There were so abounding unknowns bouncing about in the ether aback Disney accomplished its $71 billion takeover of 21st Century Fox three years ago.
One of the bigger questions was how the Fox admiral who fabricated the bound from Century City to Burbank would book at an continued Disney. Fox was a abundantly hard-charging and ambitious adeptness with a accumulated appearance calmly summed up as Eat What You Kill. Disney is abundantly clover glove, corporate, alone and bloodthirsty in its own ways. Industry babble about how the two flat worlds would cobweb (or not) was aggressive during the 15-month closing aeon afore the accord was completed on March 19, 2019.
Dana Walden knew she was allotment of a celebrated Hollywood moment aback she collection assimilate the Disney lot the afterward day for the aboriginal time as an employee. The executive, who is now administrator of brawl for Walt Disney Television, knew she had an astronomic job to accommodate two studios — 20th Television and what was again ABC Studios — in accession to council ABC Brawl and abacus Hulu Originals anon afterwards she started. And she knew she had to breathe new activity into the young-adult-targeted Freeform at a time aback beeline basal cable channels face extinction.
Walden didn’t apperceive that the apple would be angry upside bottomward by a all-around communicable that would badly advance the alive anarchy Disney has banked so abundant on. She didn’t apperceive that Disney would accept such a avid charge for agreeable afterwards its November 2019 debut. And she didn’t apperceive the absoluteness of Disney would abide a massive restructuring in October 2020 to acclimate to alteration times that would about account centralized agita and astonish the industry at large.
Disney was additionally adeptness a huge alteration of adeptness from CEO Bob Iger, who had headed the brawl behemothic aback 2005, to his successor, Bob Chapek. The two leaders are in abounding means arctic opposites in their personalities and administration styles.
Walden and her boss, Disney General Brawl Agreeable administrator Peter Rice, accept mostly backward out of the spotlight for the accomplished three years. Both bound accomplished their assignment at Disney would be arduous in allotment because they were the alone 21st Century Fox admiral to move over as analysis heads.
But aftermost month, Walden sat bottomward with Variety for her aboriginal all-encompassing account about the abutting apparatus of the studios and platforms she leads. The executive, who spent 26 years at Fox, aggressive the ladder on the artistic ancillary from accessible relations controlling to the C-suite, is acutely activated by the high-stakes bold of arena for Aggregation Disney in the alive wars. At present she oversees the assembly of about 200 titles above Hulu, ABC, Disney , Freeform and alien platforms.
“It’s the best aggressive time in the history of our business — it’s ridiculously competitive,” Walden observes. “It’s aloof a astounding time to be in the agreeable business.”
The timing of Walden’s breach of the gates is no accident. Her units accept been a hot streak. Hulu has enjoyed a cord of buzzy originals, including “Only Murders in the Building,” “Dopesick,” “The Dropout,” “Pam & Tommy,” “The Great,” “Nine Perfect Strangers” and best recently, “The Girl From Plainville.” ABC has begin the rarest of TV bolt — a blemish hit brawl — in the critical-darling academy brawl “Abbott Elementary.” Onyx Collective, a new agreeable banderole advised to put Disney beef abaft projects produced by creators of color, won the affection documentary Oscar aftermost ages for its first-ever release, the Questlove-directed “Summer of Soul (… Or, Aback the Anarchy Could Not Be Televised)” from Searchlight Pictures.
Over a continued chat in the backyard of her West L.A. home, Walden tries to allay some industry belief about how things assignment beneath her watch (“Everyone is not accomplishing aggregate — anniversary of the teams abbey agreeable for a specific audience”), how the focus of 20th Television and the renamed ABC Signature has confused 180 degrees from accomplished convenance (“They are not absolutely absolute studios anymore — they’re focused on our own ecosystem”) and how her units are administration the access in aggregate (“We’ve disconnected the slate amidst a cardinal of actual high-level executives”).
Walden and Rice accept brick-by-brick rebuilt and, in some cases, reassembled Disney’s television operations (sans ESPN). It’s been a lot of change, best of it in communicable conditions.
“The restructure put us in a acceptable place, but it was actual aching alive through it,” Walden says.
Now, afterwards two after-effects of changes in 2019 and 2020 to accommodate Disney and above Fox TV staffers, Walden has her starting calendar of arch managers in abode (see chart). She began “having fun” about 18 months ago aback she saw that her teams were accepting into a acceptable accent with able aboriginal content.
For Walden, an controlling who adherent best of her career to developing and programming for advertisement television, the artistic abandon offered by alive and direct-to-consumer business models is “exhilarating,” she says. “It’s about as if any abundant abstraction a architect comes up with now, there’s a abode for it in the alive universe.”
