Disney has become a lightning rod for inequality in a new documentary directed by Abigail Disney, the granddaughter of one the Mouse House’s founders.
The film co-directed with Kathleen Hughes, “The American Dream and Other Fairy Tales,” profiles four Disneyland custodians, who earn $15 an hour, as they struggle to make ends meet, juggling high rental fees in Southern California with food and health care costs.
The film juxtaposes that meager lifestyle with that of former chief executive Bob Iger, who got a pre-pandemic pay package of $65.6 million in 2018.
The film — which is co-produced by Disney’s sister Susan Disney Lord, brother Tim, and which premieres at the Sundance Film Festival Monday — flashes back to Abigail Disney and her sister, who are then shown reminiscing about their grandfather, Roy O. Disney, who founded the company in 1923 with his brother, Walt.
“I cannot see him taking $66 million home for a year’s work in the same year when, at the same company, people can’t afford food,” Disney angrily says. Her sister responds, “That would never have happened — that would never have happened.”
In recent years, the outspoken Disney has called the pay inequity between Disney’s top brass and theme park workers “obscene.” The usually tight-lipped firm once called those assertions a “gross and unfair exaggeration of the facts.”
Iger, the longtime CEO, also left the company last year. According to the New York Times, Disney tells viewers that she decided to make the film because she was frustrated and angry at Iger’s “curt” response to an email she sent him in 2018 about theme park employee pay. He declined to comment.
There have also been some changes that push against the documentary’s narrative. In December, unions representing 9,500 Disneyland workers ratified a new contract that bumped minimum starting pay to $18 an hour by 2023 — up from $15.45 last year, a 16% increase — and includes seniority-based bonuses.
But the high-flying pay is still alive and well at the company. Last year, Iger raked in $45.9 million in total compensation, while the pay package of his predecessor, CEO Bob Chapek amounted to $32.5 million.
The Disney family has not been involved in managing Disney since their father, Roy E. Disney, stepped down from the board in 2003 and led a shareholder revolt that resulted in Iger’s ascension. Roy E. Disney died in 2009.
“The well-being and aspirations of our employees and cast will always be our top priority,” a Disney spokesperson said in a statement. “We provide a leading and holistic employment package that includes competitive pay and comprehensive benefits for our cast members to grow their careers and care for their families. That starts with fair pay and leading entry wages, but also includes affordable medical coverage, access to tuition-free higher education, subsidized child care for eligible employees, as well as pathways for personal and professional development.”
Nonetheless, Disney, who is a member of Patriotic Millionaires, a group that advocates for higher taxes on businesses and wealthy individuals like themselves, is looking to shed light on the inequity. Part of that process includes finding a distributor like Netflix or Amazon Prime Video for her documentary at Sundance — which could prove tricky.
“I want changes to the entire system — from CEOs generally and from Wall Street especially — that result in the recognition of the dignity and humanity of every single worker,” Disney said.