The Mouse House: Michael Eisner: Good Executive? (Maybe?)
theme song by Buddy Baker, Richard and Robert Sherman and owned by Walt Disney Records
This is going to be one of my most opinionated and controversial articles I think I’ve ever written. In the interest of full disclosure, the information presented will be my own impressions of events and basic research from viewing “Waking Sleeping Beauty” and reading the Mouse Tales books by David Koenig. I have not read the more in depth books specifically about Michael Eisner, such as his autobiography and the book “Disney War”, which chronicles the business feud between Eisner and Roy E. Disney in the mid 2000s. As much as I would like to have read these books I have been putting this article off for months and I need to finish it or it will never get done. Also these books are both extremes of bias. The bias in Eisner’s autobiography is very obvious and “Disney War” while incredibly well researched and documented is presented with a major anti Eisner slant. This article is hopefully a more balanced view of Eisner as opposed to bogging down his reign in all of the legitimately awful business decisions he made (direct to video sequels anybody?).
To put things into context the Disney company was in a dark age after Walt died. The problem with the absolute leadership and creative control Walt had is that when the absolute creative leader dies it’s chaos. Story teams and animators had no one to approve their ideas. It was a ship without a captain and Walt’s son in law Ron Miller did what he could to keep the ship afloat NOT steer it in any direction. The entire Disney organization ground into a period of incredible stagnation. Once the last projects that were greenlit by Walt (Florida’s Magic Kingdom, Space Mountain, Thunder Mountain from Thunder Mesa concept) were made the parks began to stagnate with flimsy changes and no significant upgrades/ additions. The studio suffered worst of all with the animated films being very run of the mill with characters and settings that no longer captured the hearts and imaginations of audiences. The live action films while having some charm were and still are seen as outdated relics enforcing family values that either don’t exist anymore or have gone through a complete upheaval. The films were seen as out of touch with reality or the times. There was no room for these films despite their charm in a cynical, and jaded Post Vietnam and Post Watergate world. These films were also considered to be too boring or too stupid to even be considered an escape from reality as well. With corporate raiders fully prepared to shut down the company and divide the assets up Roy E. Disney left the board and had a plan to cement the company’s autonomy and hopefully return it to greatness.
Roy E. Disney had been classmates with Frank Wells and Roy stated in an interview that Frank Well’s business sense and Michael Eisner’s quirky eccentricities reminded him of Walt and his father Roy O. Disney. Roy E also stated that the way to bring the company out of stagnation was to get new enthusiastic blood in and of course they had to know how to run a film company, with Eisner working at Paramount this fit the bill. In 1984 Eisner was brought on as Chairman and CEO and Frank Wells was appointed as President and COO of the Walt Disney Company. The period of these two leading the company is the most profitable era in the company’s history (No I don’t count the MCU or Star Wars)
With the history completed let’s get to the matter at hand. Michael Eisner is a fascinating individual. At Disney he was incredibly enthusiastic and was willing to learn the Disney history and Disney way, but was also brave enough to evolve the Disney way. While this caused a lot of tension with the old guard who worked under Walt this was absolutely necessary to break out of the horrible stagnation mentioned earlier. Before Eisner many of the business and creative decisions that could make or break a film or attraction were based solely on the phrase “What would Walt have done?” The only one who properly knows the answer to that question is dead. Roy E. Disney states in “Waking Sleeping Beauty” that to base all of your decisions on a dead guy is something you can’t do. That it was ridiculous. The old guard as much as I love their work and respect them were so narrow sighted here. They were so afraid of disappointing Walt and not living up to his legacy or standards that they didn’t take any risks or push their stories, characters, theme parks or company forward. Which is ironic because it goes against Walt’s innovative and futurist thinking. Eisner was willing to make the films resonate more with audiences and be more contemporary without cheaply resorting to being “hip and cool”. Eisner also pushed to salvage the animated movies and release a film every year with opportunities for the new generation of artists to prove themselves, share their ideas and most importantly defend them. Eisner was also willing to take major risks with the parks, but he first needed to create a solid foundation with feature animation.
