Monday, July 29, 2013

Between Books - Seven Summits

Between Books - Seven Summits

As I have read through books about the Eisner Era one impression that I felt solid about was that Frank Wells was a world class mountain climber.  The late Disney President had passion and skill in this high risk sport.  Well, this is wrong.  Because in Wells “own” words one can find an excellent account of his mountain climbing adventures that shows that Wells was an amateur and inept mountain climber.  But what he did have was determination.

Seven Summits by Dick Bass, Frank Wells, and Rick Ridgeway outlines the 1983 attempt by Bass and Wells to climb the highest peak on every continent within a year.  The logistical and physical feat is impressive itself, but would also set records like the oldest man to climb Mount Everest.  The book discusses how the two men both came to the idea to climb all seven peaks, how they met and the unlikely partnership that formed between Bass the commercial property developer and Wells the Hollywood executive.  The book follows the attempts they made on each mountain, including failed attempts on Everest.  In the end, only one of the two climbers would complete the challenge, but both men would be changed forever.

I do not typically read books about mountain climbing or even adventures set in nature.  But regardless, Seven Summits was highly entertaining and gripping to read.  The book itself was written by Ridgeway, who joined Bass and Wells on some of the climbs.  Ridgeway does an excellent job of putting together a detailed story about the efforts of these two men.  And with Ridgeway being a mountain climber who understands that pastime, the book is highly accurate and informative.  A comment I made to the Between Wife throughout the read was mountain climbing is not for me, it is too much work.  One thinks of climbs as being quick, not realizing the work needed to get to the peak.  In 1983, Wells and Bass spent most of their year in tents and huts, not comfy beds, as they moved their gear from camp to camp.  A climb on Everest or Mount Vinson in Antarctica takes weeks as one must establish bases before the assent to the peak can begin.

This story is an adventure.  Not everyone survives these climbs.  And some climbers come away with amputations.   It only makes it more remarkable that Wells survived 1983 when you realize his low skill level compared to the world class climbers he worked with.  Knowing that Wells had not yet taken his position at Disney did not lower my stress level as I worried his actions would cost the lives of other climbers.

It is because of Frank Wells that I wanted to read this book, in fact the only reason I picked it up.  And this is a very different version of Wells than I have read in Disney business histories.  This Wells is the main who gave up leadership of Warner Brothers to climb mountains.  And he is a climber who is highly inexperienced, not really in shape, cannot care for himself, and at times reckless.  He is also a man who proved to be relentless in completing a task he was not qualified for.  And a man who found satisfaction in the attempt alone.  He would not make it to the top of Everest, but one gets the feeling that the knowledge that he had his shot was satisfying in its own way.  You have to give respect to a man whose determination was what kept him pushing to the top if each mountain.  We also get to see the Wells who is between jobs.  He is a man who needs work, hopefully in 1984.  That job would be Disney.  And as we watch Wells work the phone to complete the impossible logistics of setting up climbs in places like Antarctica, well his operational skills rise to the top.

Seven Summits is a great adventure story.  The adventure will keep you glued to the pages, especially if like me you were riding the Matterhorn Bobsleds with its Wells’ tribute on the same days you read this text.  And for a fan of Disney history this is a very different take on Frank Wells than we expect of the man who excelled in the Board room.  

Friday, July 26, 2013

Between Books - The Keys to the Kingdom

Between Books - The Keys to the Kingdom

The Keys to the Kingdom: How Michael Eisner Lost His Grip by Kim Masters outlines the show business career of Michael Eisner including how his tenure at Disney began to disintegrate. Written while Eisner was still entrenched in Disney leadership, the book does not chronicle the complete fall of the CEO/President but does show the missteps he took that eventually led to his fall. The book is not a complete story but a highly dense and dispassionate description of Eisner’s leadership.

Masters focuses on the career of Michael Eisner. So compared to other books on the Eisner Era there is less information about the Board decisions that led to Eisner’s rise to leadership. Instead more space is given to his roles at ABC, where he developed Happy Days, and Paramount Pictures, which like his time at Disney did not end on good terms. Masters then goes into great detail on Eisner’s time at Disney especially the film slates that he developed with Jeffrey Katzenberg. The book concludes with a lengthy discussion of the Katzenberg-Eisner breakup and the compensation dispute that emerged.

