What if … Michael Eisner?

Oct 3, 2005  •  Post A Comment

For a few days in September 1984, Barry Diller believed he had an agreement with Michael Eisner, -who for a decade had worked directly under him at Paramount Pictures-to jointly move to 20th Century Fox. The plan, as Mr. Diller recalled in 1989, was to continue as they had, with Mr. Diller as chairman and Mr. Eisner as president of the studio.

Instead, a short time later, Mr. Eisner took the job of chairman and CEO of The Walt Disney Co., after forging an agreement by which Frank Wells, who had been a top Warner Bros. executive, was named president and chief operating officer, giving them keys to the kingdom founded by Walt Disney. In his 1998 memoir, “A Work in Progress,” co-written with Tony Schwartz, Mr. Eisner said he never felt there was a firm deal for him to go to Fox.

If he had, Mr. Eisner might have been involved with the launch of the Fox Network, along with Mr. Diller. Instead, Mr. Eisner engineered Disney’s acquisition of the ABC Network. The very idea that he might have taken a different path raises numerous “what if” scenarios tied to Mr. Eisner’s star-crossed career.

These are questions worth asking on this first week in 21 years that Mr. Eisner is not the top executive at Disney. These are questions that are appropriate at a time when we begin to place Mr. Eisner in show business history, following a long run that did change the landscape of Hollywood.

Mr. Eisner spoke last week to the Hollywood Radio & Television Society in Beverly Hills, but as he has for so many years, what he chose to discuss in public was not his private angst. Instead, he discussed the huge changes facing the industry. He said ultimately what is most important job it is the creative spark and the creation of content that pleases audiences. It was Mr. Eisner’s way to remind his audience that his strength has always been based on being a creative executive.

If we measured him only by his creativity, Mr. Eisner might well be up there historically with Walt Disney. But his job also involved major business, personnel and strategy decisions. And that is where his once shining image loses a lot of its luster.

You can divide the Eisner years at Disney into two parts. For a decade beginning in 1984, Mr. Eisner and Mr. Wells reinvented what had been a family-run company, creating one of the half-dozen global entertainment conglomerates that dominate show business today. They tapped the undiscovered value in the Disney brand and library, reinvented the whole concept of animation (think “Lion King”) and took advantage of changes in government regulation to acquire ABC, and with it ESPN, which today is one of the company’s most lucrative assets. They expanded internationally, including a revival of the theme park business that included expansion all over the planet.

Then on April 3, 1994, Mr. Wells died in a tragic accident. That began the second phase of Mr. Eisner’s regime. For him, it unfortunately coincided with a more difficult business climate and a change in the way Wall Street valued entertainment. While Disney stock soared during Mr. Eisner’s first decade, it barely moved, and at times even lost ground, in his second decade, largely because Wall Street went sour on entertainment stocks.

Mr. Eisner, the creative executive, was still an idea man. He had lots of notions about every project. Veteran stock market analyst Harold Vogel said last week that Mr. Wells was Mr. Eisner’s support, sounding board and counterbalance. “Eisner came up with lots of creative ideas,” Mr. Vogel said. “Nine of 10 were not doable. He would bounce them off Frank, who had a keen business sense, and [Mr. Wells] would knock down the most crazy ones. Once he was gone, there was nobody to knock them down.”

Once Mr. Wells was gone, Mr. Eisner seemed to become more imperial, less accessible and even a bit paranoid.

So we are left to guess what if. For instance, what if Mr. Wells had lived? And what if Mr. Eisner had not forced Jeffrey Katzenberg out of Disney? And what if he had settled with Mr. Katzenberg rather than going through the torture of a long legal battle?

What if Mr. Eisner had not hired Michael Ovitz as his heir apparent after his heart attack? What if he had not fired Mr. Ovitz and suffered through a long, bitter trial in Delaware?

What if his artistic temperament had not colored his business life, both for better and for worse? The same passion that got him deeply involved in movie and TV program choices-for better or worse-became a real negative in his business dealings. Mr. Eisner appeared to take things very personally that might better have been treated as simply business matters.

That seemed to be part of his problem in dealing with Roy Disney, the nephew of Walt Disney, who in the final years of Mr. Eisner’s reign became his most bitter and vocal critic.

Mr. Eisner also seemed to get personal with Steve Jobs at Pixar and the Weinstein brothers at Miramax, which led to sour relations with two entities that were key to Disney’s success.

As he departs, Mr. Eisner leaves Disney in the capable hands of Robert Iger, his hand-picked successor. He leaves at a time when the ABC Network is on an upswing, the theme parks are looking healthier and there is an effort to bring the costs under control in movies.

Mr. Eisner deserves an important position in the modern history of American show business. However, his legacy is at least a bit tainted by his mistakes, his stubbornness and his over-the-top efforts to control his image. He has his place in the Hollywood pantheon, but it is not on the same level as Walt Disney or CBS’s William Paley or even a more modern master like Jack Welch, who reinvented General Electric and oversaw the acquisition of NBC on his watch.

So, farewell, Michael. Your accomplishments have been great. But still we have to wonder, what if …?