How Dana Walden could defy critics and become Disney’s first female CEO

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Dana Walden, co-chair of Disney Entertainment
Rich Polk | Getty Images

In 1994, a captain of the media and entertainment industry saw something in Dana Walden that made him think she was capable of a bigger role.

Thirty years later, that may happen again.

That first time, the executive was Peter Chernin, then president of 20th Century Fox Filmed Entertainment and later president and chief operating officer of Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp. Chernin plucked Walden from Fox’s corporate communications division and gave her a job in TV.

In 2024, the executive is Bob Iger, Disney’s CEO, and the position he’s considering Walden for is that of his successor, according to people familiar with the process. The appointment would make Walden the first female CEO of the Walt Disney Co. in its 100-year history.

Just a year into her early career at 20th Century Fox, working in publicity, Walden delivered a presentation at a company retreat in Santa Barbara, California. She was determined to leave a lasting impression on Chernin, now chairman and CEO of investment firm The Chernin Group, after several encounters in which he’d never remembered her.

To get his attention, Walden decided to be bold. She told Fox executives, including Chernin, that they weren’t being aggressive enough to secure top talent. Fox needed to take bigger swings to generate relationships and land shows that could make it to syndication, Walden argued. A spokesperson for Walden confirmed the details of the presentation.

When the retreat ended, Chernin called Peter Roth, then president of 20th Century Fox Television, who later ran Warner Bros.’ TV division.

“The next day she was in my office, and we gave her a job in programming,” Roth said in an interview.

That set Walden on a career course correction that’s led her to the doorstep of becoming Iger’s successor.

Peter Chernin
Getty Images for Malaria No More 2013

Walden, co-chair of Disney Entertainment, is competing internally with Disney Experiences Chairman Josh D’Amaro, ESPN Chairman Jimmy Pitaro, and Alan Bergman, who is Entertainment co-chair with Walden, to be named the next CEO of Disney, said the people familiar, who asked not to be named because the discussions are private.

Iger plans to name a successor and then stick around at Disney to teach that person the job before departing at the end of 2026, CNBC reported in September. He’s fighting to maintain control of Disney’s future against a threat from Trian Partners’ Nelson Peltz.

Peltz has argued he should help spearhead a successor search, considering Iger has pushed back his retirement five times and returned to the job after Bob Chapek, named CEO in 2020, was fired in 2022. Peltz has claimed the Disney board can’t be trusted to handle succession. Disney shareholders will vote on Peltz’s candidacy to the board at its annual meeting Wednesday.

Several executives at Disney privately told CNBC they believe Walden, 59, is the favorite to land the top job, though they have no inside knowledge of the process, and their proximity to Walden may skew their perception. Her relationship with Iger (she lives just blocks from his house in Brentwood, California), her track record of success as a TV executive, her trust among Disney board members, and the symbolism about what it would mean to have a female executive all work in her favor.

“She’s the single best talent exec to come out of TV in the last 20 years,” Chernin said in an interview.

“She would be an outstanding CEO,” Roth added. “Absolutely outstanding.”

Walden declined to comment for this story. More than 20 colleagues and friends spoke with CNBC about her strengths, faults and the perceived likelihood she will take over for Iger.

Allies of Walden’s told CNBC she won’t even discuss succession with them (though many said they tease her about it), choosing to focus on the job of running Disney Entertainment with Bergman that she’s tasked with today.

She faces stiff competition in the other Disney division heads. Walden has spent the last three decades focused on producing TV hits. She hasn’t had the same range of responsibilities as Pitaro, who has run the company’s sports media empire since 2018. And she has no experience running parks and resorts, which Iger and the board may decide is more essential to Disney’s future than a TV business with hazy financial prospects in the streaming era.

Six former colleagues — all of whom worked closely with Walden — privately questioned her business acumen in interviews with CNBC.

“There are people that are in creative positions that rise to a level of management who figure out what a P&L [profit and loss] statement is, what a balance sheet is, what quarterly earnings are,” said one of the people, who asked to remain anonymous to speak candidly. “Dana doesn’t really bother with any of that.”

A second former coworker said Walden’s profile simply doesn’t translate to becoming the Disney CEO — a job that involves close investor interaction, geopolitical deals for parks and resorts, and strategic thinking around acquisition and investment.

“She’ll be eaten up by real investors,” said the person, who likewise requested anonymity. “Does she have the necessary depth of business knowledge? She can learn, but you can’t have someone teach you decades of finance, business and tactics in a year or two.”

Walden supporters dismissed those concerns as either simply incorrect or an example of persistent stereotypes against female executives. Walden has met with many institutional investors through her years at Disney, according to people familiar with the matter.

“There’s something about looking at female execs where questions are asked that would never be asked of men,” said Jennifer Salke, the head of Amazon Studios and a former colleague of Walden’s. “Can they scale? Can a creative person be a business leader? I find that to be a huge bugaboo. She’s in charge of billions of dollars of assets, but she’s not capable of being a business leader?”

