BootLeg Betty

Let Eisner Stay: Bring Back Bette

February 10, 2005
Eisner Said to Be Open to Staying at Disney

LOS ANGELES, Feb. 9 – Michael D. Eisner indicated that he still harbors the desire to stay on as chairman of the Walt Disney Company after he steps down as chief executive in September 2006, according to a new book on the Disney company.

According to the book, written by James B. Stewart, Mr. Eisner said in an interview that he would consider staying on at Disney, just weeks after Mr. Eisner was quoted as saying he would not remain as chairman.

“I didn’t say I didn’t want to be chairman; Zenia has been saying that,” Mr. Eisner told Mr. Stewart in an interview on Sept. 29, 2004, referring to Zenia Mucha, Disney’s corporate spokeswoman. “I don’t want to be irrelevant. I’m not going to ask the board to be named chairman. I’m not going to beg for it. But the board might come to me. Then I’d have to consider it.”

Mr. Eisner’s comments were made six months after 45 percent of the votes cast in the company’s annual election were withheld from him after a shareholder revolt.

Mr. Stewart’s book, “DisneyWar: The Battle for the Magic Kingdom,” paints Mr. Eisner as a man unwilling to cede power even as he was slowly losing favor among supporters. And he was repeatedly willing to sacrifice longstanding relationships with people who helped the company prosper during his 20 years there, according to the book.

In response to the book, Ms. Mucha of Disney said, “We are a company focused on excellent results, performance and our bright future, not on a one-sided depiction of past events, largely told through the eyes of those with a clear bias and a personal agenda.”

Also in the book:

¶Mr. Eisner was indiscreet, telling Susan Lyne, the former president of ABC’s entertainment division, who was fired last year, that the company’s president, Robert A. Iger, could not be Disney chief executive or get another job in Hollywood until the network was fixed.

¶Mr. Eisner revealed that Disney’s directors summoned him from his room at 1 a.m. after the annual meeting last year in Philadelphia, when he was stripped of his chairman’s title, to make sure his feelings were not hurt. “It was touching,” Mr. Eisner said in the book.

¶Mr. Iger shared with colleagues his frustration at working for Mr. Eisner. “You don’t know how hard it is to do the job that I have,” Mr. Iger told Ms. Lyne, referring to Mr. Eisner and his management style.

Mr. Stewart, who has written best sellers about business and other topics, spent several years with the full cooperation of Disney executives researching the book. Mr. Stewart, who won a Pulitzer Prize for his work at The Wall Street Journal detailing insider trading and the stock market crash of 1987, started out looking at how Disney both mirrored and shaped American culture, and the book changed course when the movement to oust Mr. Eisner began.

The release of “DisneyWar” has been highly anticipated in Hollywood and much dreaded at the Walt Disney Company. A cadre of media executives who got early manuscripts have passed them among their colleagues around town, causing as much controversy as the book itself and forcing the publisher, Simon & Schuster, to begin selling the book in Los Angeles and New York at the end of this week, coinciding with Disney’s annual meeting.

The book is full of examples in which Mr. Eisner turned against those he was close to before deeming them disloyal or too ambitious.

The best known are the relationships with Jeffrey Katzenberg, former head of Disney’s film division, and Michael S. Ovitz, the former Disney president hired by Mr. Eisner in 1995 and fired 14 months later. But the pattern of such battles goes back years.

In one such case, when Mr. Eisner was head of Paramount Pictures in the early 1980’s, he got into an argument with his friend, the producer Larry Gordon, over whether Mr. Gordon could take the project “Streets of Fire” to Universal Pictures, which had agreed to finance it. When Mr. Eisner learned the project went to Universal, he refused to speak to Mr. Gordon, going so far as to jump off a dock with his shoes on when he saw Mr. Gordon approaching the lake at a summer camp their two sons were attending.

Mr. Stewart also details Mr. Eisner’s obsession with retaining power. For example, even as Mr. Eisner was assuring shareholders that Disney was instituting reforms to make its board more independent, he was also trying to get rid of some of his more feisty directors.

According to the book, Andrea Van de Kamp, an independent-minded director, alienated Mr. Eisner when she supported a motion to split the office of chairman and chief executive. Their relationship worsened after Ms. Van de Kamp complained about the company’s performance, echoing the concerns of Stanley P. Gold and Roy E. Disney, two former board members who sought to oust Mr. Eisner last year.

Things got so testy between the two, according to the book, that Mr. Eisner told Ms. Van de Kamp, “You’re a terrible director. You are so loyal to Stanley, it’s like you’ve carried his babies.” The comment stunned Ms. Van de Kamp, who was not reinstated to the board in a vote of 12 to 4, with 2 abstentions.

Much of the information in “DisneyWar” is not new – the troubles at ABC and the firing of Mr. Ovitz have been widely chronicled. But Mr. Stewart’s details and Mr. Eisner’s own observations about himself are most telling.

Mr. Eisner said of losing the chairman’s job: “I was not ‘stripped,’ quote unquote, of my title,” referring to press reports at the time. Instead, Mr. Eisner said he suggested the split before the shareholder revolt, hoping to follow the path of Bill Gates, a founder of Microsoft, who was both chairman and chief software architect.

While Mr. Eisner’s reputation has been hurt by a series of costly corporate blow-ups, his early efforts to revitalize Disney made it an exciting place to work. He had the perceptive idea of revitalizing the careers of faded stars, including Richard Dreyfuss and Bette Midler, who starred in “Down and Out in Beverly Hills,” one of the first of Disney’s major hits.

But not all his ideas made sense. At one meeting, according to the book, Mr. Eisner proposed having Mickey and Minnie Mouse get engaged on Valentine’s Day, get married in June and honeymoon in Paris. The notion was quickly scrapped, but in the early 1990’s, early in Mr. Eisner’s tenure, there was a willingness to challenge convention that helped Disney become the place to work in Hollywood.

Laura M. Holson reported from Los Angeles for this article and Geraldine Fabrikant from New York.

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