Disney CEO Bob Iger Discusses Working with Steve Jobs, Apple, and Pixar

The cover of Fortune's January edition showcases an interview with Disney CEO Bob Iger and his "Empire of Tech," focusing on Disney's growing media empire with acquisitions of brands such as Star Wars, Indiana Jones, and Marvel expanding the company's already considerable reach over the past few years. With Disney's and Iger's histories intersecting with those of Apple and Steve Jobs, Iger unsurprisingly takes a few moments to discuss topics such as his relationship with Jobs, his view on Apple and Disney's history, and Disney's attempt to stay relevant in a growing technological world.

In one anecdote, Iger recalls the moment in 2005 when he was about to be named as the new CEO of Disney, calling Jobs ahead of time to let him know what was coming. Disney's own animation was seen as "lifeless" in the years before the company's 2006 acquisition of Pixar, and amid reports of "bad blood" between former Disney CEO Michael Eisner and Jobs himself and an inability to come to an agreement for a continued distribution deal following the successful release of Toy Story, both studios' futures remained up in the air.

Bob Iger

Even before the news became public, he called Jobs to let him know big changes were coming. “I told him I was well aware of how strained the relationship had become,” says Iger. “I said, ‘I know you think it’s going to be business as usual, but I’d like to prove to you that it’s not.’ ”

Jobs gave Iger the benefit of the doubt and told him to come up as soon as the dust settled. And that’s just what Iger did—not only because he knew Pixar was the key to revitalizing Disney’s lifeless animation studio, but also because he saw Apple’s CEO as a valuable technology partner. The sentiment, apparently, was reciprocated.

Ensuing fruitful years of a Disney/Apple alliance began immediately, with Iger flying out to Cupertino to officiate a deal to get Disney-owned content on the iTunes Store, a big deal for the still-budding platform.

“Steve recognized that in Bob he actually had a partner,” says Edwin Catmull, current President of both Pixar Animation Studios and Walt Disney Animation Studios. “In the subsequent years they thought of each other as true partners. That’s what he wanted, and that’s not what he had previously.”

Two weeks after becoming CEO, Iger stood alongside Jobs to announce that Disney-owned ABC and its network of programs would be available on the iTunes Store, which only sold music at the time. Iger notes that Disney "got backlash from everybody -- from affiliates, retailers, and the guilds." He goes on to remark, however, that the experience "changed my relationship with him [Jobs] bigtime. And it led to a much better dialogue on Pixar.”

The Disney/Apple partnership continues to grow stronger, even in the wake of Jobs' death. Iger joined Apple's board just months after Jobs' passing, and Jobs' widow Laurene Powell Jobs remains Disney's largest individual shareholder thanks to Disney's acquisition of Pixar.

And Iger isn't afraid of the necessity to innovate, as highlighted by Apple CEO Tim Cook in a quote for the piece. “He has the courage to lose sight of the shore,” Cook says of Iger. “He understands the tradition of Disney but isn’t wedded to it.” But Iger also knows that both companies' pasts are important in looking towards the future, and remembers fondly brainstorming sessions with Jobs.

“Occasionally we would stand in front of a whiteboard and talk about ideas,” says Iger. “We’d just muse on business. When you think about it, media’s the intersection of content and technology—it’s all about storytelling, like photography and the camera. So we’d talk about that a lot, the intersection between the story and the gadget.”

The partnership isn't only growing strong behind boardroom doors, either. Just last week Apple Pay launched at Walt Disney World, its "Disney Movies Anywhere" app debuted exclusively on the App Store before expanding to Android recently, and even the upcoming Apple Watch is said to be including a Mickey Mouse-themed watch face option.

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Top Rated Comments

eggersj Avatar
123 months ago
Iger saved Disney like Jobs saved apple... Both are geniuses...
Score: 6 Votes (Like | Disagree)
CFreymarc Avatar
123 months ago
This is why it took over twenty years for the sequel to Tron to get the green light.

Back in the early 80's, Eisner was kicking ass and taking names inside a very calcified Disney animation studio. The lack of success that "Pete's Dragon" had was the last nail in the old guard of animators personally hired by Walt himself.