With a subtitle that includes, “Lost His Grip” I expected the book to be extremely slanted against Eisner. Instead I found it to be dispassionate and factual. Yes there are a lot of failures detailed but they seem to be more fact and figures than the judgment expected from the title. It really is the Katzenberg-Eisner relationship that the book does document in great depth, including narrations of compensation trial proceedings. One cannot help but feel confused and saddened as the discussion breaks into he said/he said recollections with the one man who may have been able to end this issue, Frank Wells, deceased. And of course no one wanted to disparage Wells’ character. One cannot ignore the irony that Eisner who made sure to get his payout from Paramount immediately in a check that cleared the bank while he waited, blocked Katzenberg from receiving his contractually guaranteed bonus.

Detail is really the strong point of this very dense book. From the compensation trial to the fatal helicopter crash that took Frank Wells’ life there is lots of depth in this book. It does have a smaller focus than a book like Disney War. But what it does cover is done in great great detail and adds to books that discuss wider timeframes.

Monday, July 22, 2013

Between Books - Prince of the Magic Kingdom

Between Books - Prince of the Magic Kingdom

Joe Flower in Prince of the Magic Kingdom: Michael Eisner and the Re-Making of Disney provides a positive account of Eisner’s early Disney tenure. However, the book does not add much to the story of Michael Eisner at Disney. And as a text filled with factual errors and fallacies, this book is my least favorite account of the Eisner Era!

Prince of the Magic Kingdom is a pretty straightforward book. In 300 pages, Flower provides a background chapter on Walt Disney and his formation and expansion of his company. He provides a short biography of Eisner from childhood to Paramount. This is followed by the story of how Eisner and Frank Wells came into Disney leadership. The Flower discusses in several chapters Eisner’s first seven years at Disney. This is followed by a discussion of problems during the Eisner Era. He concludes with a prediction that the Eisner/Disney story will have a happy ending!

There are two things I find really difficult to deal with in this book. They are facts and assumptions. Erroneous facts include but are not limited to that there is no forced perspective in Walt Disney World, that the movie Howard the Duck was animated in the same way as Who Framed Roger Rabbit, and that the Hollywood focused theme park in Florida is the Disney-MGM Studio Tour (shortened in the index to Studio Tour). Flower is the only author that I have read who has shortened Stanley Gold’s name to Stan Gold. And on page 12 he states that Roy O. Disney was 13 years older than Walt, and 8 years on page 51 (the correct age gap). The second issue is assumptions. These include that Walt Disney was cryogenically frozen, that Roy O. Disney served as an obstacle to all of Walt Disney’s endeavors, that Michael Eisner revived Julia Roberts’ career in Pretty Woman (her 6th film released in her first 3 years of big screen stardom), and so many more that just put my teeth on edge.

Additionally troubling to me is that this book at times feels like a title about Imagineer Randy Bright and not Eisner. Flower uses numerous Bright quotes, who was likely one of the few insiders to speak to him. These quotes begin to make it feel like this book is not about Eisner but about edifying Bright. More sources could really have been helpful. There are enough factual errors and bad interpretation that some of his statements really require a source to back his facts that I have not seen elsewhere. He does cite Storming the Magic Kingdom as his source for chapter six, which is great because the chapter reads like a summary of that better researched and written book.

Flower’s biography is written seven years into the Eisner/Wells era. So none of the “bad” choices have happened yet and Eisner was still the hit of Hollywood. And Wells was still in the leadership partnership. With this being said, Flower’s writing comes off as the writing of a fan, not a journalist or impartial historian. I think the use of the word Prince in the title says it all. Flower writes as someone who is a fan and his attempt at the end of the book to be more critical of Eisner fails. This is especially true since some of the warts he provides were not directly related to Eisner. While other books written later in Eisner’s career are highly critical, following the wave of the day. Flower is on the other end of the criticism spectrum and at times it feels like Eisner could do no wrong. And as noted he does incorrectly predict that Eisner would have a happy ending at Disney!

