Memo Time Again, Jeff

I have a suggestion for Jeffrey Katzenberg. If I were you, Jeff, I’d write another memo.

The first Katzenberg missive drew mixed reviews, I realize, but it nonetheless propounded its thesis rather forcefully. The mania over blockbusters is dangerous, it declared. The story is king.

I agree with your feeling about stories, Jeff, but how about the Disney story – that’s one that could use a rewrite. Hence the need for a new Katzenbergian pronunciamento.


Over the course of the last eight years, Disney has come to represent not only a new business but also a distinct corporate culture. Eighteen-hour work days. Sunday morning meetings. A Judeo-Calvinist work ethic.

And success: Movies that make lots of money even though their budgets are lower and their stars less prominent (and less expensive). But suddenly the wind has shifted. Everyone seems to be sniping at us. Whenever I see the Disney name in the paper, the context seems nasty.

This week, for example, the Los Angeles Times suddenly runs this long story suggesting we’re trying to push lawmakers around in Sacramento by increasing our political and lobbying expenditure tenfold. Moreover, look at the headlines we got this week when our earnings dropped a mere 29% – and how the market overreacted.

Then there’s the legal fight with the Muppets: According to Newsweek, when Jim Henson said, “All I want is a fair deal,” I responded, “Get out of the ’60s, pal. You’re in Hollywood now.” That was a pretty surly quote.

And look at what people are saying about our movies! Remember when everyone was saluting us for rediscovering Bette Midler, Nick Nolte and Richard Dreyfuss? Now they claim we’ve buried Woody Allen (“Scenes From A Mall”) and Neil Simon (“The Marrying Man”).

What really ticks me off is that they’re partly right. What ever happened to the famous Disney winning streak? Pictures like “Run” and “Mr. Destiny” aren’t exactly keepers of the flame. “Green Card” did okay, but since when is okay good enough? Even animated features like “Duck Tales” and “The Rescuers Down Under” fell flat. Since I’ve proffered myself as the champion of animation, that cuts me to the quick.

While we’re asking the hard questions, what ever happened to bargain hunting? Add up the cost of three upcoming releases – “Billy Bathgate,” “The Last Days Of Eden” and “The Rocketeer” – and you’re talking $125 million or so and the whole town knows it. Starring in these not-exactly-modest movies are Dustin Hoffman, Bill Murray, Sly Stallone and Michael Keaton, none of whose deals could be described as bottom-fishing.

The upshot of all this: The town says we do the opposite of what we say, and they don’t even like the way we say it. You’ve heard the smart-ass remarks: We’re grumpy and mean-spirited, that’s what they’re saying about us. They say the Disney unity is breaking down. That there’s backbiting within the organization. That in the new Michael Graves-designed executive office building it takes half an hour to go from one top executive’s office to another (it takes me only 10 minutes, but then everyone else seems to me to be walking too slowly – that’s another concern).

This sort of talk undermines our credibility. The Disney company has managed to create the image of Michael Eisner as a folksy, “aw shucks” kind of guy – pretty good image-making considering what we had to work with. But now, when Michael agrees to give a speech to aid the Friends of the American Hospital in Paris, people say he’s just doing it because of French subsidies to our Disneyland project in Paris. It’s getting so no one at Disney can be public-spirited any more.

We’ve had problems like this before, of course. There was that ridiculous brouhaha a couple of years ago when Disney sued some daycare centers for displaying Mickey Mouse on the walls – we had to defend our copyrights, mind you. And then CBS planted those stories in the press that we strong-armed them into canceling their “Peter Pan” cartoon show – I’d just made some friendly phone calls, is all. We survived those phony crises, of course, just like we will survive the new ones.

What worries me, though, is that we seem to be giving off the wrong signals. Is it the way we talk? Our body language? A maitre d’ at Mortons last Monday night asked me whether I was feeling all right because I seemed to be scowling more than usual. Are we all scowling without realizing it?

The danger is simply this: Disney is clearly the company of the future, hence we can’t afford to appear as though we’re locked into the ’80s business ethic. We have to lighten up a bit. We have to master casual banter. While continuing to work 18-hour days, we have to tell everyone we’re cutting back to 12.

In short, we have to strive to achieve – and this really hurts – a kinder and gentler Disney. If that’s the mantra of the ’90s, then there’s no other choice. From this moment on, any executive who is caught being unkind or ungentle will be summarily dismissed.

Good Luck Jeffrey Katzenberg

I asked Jeffrey for his comment about this memo. I haven’t heard back from him yet.

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