Isaac "Ike" Perlmutter says Walt Disney Co. fired him as chairman of Marvel Entertainment because he pushed Disney too aggressively to cut costs and ran afoul of the creative executives whom newly returned Chief Executive Robert Iger wants to empower.
In a rare interview, the 80-year-old Mr. Perlmutter spoke to The Wall Street Journal about his dismissal from Disney last week, his relationship with Mr. Iger, and missteps he feels Disney has made in recent years.
Disney is legendary for the loyalty it engenders in most typical employees. But Mr. Perlmutter was no typical corporate employee, nor did he act like one. If he didn't like what he saw from leadership, he picked up the phone and aired his concerns to powerful allies such as former CEO Bob Chapek, activist investor Nelson Peltz and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis.
Mr. Perlmutter, who is also one of Disney's largest individual shareholders—he owns approximately 30 million shares of Disney, according to people close to him, worth about $3 billion—said he has tried for years to convince Disney to spend less on its Marvel Studios superhero movies, which he believes are too long and too expensive to produce.
"I have no doubt that my termination was based on fundamental differences in business between my thinking and Disney leadership, because I care about return on investment," Mr. Perlmutter said.
Disney executives and Marvel Studios leadership, he said, have a singular focus on ticket sales. Marvel superhero movies distributed by Disney have grossed more than $23 billion globally, making it one of the most successful franchises in Hollywood history.
"All they talk about is box office, box office," Mr. Perlmutter said. "I care about the bottom line. I don't care how big the box office is. Only people in Hollywood talk about box office."
As chairman of Disney's separate Marvel Entertainment, Mr. Perlmutter ran the much smaller comic-book publishing and merchandise-licensing businesses.
A Disney representative said Tuesday that Horacio Gutierrez, Disney's general counsel, called Mr. Perlmutter and told him that his job was being terminated as part of the company's broader effort to cut $5.5 billion from its content and administrative budgets and eliminate 7,000 jobs.
Mr. Perlmutter said he doesn't remember Mr. Gutierrez giving that rationale for his dismissal.
"It was merely a convenient excuse to get rid of a longtime executive who dared to challenge the company's way of doing business," he said.
Last summer, Mr. Perlmutter said, he found an ally in his crusade to cut Disney's spending in Mr. Peltz, a well-known corporate raider turned activist investor who in December launched a proxy battle against Disney. The two men, who own mansions near one another in Palm Beach, Fla., had been friends for years and regularly dined together with their wives.
Although not formally involved with Mr. Peltz's campaign , Mr. Perlmutter called Disney directors and lobbied them to add Mr. Peltz to the board. Mr. Perlmutter said he took the step of joining an activist campaign against his own company because Disney executives had proven unreceptive to his suggestions.
"My experience with any major corporation, when they're having problems and they don't have the free cash or whatever it is, usually people like Nelson Peltz know how to put it back on track," Mr. Perlmutter said. "I learned one thing about creative people my whole life: You cannot give them an open credit card.…They're doing this for 30 years, why would they change?"
Morton Handel, who served as chairman of Marvel Entertainment before the Disney acquisition and has known Mr. Perlmutter for 45 years, said Messrs. Perlmutter and Peltz share a passion for efficiency.
"Ike's a penny-pincher," Mr. Handel said. "It's irritating to some people, and there are some people who don't believe in that manner of running a business. But in my own experience, I have never come across a more effective manager than Ike Perlmutter."
Mr. Peltz ended his proxy campaign against Disney in February after Mr. Iger announced Disney's cost-cutting plans .
Mr. Perlmutter was also frustrated by the clashes over the past year between Disney and Mr. DeSantis. The governor attacked Disney after the company publicly opposed Florida's Parental Rights in Education law, a measure that prohibits classroom instruction on gender identity and sexuality for elementary school students through the third grade.
The governor has sought to strip Disney of the power to influence land-use approvals at Reedy Creek, a special tax district that manages the infrastructure of the land that includes Walt Disney World, in a move that was seen as retaliation for Disney's stance on the education bill.
Mr. Perlmutter said he called Mr. DeSantis last year and said, "Ron, you're right. Disney doesn't have the right to get involved with politics, and you know, I'm the largest individual shareholder." He added that he advised Disney executives, "Don't get involved in politics. You're going to get hurt. It's a no-win situation."
