Nasty, Brutish, Short: Morrell's Misery
BP and Abu Ghraib earlier were no match for Disney PR in Hollywood 2022
Still detoxing from Vegas (four days living on hors d’oeuvres and recycled oxygen take a toll) and trying to wrap my head around how the idealized world of CinemaCom fits into the world in turmoil we know here, the news suddenly hit about the ankling of Disney's Geoff Morrell after just three months on the job.
A lot of threads here so let's unwind them as they come shall we:
First of all, whether the move was right or wrong,
inevitable or not, it's another data point towards the growing list of Hollywood in Chaos moments unfolding in real time at this moment.
The new yardstick is: Did he outlast CNN+? Yes! But by that measure, barely.
You play back the history of how this went, it really is a screw-up that will be studied in comms school history books as sort of the opposite of the Tylenol cyanide case. There were employee discontents and rumblings about the non-response to the Don't Say Gay bill. Bob II initially responded to that with the internal all-hands email that basically said, shut the hell up and get back to work. “I firmly believe that our ability to tell such stories — and have them received with open eyes, ears, and hearts — would be diminished if our company were to become a political football in any debate,” he “wrote” in a memo widely believed to be written by Morrell.
If there was an off-ramp from this mess, a way to finesse it back to something handleable, they whooshed right by it. The result of the email was to pour fuel on the prairie fire and turn it into a volcanic eruption, as every grievance from LGBTQ employees over the years and the entire history of Disney's mixed bag of relations with the community poured out and Bob II had to loudly speak out, throwing the company headlong into the battle and handing Generallisimo DeSantis, likely future GOP presidential candidate, a culture war fight on a silver platter, which he leaped for in a heartbeat.
That is what you call a zillion-dollar bungle, all the more so as it leaves Disney at war with the right, and still getting no credit from the left who still begrudge them their first reaction.
In the ways of corporate life, somebody should have to take the fall for an unforced error like that, and Bob II isn't going to fire himself, so that left an obvious candidate.
All the more so since they, very conveniently, just happened to have hired a replacement a few weeks ago. Which makes it seem maybe they didn't just come up with this in time for a Friday afternoon bad news dump.
Taking a step back, what is somewhat incredible is that Morrell navigated some of the most toxic environments and charged stories on earth. He ran comms at wildlife killer BP, and was Pentagon spokesperson during Wikileaks and Abu Ghraib. But the madness of Hollywood was a swamp on steroids. Having to fight not just the external culture wars, but the internal conflicts with upstart employees on behalf of a still new unfamiliar CEO whose predecessor is throwing bombs from the sidelines, while the entire shape of the industry is up for grabs — that's like 1000 Julian Assanges at once. And it wasn't going well, to say the least.In an email to his staff, Geoff Morrell said: "After three months in this new role, it has become clear to me that for a number of reasons it is not the right fit. After talking this over with Bob, I have decided to leave the company to pursue other opportunities."
More prosaically, when Morrell said in his extremely short goodbye email that he realized the role wasn't “the right fit,” he was right. multiple sources in the studio say the cultural mismatch was apparent almost immediately. Of all the studios, Disney — the Goliath — prides itself on a “teamwork-makes-dreams work!” mentality, putting the company before individuals, every “cast member” on board with The Big Plan. There are companies around town that couldn't even claim with a straight face that “teamwork” is a goal there, but that sense of identity permeates everything they do.
Morrell, who had a lot of success elsewhere in his career, came into this situation, I've been told, as a bull in a china shop, stepping on toes and failing to win the allies you need to survive in such a culture. (Hollywood has always been underestimated compared with DC as the scheming/backstabbery capital of America.)
And it's not like Hollywood, any part of Hollywood, is what you'd call welcoming to outsiders. In this game seen as zero sum too often, the one thing we stand together on is chewing up and spitting out newcomers, unless they are writing checks. In which case we'll pause on the chewing and spitting until your money is gone.
Not to mention the hackles raised from minute one of being a Republican coming into this town whose entire identity is tied (at least publicly) with progressive rah-rah.
Mistakes like this from one new here, only signaled terminal outsider status.
Put more charitably, to us, this business is nuts, counter-intuitive, filled with all kinds of arcane little quagmires and all operating on a knife's edge under a spotlight. If you don't come in with a healthy respect for what you don't know here, they are waiting to swallow you whole.
But if you're going to navigate this minefield, deference and a willingness to learn about our arcane ways is required. David Zaslav, even though he has spent his life in media and run a TV company, has spent months now seeking out the advice and guidance of everyone he can get on the phone, and his ascension has been greeted as a near salvation. Jason Kilar, on the other hand, bowed before very few.
Compounding the problem, you had a fairly insular CEO who is new to the job and new to much of this world, matched with an outsider comms chief.
What this better be, for his own sake, is the chance for a reset for Bob II. The number of negative news cycles he's racking up is getting tough to dig himself out from under. He needs to reach out, needs to make people see that he's got a plan and what it is and become a leader of the community. He needs to open doors to employees, reach out to the industry and make people feel there’s a heart at the center of the Disney brand again. That might not be the part of the job he loves or is comfortable with, but if you’re going to be the CEO of the Disney company, it’s part of the job description. This is not just any company; this is the most beloved, family-centric brand on earth. It’s a place where employees traditionally don’t just feel they are doing a job; they are becoming part of a dream. Getting the numbers right when you're at the helm of it isn’t enough. As for the sniping from the sidelines of Bob I, I raised the difficulty of dealing with that with a producer friend this week who made the point:
Dealing with your predecessor is part of the job of every CEO everywhere. And part of your job is knowing they will be resentful of anyone who follows them, and making them feel still wanted, keeping them happy is what you do. If Iger is grumbling, you call him up, take him to dinner. Ask his advice 50 times a day if that's what it takes. Defusing critics of the company is what a CEO is there for.
A little more outreach and PR right now would come at an opportune moment, because whatever the grumbles have been about the releases of the past year, Disney is about to unleash a monster slate that could be the sort of shock-and-awe Disney of yore. Coming in the next few months: three top-tier Marvel titles, Lightyear and Avatar 2, among others. The table is set for a new narrative in the next few months. Bob II just needs to make himself a part of that shift.
What he needs most is a change of subject; so Florida isn't the first thing that comes to everyone's lips when they think of Disney. How about this: buy Netflix.! The stock right now is under 200, down from 690 five months ago. It is a takeover target with a blazing neon sign for somebody. Jump in after that and suddenly all of Bob I's heroic acquisitions look like kindergarten toys.
Finally, we wish the best to Geoff Morrell in his post-Hollywood journeys. Anyone who jumps into the middle of this business deserves a medal of valor. And here’s hoping that wherever your adventures may take you from here — whatever oil spills or corrupt senators or foreign despots in need of rebranding that cross your path — we hope they’ll be relatively gentle ones compared to the torture of Tinseltown. Farewell.
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