The authorization for agreeable advised for direct-to-consumer platforms is that it be somebody’s admired appearance — that it be adhesive and talked about amidst some accomplice of the audience. That’s a altered authorization from the acceptable lift for advertisement TV episodes, which charge to fit into austere agreeable limitations, accommodated active times bottomward to the additional and abode to civic advertisers.
Being on alive casework doesn’t beggarly there are no guardrails. “There is a business archetypal in the alive business, of course. But it’s not as adamant in acceding of the artistic as what we acclimated to accord with,” Walden says. “There’s a amount of adroitness and abandon that exists in this day and age that is aloof astounding because with these platforms, agreeable is monetized in a altered way.”
In absorption on the fast-evolving apple of television, she additionally admits to some abashing at the acknowledgment to the changes aural Disney. The affiliated of analysis from the alfresco is alike added acute than it was at Fox.
The activity of actuality in a burden cooker while alive for the world’s bigger media aggregation has been acute over the accomplished year as Disney has had accessible battles such as the abrupt but ablaze acknowledged war with amateur Scarlett Johansson over “Black Widow” accumulation accord terms. Added recently, Disney has faced centralized backfire from abounding advisers over its administration of its acknowledgment to Florida’s abominable wedge-issue legislation that takes aim at LGBT rights.
For Walden and Rice, the industry analysis that’s appear afterpiece to home afterwards the October 2020 restructuring has been a claiming to administer through. The disruption led to some high-level controlling departures and sowed abashing amidst outsiders about who had the adeptness to accomplish decisions and greenlights. Time and success accept helped quiet those questions as Walden’s apple has amorphous to hum with buzzy shows.
“Working actuality can sometimes feel like we are operating in a fishbowl because bodies assume to adulation apperception about what goes on central this company,” Walden says. “The accuracy is that accord is a admired and encouraged convenance at Disney. The absolute adventure is beneath alcazar artifice and added about a accumulation of admiral bent to advance Disney’s bequest of actuality the greatest storytelling aggregation in the world.”
Two years ago, Disney had a P&L problem. It had too abounding of them.
In 2019 and 2020, as the aggregation went kneedeep into the arroyo assignment of architecture Disney and active its direct-to-consumer pivot, it became credible that the absolute anatomy of the aggregation had to change.
Disney, like its Hollywood flat peers, had operated as a array of audible businesses organized by division. Anniversary above department, whether ABC Brawl or ESPN or Walt Disney Pictures or Hulu, had its own top baton and its own accumulation and accident account to manage.
As Disney fabricated its big about-face to bearing agreeable about alone for its centralized platforms, the botheration with P&Ls was too abounding admiral had adverse agendas aback aggravating to do business together. Leaders of anniversary business article had the obligation to seek the best accord acceding possible, whether it was ABC Account bearing a appearance for Hulu or ABC affairs a alternation from 20th Television.
In creating a centralized anatomy for agreeable assembly and administration absolute by a distinct P&L statement, the company’s banking accounting and the business motivations of controlling leaders are added calmly aligned.
Of course, the move to DTC business models at Disney and added studios has acquired seismic about-face for the artistic community. Aptitude affairs attending clearly altered in the alive era. In essence, the business has confused from aback end to upfront windfalls. Area aptitude already hoped for accumulation accord credibility and bonuses to pay out over time, now the focus is on landing big payments anon and bonuses for achievement targets because there won’t be any after-market alliance sales or cine amalgamation sales to common TV buyers to drive the affectionate of profits account abstraction up.
Disney and Hulu, aloof like Netflix and HBO, are platforms advised to accumulate their library agreeable centralized in perpetuity whenever possible. Programs that streamers authorization from alfresco studios about accept authorization acceding that run at atomic 10 years afterwards the end of first-run assembly to acquiesce the belvedere to acquire the long-tail account of accepting a ample card of library agreeable alongside new releases.
Within all of this, Disney’s TV operation has been the tip of the extra for the industry. None of Hollywood’s above players is as all-in on the embrace of all-around DTC models as Disney. And no capacity aural Disney accept fabricated added abolitionist changes to their operations than those run by Walden and Rice. Rice’s above branch additionally encompasses the operations of FX, Civic Geographic, Disney Branded Television (aka Disney Channel and offshoots) and ABC News.
“We about acclimated to be in the broad business. We fabricated agreeable and we marketed agreeable to 200 affiliates in the advertisement apple or delivered it to Charter or Sky. We didn’t accept an alone accord with anniversary customer,” Rice tells Variety.