Of all the Michael Eisner related books that I have read recently, Prince of the Magic Kingdom is honestly the one I would avoid. There are factual errors and author assumptions that one should simply steer clear of. When I think of those quickly written biographies of Disney stars of the moment, much like we saw with the Jonas Brothers, I see Prince of the Magic Kingdom as the Eisner equivalent!

Friday, July 19, 2013

Between Books - Camp

Former Disney Chief Executive Officer Michael Eisner recounts his nostalgia for a key portion of his childhood in Camp. Eisner’s family has a long standing relationship with Camp Keeywaydin in Vermont, a camp for boys that teaches canoeing, sports and other lifetime skills. Eisner tells the story of Camp Keeywaydin through the lens of several people. First, he tells his story with the camp from the first day his father introduced the camp to him and invited him to follow his footsteps as a camper. Second, he tells the story of two Orange County, California, youth who travel across country to leave their urban home for the wilds of Vermont. Third he tells the story of Alfred “Waboos” Hare, the late co-owner and camp director of Camp Keeywaydin who spent the majority of his life from childhood to his death at age 96 in 2011 investing in young people through his support of the camp. Eisner weaves between these stories in trying to provide a picture of the importance of camp experiences in the development of young people.

Camp is a love letter. Eisner was greatly impacted by his years at Camp Keeywaydin as both a camper and staff and believes that Waboos helped shape Eisner into the man that he became. Additionally, Camp was written as a distraction as it was composed during a time in which Eisner was under fire as the leader of the Walt Disney Company. So Eisner’s focus is firmly on Camp Keeywaydin with only a few glancing references to Disney properties. Eisner does succeed in sharing his love of the camp experience and his belief that it helped shape him and others into becoming men. For the Disney fan who is looking to understand Michael Eisner better, one will be satisfied. But for the Disney fan wanting more of the inside story of Disney leadership, one will be greatly disappointed.

The story itself is somewhat uneven. Eisner weaves between the story of several campers including himself. The chapters are not exactly in parallel throughout the book and each camper does not receive equal time in Eisner’s presentation. The writing however is very clear and easy to read. Eisner uses stories from camp to help demonstrate how adult values, such as honor, were taught through experiences at Camp Keeywaydin.

In the final analysis Camp helps readers to better understand the passions of author Michael Eisner. However, it does not provide great insight into the entertainment industry or Disney history. My most shocking revelation in the book was that Eisner’s son Breck directed the move Sahara, which I love! Those interested in the outdoors and the camp experience will likely enjoy this book. As a former camp counselor I honestly found it shocking that I never related any of my own experiences with Eisner’s. But those wanting to dig into the Disney experience will likely be disappointed.

Monday, July 15, 2013

Between Books - Work in Progress

Between Books - Work in Progress

Work in Progress: Risking Failure, Surviving Success by Michael Eisner with Tony Schwartz covers the life and career of the former Disney CEO and President up until 1998 when Eisner was still under Disney employment. The book covers Eisner’s family and childhood, college years, and his early days in the entertainment business. The text outlines Eisner’s career at ABC and how he rose to a place of prominence where he caught the eye of key Disney stakeholders who proposed the partnership of Eisner as CEO and Frank Wells as President to help revive the Walt Disney Company in 1984. The authors then detail the key decisions that Eisner and Wells made in film, television, and theme parks to spark a renaissance of Disney creative content. Eisner describes his reaction to Wells’ death in 1994 and the interpersonal problems that emerged with head of Disney film production Jeffrey Katzenberg and Wells’ replacement Michael Ovitz. The book closes with Disney acquiring its own television network ABC and a statement by Eisner that he was entering a period of remaking Disney again. Ironically, one of the executives mentioned in those final pages Bob Iger would have a key role in this revisioning and leadership after Eisner’s departure.

