HOLLYWOOD THE DENIZENS of the Mouse House must be wondering if the spotlight will ever shift back to one of their media rivals.
After all, there have been more stories about the dysfunction at Disney than there ever were dissections of the AOL Time Warner fiasco in 2001 or exposes of Jean-Marie Messier’s mess-up at Universal in 2002.
The intense focus on Disney, however, won’t likely be dispelled for another six months.
After all, there is still a verdict to come in the shareholder lawsuit against CEO Michael Eisner and the board for the megabucks golden parachute paid out to Michael Ovitz in 1996.
James Stewart’s “Disney War” — which dredges up the company’s most embarrassing moments, from the Katzenberg trial to Eisner’s $5 billion buyout of the flagging Fox Family Channel from Rupert Murdoch — is hitting shelves this week to take advantage of the continuing interest in Mouse House machinations.
And even if they’ve toned down their rhetoric, dissident former board members Roy Disney and Stanley Gold are still bothersome gnats on the back of the Disney behemoth. (Last week, they said they’ll withhold their vote for board members at the Feb. 11 shareholders meeting because of reservations about how open and competitive the search for a new CEO is.
Has the glare of adverse publicity been focused with more relish on Disney than on its rivals? Probably so. But that’s in part because it’s hard to resist bashing a brand that so insistently proclaims itself squeaky clean and family-friendly.
Lawyers at the Katzenberg and Ovitz trials trotted out so much dirty laundry, including Eisner’s personal and corporate shortcomings, that detailing them was hard to resist.
And it’s not just the press that’s spotlighting the Mouse’s woes. In an unprecedented display of corporate dissatisfaction, 45% of shareholders voted to strip Eisner of his board seat last year, prompting him to relinquish the chairman title to former Sen. George Mitchell.
Whatever else one can say about its dysfunctional management, Eisner has displayed remarkable sang froid in the face of this incessant criticism. And his No. 2, designated heir apparent Bob Iger, has managed to reassure nervous nellies on Wall Street while appearing to be both deferential to his boss and to keep his own counsel.
It remains to be seen whether Iger will ultimately land the job, but whatever happens, Eisner and Iger have put the company back on track in the last year, with profits up 75%, a stock that has rebounded to $29 after an August low of $22 and a recuperating ABC network.
“The Incredibles” and “The Village” helped the film division to a healthy, if not stellar, year at the worldwide box office, and the specter of a hostile takeover by cable goliath Comcast has receded.
Even the wrangles with its two high-profile partners, Pixar and Miramax, may yet get sorted out.
Latest bet is that some newfangled deal with the Weinsteins will preserve a working relationship with the maverick film operators and that, later in the year, the post-Eisner regime at Disney will cede just enough in terms of ownership rights to keep Pixar in the Mouse House fold.
Meanwhile, Mouse House management is apparently looking to flex its muscles on the cable front. Eyeing the synergies NBC U and Viacom are creating with their bouquets of channels, Disney is calculating what it would take to buy out its partners in Lifetime (Hearst) and in A&E (Hearst and NBC U).
As in other parts of the media biz, it’s all about control — and how much one should be willing to spend to get it.