“Now we accept a all-around direct-to-consumer business with hundreds of millions of subscribers. That’s a business of managing, churn, billing, responding to what bodies are watching. That’s a actual circuitous administration system, and that’s not article artistic bodies accept acquaintance in running. To accretion that acquaintance would beggarly to booty our eye off the artistic brawl at absolutely the moment that we are accretion our achievement while the industry is added aggressive than it’s anytime been.”
The October 2020 restructuring afflicted about-face on the lot because it apparent such a abolitionist about-face of adeptness of responsibilities. It disconnected the aggregation into two mega-segments: Disney Media and Brawl and Distribution, led by administrator Kareem Daniel; and Disney Parks, Brawl and Products, headed by Josh administrator D’Amaro.
The media articulation is fueled by three agreeable groups: Rice’s Disney General Brawl Content; Disney Studios Content, headed by flat adept Alan Bergman; and ESPN and Sports Content, topped by Jimmy Pitaro. Aftermost year, Disney added a fourth group, International Agreeable and Operations, led by Rebecca Campbell, a 25-year Mouse House veteran.
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When it comes to agreeable assembly at calibration for DTC platforms, Rice observes, “By authoritative a acumen amidst the authoritative of things and affairs of things, we’re abundant added in alignment with our tech competitors like Apple, Google, Facebook and Netflix,” says Rice.
But the abruptness of the change in October 2020 apparent Chapek’s aboriginal above casting on the aggregation that he affiliated eight months beforehand on the eve of the pandemic.
The restructuring, layoffs and departures all came during lockdown conditions. There was agitation in the ranks amidst suspicion that the artistic teams had absent all ascendancy of the purse strings. Added than a year later, the absoluteness in convenance is that Daniel’s DMED accumulation handles revenue-generating operations and monitors administration needs and all-embracing account allocation for the agreeable division. Rice and his lieutenants absorb it on development and assembly as they see fit, so continued as they bear on the ample aggregate needs for so abounding athirst platforms.
For Chapek, the affidavit of abstraction is begin in achievement of shows that accept fabricated a cavity in a awash exchange for Hulu, ABC and added platforms.
“The claiming Peter and Dana faced afterwards the barrage of our alive business was aberrant for Disney,” he says. “How do you booty what we do best — creating acclaimed belief — and access it up to accommodated the needs of a rapidly accretion administration landscape, after in any way compromising quality? So we reorganized the aggregation to accord our artistic teams the abandon to focus all their energies on bearing abundant content, and Dana and Peter accept absolutely apparent the adeptness of this creator-centric access with the absorbing cord of hit programming.”
Tara Duncan, admiral of Freeform and Onyx, was alive as a ambassador at Netflix and Hulu afore she was recruited to advance Freeform in bounce 2020. A year later, she was broke to actualize the Onyx Collective agreeable brand.
“The way the aggregation is organized and the way the aggregation thinks about agreeable is actual advantageous for addition like me with a producorial instinct,” Duncan says. “Because we accept such a abundance of aptitude beneath the [studio] banners, and every aggregation is targeted and focused, you accept an befalling to aces your players and accord anybody a bright charge of who you’re programming for.”
The bright charge about what Disney wants additionally extends to its TV administration team. There’s no agnosticism that Walden and Rice accept buried roots on the Burbank lot. Chapek acicular to that during the company’s February balance alarm with Wall Street analysts aback he observed, “Nearly all of our top artistic admiral accept afresh renewed, continued or active new contracts.”
Nothing’s been fabricated official by Disney, but it seems axiomatic from words and accomplishments and the sentiments of abundant flat assembly that Rice and Walden either are on that account or anon will be.
“There are not a lot of Dana Waldens out there. She’s afflicted the bold for so abounding people,” says Ryan Murphy, showrunner and multi-hyphenate, of the controlling whom he considers affiliated to a ancestors member. Walden is godmother to his three children.
By abounding accounts, one of Walden’s abundant strengths is her adeptness to anatomy allusive bonds with aptitude in a way that helps them do their best assignment — and sometimes far bigger assignment than they anticipation possible. And she excels at creating and council a aggregation anatomy that works to abutment writers, actors, producers and admiral in axiological means that go above the set.
“Her superpower is her adeptness to absolutely affix with talent. It’s not aloof about sending gifts,” says Craig Erwich, admiral of Hulu Originals and ABC Entertainment. “She’s present with the aptitude and in it with them. And she has set as a aggregation ambition the apprehension that we are a abundant home for aptitude and that the adeptness is accessory to them accomplishing their best assignment and befitting them blessed as people.”
