Monday, October 09, 2006

Diz-Ney War

Disneyland is known as the happiest place on Earth. Team Disney, the Los Angeles building where the Walt Disney Company's executives work, may as well be known as the pettiest place on Earth.

James B. Stewart's compulsively readable DisneyWar tracks the rise and fall of one of the most famous, most successful, and, yes, most petty chief executive officers in recent corporate history, Disney's Michael Eisner. In his first decade as Disney's CEO, Eisner could do no wrong, leading the company to a period of celebrated critical and commercial success unprecedented since the glory days of Walt and Roy. Eisner would ultimately take all the credit for the success but his luck would change after the loss of two key collaborators, his right-hand man Frank Wells (who died tragically in a plane crash in the mid-1990s) and his head of the Walt Disney film and animation studio during the production and release of The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, and The Lion King, Jeffrey Katzenberg. After Katzenberg left Disney and an increasingly fractious relationship with Eisner, ultimately suing for the hundreds of millions of dollars he was due thanks to a ludicrously lucrative contract, Disney and Eisner began dropping turds like Hercules, Atlantis, and Treasure Planet. During this period, Disney had to rely on Pixar to provide the sort of unforgettable family fare that the company is known for, and Pixar vowed not to resign their distribution deal until Eisner was out. Meanwhile the one significant homegrown hit for Disney during this period, Lilo and Stitch, came from the company's Orlando animation studio. Eisner later shut it down.

The book is long and full of fascinating stories of Disney's poisoned corporate culture, but I'll just share one that, to me, perfectly sums up the way the company rewarded all the least deserving members of its executive ranks throughout the second half of the 90s. Just a few years ago, Disney's ABC was in such bad shape that Wells' eventual replacement Robert Iger, desperate to keep his standing in the company high so that he might eventually succeed Eisner as CEO, distanced himself from the network and gave his programming chiefs the power to green light pilots and select the schedule. So despite Eisner and Iger's distate for both projects, two unusual shows made it onto ABC's fall schedule: Lost and Desperate Housewives. The battle to get Lost on the air proved so acrimonious that the exec who backed the project, Lloyd Braun, essentially fought Eisner and Iger over it until he lost his job. Stewart relates a story where he visits Eisner for an interview on the day after Lost's premiere and Eisner is furious, because the show, which he disliked and tried to keep off the air is a hit (he predicts ratings will tail off for week two; we all know what happened there). Eisner was so paranoid and jealous of those working under him that he would rather be unsuccessful than successful in a way that he could not take credit for.

But, in a sense, that was the right attitude to have at Disney. Braun and the execs who fought for Lost, Desperate Housewives, and Grey's Anatomy (the #1 rated show on television this season) dared to disagree with Eisner's instincts; Eisner, who got his start at ABC and later at Paramount, considered himself a very creative executive, and trusted his own judgement and taste over nearly everything else. For going against Eisner they were fired. Eisner, too, was eventually pushed out, and when he was, who got his job? Bob Iger. Why? Because he was credited with saving ABC with big hits like Lost, Desperate Housewives, and Grey's Anatomy. Shows that, if he would have kept off the air if he could have.

Blunders like that come fast and furious in DisneyWar. I've always been a sucker for Hollywood business books since I was in high school; from Hit and Run to Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, I've read them all. DisneyWar is one of the best.


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