In 2018, an employee at Disneyland sent Abigail Disney a Facebook message about working conditions there that sparked the documentary film producer to do some soul-searching. Disney, the granddaughter of Walt Disney Co. co-founder Roy O. Disney, was troubled by how the national issue of wealth inequality was playing out at the media company that shares her name and her own wealth, and she began speaking out about the disparities publicly, in Congress, on cable news and on Twitter.
Together with filmmaker Kathleen Hughes, Disney has directed The American Dream and Other Fairy Tales about the issue, including her on-camera interviews with Disney employees, that premieres Jan. 24 at Sundance. (Submarine is repping the film in Park City.) Ahead of the festival, Disney spoke with THR about her disenchantment with The Walt Disney Co., expectations of its new CEO, Bob Chapek, and hopes the film’s audience will take their reactions to the polls.
When did you start on this movie?
Back in 2018 or 2019. I had already been talking to the workers at Disney, just quietly for my own sake. Everything I have is based on what they do, and for me to ignore what they were saying when they appealed to me directly just seemed inhuman. Honestly, I wanted to believe Disney was better than that. I know that’s really naive, and there are so many naive assumptions I’ve had to give up. But there was a time when Disney really did see itself as a company that was contributing to the world. I would go [to Disneyland] with my grandfather and almost every time, he would pick up a piece of garbage. I asked him why he did that, and he said, “Because nobody’s too good to pick up a piece of garbage, and I want the people who work here to know that I know that.” He would tell me, “These people work so hard, you need to respect them.” So to have been raised that way, and then to find myself years later listening to them say they have to choose between insulin and food, I couldn’t just sit by and let it happen.
What has been your communication with Disney as a company?
I talk about the two emails I wrote [former Disney CEO] Bob Iger in the film. And after my second email, it was silence, and it’s been silence ever since. We did, at the recommendation of our attorney, reach out to them toward the very end when we were wrapping up the film for comments. And so we got a full page of comments about why everything is fine and we shouldn’t be bothering them. There was a personal relationship there. I guess I stepped off too far. There’s a chill, a definite chill.
What do you think has changed for workers at Disney in the transition from Bob Iger to Bob Chapek?
Bob Chapek was the guy who presided over all of the changes at Disneyland and Disney World that we’re talking about in this film — dynamic scheduling, a euphemism for jerking them around so they can’t get a second job and they never make 40 hours a week and they don’t qualify for health care. Taking a department of 250, shaving it to 200 and expecting them all to do the same work in the same amount of time. There are a thousand ways they’ve been cutting costs, and much of it came from Bob Chapek and under his command. So I don’t really have very optimistic expectations. If anything, it’ll probably get worse.
How does the rest of your family feel about how vocal you’ve been?
I have a couple of very, very, very supportive siblings. And then I have cousins and more distant folks that are not happy with me. Those are the things that keep me up at night, and I feel badly about them, but then I check back in with my moral center and say, “Will this matter and make a difference?” Yes, it will. “Am I right about this?” Yes, I absolutely am. And then I just have to keep going.
Who is your ideal audience?
For anything Disney-related, the audience is America. It’s the last purple thing in the country really. I really do want regular American people, voters, to see it. I want them to see it and think about it when they go to the polls. And I want them to think about it when they get approached about organizing for a union. I want people to really think that it doesn’t have to be this way.
At Level Forward, which is one of your companies, employees have registered some complaints of their own about being treated unfairly. Has the experience of running your own companies shaped the way you look at Disney?
If anything, I feel more strongly that no matter the size of the company, you have to be prepared to respond. Because it’s people working for you. These aren’t robots, they’re humans. The job has to be a dignified and respectful place. So, yeah, I have a lot of sympathy for how hard this will be to change for Disney. If everybody else is paying bargain-basement salaries, then how can they go jump out in front of it? But there are companies doing this: Costco, PayPal, Accenture, Bank of America.
How do you think the fact that this film is a pointed critique of corporations will affect your distribution options? So many of the major distributors are also giant corporations that have a vested interest in doing business this way.
I knew this was a risk from the beginning, and I just say, you make the best film you can make and then hope for the best. There are certainly many people in Hollywood who are not fans of the company and as many bridges as they’ve built, they’ve burned. So I think we’ll probably be OK.
Is it a safe assumption that you’re not booking any meetings to sell this to Disney+?
Interview edited for length and clarity.
This story first appeared in the Jan. 19 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.