For me my Between Book obsession started with Disney War. And it is also a book that helped open my eyes to the story behind the story within Disney. In the end, Disney is a business no matter how much we want to vilify or glorify the magic. The following are just a few of the insights I have picked up on my reading of the Eisner era:
- It’s Never Just Business: When reviewing the business choices made by Disney Board Members, staff and stockholders it becomes clear that emotions are an equation that has to be taken into consideration. I think one incident that brought this forward to me is Roy E. Disney’s agreement to return to the Board after his first resignation if Card Walker was moved off of the Executive Committee of the Board. Walker, a Walt man, was someone who had criticized Disney in the past behind his back and had marginalized him. As part of the agreement to bring the Roy side of the family back to the Board, Disney agreed but required that Walker’s influence would be lessened. The idiot nephew had a hard time forgetting the mockery of the past. And so this business decision was made exclusively on emotion not business needs. This is just one of the many decisions during the Eisner era based on emotions not logic. Another great example would be Michael Eisner’s refusal to not pay Jeffrey Katzenberg his bonus instead of settling for a much lower price.
- Team of Rivals: Disney’s success during the Eisner ear was not built on the backs of one man but several. Michael Eisner may have been a creative genius, but he needed a Frank Wells to provide business know how. And despite any faults he may have displayed, Eisner needed Katzenberg to push and harass the studio staff to complete quality productions. Katzenberg was a force of nature that no one fully replaced at the Studio. And it took Roy E. Disney to help preserve animation as a unit within the company in the face of new leaders who did not see the business sense to retain animation. Much like the Allied high command during World War II, a group that distrusted each other but mostly retained their posts during the war, the Disney team was one based on tension, genius and stability. And once the stability was rocked by Wells’ death the tension increased and the genius evaporated. Disney was very lucky that during half of the Eisner era they had a hard working smart leadership who did not self-destruct sooner because all of the ingredients were needed to move the company forward.
- Pointing Fingers: Everyone was to blame, and I mean everyone. There is a tendency to paint Wells as a saint. But it is his lack of documentation that lead to the debacle of the Katzenberg law suit. Likewise as prickly a personality as Katzenberg could be, Eisner was unclear and failed to provide proper praise to his Studio head (a tendency Katzenberg also shared). I grew up seeing Uncle Mike as a hero. I did not see the Eisner, until now, who ruined a friendship with Michael Ovitz through poor communication and lack of purpose. Now I realize that he was human and should be both praised and criticized for the decisions he made.
- Fingerprints: Eisner’s fingerprints are all over the company today. Before the Eisner/Wells era the company was seen as a family studio with some theme parks. During the Eisner era movie production was expanded, new theme parks were built in the United States and abroad, property management became a key business, and the first acquisitions were added in companies like ABC. The Disney that we have today that is strong and diverse must be attributed to the foundational leadership of Micheal Eisner.
- Teammates: Disney leadership works best when there is a strong creative leader and a strong business leader. This is the model that Walt and Roy O. established. And Disney’s renaissance during the Eisner Era, even with their failures, was kicked off again by the partnership of Eisner and Wells. I ask myself if we are there today and if the model has changed with Bob Iger as the business leader and John Lasseter, Kathleen Kennedy, and Kevin Fiege as creative leaders?
For me the Michael Eisner Era is still a special time in Disney history. I never had Uncle Walt! But Eisner did fill that role for my generation. I am not ready, even reading about all of his warts, to jettison Eisner’s place in Disney history. Instead, I think I will continue to enjoy the advancements Michael Eisner brought to Disney, while attempting to avoid as much as possible the mistakes he made.
Nobody is perfect after all!