Cautionary tales from the Mouse House

OF ALL THE CHIEFTAINS of the global entertainment companies that own Hollywood, Michael Eisner can be the most engaging. He has a sly wit, likes to gossip and to crack self-deprecating jokes and, most important, actually shows a keen fascination for his company’s product, not just its financial or distribution structure.

Indeed, in the forward to his newly published memoir, “Work in Progress,” he describes his role at Disney not just as CEO, but also as chief creative officer. What other corporate head would so describe himself?

And what other CEO would admit that he had no training in business and, midway in his career, couldn’t even read a balance sheet? The prospect of taking an accounting course at UCLA was so painful that he begged his wife, Jane, to take it with him, and both were taunted by their three sons each night as they agonized over homework.

IT IS EISNER’S ENGAGING personality, not to mention his formidable achievements, that makes his curious memoir such a good read. I say “curious” because it is a book of almosts. It is almost an autobiography, almost a business book, almost even a “tell-all.” Almost, but not quite. Eisner is too subtle, too self-protective and involved in too much litigation to let his guard down and tell us what he really thinks about his competitors or his principal executives, past and present. As such, the chief of the Mouse House plays something of a cat-and-mouse game with the reader.

But there are plenty of goodies for those willing to plunge through the 434 pages.

On Jeffrey Katzenberg:

  • Eisner was offended when, less than 36 hours after the death of Frank Wells, Katzenberg delivered an ultimatum that “either I get Frank’s job as president or I’m going to leave the company.”

  • When Katzenberg visited Eisner in the hospital after he awoke from surgery, “rather than being supportive and offering to do what he could to help, he seemed distant and uncomfortable.”

  • Eisner felt it a conflict of interest for Katzenberg to launch with Steven Spielberg a restaurant chain called Dive. Though Wells gave it his OK, Eisner argued that it was competitive with Disney ventures, put Katzenberg in an impossible position to be in business with Spielberg while Katzenberg was at Disney and was a foolish use of his time.

Katzenberg had his own version of these events, to be sure, and filed a lawsuit to reinforce it.

On Michael Ovitz:

  • Though Ovitz had always been secretive and covert, Eisner was shocked at how Ovitz “became a moth to the media flame” after coming to Disney.

  • Ovitz was hell-bent on making deals and acquisitions at Disney, even though Eisner says he kept lecturing him that “the deal is not the essence of Disney, operations are the thing.”

  • Ovitz’s aversion to operations was such that he continued to duck meetings with Steve Bollenbach, the chief financial officer, who wanted to familiarize him with the numbers.

All this runs counter to the contention of Ovitz supporters at the time who said he was never given operational responsibility and that no one reported to him.

APART FROM THESE INTRIGUES, however, Eisner’s book presents in vivid detail the story of Disney’s turnaround from a company with a market value of $2 billion in 1984 to one of $75 billion in 1997. It does not duck the difficulties of the Euro theme park near Paris nor the failed attempt to build a historical theme park in Virginia. “We failed to recognize how deeply people felt about maintaining their communities just as they are,” said Eisner, a man who likes to change everything.

The timing of the memoir is ironic, to be sure. It is a book about astonishing growth that comes out at a moment in time when Disney stock has been taking a beating and analysts are questioning whether Disney can return to its annual 20% growth rate.

Further, Disney and DreamWorks are about to go head-to-head on the animation front with two bug epics, not to mention Disney’s competitive efforts to nullify the clout of “Prince of Egypt,” Katzenberg’s centerpiece for DreamWorks.

So why would a man as busy and preoccupied as Eisner take the time to write a memoir at this hyperactive moment in his life?

Ask Eisner and he’ll tell you he started the book five years ago in concert with Wells as an effort to refocus their thinking about Disney and where it was headed. Then everything turned topsy-turvy, Wells was killed and Eisner decided to expand his book into what he hoped would be a “richer, multidimensional story.”

WELL, IT IS AND IT ISN’T. As innovative as he may be, Eisner is a creation of business, and this is, in the end, a business book. When he tries to summon up deeper perceptions, he tends to revisit his boyhood. Amid all the problems in melding Disney and ABC, he writes, “Our two companies shared a set of values that I first learned at Camp Keewaydin: Work hard, help the other fellow, tell the truth and when you make a commitment, stand by it.”

OK, but camp values can get you only so far in life. Ironically, Eisner’s help-mate on his memoir is a writer named Tony Schwartz who, after making a lot of money co-writing “The Art of the Deal,” decided to take time off to tour the world to inquire into the meaning of life. The result was a bizarre but fascinating book called “What Really Matters: Searching for Wisdom in America.” I remember reading the book and, while admiring Schwartz’s search, was even more perplexed as to which philosophy he ended up embracing, if any.

“Work in Progress” reflects no such journey, asks no hard questions and leaves us with no such confusion.

On the other hand, Eisner was deeply affected by his emergency coronary artery surgery. “Something happened to me that is a big deal. My life has a finite sense to it and there is certainly a hollowness that comes with such realizations. I try not to think about it, but I think about it all the time.”

And that, no doubt, will be the subject of his next memoir.

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