The first question as one looks at the cover is what does “with” mean for the authorship of this book. The book is written from Eisner’s point of view. And Eisner recorded tapes of himself speaking on his life for Schwartz to use when crafting the book. Additionally, Schwartz both interviewed Eisner and Eisner associates, even following Eisner around as he went through his daily Disney duties. The heavy lifting of crafting the paragraphs and sentences was completed by Schwartz. But this is still Eisner’s book. The book contains his opinions, his memories and his perspective. And it is Eisner who had final approval.

Work in Progress is a very straight forward narrative that is shaped by Eisner’s opinions. So as a historian, one must note that pro-Eisner bias the book contains. The book was relatively slow reading for me as it moved from event to event. But I think a big part of the pacing was the formatting. The type is relatively small and each page is packed with words. So, I would warn you do not expect to go racing through this book.

Yes, this is Eisner’s book. So in those disagreements that he had with Katzenberg and Ovitz, it is his side of the story that makes the pages. I have my own opinions with both circumstances whom was more to blame in each of these dysfunctional relationships. But I think almost everyone would have to agree all parties had some blame. The sad thing is Eisner makes it clear throughout the book that his partnership with Katzenberg and his friendship with Ovitz were relationships he valued. Yet they were shattered. I do believe from my reading that Eisner did have a roll in these relationships moving into a downward spiral, but Eisner presents himself as relatively blameless. For example, I would find it difficult to present Katzenberg as the good guy in their disagreement due to his prickly and driven personality. But perhaps Eisner did not clearly communicate, which is not found in these pages. Additionally, Eisner clearly in Katzenberg’s settlement after leaving the company exhibited resentment. But these interchanges are not found in Work in Progress.

I do find that one figure that Eisner provides full praise for is the late Frank Wells. As a kid, I had no idea who Frank Wells was. Unlike Eisner, Wells did not enter my home on a weekly basis. He truly was the silent partner of a vibrant partnership, one that left a lasting mark on Disney’s legacy. If Eisner was attempting to fill the role of Walt Disney as a creative voice, Wells was filling the shoes of Roy O. Disney providing the financial and business expertise. Eisner makes it clear that he relied on Wells and was devastated by his death. And the neutral reader can wonder if Eisner was able to react professionally appropriate to his death as he attempted to balance stock holder needs with his own personal grieving. Readers must wonder if the negative picture of Eisner that some have today would have been different if the Eisner/Wells team had continued into the future as the two planned.

Another figure who receives praise through the book is Roy E. Disney. Eisner and Wells would have looked to Disney as one of the figures who helped land them the jobs of a lifetime. And professionally, he was a figure who helped link their leadership team to the Disney brothers. Eisner argues throughout the book that Roy E. Disney was a key figure in understanding both the Disney culture and animation. But one must wonder if the praise would be tempered by Eisner due to Disney’s role in pushing him out of Disney management after the publication of this book.

There are two projects that Eisner provides deep detail on that were failures. First, Eisner discusses in depth, often justifying, the development of Euro Disneyland. While Eisner’s early Disney career may have been marked by successes, Euro Disneyland was clearly an early financial failure due to cost overruns. Eisner makes the case for why Disney needed to pursue the European Park and notes some of the obstacles like French thoughts on the American park that they had to overcome. Though many of us Disney fans may dream of visiting this park and its take on classic Disney attractions, we must remember that it was a huge financial risk. Probably more interesting for me is his discussion of Disney’s America. For a park that was never built, Eisner shares much of the planning of this failed park. Eisner clearly believed in the concept and wished to see the Virginia park make it past the blue sky stage. The reaction from the affluent community and historians to Disney’s potential treatment of history is a fascinating tale for those who have immersed themselves in this discipline.

Work in Progress is not a quick read. It is a biased read. And regardless of the marketing blurbs on the book cover, it’s not a business how to book. For fans of biography and Disney, this is probably a must read. And those who were kids during Eisner’s years as Disney CEO may find this interesting. But it is probably not something that the general public would find great interest in. It cannot stand alone as the definitive work of the Eisner regime, though it does an excellent job of representing the Eisner viewpoint of these vibrant years.

