Disney TV¡¯s Bold New Era: How Dana Walden Championed Shows Like ¡®Only Murders¡¯ and ¡®The Dropout¡¯

Photographs by Art Streiber for Variety

There were so many unknowns swirling around in the ether when Disney finalized its $71 billion takeover of 21st Century Fox three years ago.

One of the biggest questions was how the Fox executives who made the leap from Century City to Burbank would fare at an enlarged Disney. Fox was a famously hard-charging and entrepreneurial culture with a corporate ethos easily summed up as Eat What You Kill. Disney is famously velvet glove, corporate, insular and cutthroat in its own ways. Industry chatter about how the two studio worlds would mesh (or not) was rampant during the 15-month closing period before the deal was completed on March 19, 2019.

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Art Streiber for Variety

Dana Walden knew she was part of a historic Hollywood moment when she drove onto the Disney lot the following day for the first time as an employee. The executive, who is now chairman of entertainment for Walt Disney Television, knew she had an enormous job to integrate two studios — 20th Television and what was then ABC Studios — in addition to steering ABC Entertainment and adding Hulu Originals soon after she started. And she knew she had to breathe new life into the young-adult-targeted Freeform at a time when linear basic cable channels face extinction.

Walden didn’t know that the world would be turned upside down by a global pandemic that would dramatically accelerate the streaming revolution Disney has banked so much on. She didn’t know that Disney+ would have such a voracious need for content after its November 2019 debut. And she didn’t know the entirety of Disney would undergo a massive restructuring in October 2020 to adapt to changing times that would nevertheless cause internal agita and perplex the industry at large.

Disney was also undergoing a huge transfer of power from CEO Bob Iger, who had headed the entertainment giant since 2005, to his successor, Bob Chapek. The two leaders are in many ways polar opposites in their personalities and management styles.

Walden and her boss, Disney General Entertainment Content chairman Peter Rice, have mostly stayed out of the spotlight for the past three years. Both quickly realized their work at Disney would be challenging in part because they were the only 21st Century Fox executives to move over as division heads.

But last month, Walden sat down with Variety for her first extensive interview about the inner workings of the studios and platforms she leads. The executive, who spent 26 years at Fox, climbing the ladder on the creative side from public relations executive to the C-suite, is clearly energized by the high-stakes game of playing for Team Disney in the streaming wars. At present she oversees the production of nearly 200 titles across Hulu, ABC, Disney+, Freeform and external platforms.

“It’s the most competitive time in the history of our business — it’s ridiculously competitive,” Walden observes. “It’s just a phenomenal time to be in the content business.”

The timing of Walden’s opening of the gates is no accident. Her units have been a hot streak. Hulu has enjoyed a string of buzzy originals, including “Only Murders in the Building,” “Dopesick,” “The Dropout,” “Pam & Tommy,” “The Great,” “Nine Perfect Strangers” and most recently, “The Girl From Plainville.” ABC has found the rarest of TV commodities — a breakout hit comedy — in the critical-darling school comedy “Abbott Elementary.” Onyx Collective, a new content banner designed to put Disney muscle behind projects produced by creators of color, won the feature documentary Oscar last month for its first-ever release, the Questlove-directed “Summer of Soul (… Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised)” from Searchlight Pictures.

Over a long conversation in the backyard of her West L.A. home, Walden tries to dispel some industry myths about how things work under her watch (“Everyone is not doing everything — each of the teams curate content for a specific audience”), how the focus of 20th Television and the renamed ABC Signature has shifted 180 degrees from past practice (“They are not really independent studios anymore — they’re focused on our own ecosystem”) and how her units are handling the increase in volume (“We’ve divided the slate among a number of very high-level executives”).

Walden and Rice have brick-by-brick rebuilt and, in some cases, reassembled Disney’s television operations (sans ESPN). It’s been a lot of change, most of it in pandemic conditions.

“The restructure put us in a good place, but it was very painful working through it,” Walden says.

Now, after two waves of changes in 2019 and 2020 to integrate Disney and former Fox TV staffers, Walden has her starting lineup of senior managers in place (see chart). She began “having fun” about 18 months ago when she saw that her teams were getting into a good rhythm with strong original content.

