The Mouse mantra: Hands on, spirits up

Eisner still has eye on the future

Disney chairman-CEO Michael Eisner said Wednesday he plans to maintain a hands-on approach to moviemaking, though challenging times have directed his attention to more companywide concerns in recent weeks.

In a wide-ranging interview with Daily Variety, Eisner also expressed confidence in Mouse House operations of all sorts. He wouldn’t say whether the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and the Mouse’s subsequently plunging share price have cooled his enthusiasm for acquisitions, but Eisner vowed to complete the pricey purchase of basic cabler Fox Family.

The well-known workaholic insisted his peripatetic approach to management — attending greenlight reviews and sundry other meetings of operational management — is appropriate for the chief exec of a conglom primarily involved in marketing movies and TV shows.

“The products of our company are these products of the mind,” Eisner said. “I can’t imagine a company like the Disney Co. where the CEO wasn’t informed and intimately involved in those products. That’s what we do.”

Though Eisner hasn’t been a pure production prexy since filling that role at Paramount in the 1970s, anecdotes have circulated in recent months about the head Mouseketeer’s increased involvement in even routine pitch meetings and talks with prospective film production partners. However unusual for most modern media bosses, Eisner noted he observed similar behavior while an exec at CBS in the 1960s under then-chairman William Paley.

“I noticed Bill Paley was actually the head of programming — he put ‘The Waltons’ on the air,” Eisner recalled. “It is not a sin for the chairman of the company to care about the products.”

A well-known Eisner musing about his days at Paramount, recounted in his 1998 autobiography “Work in Progress,” yields insight to the special importance the Mouse topper places on greenlighting decisions. “This is a business based on 10 to 12 decisions a year,” he famously observed. “They are very important. Nothing else comes close.”

Neither current Motion Picture Group boss Dick Cook nor predecessor Peter Schneider has ever discussed with him any precise chain of command for movie greenlighting, Eisner told Daily Variety.

“Everybody understands just by the way we do business what would be appropriate for me to know about or for (conglom prexy) Bob Iger to know about,” he said. “It just kind of ebbs and flows.”

Looking to legacy?

Eisner’s stepped-up oversight of operations from film production to theme parks to disparate other businesses comes amid a months-long stock slide that currently has Mouse stock hovering near its lowest point in six years. Is part of what motivates his management approach a desire to ensure his legacy at Disney?

“I’ve never thought about a personal legacy,” Eisner demurs.

As for the conglom’s plummeting share price, he said no single dramatic action is called for. Rather, Mouse execs must simply “tend to their knitting” and hope the country’s mood soon lifts — and Disney shares along with it, he said.

“The media from New York … is emanating a certain pessimism, because they’re right there” at ground zero of the terrorist attacks, Eisner said. “The media in the rest of the country, as you move away in concentric circles, gets a little less pessimistic.”

Limited effect

Acknowledging a short-term impact on Disney theme parks from the recent downturn in U.S. travel, Eisner said parks in Europe and Asia have been relatively unaffected by fallout from the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

Eisner said Disney theme parks’ abiding appeal eventually will draw back patrons even in the U.S., and he similarly expressed confidence that the conglom’s stock price will rebound over time.

“When the pain and the nervousness recedes, we’re in a strong position — with an unbelievably strong balance sheet — to participate in the recovery,” he said. “People want to go to movies; they want to watch television … and certainly they want to go to theme parks. I’m an optimist by nature, but I know what we’ve got.”

Eisner expressed regret over the recent sale of a big block of Disney shares by Texas’ Bass family, longtime Mouse investors who apparently dumped the shares to raise cash due to a crunch caused by iffy telecom investments. Family members, including patriarch Sid Bass, who helped install Eisner atop Disney in 1984, still rep a 3% Disney stake.

“They’re still big investors in our company,” Eisner said. “I feel badly that they got caught — like many people got caught — (by) some risks that they took.”

Noting Disney’s depressed share price, he added: “At the same time, (the Bass sell-off) has created some opportunities for other people that have been able to buy in at this level. This is a level that people will tell their grandchildren about.”

Disney shares were off 2¢ Wednesday at $17.44. The stock has shed double-digital billions in market valuation since the Sept. 11 attacks.

Keen on ‘Monsters’

Eisner said Disney shares will be helped as investors gain a sense that U.S. business is regaining a semblance of normalcy. Further stoking their faith, he predicted, will be Disney’s Nov. 2 release of Pixar-produced feature “Monsters, Inc.,” its upcoming release of attractive DVD titles such as “Snow White” and a rebound in TV operations, including those of the news unit at ABC.

Through its coverage of the recent disasters, ABC News has “re-established itself as the news leader in this country,” Eisner said. Hopeful signs elsewhere on the Alphabet web include Tuesday’s solid debut for frosh Steven Bochco drama “Philly” and some good demo news in ratings for season debuts of sitcoms “Spin City” and “Dharma & Greg.”

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