Mar 10, 2022 - Economy

Disney's political drama

Photographer: Patrick T. Fallon/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Disney has found itself in the middle of a political firestorm, between its reaction to Florida's "Don't Say Gay" bill, its courtship of China and, most recently, its decision to pause its studio releases in Russia.

Why it matters: The worlds of entertainment and politics are more intertwined than ever before. Executives are finding out the hard way about staying silent on current issues.

Driving the news: CEO Bob Chapek was criticized earlier this week for not speaking out about Florida's so-called "Don't Say Gay" bill, which is close to becoming a law.

  • During Disney's shareholder meeting Wednesday, Chapek said Florida Governor Ron DeSantis (R) has agreed to meet with him and other top Disney executives about the bill's potential harms to the LGTBQ+ community. (The governor's press secretary said there's no in-person meeting set yet.)
  • "We thought we could be more effective working behind the scenes, engaging directly with lawmakers on both sides of the aisle," Chapek said. But despite weeks of effort, "we were ultimately unsuccessful."

By the numbers: Disney will donate $5 million to organizations, including the Human Rights Campaign, working to protect LGTBQ+ rights, Chapek said.

Disney was also criticized during the meeting for continuing to do business with China, with multiple shareholders arguing there is a double standard in the wake of its swift actions against Russia.

  • Disney last week paused the release of theatrical films in Russia, "given the unprovoked invasion of Ukraine and the tragic humanitarian crisis."

Our thought bubble: Russia doesn't contribute nearly as much to Disney's bottom line as China. Even so, expect just about every company that quickly ghosted Russia to face these kinds of questions, given China's multiple alleged human rights abuses and criticisms over censorship.

The big picture: Disney's former CEO Bob Iger made his politics clear as CEO, all but threatening in 2019 to stop production in Georgia if an abortion ban passed and choosing not to fire anchor Jemele Hill after she called former President Trump a “white supremacist” on Twitter.

  • A year later, under Chapek's rein, Disney has still had to make tough political decisions, but has managed to mostly avoid controversy. The entertainment giant became one of many companies that said it wouldn't donate campaign dollars to Republicans that voted to reject the certification of the 2020 election.

What’s next: After the shareholders meeting, a letter from Pixar staff criticized Disney's response to the Florida bill and even accused the company of censoring LGTBQ+ content.

  • "Nearly every moment of overtly gay affection is cut at Disney’s behest, regardless of when there is protest from both the creative teams and executive leadership at Pixar," the staff wrote in the letter, which was first obtained by Judd Legum, who writes the Popular Information newsletter.
  • The Human Rights Campaign said it would refuse Disney's money until they took more action against the bill. "This should be the beginning of Disney’s advocacy efforts rather than the end,” Joni Madison, interim president of Human Rights Campaign, said in a statement.
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