By James B. Stewart
Rags-to-riches business success stories can be pretty depressing. It’s not very edifying to find out just how rewarding ruthlessness, arrogance, greed, and yes, even crime, can be. So let us give thanks to the corporate governance movement for at least bringing us a spate of entertaining books on the fall of business giants like Enron, WorldCom, Conrad Black, and, in DisneyWar, Michael Eisner. It’s fun to see the Masters of the Universe cut down to size.
Not that Michael Eisner, CEO and chairman of Disney since 1984, really fell. But after a shareholder revolt stripped him of his chairmanship in 2004, and now all of the revelations in this unflattering behind-the-scenes portrait, it’s clear his ego is being bruised.
And what an ego! When Eisner referred to the drama surrounding him as “Shakespearean” author James B. Stewart is quick to pounce on the link to “the Bard’s obsession with this very theme, in which a ruler disregards his subjects and answers only to the demands of his own ego.” He compares Eisner, rather erratically, to Lear, Henry IV, Macbeth, Richard II and Richard III: a Magic Kingdom monarch “whose power is such that he bends the truth itself to suit his will.” A tragic figure “emboldened by power” who “ultimately sealed his own fate by overreaching.”
This is over-the-top stuff. Instead of drawing on Shakespeare, Stewart might have kept in mind William Goldman’s famous line on Hollywood from Adventures in the Screen Trade: Nobody knows anything.
Eisner’s reputation as a business genius and creative force is based almost entirely on his first ten years with Disney. That was when the Disney brand (and stock) was re-charged, powered by a string of animated hits: The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, and The Lion King. But since 1994, a year that saw the death of chief operating officer Frank Wells and the departure of studio chairman Jeffrey Katzenberg, Disney’s performance has been weak. How much credit does Eisner deserve for the good years? How much blame for the bad?
DisneyWar suggests less credit and more blame. Eisner’s business bungles – which include not only EuroDisney (what was he thinking?), but the costly alienation of such people as Katzenberg, Roy Disney, Barry Diller, Michael Ovitz, Steve Jobs (head of Pixar) and the Weinsteins (of Miramax) – are well known. The surprising revelations here are the creative gaffes. Eisner predicted Pretty Woman and Finding Nemo would bomb, but thought Pearl Harbor a sure thing. He hated Johnny Depp’s drag performance in Pirates of the Caribbean (“We hired the sexiest actor in the world and he looks like this?”). During his tenure ABC (owned by Disney) passed on shows like Survivor, The Apprentice, and CSI, while sacking the people who came up with Lost and Desperate Housewives. And the list goes on.
But does any of this mean Eisner was a poor CEO? No. Just that, as Goldman pointed out, nobody knows anything. That’s not Shakespeare, it’s Hollywood.
Stewart began researching this book in 2003, planning to write an insider’s report on the entertainment industry. What he wound up with was a ringside seat to the battle to get rid of Eisner and “Save Disney” (the name adopted by the shareholders revolt). The result is a very readable, albeit sometimes chronologically jumbled, account of boardroom politics, huge egos, and life inside the cynical corporate heart of the entertainment-industrial complex.
Review first published April 9, 2005. Why is this book called DisneyWar (all one word)? Am I missing something? Shouldn’t it be Disney War?