For Walden, an executive who devoted most of her career to developing and programming for broadcast television, the creative freedom offered by streaming and direct-to-consumer business models is “exhilarating,” she says. “It’s almost as if any great idea a creator comes up with now, there’s a place for it in the streaming universe.”

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Art Streiber for Variety

The mandate for content designed for direct-to-consumer platforms is that it be somebody’s favorite show — that it be sticky and talked about among some cohort of the audience. That’s a different mandate from the traditional lift for broadcast TV episodes, which need to fit into strict content limitations, meet running times down to the second and appeal to national advertisers.

Being on streaming services doesn’t mean there are no guardrails. “There is a business model in the streaming business, of course. But it’s not as rigid in terms of the creative as what we used to deal with,” Walden says. “There’s a degree of creativity and freedom that exists in this day and age that is just phenomenal because with these platforms, content is monetized in a different way.”

In reflecting on the fast-evolving world of television, she also admits to some bemusement at the response to the changes within Disney. The level of scrutiny from the outside is even more intense than it was at Fox.

The feeling of being in a pressure cooker while working for the world’s largest media company has been heightened over the past year as Disney has had public battles such as the brief but fiery legal war with actor Scarlett Johansson over “Black Widow” profit participation terms. More recently, Disney has faced internal backlash from many employees over its handling of its response to Florida’s discriminatory wedge-issue legislation that takes aim at LGBT rights.

For Walden and Rice, the industry scrutiny that’s come closer to home after the October 2020 restructuring has been a challenge to manage through. The disruption led to some high-level executive departures and sowed confusion among outsiders about who had the power to make decisions and greenlights. Time and success have helped quiet those questions as Walden’s world has begun to hum with buzzy shows.

“Working here can sometimes feel like we are operating in a fishbowl because people seem to love speculating about what goes on inside this company,” Walden says. “The truth is that collaboration is a prized and encouraged practice at Disney. The real story is less palace intrigue and more about a group of executives determined to maintain Disney’s legacy of being the greatest storytelling company in the world.”

***

Two years ago, Disney had a P&L problem. It had too many of them.

In 2019 and 2020, as the company went kneedeep into the trench work of building Disney+ and executing its direct-to-consumer pivot, it became apparent that the entire structure of the company had to change.

Disney, like its Hollywood studio peers, had operated as a cluster of distinct businesses organized by division. Each major department, whether ABC Entertainment or ESPN or Walt Disney Pictures or Hulu, had its own top leader and its own profit and loss statement to manage.

As Disney made its big shift to producing content almost exclusively for its internal platforms, the problem with P&Ls was too many executives had conflicting agendas when trying to do business together. Leaders of each business entity had the obligation to seek the best deal terms possible, whether it was ABC News producing a show for Hulu or ABC buying a series from 20th Television.

In creating a centralized structure for content production and distribution governed by a single P&L statement, the company’s financial accounting and the business motivations of executive leaders are more easily aligned.

Of course, the move to DTC business models at Disney and other studios has caused seismic upheaval for the creative community. Talent contracts look markedly different in the streaming era. In essence, the business has shifted from back end to upfront windfalls. Where talent once hoped for profit participation points and bonuses to pay out over time, now the focus is on landing big payments immediately and bonuses for performance targets because there won’t be any after-market syndication sales or movie package sales to worldwide TV buyers to drive the kind of profits worth carving up.

Disney+ and Hulu, just like Netflix and HBO, are platforms designed to keep their library content in-house in perpetuity whenever possible. Programs that streamers license from outside studios typically have license terms that run at least 10 years after the end of first-run production to allow the platform to reap the long-tail benefit of having a broad menu of library content alongside new releases.

Within all of this, Disney’s TV operation has been the tip of the spear for the industry. None of Hollywood’s major players is as all-in on the embrace of global DTC models as Disney. And no divisions within Disney have made more radical changes to their operations than those run by Walden and Rice. Rice’s larger realm also encompasses the operations of FX, National Geographic, Disney Branded Television (aka Disney Channel and offshoots) and ABC News.