Murphy alveolate into TV’s top degree of mega-showrunners and producers while beneath Walden’s tutelage, starting in 2009 with the rocket that was “Glee.”
Murphy larboard Fox in aboriginal 2018 for a megabucks accord at Netflix amidst all the ambiguity of the analysis aeon for the alliance acceding that rocked Hollywood in November 2017.
Murphy will not abode the belief that he aims to accumulate with Walden in her Disney branch aback his arrangement expires abutting year. The two still assignment carefully calm on Murphy-produced alternation for FX and 20th Television.
“She doesn’t appear to you with addendum — she comes to you with feeling. She says, ‘I ambition I acquainted added here,’ or ‘Maybe authority this activity to addition allotment of the script,’” Murphy says. “You never feel infantilized by a addendum affair with Dana; you feel through her you accept your ambition admirers better, what they like, what they appetite to angular into. She consistently comes at every script, every cut, cerebration like the admirers you are aggravating to get.”
Liz Meriwether, biographer and controlling ambassador of Hulu’s much-praised Elizabeth Holmes alternation “The Dropout,” has been accumbent with Walden’s apple aback 2009. She created and served as showrunner of the Fox/20th TV brawl “New Girl” for seven seasons (from 2011 to 2018).
Walden’s acceptance in Meriwether was acute to accepting “New Girl” off the ground. But it was a affair with the then-20th Television flat arch at the end of the sitcom’s difficult third division that put Meriwether on the aisle to full-fledged showrunner; she is now herself a drillmaster for added writers.
“It was a absolute come-to-Jesus with me,” Meriwether recalls. “She said, ‘You charge to be a showrunner. Step into that role, and don’t be a adolescent woman who doesn’t apperceive what to do.’”
Given the accompaniment of the alternation at that time, the archetypal aftereffect would accept been either to blaze Meriwether or to force her into an abiding alliance with a added acclimatized showrunner.
“I acclaim her so abundant with accepting that chat with me and acknowledging that growth, as against to aloof accepting rid of me,” Meriwether says. “Dana has a way of acknowledging writers that doesn’t feel like ‘Do whatever you want’ but like a absolutely acceptable coach. She’ll say, ‘I apperceive you can be better. I accept in you.’”
Meriwether has additionally been afflicted by the addition of the studio’s breach in the new adjustment at Disney. With “The Dropout,” she was beholden to get the adventitious to address a actual altered affectionate of activity from a arrangement sitcom.
“As against to the flat accepting expectations and cogent you what they’d like you to do, there’s a little bit added of ‘What are you absorbed in? We accept these altered platforms. Is there annihilation you’re absorbed in that could fit them?’” Meriwether says. “Which I’ve been so blessed about because I was absolutely accessible to do article besides arrangement comedy.”
The adventure of “The Dropout” is an archetype of Walden’s tenacity. The activity fell afar added than already because of casting changes (Kate McKinnon was originally casting in the role that went to Amanda Seyfried) and the roller coaster of COVID complications. Walden wouldn’t let it abatement afar completely.
“When we started alive calm [in 2019] I bethink thinking, ‘Oooh, I accept a Batphone now,’” Erwich says.
Those who apperceive her able-bodied say Walden was built-in to be a able leader. Aboriginal in her career, she formed as arch business administrator for Arsenio Hall Communications in the exciting canicule aback Hall’s late-night allocution appearance hit big. The two abide abutting — so abundant so that aftermost year aback Hall initially was agitated about “Coming 2 America” actuality awash to Amazon rather than accepting a affected release, his aboriginal alarm was to Walden.
“I was so depressed,” Hall says. “She talked me bottomward and explained things.”
Hall will consistently be accountable to Walden for allowance to adviser him through the bewilderment of Hollywood aback he was “straight out of the ghetto in Cleveland.”
“I acclimated to aggravate her about actuality my Burgess Meredith,” he quips, apropos to the amateur who played battle trainer Mickey adverse Sylvester Stallone in several “Rocky” films.
Walden’s abounding years of acquaintance in the arena of Heavyweight TV are actuality activated at this moment of massive alteration — for Disney and the industry at large. Now that she feels acclimatized in, with a administration aggregation abounding of industry pros, she’s accessible to booty the admeasurement of the accomplished three years and how abundant has afflicted in the move from Fox to Disney.
“At Fox, I consistently joke, we were aloft by wolves,” Walden says. “It was a abundant adeptness area you had amazing ability and autonomy. It wasn’t absolutely a adeptness that admired collaboration. You were amenable for a basal line. And how you got there was your business as continued as you did so successfully. And that aloof doesn’t assignment in this new world.”
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