Mr. Chapek offered nothing more about Mr. Rice, eschewing the glowing platitudes that Hollywood usually turns to in these moments. Nor did Disney give Mr. Rice a parachute in the form of a production deal. (“I know all of us wish Peter the best,” Mr. Chapek said in an internal email that announced Ms. Walden’s ascent.)
Ms. Walden said in a statement that it was “an incredible honor” to be promoted and praised the team assembled by Mr. Rice as “truly the absolute best in every respect.” The group includes Kimberly Godwin at ABC News and Ayo Davis at Disney Branded Television.
Mr. Rice’s sudden departure ruptures a powerful trio that Disney inherited from 21st Century Fox, which it agreed to purchase from Rupert Murdoch in 2017. Mr. Rice, Ms. Walden and the FX Networks chairman John Landgraf worked closely together at Fox for decades.
Mr. Rice, affable yet often inscrutable to those who worked with him, started his entertainment career in 1987, when he was a summer intern at Mr. Murdoch’s movie studio. Over the next three decades, he would become close to Mr. Murdoch, ultimately rising to become president of 21st Century Fox. Along the way, Mr. Rice turned Fox Searchlight into an Oscar and box-office superpower, delivering idiosyncratic hits like “Little Miss Sunshine,” “Sideways” and “Slumdog Millionaire.”
The Disney shake-up came as a shock to both Mr. Rice and Ms. Walden, the people briefed on the matter said. As recently as three weeks ago, Disney dispatched Mr. Rice to its upfront stage, the company’s annual showcase for the advertising industry. A prominent upfront appearance generally indicates that an executive’s standing is strong at a company.
Mr. Rice, who was introduced onstage by Steve Martin, Martin Short and Selena Gomez, the stars of “Only Murders in the Building,” talked up Disney’s strong market position, pointing out that it was the “only company that hasn’t been bought or sold over the last 100 years.”
The Disney TV division has been having a good run. In addition to “Only Murders in the Building,” Hulu recently aired “The Dropout,” a critically beloved limited series about the Theranos founder Elizabeth Holmes. The top shows for ABC News, “Good Morning America” and “World News Tonight,” remain the No. 1 most watched morning and evening newscasts.
As with Mr. Rice, Ms. Walden’s relationships in Hollywood run deep. Jay Sures, a co-president at the United Talent Agency, called Ms. Walden “arguably the best creative executive in the TV business,” adding that “she is beloved by talent.”