Disney's annual meeting in Denver takes a political turn

Walt Disney Co.’s annual meeting took a sharply political turn as Chief Executive Robert Iger faced calls to step down from President Donald Trump’s business policy forum.

Disney’s annual shareholder meetings are typically low-key, scripted affairs that eschew controversy and reflect the broad-based appeal of America’s most famous entertainment company.

On Wednesday, however, Iger fielded unusually pointed questions over his decision to remain on the council. But he defended his position on the panel, calling his participation a “privileged opportunity.” People acting as proxies for groups of shareholders urged Iger to leave the forum.

Speaking from the stage of the Bellco Theatre at Denver’s convention center on Wednesday morning, Iger explained his decision to remain on Trump’s panel by invoking a lyric from the Broadway hit “Hamilton” that emphasizes the importance of having “a voice in the room” where important decisions are made.

He said that his role on the panel, where he is the lone entertainment executive among CEOs from companies including General Motors and IBM, did not represent an endorsement of the policies of the Trump administration, whose executive orders on immigration have drawn intense criticism.

“I made a decision that I thought it was in the best interest of our company and of our industry to have an opportunity to express specific point of views directly to the president of the United States and to his administration,” Iger said, drawing strong applause from hundreds of stockholders in attendance.

During the meeting, Iger also screened footage from the company’s forthcoming “Star Wars: The Last Jedi,” and touted robust attendance figures at Shanghai Disneyland, which has welcomed nearly 8 million visitors since opening in June 2016.

Investors also reelected 11 members of the company's board of directors and voted down two proposals brought by shareholders. And PricewaterhouseCoopers was ratified as the company’s independent accountants for the current fiscal year. Iger noted that PwC’s “extremely embarrassing” mishandling of the Academy Awards’ best picture announcement wouldn't hurt the firm’s relationship with Disney.

But it was politics that took center-stage repeatedly during the two-hour meeting.

It was tense at times as shareholder representatives who spoke at the meeting labeled the Trump administration “racist,” “bigoted” and “xenophobic” and called for Iger to disengage from the council, which met for the first time in February. Iger did not attend that gathering due to a scheduling conflict. No date has been announced for a second meeting.

Iger, a Democrat who supported Hillary Clinton in the presidential election, has been criticized on social media for not quitting the panel. Uber CEO Travis Kalanick left the group under intense public pressure following the rollout of Trump's initial executive order, which in January temporarily banned all refugees and travelers from seven Muslim-majority nations from entering the U.S. (A revised immigration order was signed by Trump on Monday.)

But Iger offered a vigorous argument for the business benefits of allowing people into the U.S. to work. He added that he is against policies that single out particular religious groups, an apparent reference to the Trump administration’s moves that have been viewed by some as discriminatory against Muslims.

"I happen to believe that this company has benefited over the years in so many different ways, as has this country, [because of] an open and fair and just immigration policy,” Iger said.

He cited Disney’s 2016 animated hit “Zootopia” as evidence of the company’s humanitarian values. The film, which grossed more than $1 billion, is about an advanced society of animals that deals with prejudice between its herbivore and carnivore populations.

“You don't make a movie [like] ‘Zootopia,’ which is preaching tolerance ... unless you believe fundamentally in that ideal and that value,” Iger said.

As the meeting continued, some attendees grew restless with shareholder representatives’ speeches about Trump, and one person murmured “sit down” as a speaker asked Iger yet another question about his role on Trump’s council, which is called the President’s Strategic and Policy Forum.

One shareholder took to the microphone to voice his support for Iger’s stance on the matter.

“I want to thank you for being our voice in the room with the president,” shareholder Dwight Morgan said, drawing applause.

Iger also had an intense exchange with Justin Danhof of the National Center for Public Policy Research, a conservative think tank and policy institute. Danhof, a proxy for a group of shareholders, alleged that Disney-owned ESPN and ABC News have exhibited bias in their coverage of the Trump administration. Iger dismissed the claims and offered an impassioned defense of the two operations.

"I am going to disagree with just about everything you said," Iger said in response to Danhof’s claims. "The charge that ESPN is exhibiting significant political bias in its programming is just completely exaggerated.”

Iger said he was "proud of the efforts of ABC News" and its work to present news fairly.

He then gave an strong defense of the role of a free press — at one point referencing the Bill of Rights — and said there has been an unfair "indictment" of the media because some people simply don't agree with outlets' reporting.

Some Disney shareholders were uncomfortable with the exchanges. After the meeting, shareholder Bill Jarosik said he was disappointed by the “amount of politically based questions.”

“That kind of takes away from the magic of the meeting,” said Jarosik, a Bolingbrook, Illinois, resident.

Jarosik said that he was pleased with Iger’s explanation of his decision to retain his role on the Trump panel — and is glad Iger is involved. “As he said, it is better to be in the room than outside it,” Jarosik said.

But others were not satisfied. During the meeting, Mehrdad Azemun of Chicago had taken to the microphone to tell Iger that as an immigrant from Iran who “grew up in the U.S. being raised on Disney,” he felt that the CEO’s participation on the council ran counter to the company’s values.

“As an Iranian-American, I am angry about Trump’s Muslim ban … it directly affects my extended family,” said Azemun, a shareholder proxy who is a community organizer with People’s Action, a group that advocates for economic equality.

Iger reiterated his position on the matter, saying in part that he doesn’t “currently intend to step down from the council.”

Still, like most Disney shareholder meetings, the event’s Q&A managed to produce some lighter moments. Iger was asked by a child named Riley to name his favorite Disney princess. He said he didn’t have one. A youngster named Aspen asked Iger if he had ever thought about adding a kid to the company’s board. Iger said he’d never considered this.

Times staff writer Ryan Faughnder contributed to this report.

daniel.miller@latimes.com

@DanielNMiller

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