Friday, July 12, 2013

Between Books - Disney War

Between Books - Disney War

I think it is pretty safe to say that I enjoy the book Disney War by James B. Stewart. Disney War was my gateway book that opened the door to all my Disney book craziness. And it is one of my top five Disney books, one that recommend to even non-Disney fans on a constant basis.

Disney War tells the story of the rise and fall of the Eisner era at the Walt Disney Company. Stewart details the roll of Roy E. Disney in rebelling against Disney leadership which had been under his cousin by marriage, Ron Miller, and advocated for new leadership in Michael Eisner and Frank Wells. Stewart then details the rise of Disney under the new leadership team. With the death of Frank Wells and the disruption of the relationship between Eisner and Katzenberg and the legal proceedings that followed, Eisner began to lose his shine with Disney stockholders including Roy E. Disney. Stewart then outlines Roy E. Disney’s Save Disney campaign which would eventually lead to Eisner stepping down. Ironically the man who helped orchestrate the Eisner Era would also help to close it.

Disney War is one of my top five Disney history books. One of the biggest reasons for this is Stewart does an excellent job of weaving a story. It is as story that involves both the artistic nature of the company, including Howard Ashman’s impact, building of a movie slate, acquisition of ABC, tales of board meetings and the fight between Eisner and Katzenberg. Stewart draws you into the story and I found it difficult to put it down! And it is a book that I have recommended several times and have found even casual Disney fans to enjoy!

I read this book before I was Between Disney. So for me it was an eye opener. I had an impression of Eisner in my mind that this book rocked. I had heard on podcasts some criticizing Eisner but did not understand that potshots they sent his direction. While I did not come to share their opinion, I did begin to understand why Eisner’s decision –making was being criticized. And it introduced me to the silent partner of Frank Wells, who I found attractive to me in the same way I was attracted to the personality of Roy O. Disney when reading books about Walt Disney. And the story of how the relationship between Eisner and Katzenberg disintegrated into chaos is fascinating.

The hero of this book to me in many ways is Roy E. Disney. It is he who would “save” the company his father helped found. And with the rise of a new leadership hierarchy, it is his voice that helped preserve animation. I think that fans are not aware of how close Eisner was of shuttering that unit. And in the end it was Disney again whose voice led to the end of the Eisner era. Though he never held the top post himself within the company, Roy E. Disney’s voice was one that could not be ignored.

Disney War continues to remain one of my favorite Disney books. And I will continue to recommend this text which can be purchased at a Between Books friendly price on the secondary market. If you are a Disney fan, you need to read this book!

Monday, July 8, 2013

Between Books - Storming the Magic Kingdom

Between Books -Storming the Magic Kingdom

Storming the Magic Kingdom: Wall Street, the Raiders, and the Battle for Disney by John Taylor outlines a time when Disney’s fortunes did not look as bright as they do today. The long-term future of Walt Disney Productions in 1984 was in fact very much in doubt with questions of leadership and even if the company could be held together. And at the center of it all was the struggle between the heirs of Walt and Roy O. Disney and the future of their creation.

The majority of the action takes place in the board and conference rooms of 1984. With an undervalued stock and questions of leadership, corporate raider Saul Steinberg saw an opportunity in Disney stock. Steinberg potentially could have considered purchasing the company and liquidating the component parts for a massive profit. In an effort to defend the Disney legacy the company leadership explored a number of options including increasing the amount of stock available, a stock purchase of the land development company Arvida and the eventual paying of Greenmail (purchasing stock at above the market price) to Steinberg to eliminate his desires to purchase Disney. With the threat of a takeover eliminated however the company became embroiled in a leadership tug of war between the supportors of Walt’s corporate heir and son-in –law Ron Miller and Roy’s heir Roy E. Disney. In the end, the Roy side of the family would win out with the removal of Miller as Disney’s CEO and the hiring of Michael Eisner as CEO and Frank Wells as President.

This is a really enjoyable book. Now, it’s a book filled with behind the scenes details about stock purchases, proxy votes and board meetings. But Taylor does a good job in making those of us who do not discuss corporate finance on a daily basis educated to the realities of this world. And despite the fact that Storming the Magic Kingdom is an institutional history, Taylor helps bring the personalities of those in his pages alive. I could not help but feel saddened as Ron Miller faced the harsh reality that a company that he had spent his entire adult life at, that was his family’s legacy, no longer wished him to lead them into the future. Any Disney fan, regardless of business background, can pick up this volume, understand it, and might even find themselves learning better how the stock market works!

