28 September 2008

Thoughts On: Disney War

Before I get to my thoughts on this book, I’d like to pat myself on the back for actually finishing it--600 pages!--in hard copy form. 

Yay me!  Audio books have not yet completely eroded my synapses! 

This was a tough book to get through. After a couple hundred pages or so, one boardroom shake-up feels just like the next. 

“Disney War” examines the tenure of Michael Eisner as the big boss (Chairman Of The Board and CEO) at the Disney Company. You might remember Eisner once upon a time hosting World Of Disney. He was the stiff, meaty-faced fellow with squinty, ice-blue eyes and all the inherent charisma of supermarket lighting. 

The bare facts are these: Eisner took over the company in 1984, brought in by Roy E. Disney (the nephew) when Disney was little more than a couple of profitable theme parks and a ground down animation department. The company didn’t do live action movies to speak of and wasn’t in television yet. Its stock was worth about a bazillionth of what it’s worth today. 

Do you remember The Black Cauldron? The Great Mouse Detective? No? Those are the years we’re talking about. 

The book is pretty rough on Eisner, but his A-Type Personality more of less runs the story on predictable rails. A successful television executive, he comes aboard, declares himself overlord, and gets the trains running on time. Of course, having one man in charge, wielding absolute power ... that never goes wrong, right? 

Eisner’s tenure can be split into two parts: the “revival” years--during which he and his management partner, the cagey Frank Wells, formerly a Warner Bros executive, made Disney a powerhouse again--and the “grabby, overreaching” years, which is generally everything that’s happened since 1994, the year Wells died in a helicopter crash. 

The revival years were marked by the upswing in the quality of Disney animation and the unprecedented move into making mature-market movies (via Touchstone). During this time, Eisner’s (admirable) policy was delightfully old-fashioned: to produce, as he called it, “singles and doubles” (i.e. consistent, modest hits on tight, modest budgets.) Of course, he lucked out with an early string of hits, like Splash and Down And Out In Beverly Hills. In retrospect, not the most memorable of products, but I do kind of appreciate the tactics, which harken back to the studio system of old. 

By the mid nineties, the Disney Company was a powerhouse again. By then, however, Eisner had sharpened his teeth by ridding the studio of its animation head, Jeffrey Katzenberg. Katzenberg was the first of many “contenders” who made the mistake of having an ego as large as Eisner’s. Others would follow: Steve Jobs, the Wiensteins, Michael Ovitz... Eisner would pay out big bucks to rid himself of them. 

It’s pretty easy to list (and second guess) a company-runner’s bad decisions, but Eisner’s do seem numerous: the fiasco that was Euro-Disney (ugh), the aborted American Heritage theme park, overpaying for ABC, overpaying for ESPN and the Fox Family Channel, developing the talent-thirsty Hollywood Records division, selling off the Disney-developed Survivor and Sopranos television shows, and the blockbuster movie, The Sixth Sense, turning down the chance to make Lord Of The Rings with Peter Jackson, and then driving off Pixar and Miramax, etc., etc. 

Eventually, Eisner ousted one too many contenders. Having himself becoming a victim of Eisner’s ego trip, Roy E. Disney led an attempt to get rid of the man he had brought to the company. After time, Eisner left with his claw marks all over the company. 

His most dangerous legacy seems to have been the installation of a craven, jellyfish board of directors. But then it's a corporation, right?  Eisner, for all his faults, managed to steer Disney through the predatory nineties, and past numerous takeover troubles. He even drove off ComCast. Now that the Disney Company is basically under the governance of a room full of, well, standard corporate executives, how much longer before the buyout? Then the fracturing, and the sell-offs. Then, the next thing you know, Disney World’s principal shareholder, Shiek Abdul “Five Hundred Jaguars” Alhazared will be pressing his park manager, Stanley “Golden Parachute” Whitebread, to turn Tomorrowland into a private villa.