Magazine article The Spectator

Lord of Misrule

Magazine article The Spectator

Lord of Misrule

Article excerpt

Lord of misrule DISNEYWAR by James B. Stewart Simon & Schuster, £20, pp. 572, ISBN 0743263812 £18 (plus £2.25 p&p) 0870 800 4848

According to the business press, the age of the 'imperial CEO' is now behind us, swept away by a wave of scandals and collapsing stock prices. But for much of the 1980s and 1990s, Michael Eisner was an emperor's emperor.

Recruited from Paramount in 1984, the Walt Disney Company's new chairman and chief executive officer immediately set about shaking up the poorly performing company. He boosted cash flow by significantly increasing theme park admission prices. He released Disney's classic animated features as home videos, realising hundreds of millions of dollars of value from the Disney library. He launched a highly successful chain of stand-alone retail stores. And, along with Walt Disney Studios chairman Jeffrey Katzenberg, he presided over what James Stewart in DisneyWar calls 'the most astonishing studio turnaround in Hollywood history', leading a renaissance in both animated features - with hits like Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast and Aladdin - and live action films. By 1992, Disney's profits had risen to 1.4 billion.

But troubled times lay ahead. Against nearly unanimous advice, Eisner decided to locate Disney's new European theme park near Paris, rather than in sunnier Spain, and then saddled the subsidiary with $3 billion of debt by over-engineering almost every aspect of the park's design. He fought with Katzenberg: despite years of working together at Paramount - where Katzenberg had been unkindly referred to by New York magazine as Eisner's 'golden retriever' - Eisner grew to mistrust him at Disney: 'I've got to get rid of him,' Eisner told his friend, super-agent Michael Ovitz. 'I can't take him anymore.' Having fired him, finally, in 1994, Eisner then refused to pay Katzenberg the profit-sharing annuity guaranteed to him by his contract.

Earlier that year, Disney's president and COO, Frank Wells, died in a helicopter accident. Wells, says Stewart, acted as Eisner's 'check and balance, his rudder, his sounding board', and played a critical role in making sure strategies got executed and disputes mediated. Without Wells, Eisner's impulsive nature had free rein. He hired Ovitz as president, but immediately after making the deal he said to writer Tony Schwartz: 'I think I just made the worst mistake of my career.'

Indeed he had. After he and Ovitz failed to develop an acceptable working relationship (a phrase which only hints at the full story of suspicion, lies, naiveté, incompetence, and betrayal), Eisner fired him too, and was contractually forced to give Ovitz a $140 million severance package for his 16 months of work - a package that has now landed Eisner and some of his directors in a Delaware courtroom, accused by shareholders of abuse of power and lack of oversight.

Eisner's Disney seems pervaded by a culture of over centralised authority and everpresent mistrust. Lines of accountability are blurry, and uncertainty infects every role: Eisner tried to retain top programming executive Ted Harbert by promoting him to chairman of ABC, but when 'he couldn't really explain what his duties as chairman were', Harbert left. Eisner habitually instructed executives to report on the conversations and activities of their bosses - an exasperated team-building consultant hired for an executive retreat declared, 'You're not a team at all. You're not even a group. …

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