Really a big lesson for me in this book is that business is about people and personalities. I think that Roy E. Disney, who I do admire, is a good example of this fact. Throughout his Disney career he was marginalized by others. Some spoke of him as the idiot nephew. And I believe some may have forgotten that his father was a co-found of Disney. The fact that Roy E. Disney had a long history of being around and working in entertainment did make him comfortable with forming his own ideas for the company. These ideas were largely ignored! The fact that he was soft-spoken also led some to think that he was unintelligent. Instead he, and I, believed himself to be an intelligent man and a guardian of the Disney tradition. And Roy E. Disney believed change was part of his Uncle’s legacy. What one wonders is what could have happened if Roy E. Disney’s voice had been heard instead of mocked in the 1970s. Additionally, his cousin by marriage was seen by some as the handsome and entitled heir. Instead, in these pages he comes off as a man who has not been fully prepared for the role he has, but also another man who saw innovation as part of the Disney tradition and was concerned with expanding the business of his late father-in-law’s creation. Again, one can play what if’s if the Walt and Ron sides of the family could have come together. Disney history shows that the company runs best with two leaders with clear roles (Walt and Roy, Michael and Frank), could Ron and Roy E have led the company into a new renaissance together instead of waiting for the Eisner Era? Instead we now study a bad situation where all sides honestly must take a share of the blame.

Another proof of personality winning out or at least equaling is Roy E. Disney’s lawyer Stanley Gold and Arvida owner Sid Bass. With the purchase of Arvida, Bass became a substantial Disney stockholder. The fact that the two men found common interests allowed the two to build a friendship. That friendship would be a key to the alliance lead by Roy E. Disney to remove Miller and put their chosen management team into place.

Storming the Magic Kingdom is a fascinating story of the evolution of the Walt Disney Company. At the beginning of the tale the company was firmly in the hands of the intellectual heirs of Walt Disney. After attempts to raid the company and then placing through stockholder pressure a new leadership team was put into place with outsiders Eisner and Wells. That change led to a new peak of Disney entertainment and financial gains. But most of all Storming the Kingdom is a story about how business is really about people.

Friday, July 5, 2013

Oswald Opines - Eisner Era Prelude

Eisner and His Kingdom

I have said this a few times, I am too young for Uncle Walt and what I remember is Uncle Mike.  One of the things that shocked me when I took my first steps into the Disney community was the strong opinions around Michael Eisner.  The often harsh things I heard about this former Disney CEO and President did not align with my memory.  And I was not paying attention during the unpleasantness that surrounded his departure.  Why I kept asking was "everyone" so mean to Michael?

Then I read Disney War!  We will talk about this book later, but what I will mention now is it made it clear to me that the Eisner Era was not all puppies and unicorns.  There were real issues, and these issues both lead to Eisner's departure and the negative feelings directed at him.  I will not say that I agree with those opinions.  But I will say I understand better now what happened to make fans so polarized around him. 

Betweenland over the next few weeks is going to experience an Eisner takeover.  Here we will explore a number of books that chronicle the Eisner era.  And at the conclusion I will share my opinions that have been formed with spending months within these books. 

I hope you enjoy this journey with me and will share your opinions or changing opinions on this important Disney figure.

Monday, July 1, 2013

Dreaming Disney - Welcome to Level Seven

As many of you know, I am now podcasting about one specific Disney property, the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

I have not posted about all of our episodes, but episode 5, "I Am Iron Man, Too" is packed with Disney goodness!  I at one point joke that we recorded 4 hours on Walt Disney!

Okay, it was not quite that much.  And we did not about things other than Walt Disney, like the actual action in Iron Man 2.  But in this episode I make it clear....Howard Stark is Walt Disney.

I hope you enjoy it.

And if you want to stay up to date about the Marvel Cinematic Universe and Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. you can follow us at