Disney has sacked its top television executive, Peter Rice, a well-regarded figure in Hollywood who some had seen as an eventual candidate to become chief executive of the company.
The decision was made after senior Disney officials concluded Rice was a not a good fit with its corporate culture, according to industry executives. Rice, a longtime executive at 21st Century Fox, joined Disney when it acquired the company from Rupert Murdoch in 2019.
Rice signed a new contract last summer. His firing comes after Bob Chapek, Disney’s chief executive, faced months of pressure from employees and prominent US Republicans for his handling of a Florida law dubbed “Don’t Say Gay” by its critics.
Chapek drew fire from Disney’s LGBTQ employees for not publicly denouncing the bill, which limits discussion of sexual orientation or gender identity in Florida’s public schools. As Chapek wrestled with the decision to make a statement, Rice publicly called the law “a violation of fundamental human rights”.
After Disney voiced its opposition to the law, Florida governor Ron DeSantis labelled Disney a “woke” corporation and stripped it of its special tax district around the Disney World theme park in Orlando. Criticism from conservative news outlets and other Republicans followed.
Rice’s dismissal comes just weeks after the departure of top Chapek lieutenant Geoff Morrell, who had served as Disney’s head of government affairs and corporate communications for just four months.
Chapek’s critics have noted that his contract ends early next year. But on Thursday, Disney chair Susan Arnold issued a statement expressing support for Chapek, who succeeded Bob Iger in February 2020.
“The strength of The Walt Disney Company’s businesses coming out of the pandemic is a testament to Bob’s leadership and vision for the company’s future,” Arnold wrote. “In this important time of business growth and transformation, we are committed to keeping Disney on the successful path it is on today, and Bob and his leadership team have the support and confidence of the board.”
Rice’s replacement is Dana Walden, who will become chair of Disney General Entertainment Content and report directly to Chapek. Like Rice, she is a veteran of 21st Century Fox.
Chapek praised her ability to capture “the cultural zeitgeist” and credited her for hits such as the Academy Award-winning Summer of Soul and shows such as Only Murders in the Building and Dopesick on the Hulu streaming service. Walden is a “dynamic, collaborative leader and cultural force who has literally transformed our television business,” Chapek said in a memo.
Rice worked for more than 30 years at Fox, eventually becoming president. John Sloss, head of Cinetic Media, a talent management and advisory agency, worked with Rice on films such as Little Miss Sunshine and Napoleon Dynamite when he ran the Fox Searchlight unit.
“He spoke his mind, but he protected filmmakers and never tried to pass the buck,” said Sloss. “He took over Fox Searchlight and turned it into the juggernaut it became.”
Noting Rice’s high profile in Hollywood, Sloss said he expected Rice to land on his feet. “He’s exceedingly employable,” he said.