Jennifer Salke
Stephen Desaulniers | CNBC

Walden defenders brush off criticism from ex-Disney colleagues as the remnants of a grudge against Fox employees who came over as part of Disney’s $71 billion acquisition of Fox’s entertainment assets in 2019, or perhaps as part of an ulterior motive to diminish her CEO prospects in favor of their own preferred candidates.

“At some point, everyone running anything was something before that,” Chernin said. “Anybody they choose will have never been the Disney CEO prior to that.”

Hollywood ties

Chernin and Walden both began their careers in public relations, making them two of a small club of TV executives who started that way — former HBO head Richard Plepler is another exception. Chernin saw Walden’s background as a strength, rather than a weakness.

“She knows nothing is more important to a studio than talent relationships,” said Craig Hunegs, who worked closely with Walden when he was president of Disney TV Studios from 2019 to 2021.

Walden’s entire life has ties to Hollywood. She grew up modestly in Studio City, a neighborhood of Los Angeles, and attended the private Westlake School for Girls (a predecessor of the coed Harvard-Westlake School), where she became friendly with Carol Burnett’s daughter Carrie Hamilton.

Walden’s parents made connections in the entertainment industry from their time living in Las Vegas, where her mother was a background dancer who performed with George Burns, among other artists. Her father became a member of The Friars Club, famous for its Dean Martin celebrity roasts, and established friendships with entertainers including Martin and Buddy Hackett. Walden spent her childhood years with celebrities as family friends, attending dinner parties and occasionally celebrating holidays at their homes. She went on to marry a member of the entertainment industry, producer Matt Walden, in 1995; they have two daughters, now in their 20s.

After graduating from the University of Southern California, Walden took a job working for public relations firm Bender, Goldman & Helper, starting out as a receptionist and an assistant. Within four years, she’d become a vice president.

At Bender, she represented “The Arsenio Hall Show” on behalf of her client Paramount. The show poached Walden to come work as head of marketing for Hall’s production company. Less than a year later, Lucie Sulhany, president of Paramount Domestic Television, took a job as a high-ranking Fox TV executive. She asked Walden to come along and work in publicity, and Walden joined her with an eye toward eventually making TV shows.

Dana Walden
Jason Laveris | Filmmagic | Getty Images

Mastering the TV business

At Fox, Walden and fellow TV executive Gary Newman jointly began running the studio business — the engine of the company that makes series both for itself and other networks. Starting in 1999, they kept that position for the next 15 years until they were promoted to run all of Fox Broadcasting in 2014.

A former attorney, Newman began his partnership with Walden handling many of the business issues, while Walden developed a reputation for winning over creative talent and having impeccable taste for both dramas and comedies.

“People used to joke we were work spouses,” Newman said in an interview. “She was very good at the job very quickly. It’s just a combination of being smart, being really fast, being curious, being fearless.”

Over time, Walden mastered the business side of TV, according to Newman and others who have worked with her.

“The difference between Dana in the beginning of our partnership, when she leaned on her creative background, and where she was a few years later was night and day,” Newman said. “She picked up what she needed to pick up about business. I had a surgery at one point — the responsibility fell on Dana to be in there for me. That included being in charge of the business side of things.”

Newman recounted one difficult negotiation over a Fox-produced show with CBS. It was the day before CBS would announce its fall schedule, and it wasn’t clear if the broadcast network would pick up the series. CBS gave Newman and Walden a midnight deadline to revise a deal on its terms or it would cancel the show. Walden told Newman that CBS was bluffing, realizing the show was the linchpin for other programming that day. She persuaded Fox to simply ignore the deadline. The next day, CBS included the series, proving Walden right.

“I don’t know if she plays poker, but she’d be a great poker player,” Newman said.

Dana Walden, Ryan Murphy, Bob Iger, and FX Networks Chairman John Landgraf, from left, attend the premiere of Murphy’s limited series “Feud: Capote vs. The Swans,” Jan. 23, 2024.
Credit: Disney

Fox’s studio began churning out hits, including “24,” “Homeland,” “How I Met Your Mother,” “Two and a Half Men,” “Modern Family,” “This is Us,” “New Girl,” “Bob’s Burgers,” and mini-empires created by Seth MacFarlane (“Family Guy,” “American Dad,” “The Cleveland Show”) and Ryan Murphy (“Nip/Tuck,” “Glee,” “American Horror Story,” “9-1-1”).

Walden began making lasting relationships with TV showrunners and producers who have repeatedly worked with her, including MacFarlane, Murphy, “Modern Family” co-creator Steve Levitan and “This is Us” creator Dan Fogelman. She earned a reputation for her creative notes on scripts, particularly on shaping “24,” an unusually constructed drama that ran from 2001 to 2014 and earned critical praise for its storytelling techniques, according to Rick Rosen, a partner and head of TV of the talent agency WME .

