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The good, the bad, and the ugly - and it's all Eisner
on 13 May 2011
This is the story of a self-annointed entertainment industry mogul, in which Michael Eisner establishes himself as the absolute ruler of Disney (yes, like Louis XIV, to whom Stewart compares him). In the beginning, there was a balanced team of Eisner, the visionary; Frank Wells, the diplomat who smoothed Eisner's rough edges (you could go to him for "redress" and "understanding"); and Jeff Katzenberg, the glorified gopher of enormous talent and potential. When this team took over in 1984, many thought that the Disney empire was teetering on the verge of decline, ripe to be acquired and with an animation dept that was all but dead. The only profitable part was the Disney parks. They began to seek "one- or two-base hits", that is, relatively inexpensive films for modest hits at high profit (e.g. Down and Out in Beverly Hills).
Over the next ten years, this team engineered a series of smashing successes, from a string of hits to the establishment of the Disney stores and the sales of videos. Disney became huge: from a revenue of $1.4 billion in 1984, it grew to $30 billion by 2004; price-adjusted for stock splits respectively grew from $1.33 to $25. By any measure, it was a phenomenal run, unprecedented in Hollywood history and even in terms of American culture. Disney moved into bold new areas of film by establishing a number of production companies of great originality, which Stewart describes competently, if in excessive, yet non-analytic, detail. However, under the surface, there were serious tensions growing: by his lies and senseless slights, Eisner was alienating Katzenberg, an executive of superior gifts and judgment, and was tiring of Wells, who soon died in an accident. Eisner then fired Katzenberg after 19 years of unbelievably productive collaboration; Katzenberg took his gifts to Dreamworks, which many believe is beating Disney animation in both revenues and originality (e.g. Shrek) - that more or less proves it was him, and not Eisner, who was responsible for the golden years of the late 1980s, up to Katzenberg's Lion King.
From the mid-1990s, with Eisner at the pinnacle of his power and (as CEO and CHairman) dominating a meek board, the stage was set for a series of catastrophic decisions that cost Disney billions. This is when his worst side came out, that of an ego maniac bent on maintaining his power and firing anyone who dissented from him: he became erratic, vindictive, and unable to question himself in the worst type of narcissism imaginable. Here, you see the costs of bad decisions: Euro Disney ($1 billion loss, due to a complete lack of understanding regarding the differences between American and European vacationing), the failed internet ventures ($1 billion loss), and the acquisition of Fox family cable ($1 billion loss, due to insufficient commercial analysis and due diligence regarding distribution rights). Even the films became risky attempts at blockbusters (home runs), in accordance with the Hollywood formula of extremely expensive talent and ever more spectacular special effects, though most of them flopped. THen there were the personnel disputes, which Eisner seemed to relish: he refused to settle with Katzenberg's contract-based bonus for $90 million in an Ovitz-negotiated deal, going instead to court and eventually settling for nearly $300 million; picking his best friend, superagent Ovitz, and firing him in one year at a similar price. But the list of lost talent, both execs and animators, is a horrible indictment of an intolerant man who could not question his own judgment. Finally, you get the story of his ouster, after he alienated even his board and virtually all of his creative collaborators, such as Pixar and the Miramax studio brothers (the Weinsteins), who were the independent groups that produced most of the hits that Disney distributed. In my opinion, the book often reads like a hack job by a journalist who essentially disliked his subject, or at least disrespected him; while Stewart strives to sound neutral and fair, it is clear he despises Eisner.
That is about it for the story. Unfortunately, I was looking for more about how Disney was run strategically as well as a view inside the black box of decisionmaking and method. How did it become a manufacturer of popular culture, beyond the original entrepreneur and pioneer of genius, Walt Disney? This is not the book to answer that. Instead, it is more like a score card about battling corporate titans, none of whom are attractive people - and we would be naive to think that they might be - and it endlessly catalogues their brutal maneuvering and sleazy intrigues at the expense of the nuts of bolts of how they engineered their successes and ran their business. You get very little about the Disney company and way way too much of an attack on Eisner alone as a person and secondly as a manager. As such, it is yet another dreary description of a dysfunctional corporate environment, with some irony thrown in about how it is supposed to produce stories that make customers happy. Nonetheless, at the end, I did not feel I understood much about Eisner's deeper motivations or character, or for that matter those of any of his colleagues and competitors. The chronology is also hopelessly confused, the descriptions of innumerable details of film productions seemingly irrelevant rather than enlightening.
This was a great disappointment to me. I recommend it only to those interested in Hollywood trivia and not to those wishing to learn about how corporations might be better run, though it is an interesting lesson in failed corporate governance.