory agency McKinsey & Co. had been working with Disney to additional centralize decision-making capabilities and reduce prices, an effort led by Disney Chief Monetary Officer Christine McCarthy, in accordance with individuals acquainted with the trouble. The Wall Avenue Journal first reported the involvement of the consultants.

Daniel additionally started lobbying to convey advertising and marketing spending for the corporate’s content material into his DMED group, in accordance with the educated individuals. Such a change would mark one other erosion of energy for the movie and TV studio executives. At an October company retreat in Orlando, Chapek informed Disney leaders that the corporate needed to critically take a look at its advertising and marketing operations, which raised eyebrows and fueled extra discontent.

McKinsey remains to be working with Disney, individuals acquainted with the matter mentioned.

Disney insiders painted a blended portrait of Daniel. A number of executives described him as good, hardworking and pushed. In October, he was elected to McDonald’s Corp.’s board of administrators.

However others criticized his unsentimental strategy to choices, saying it might come throughout as overly medical. Detractors complained that Daniel lacked expertise to handle such an unlimited and unwieldy portfolio. Quite a few individuals described him as unbending and “arrogant.” Stated one Disney insider: “He was very harsh on his subordinates.”

Along with distribution and promoting gross sales, Daniel’s group was additionally liable for the operations of the corporate’s streaming companies.

Insiders mentioned that relations between DMED and the inventive executives had been cordial in individual and in public settings, however some creatives seethed in personal. Daniel, like Chapek, adhered to a administration fashion generally known as ARCI (accountable, accountable, consulted, knowledgeable), seen as a means of clearly assigning accountability. He introduced an engineer’s mind-set to the job, taking the emotion out of decision-making.

That strategy didn’t sit nicely with producers and creatives who labored for years on tasks that they noticed as labors of affection. Animators, for instance, had been upset when earlier this yr, Disney despatched Pixar’s “Turning Red,” a extremely private film a couple of Chinese language Canadian adolescent woman, straight to Disney+, skipping a theatrical launch.

On the time, Daniel defended the choice.

“Given the delayed box office recovery, particularly for family films, flexibility remains at the core of our distribution decisions,” he mentioned in a press release.

Daniel’s ties to Chapek contributed to his downfall.

Chapek and Daniel had been good mates outdoors the workplace. They shared inside jokes and humorous photographs of one another’s travels to the theme parks, in accordance with an individual who is aware of each executives.

Daniel’s aggressive zeal turned the discuss of a 2019 company retreat at Walt Disney World in Orlando, in accordance with two former executives who had been in attendance.

The retreat included the awarding of trophies for sporting occasions. There, Daniel performed on a softball crew led by Iger, who tried to rally his crew from falling behind. As much as the plate, Daniel hit a floor ball and charged down the primary final analysis, colliding with Chapek, who was on the alternative crew. Chapek was bleeding from the pinnacle and wanted medical consideration.

Iger and Daniel’s crew went on to win, the previous executives mentioned.

On Sunday, Nov. 20, Daniel arrived at Dodger Stadium for Elton John’s closing “Farewell Yellow Brick Road” live performance in North America, which was livestreamed on Disney+. The government had simply stepped out of his automobile on the valet line and into Disney’s hospitality tent the place dignitaries mingled, when telephones of Disney executives in attendance lit up with Iger’s electronic mail announcement that he was returning as chief government.

Disney executives had been shocked. Daniel shortly circled and left the occasion, in accordance with three individuals educated of the scenario.

The following morning, Daniel was out of his job.

“This was about how the company should be structured, and that transcends who should be in any particular job,” mentioned one Disney government.

However the former Disney government who spoke of Black workers’ pleasure for Daniel expressed unhappiness over his unceremonious departure.

“Kareem was the first African American executive to be put in a position of power at that level,” the previous worker mentioned. “And for it to fall apart in just two years is absolutely tragic.”

Occasions workers author Stephen Battaglio contributed to this text.