“People felt her notes and constructive criticisms helped move that show forward,” recounted Rosen, who represented Howard Gordon, at one time the “24” showrunner. “She helped get it unstuck.”

Walden’s taste, her discipline around getting talent to deliver on budget, and her honesty about what’s working and what isn’t have set her apart from other executives, according to Levitan.

“Hollywood is a business of relationships,” Levitan said. “What you can’t teach somebody is how to inspire people. She is whip smart. If there is a subject that she needs to take a deep dive on, she’s going to be an expert in that subject before you know it.”

Joining Disney

Disney’s acquisition of Fox moved Walden to a new company with a new culture. Iger called Walden on the day of the deal’s announcement in December 2017 to let her know he wanted her to come to Disney, according to people familiar with the matter. Newman planned to stay at Fox; he ultimately exited the company in 2018.

Walden hoped she’d run Disney’s TV unit as a direct report to Iger, according to people familiar with her thinking at the time. But Iger wanted Peter Rice, Walden’s boss at Fox, for the top job. Passed over, Walden considered walking away from both Disney and the studio she helped build for other opportunities, the people said.

Still, she had a strong relationship with Rice, who ultimately persuaded her to stay despite her disappointment. Walden eventually took Rice’s job when Disney fired him in 2022 after Chapek and some members of the Disney board concluded he wasn’t a team player, specifically noting that he’d privately criticized the company’s messaging around Florida’s controversial “Don’t Say Gay” legislation, according to people familiar with the matter. Chapek told Rice he wasn’t a culture fit despite years of Rice receiving positive feedback, the people said. A Disney spokesman and Rice declined to comment.

“The conversations around selling a series — licensing fees, profit participation, residuals — or discussions about budgets, and how many guest stars we can sign, or which platform a series should air on … all of that I’ve done directly with Dana,” said Rich Appel, the executive producer and co-showrunner of “Family Guy.” “No disrespect to Gary [Newman], but for the past few years, it’s only been Dana.”

At Disney, Walden has hit several home runs, including FX’s “The Bear,” Hulu’s “The Dropout” and “Only Murders in the Building,” and ABC’s “Abbott Elementary.” She has heavily invested in marketing children’s show “Bluey,” which in 2024 has spent time as the most-watched show on all streaming services. She has also focused on building up Disney+’s family programming with originals including “Percy Jackson and the Olympians,” “Spidey and His Amazing Friends” and “Goosebumps.”

Still, critics say it’s easy to cherry-pick the successes and ignore the failures. One Disney insider said that grading Walden’s performance honestly would require a robust analysis of all the shows she’s greenlit.

The anti-Chapek

The last time Iger chose a successor, it didn’t go well. As outlined by CNBC in 2023, the relationship between Chapek and Iger, who remained Disney’s executive chairman until the end of 2021, fell apart, and the Disney board ultimately fired Chapek and brought Iger back less than three years later.

Iger returned as CEO in part to right the wrong he believed he made by selecting Chapek as his successor, according to people familiar with his thinking. If he’s looking for the anti-Chapek candidate, Walden fits the description.

Former Disney CEO Bob Chapek
CNBC

Chapek climbed the corporate ladder at Disney for 30 years by showcasing his business and finance chops. He studied microbiology at Indiana University and got his MBA from Michigan State University. He developed expertise in the minute details of Disney’s parks and resorts, such as how specific hotel discounts could affect park attendance and the price elasticity of seasonal ticket rate adjustments.

But he had almost no Hollywood relationships. Without a foundation of trust, “The Town,” as Hollywood is known, turned on Chapek. Agents, producers and showrunners blamed him for Disney’s forceful public rebuke of A-list star Scarlett Johansson in a Covid pandemic-related contract dispute and for bungling the company’s response to “Don’t Say Gay,” as CNBC reported in 2023.

Walden’s resume sets her up as Chapek’s inverse: a Disney outsider whose Hollywood ties are among the best in the industry. In the latter months of Chapek’s tenure as CEO, as CNBC reported, Disney communications head Kristina Schake began setting up meetings for Chapek with Hollywood’s power players — at Walden’s house.

A potential handover from Iger to Walden would also look very different from the Iger-Chapek transition, predicted United Talent Agency Vice Chairman Jay Sures, a close friend of Walden’s. Chapek saw Iger as a threat to his power, according to people familiar with his thinking at the time. Walden would stay close to Iger for as long as possible, Sures said.

“When Bob Chapek got the job, he couldn’t wait for Bob Iger to leave. If Dana ever got the job, she’s gonna dread the day Bob Iger leaves,” Sures said. “She values the skill and leadership he brings. She knows a good thing when she sees it.”