Mr. Perlmutter, a former Israeli commando, came to the U.S. in the 1960s penniless and built a fortune investing in troubled assets, including buying Marvel out of bankruptcy in the late 1990s. He sold Marvel to Disney in 2009 for $4 billion in cash and stock.
As part of the deal, Mr. Perlmutter stayed on to run Marvel Studios, the newly formed production company that was the brainchild of David Maisel, a former talent agent and Disney executive whom Mr. Perlmutter hired in 2003 to lead Marvel's efforts to make movies out of its own intellectual property, rather than licensing comic book characters and stories to other studios.
At the time of the acquisition, Marvel had made one movie of its own, 2008's "Iron Man," starring Robert Downey Jr. and Gwyneth Paltrow and distributed by Paramount Pictures, which went on to become a sleeper hit, eventually earning more than $585 million at the box office on a budget of $109 million. Mr. Maisel said Mr. Perlmutter was an exacting boss who gave priority to return on investment, but that he was willing to take big risks if he believed an idea had potential.
"At that point, no IP-holding company had ever launched their own studio before," Mr. Maisel said in an interview Tuesday. "My vision for Marvel Studios was of a grandiose and expensive business. It really was a crazy idea at the time. And Ike took a big, risky step by supporting that vision that ended up changing the entire entertainment business and resulted in huge positives for Disney."
In 2015, Mr. Iger removed Mr. Perlmutter as head of Marvel Studios after a dispute over movie budgets between him and Kevin Feige, Marvel's top film producer, who now serves as chief of the studio. At the time, Mr. Perlmutter and his adviser Alan Fine served on a creative committee at Marvel that made recommendations on the screenplays and budgets of Marvel movies.
In a February CNBC interview, Mr. Iger said Mr. Perlmutter "was intent on firing Kevin Feige…and I thought that was a mistake and stepped in to prevent that from happening." Mr. Iger said the decision led to Mr. Perlmutter's unhappiness that lingers to today.
Mr. Perlmutter described the clash as a disagreement over movie budgets and said he wasn't trying to get Mr. Feige fired. After leaving the studio, he continued as chairman of Marvel Entertainment.
Mr. Perlmutter said he still received a profit-and-loss statement on every Marvel movie until 2021, when the studio cut off access. He continued to weigh in on strategic decisions and criticized budgets that he felt were too high.
As recently as October, Mr. Perlmutter had asked Marvel Studios leadership for financial information on "Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness," a 2022 movie that grossed $956 million globally, according to people familiar with the matter.
At various points, Mr. Perlmutter said, he raised concerns with then-CEO Mr. Chapek about what he viewed as out-of-control spending on Marvel movies. According to Mr. Perlmutter, Mr. Chapek agreed but said he didn't have the ability to change the spending plans because they had already been approved by senior management. Mr. Chapek, who was removed by the board in November , declined to comment through a representative.
"There was no way to force the issue because the creative people at the Walt Disney Company are very powerful," Mr. Perlmutter said.
Despite his objections to Disney's political stances and being connected to top Republican politicians including former President Donald Trump, Mr. Perlmutter has made large charitable donations to causes more typically identified with liberals, such as overhauling the justice system and providing transgender medical care.
In 2017, Mr. Perlmutter and his wife donated $5 million to NYU Langone Health, a gift that allowed the New York City medical center to recruit one of the nation's top cosmetic plastic surgeons specializing in gender-transition procedures. He said he later called Disney's human resources department and offered to pay any costs of gender-transition surgery that aren't covered by insurance for any Disney employee.
"I called and said, if anyone would like to change their sex, my professor is the number one in the country," Mr. Perlmutter said. "They should call me, and I'll help them to make an appointment."
Although their relationship frayed after the 2015 power struggle, Mr. Perlmutter said he and Mr. Iger shared a bond of mutual respect in the years following Disney's acquisition of Marvel.
Mr. Perlmutter said that in 2014 he advocated for the board to give a generous compensation package to Mr. Iger, after the CEO told him that he felt he underpaid relative to his media peers based on Disney's strong performance.
Later that year, the board extended Mr. Iger for two more years. Including performance-based bonuses and equity awards, Mr. Iger earned nearly $90 million over the remainder of that contract.