“We essentially used to be in the wholesale business. We made content and we marketed content to 200 affiliates in the broadcast world or delivered it to Charter or Sky. We didn’t have an individual relationship with each customer,” Rice tells Variety.

“Now we have a global direct-to-consumer business with hundreds of millions of subscribers. That’s a business of managing, churn, billing, responding to what people are watching. That’s a very complex distribution system, and that’s not something creative people have experience in running. To gain that experience would mean to take our eye off the creative ball at exactly the moment that we are increasing our output while the industry is more competitive than it’s ever been.”

The October 2020 restructuring stirred upheaval on the lot because it marked such a radical reorganization of power of responsibilities. It divided the company into two mega-segments: Disney Media and Entertainment and Distribution, led by chairman Kareem Daniel; and Disney Parks, Entertainment and Products, headed by Josh chairman D’Amaro.

The media segment is fueled by three content groups: Rice’s Disney General Entertainment Content; Disney Studios Content, headed by studio veteran Alan Bergman; and ESPN and Sports Content, topped by Jimmy Pitaro. Last year, Disney added a fourth group, International Content and Operations, led by Rebecca Campbell, a 25-year Mouse House veteran.

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When it comes to content production at scale for DTC platforms, Rice observes, “By making a distinction between the making of things and selling of things, we’re much more in alignment with our tech competitors like Apple, Google, Facebook and Netflix,” says Rice.

But the suddenness of the change in October 2020 marked Chapek’s first major stamp on the company that he inherited eight months earlier on the eve of the pandemic.

The restructuring, layoffs and departures all came during lockdown conditions. There was unrest in the ranks amid suspicion that the creative teams had lost all control of the purse strings. More than a year later, the reality in practice is that Daniel’s DMED group handles revenue-generating operations and monitors distribution needs and large-scale budget allocation for the content division. Rice and his lieutenants spend it on development and production as they see fit, so long as they deliver on the considerable volume needs for so many hungry platforms.

For Chapek, the proof of concept is found in output of shows that have made a dent in a crowded marketplace for Hulu, ABC and other platforms.

“The challenge Peter and Dana faced after the launch of our streaming business was unprecedented for Disney,” he says. “How do you take what we do best — creating unforgettable stories — and ramp it up to meet the needs of a rapidly expanding distribution landscape, without in any way compromising quality? So we reorganized the company to give our creative teams the freedom to focus all their energies on producing great content, and Dana and Peter have really shown the power of this creator-centric approach with the impressive string of hit programming.”

Tara Duncan, president of Freeform and Onyx, was working as a producer at Netflix and Hulu before she was recruited to lead Freeform in spring 2020. A year later, she was tapped to create the Onyx Collective content brand.

“The way the company is organized and the way the company thinks about content is very advantageous for someone like me with a producorial instinct,” Duncan says. “Because we have such a wealth of talent under the [studio] banners, and every team is targeted and focused, you have an opportunity to pick your players and give everyone a clear directive of who you’re programming for.”

The clear directive about what Disney wants also extends to its TV leadership team. There’s no doubt that Walden and Rice have planted roots on the Burbank lot. Chapek pointed to that during the company’s February earnings call with Wall Street analysts when he observed, “Nearly all of our top creative executives have recently renewed, extended or signed new contracts.”

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Art Streiber for Variety

Nothing’s been made official by Disney, but it seems evident from words and deeds and the sentiments of numerous studio insiders that Rice and Walden either are on that list or soon will be.

“There are not a lot of Dana Waldens out there. She’s changed the game for so many people,” says Ryan Murphy, showrunner and multi-hyphenate, of the executive whom he considers akin to a family member. Walden is godmother to his three children.

By many accounts, one of Walden’s great strengths is her ability to form meaningful bonds with talent in a way that helps them do their best work — and sometimes far better work than they thought possible. And she excels at creating and steering a team structure that works to support writers, actors, producers and directors in fundamental ways that go beyond the set.

“Her superpower is her ability to authentically connect with talent. It’s not just about sending gifts,” says Craig Erwich, president of Hulu Originals and ABC Entertainment. “She’s present with the talent and in it with them. And she has set as a company goal the expectation that we are a great home for talent and that the culture is conducive to them doing their best work and keeping them happy as people.”