Combating female stereotypes

If Walden were appointed CEO, she would be the first woman to run the century-old company. Some close to Iger say he would look fondly on being the person to help break the glass ceiling.

Amazon’s Salke said she’s had several discussions over the years with Walden about how to survive in the male-dominated entertainment world. It requires a deftness of character and ability to avoid enemies, said Salke.

“I watched ‘Barbie,'” said Salke, referencing the Greta Gerwig-created hit 2023 movie that skewers elements of modern patriarchy. “That speech from America Ferrera’s character [Gloria], it’s true. You have to be likable but not too likable. If you’re too likable, that’s seen as threatening to men.”

While Walden has crossed a bridge to become close friends with a number of her professional colleagues (she’s the godmother of Murphy’s children), she is attuned to her image in ways male executives don’t have to worry about, according to people familiar with her personality.

Even when the attention is nonthreatening, Walden is aware that her appearance may be judged as readily as her business performance, the people said.

“When I first met her, the writers would see Dana walk by from time to time, and we used to call her ‘Why Miss Jones,'” Levitan said. “Because she’d wear these glasses. So it was like in old Hollywood movies, when an actress would take off her glasses and one of the characters would say, ‘Why, Miss Jones! You’re beautiful!'”

Levitan later became close friends with Walden and praised her professionalism. Of note, he cited last year’s cancellation of “Reboot,” a show he created for Hulu.

“I don’t agree with the decision that was made there, and I don’t agree that it got a fair shake,” Levitan said. “But Dana and I talked about it. She took me through her reasons. And it’s a genuine conversation. There’s a reason people are pretty effusive about the way Dana handles herself. It’s because she genuinely goes out of her way to treat people with decency.”

Steve Levitan
Peter “Hopper” Stone | Getty Images

Walden and her team have a reputation for sending birthday gifts to Hollywood’s movers and shakers and bottles of champagne to them when their shows premiere. Supporters view it as relationship-building. Critics said her actions sometimes border on corporate largesse.

Walden herself has joked that she was “raised by wolves” at Fox, and that she’s had to consciously adjust to the more toned-down Disney culture over the last five years, according to people familiar with her thinking.

She’s also had to toe a line between stereotype and successful executive. Of the 20 people interviewed for this story, nearly every one of them called Walden “direct” and “demanding.”

“Sharp elbows, right?” Salke said, anticipating the hackneyed criticism of female leaders. “So many times Dana and I have been the only women in the room. Can she be demanding and hold people to a high bar? Yes. But men come on in, and the first thing they do is fire people, and no one bats an eye.”

Walden’s champions noted that every successful executive is demanding of excellence, and said her directness is a major strength that separates her from many other TV executives.

“She can be ‘business’ tough,” said WME’s Rosen. “Nobody likes to deliver bad news. A show is canceled, or it’s over budget, or this project didn’t work. But she’s not harsh. You feel like she’s coming from a place of optimism — let’s figure out where we go from here.”

The final pick

While the Disney board will have the ultimate say on the company’s next CEO, Iger will likely be the real decision-maker, given his history at the company, status among board members, and knowledge of the job.

“The importance of the succession process cannot be overstated, and as the Board continues to evaluate a highly qualified slate of internal and external candidates, I remain intensely focused on a successful transition,” Iger said in a statement in 2023 when he renewed his contract as CEO to the end of 2026.

Even if Iger agrees with some of Walden’s critics about whether her strengths will specifically fit the top job at Disney, it’s possible his recollection of his own experience being selected as CEO in 2005 could influence his decision. 

“Go back and look at the articles that were written about Bob Iger,” Sures said. “I was friends with Bob then. It was a lot of ’empty suit’ — a good-looking, tall guy who never had any experience in the movie business and never did anything in M&A [mergers and acquisitions] before in his life. Nineteen years later, he’s one of the greatest, if not the greatest CEO the entertainment business has ever seen.”

“The same things are being said about Dana now,” Sures said.

Iger and the board’s selection for a successor may ultimately come down to the direction they envision for Disney.

D’Amaro could be the choice if they decide the parks are the most important part of the company’s future. Pitaro seems logical if ESPN and its upcoming digital transformation are seen as an essential part of Disney’s future, as opposed to its past. Either Walden or Bergman could be the choice if creative taste and relationships trump all, though Bergman’s recent troubles with Disney’s film division may be a knock against them.

Still, Chernin said it’s a mistake to view Disney so simply. The magic of the company is how all the parts interact with each other, rather than emphasizing one unit over all others, he said.

“The business is changing so rapidly. That company is going to change so much,” Chernin said. “Someone is going to have to imagine what a media company of the future looks like. Bob [Iger] is going through that right now. He’s actively spending every day thinking that through. The most important part of that company is ongoing relationships with customers.”

WATCH: Disney board member James Gorman talks succession, upcoming annual meeting vote

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