Jim on Film: Disney War
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Early in James B. Stewart’s captivating account of life at Disney appropriately titled Disney War, there is a time, albeit short, when one can’t help but admire Michael Eisner. In recounting the early days of Euro Disney in which profit projections were foolishly miscalculated and Eisner overspent to the tune of $4 billion, Stewart paints a portrait of a Michael Eisner who is like a Walt Disney without the fiscally tempering Roy O. Disney at his side. While Eisner was almost single-handedly responsible for driving costs to such an extent, there is something deeply admirable about a desire for quality and the continuation of a legacy. However, it isn’t long before things go awry and Eisner loses respect by quickly pointing fingers at those around him. The Euro Disney problem becomes the first round in a marathon boxing match in which Eisner takes pounding round after pounding round after pounding round, a match in which he fights himself and always comes out the winner, no matter how many black eyes, bruises, and swollen body parts he’s inflicted upon his own company.
In fact, in reading Disney War, one can’t help but think of China’s beloved Chairman Mao. This is not to discount the tragedy of millions upon millions of deaths and lives ruined in Mao’s horrific reign of terror, but there are some inescapable and fascinating parallels between these two men and their leadership styles. Just as Chairman Mao started a strong reign which improved the lives of the people of China but then followed it with the implementation of policies that brought the nation to its knees during the Great Leap Forward, the Cultural Revolution, and other political reforms which resulted in figuratively cannibalistic attacks and the alienation of his former comrades and most loyal advisors, all the while holding onto outdated political beliefs and remaining outside criticism until his death, Michael Eisner begins Disney War with a strong reign at Disney, followed by policies and disastrous decisions which resulted in figuratively cannibalistic attacks and the alienation of his former friends and most successful and loyal executives, all the while holding onto outdated philosophies on film-making and remaining outside widespread criticism until his departure.
In fact, as told in Disney War, the poor management decisions made by Eisner during his reign as well as the alienation and attacks of creative and talented executives unfold like an I Love Lucy marathon, eliciting laugh after laugh as costly bad decisions sprout like dandelions after a spring rain. When the errors are not directly Eisner’s doing, they are very often a result of Eisner’s dogfight management culture in which changes in roles, responsibilities, and chain of command are frequent, unpredictable, and, at times, backstabbing. Among the oopsies recounted are the selling of most of the profit rights to the phenomenally successful Touchstone film The Sixth Sense; the passing on of Survivor, The Apprentice, and CSI to become mega mega-hits on other networks; and the waste of billions on the parting of Jeffery Katzenberg, Michael Ovitz, and other executives. Of course, it’s important to be fair to Eisner because every executive and actor has passed on projects that have gone on to be phenomenally successful, but for Eisner and his company, the lost profit potential and the money wasted on mismanagement reads like an A-list of hot Hollywood properties.