Murphy vaulted into TV’s top echelon of mega-showrunners and producers while under Walden’s tutelage, starting in 2009 with the rocket that was “Glee.”

Murphy left Fox in early 2018 for a megabucks deal at Netflix amid all the uncertainty of the review period for the merger agreement that rocked Hollywood in November 2017.

Murphy will not address the speculation that he aims to reunite with Walden in her Disney realm when his contract expires next year. The two still work closely together on Murphy-produced series for FX and 20th Television.

“She doesn’t come to you with notes — she comes to you with feeling. She says, ‘I wish I felt more here,’ or ‘Maybe hold this feeling to another part of the script,’” Murphy says. “You never feel infantilized by a notes session with Dana; you feel through her you understand your target audience better, what they like, what they want to lean into. She always comes at every script, every cut, thinking like the audience you are trying to get.”

Liz Meriwether, writer and executive producer of Hulu’s much-praised Elizabeth Holmes series “The Dropout,” has been aligned with Walden’s world since 2009. She created and served as showrunner of the Fox/20th TV comedy “New Girl” for seven seasons (from 2011 to 2018).

Walden’s faith in Meriwether was crucial to getting “New Girl” off the ground. But it was a meeting with the then-20th Television studio chief at the end of the sitcom’s difficult third season that put Meriwether on the path to full-fledged showrunner; she is now herself a mentor for other writers.

“It was a real come-to-Jesus with me,” Meriwether recalls. “She said, ‘You need to be a showrunner. Step into that role, and don’t be a young woman who doesn’t know what to do.’”

Given the state of the series at that time, the typical outcome would have been either to fire Meriwether or to force her into an arranged marriage with a more seasoned showrunner.

“I credit her so much with having that conversation with me and supporting that growth, as opposed to just getting rid of me,” Meriwether says. “Dana has a way of supporting writers that doesn’t feel like ‘Do whatever you want’ but like a really good coach. She’ll say, ‘I know you can be better. I believe in you.’”

Meriwether has also been impressed by the widening of the studio’s aperture in the new order at Disney. With “The Dropout,” she was grateful to get the chance to write a very different kind of project from a network sitcom.

“As opposed to the studio having expectations and telling you what they’d like you to do, there’s a little bit more of ‘What are you interested in? We have these different platforms. Is there anything you’re interested in that could fit them?’” Meriwether says. “Which I’ve been so happy about because I was definitely ready to do something besides network comedy.”

The story of “The Dropout” is an example of Walden’s tenacity. The project fell apart more than once because of casting changes (Kate McKinnon was originally cast in the role that went to Amanda Seyfried) and the roller coaster of COVID complications. Walden wouldn’t let it fall apart completely.

“When we started working together [in 2019] I remember thinking, ‘Oooh, I have a Batphone now,’” Erwich says.

Those who know her well say Walden was born to be a powerful leader. Early in her career, she worked as chief marketing officer for Arsenio Hall Communications in the heady days when Hall’s late-night talk show hit big. The two remain close — so much so that last year when Hall initially was upset about “Coming 2 America” being sold to Amazon rather than getting a theatrical release, his first call was to Walden.

“I was so depressed,” Hall says. “She talked me down and explained things.”

Hall will always be indebted to Walden for helping to guide him through the maze of Hollywood when he was “straight out of the ghetto in Cleveland.”

“I used to tease her about being my Burgess Meredith,” he quips, referring to the actor who played boxing trainer Mickey opposite Sylvester Stallone in several “Rocky” films.

Walden’s many years of experience in the ring of Heavyweight TV are being tested at this moment of massive transition — for Disney and the industry at large. Now that she feels settled in, with a management team full of industry pros, she’s ready to take the measure of the past three years and how much has changed in the move from Fox to Disney.

“At Fox, I always joke, we were raised by wolves,” Walden says. “It was a great culture where you had tremendous independence and autonomy. It wasn’t really a culture that prized collaboration. You were responsible for a bottom line. And how you got there was your business as long as you did so successfully. And that just doesn’t work in this new world.”


Styling: Julie Z; Hair: Lorenzo Martin/The Wall Group; Makeup: Lisa Ashley