2005 was a really sucky time to be a fan of Disney movies. Since the start of the millennium nearly every animated Disney movie released was a box office bomb. Also around this time Disney and Pixar, partners for nearly a decade, were on the verge of divorce. It got so ugly that Disney threatened to make Toy Story 3 on their own, and proceeded to make their own CGI animation studio to make that happen. Finally, 2005 was also the year when Disney released one of my most hated animated movies ever: Chicken Little.
Despite being such a dark and gloomy year for Disney and its fans, 2005 was also the start of the company's great comeback. It all started when longtime Disney CEO Michael Eisner, who had become a liability at the company after two decades of service, "stepped down" in March that year. Eisner's removal preceded the entry of four figureheads who have transformed Disney into a modern day creative juggernaut. I have labelled them The Four Horsemen of Disney, and if there's something about the modern Disney that you love, odds are one of these names made it possible.
Bob Iger: Chairman and CEO of the Walt Disney Company
Allow me to go on-record and say that Bob Iger's tenure as Disney CEO will go down as one of greatest in entertainment history. After replacing Michael Eisner for the top spot, Iger was instrumental in completely turning Disney's fortunes around. He largely did this by making some damn good acquisitions, three of which gave us the other three horsemen.
His first major accomplishment was mending the broken relationship between Disney and Pixar, eventually leading to Pixar's acquisition in 2006. He then went on to make an unconventional acquisition (Marvel) and a difficult acquisition (Lucasfilm).
Despite initial worries, Iger turned out to be incredibly trusting of his creative staff, allowing the kind of ideas and ambition that made films like Zootopia, Inside Out, The Avengers and The Force Awakens possible. I say that Pixar, Marvel and Lucasfilm are in safe hands.
John Lasseter: Chief Creative Officer of Disney Animation and Pixar
I truly believe that the Pixar acquisition was the one thing that saved Disney, and it's largely thanks to Pixar's John Lasseter. Since joining the Disney leadership in 2006 Lasseter has become the creative foundation behind Disney's current animated megahits.
Whereas Pixar has always done extremely well (despite a few clunkers), Disney Animation Studios was experiencing a creative crisis until Lasseter stepped in and revitalized the studio, and they have never been in better shape. Whereas before we had stinkers like Home on the Range and Chicken Little, now we have animated darlings like Frozen and Zootopia. Talk about a drastic improvement!
John Lasseter is a fantastic person to have if you want to make a great animated movie...just make sure he's not the director.
Kevin Feige: President of Marvel Studios
Here comes Marvel thinking that they can just make their own movies. Then out of nowhere comes the first Iron Man film, and we've been coming back to the movie theater every year ever since.
In creating the monumentally successful Marvel Cinematic Universe, Feige has mastered two important talents that rival movie studios still struggle with: 1) finding filmmakers who are committed to making good movies, and 2) a deep understanding of comic book lore to the point of being able to establish and enforce continuity. Many rival studios are probably making things up as they go, while Feige plays the long game, and hires quality filmmakers to make his vision happen.
I think many of us mocked Disney when they chose to buy Marvel. We thought they were incompatible, that the acquisition was a kneejerk response to Warner Bros. owning DC Comics. In hindsight what made Marvel thrive under Disney wasn't so much "compatibility" as a commitment to a creative vision, the crazily ambitious kind that Disney was eager to bankroll.
Kathleen Kennedy: President of Lucasfilm
In case you don't know, Kathleen Kennedy has been a big deal in movie blockbusters for the last 35 years! Her biggest claim to fame is her deep collaboration with Steven Spielberg, and has produced the vast majority of his movies since Raiders of the Lost Ark. She's basically been a part of everyone's childhood since the 80s.
I do think she's an ideal fit as President of Lucasfilm. Not only has she been in the movie industry for so long, she has also been intimately involved in the production of numerous game-changing movies such as Raiders of the Lost Ark, E.T., and Jurassic Park. That's quite the resume!
I do hope that Disney keeps her around for a long time because Kathleen Kennedy is probably the closest thing Disney will ever get to hiring Spielberg himself. Not to mention that her leadership is really promising if Star Wars: The Force Awakens is any indication.
A Supergroup of Movie Executives
I don't think the Walt Disney Company could have asked for a better team to dominate the film industry by beating both box office records and critic expectations wherever they go. The Disney movie lineup has remained strong so far, and it looks like Disney, Pixar, Marvel and Lucasfilm have no intention of slowing down.
It will be a sad day when these executives will inevitably step down. Iger is set to step down as CEO in 2018, and Feige's contract with Marvel is set to expire in 2018 as well if not renewed. My hope is that these horsemen will have excellent successors when the time comes.
Until then, however, Disney is absolutely killing it in the movie theatre. Their rivals better start learning to fear the four horsemen and step up their game, or else.