Eisner: Content still king

Former Disney CEO offers a few thoughts to 'Variety'

As Comcast pushes forward with its proposed merger with NBC Universal, Michael Eisner said he is glad to have taught a valuable lesson to the cable operator’s top executives, Brian Roberts and Steve Burke.

“What they have learned is that it is easier to do it with a willing seller than an unwilling seller,” the former Walt Disney CEO told Daily Variety, referring to his successful defense against Comcast’s hostile takeover bid for the Mouse House in 2004.

“I think (going after NBC U) is an absolute necessity for Comcast,” said Eisner. “Back then, I was preaching that content is king, and they were preaching distribution is king. I really think they were lusting after a king and wishing they were a queen. These days anybody who argues that content is not king is only arguing in their own self-interest.”

Eisner spoke to Daily Variety on the eve of the fifth anniversary of his departure from Disney. He plans to celebrate his half decade of post-moguldom next month with the publication of his third book, an examination of successful partnerships, including his own with the late Disney prexy Frank Wells.

Eisner said he that decided to write “Working Together, Why Great Partnerships Succeed” at the urging of Warren Buffett. Buffett and Berkshire Hathaway’s Charlie Munger are among those partnerships profiled. Others include Ron Howard and Brian Grazer, Bill and Melinda Gates and Ian Schrager and Steve Rubell of Studio 54 fame. The book, written with journalist Aaron Cohen, hits stores Sept. 14.

“My conclusion is that for a partnership to be successful you can’t have envy or jealousy,” said Eisner. “Great partnerships are about having a common enemy, like being in a foxhole together against the world.” Eisner also makes reference in the book to his partnerships with Barry Diller at Paramount and ABC, and later with Bob Iger at Disney. “You have to feel like you are impenetrable to third parties. That’s the way I feel in all my partnerships, including my wife, to whom I have been married for 42 years.”

At 68, Eisner is showing no signs of slowing down. In addition to helping his youngest son, Anders, gain national distribution for his business, Activate vitamin-enhanced water, Eisner remains deeply ensconced in entertainment. In 2007, through his Tornante Co. investment firm, he launched Vuguru, a studio that produces Web videos, and he purchased Topps Co., an international marketer of collectibles.

He spoke to Daily Variety on a number of topics. The edited excerpts follow:

You have sort of reinvented yourself as a new-media maven. Are you through with traditional media?

Absolutely not. The rust belt entertainment business is still the most important part of it. I have seven movie scripts that I commissioned that I have yet to talk to anybody about. At some point, I am going to make a deal. I am doing TV pilots too. At the same time, I am tying my rust belt past to today’s world. Everyone talks about user-generated content on the Internet, for which there is a place. But there is also a giant place for story-driven content.

You made a big splash with your webisode series “Prom Queen” from your digital studio Vuguru. What’s next?

We have 25 different series in the works that will be cut into varying lengths from half-hours to 13 minutes to six minutes. And we are doing them below the cost of what are competitors are spending. We make money. If we like an idea, we will make it. We will commit to it, then go to our advertisers. We are not going to wait — so we’re just making them.

Talk about your work with Napster founder Shawn Fanning.

I did one deal with Fanning on a company that we were in for about a year. It was a social networking site based on his obsession with “World of Warcraft.” Then he sold it to EA (Electronic Arts) and we did very well. (Editor’s note: Fanning sold Rupture to EA in 2008 for a reported $30 million.) Now I am doing another thing with Shawn in an area that I can’t speak about just yet.

Is 3D here to stay?

The human condition is that the grass is always greener on the other side. The trouble with research is that if you ask somebody what movie they want to see, they tell you they want to see the last hit. In fact, they don’t want to see the last hit. They want to see something new and original. So anything you do that drives repetitiveness to the point of obsession will eventually explode. So after I see 12 3D special effects extravaganzas, take me to a black-and-white film where nothing happens. I will be very happy.

Where do you come out on pay vs. free on the Internet?

Both sides have valid arguments. Advertising as a medium is fantastic. Advertising is a dominant means of finding a way to pay for that which is creative. But there are many examples of people who will pay for something that is unique with or without advertising. You are talking to somebody who is buying debt in the Tribune Co. The salvation of the newspaper is some kind of pay arrangement (online), which will evolve into something significant.

We noticed that one partnership you did not choose to profile in your new book is Brian Roberts and Steve Burke.

Those two guys are a good partnership, a little too aggressive with Disney, but a good partnership. They will do well.

What part of being the CEO of a large media company do you miss most?

I don’t miss sideways McKinsey presentations. I don’t miss meetings with 20 people talking about return of investment. I don’t miss PR people telling me I am talking too much. I don’t miss investor phone calls where I put my foot in my mouth. What is a little harder is that I can no longer be dictator. I can’t dictate “Oh, make that movie.” Now I’ve got to beg someone else to make it and get it some financing.