Eisner looked for something new, something different, something ground breaking to take the Disney name. He found a project outside the hallowed drawing tables of Burbank. It was a story about a man sucked into these new computers. The graphics were ground breaking with lots of black light and a "world within a world" that was Tron.

Disney took it since they had no choice. They finished it up, brought in animators that used computers and black light instead of oil brushes and subtractive color filming. Tron did great -- over the top great. Lots of money made.

The old guard working at Disney hated it.

This is why you never saw a Tron ride at any Disney park. The Light Cycle ride that never was is a crying shame. This is why you never saw any Tron adventure on the Disney Channel in the 80's. Tron was the high school quarterback transferred form another school, won the championship but never got into all the cool parties with the neighborhood classmates.

Then -- finally -- the old guard retired. Iger and outsiders not "grown Walt's way" came in. This is how "Tron Legacy" and "Saving Mr. Banks" got the green light. The idea of an actor portraying Walt Disney himself was sacrilege to the Old Guard animators and production managers now living in retirement homes.

Iger did a transformation to Disney the way that Philip Caldwell did to Ford in the 70's. He got the "family" the hell out of the place and looked at modern market needs.

Good job Bob!
Score: 2 Votes (Like | Disagree)
grahamperrin Avatar
123 months ago
Continuation

… old guard of animators …

The old guard working at Disney …

…CFreymarc's post is in my top ten for provoking thought about old and new cultures within Apple.

… Apple’s Software Quality Decline (https://forums.macrumors.com/showthread.php?t=1800283) …

As promised: Realising and promoting the best of the old values within Apple (https://forums.macrumors.com/showthread.php?p=20575844#post20575844)
Score: 1 Votes (Like | Disagree)
grahamperrin Avatar
123 months ago
When magic is not magic

… the roll out of MyMagic+ has been a billion dollar with a B clusterf**k …

OK … MyMagic+ is another phrase that I had never heard of. http://www.wdwmagic.com/other/mymagicplus.htm for anyone else who's curious.

The phrase alone is iffy, short-sighted. What comes after that +, that 'plus'? Ultra? Mega? Elite? Millenium Edition?

Call me old-fashioned, but if I were a true magician and if beneficiaries of magic began mistreating something so special as standard or baseline – then those people might get something other than a + when demanding "more".

And isn't it supposed to be Disney's magic? 'MyMagic' has a Windows ring to it. Like, My Documents. When everyone has magic on a disposable plastic card or lump, it's not quite as magic as in the past. But I suppose that's all part of the package, in an age when magic alone is no longer magical enough ;)

… Tron going to Disney was a total mixed bag. IMO, it would have been treated much better if it came out of Fox or Warner.

I wonder.

If we had ended up with masses of Tron stuff stuffed alongside Star Wars stuff in toy stores, on bookshelves – if it had become mainstream through pushy promotion – then I doubt that Tron would have the respect that it does today.
Score: 1 Votes (Like | Disagree)
CFreymarc Avatar
123 months ago
LOL @ Iger being a genius. That word has lost all meaning
You are right. There are plenty of "genius" types hanging out at coffee houses with 130+ IQ's, higher degrees and nearly broke since they never properly applied themselves to something that sustained beyond existence. This is the same crowd that bitches about someone making a fortune off a "simple and stupid" idea.
Score: 1 Votes (Like | Disagree)
animcam Avatar
123 months ago

How Disney can be at the helm of these two studio's and NOT also put out excellent movies like they did in the 80's and 90's is perplexing to me.

I haven't seen Frozen all the way through, so I don't know how good it is.

Frozen and even more so Big Hero 6 are excellent. Disney animation seems to be running all out on all cylinders these days. Congratulations due to everyone down there. They are putting up a high water mark (in story) for Pixar to reach for.

As for traditional pencil animation, a la Beauty and the Beast, I'm afraid we have seen the last of major feature releases. Once the talent has dried up a little it wil be impossible to get that level back again.
Score: 1 Votes (Like | Disagree)