Eisner’s Hollywood connections also helped diversify the talent pool along with assistance from Jeffrey Katzenberg’s connections. This is how we get Touchstone Pictures making more adult oriented movies without sullying the Disney name and having actors like Tom Hanks and Robin Williams having a strong connection to Disney. Classic films like “Dead Poet’s Society”, “Good Morning Vietnam”, “Splash”, “Turner and Hooch”, “Pretty Woman”, “Father of the Bride” and its sequels, “Who Framed Roger Rabbit”, “Nightmare Before Christmas” (nowadays it has the Disney name) “The Color of Money”, “Ed Wood”, “The Ernest movies” and many more are a part of the Touchstone filmography! This invigorated the company having another studio bring in Hollywood talent to make great movies and provide funds to make other aspects of the company a reality. Also this studio solidified relationships with actors landing them iconic roles in Disney projects like Robin Williams as the Genie and Tom Hanks as Woody. Even starting a partnership with Jerry Bruckheimer who would help make the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise a reality. We all owe it to Michael Eisner and the new teams he brought to the company. His unorthodox thinking was the kind of leadership and CEO that Disney desperately needed at the time.
Eisner had a particular mindset on the parks that is incredibly controversial. This mindset made Eisner particularly unpopular among the Imagineers and many guests during the mid 90s all the way to the end of his tenure as CEO. When Eisner was learning the Disney company he decided to go to Disneyland and took his teenage son Breck with him. At the end of the trip he wanted his son’s honest opinion of the park. The young Eisner’s response was basically that Disneyland was lame and stupid. Now as unthinkable and horrible a response as this may be you have to understand that this was before all the “awesome” rides at Disneyland and the other parks. This was before Star Tours and the Indiana Jones Adventure. This was before Splash Mountain, Tower of Terror, Expedition Everest and Rock n’ Rollercoaster. Dark rides are great and have a timeless charm, but do a poor job at tonally balancing the parks and Matterhorn, Space Mountain and Thunder Mountain weren’t enough. Walt’s vision for the parks was so that parents and children could have fun together. While that is incredibly admirable and should be ideal the fact of the matter is that children, teenagers, young adults, adults, middle aged adults and senior citizens all have very different tastes. It is hard if not impossible to make rides and attractions that appeal to all of these diverse groups perfectly let alone consistently for a long period of time. How can you say the park is for everyone when teenagers are alienated, adults are alienated and parents while appreciative of a few rides (Pirates and Haunted Mansion) tolerate the boredom for the sake of their kids? Eisner sought out to change this and bring in these groups that thanks to stagnation, cultural shifts and Disney being out of touch were alienated from the parks and didn’t go. For the most part I agree with Eisner’s mindset and his initiative to tonally balance out the parks.
Legendary Imagineer Tony Baxter also believed in this alienation at least to some extent. Being a young adult himself at the time he believed that the children growing up in the 70s and 80s no longer looked to Disney films as a primary source of imagination, magic and wonder. He believed the true magical myths of the time were in George Lucas properties like Star Wars and Indiana Jones. He had been trying to make the Lucas properties a part of the parks for some time, but a deal hadn’t been reached. With Eisner and his Hollywood connections and a new mission to change the parks the deal with George Lucas was reached and the Renaissance of Imagineering began. In 1986 Captain EO was released to capitalize on the Michael Jackson phenomenon and is still a nostalgic favorite to this day whether it’s brought back or taken away. Then in 1987 Star Tours opened and was massively successful! So successful in fact the park stayed open for 60 hours!! Just to accommodate the number of guests wanting to see the new attraction. The Lucas success train continued with the Indiana Jones Stunt Spectacular in Disney’s Hollywood Studios which evolved to the Indiana Jones Adventure ride in Disneyland. Eisner’s parks initiative also sparked the massive expansion of Walt Disney World in general with the opening of back then Disney MGM Studios (which Eisner may or may not have blatantly stolen from Universal because Universal pitched the studio park idea to Paramount where Eisner was working at the time) and Disney’s Animal Kingdom plus the two water parks Typhoon Lagoon and Blizzard Beach. Not to mention the Downtown Disney concepts and the plethora of new resort hotels on both coasts. The biggest examples of resort expansion being the Grand Floridian Hotel and Spa and the Grand Californian Hotel and Spa, Swan and Dolphin Hotel etc. The Imagineering teams were on a roll and many of the coolest things one can do in a Disney park were created by a tiny suggestion or idea that Eisner or Imagineering had.
Now all this makes it look like Eisner was liked in Imagineering, but I specifically said he wasn’t. One of the many reasons was because a lot of Imagineers especially the old guard didn’t like the fact that Eisner was trying to cater to older demographics ruining the family vision that Walt had. Based on my earlier comments you know what I think of that mentality. Still that doesn’t mean everything was perfect!
In the world of business (I know barely anything about business, but even I know this) success is often your greatest enemy. Success while initially great and opens up opportunities also is a breeding ground for arrogance, egotism, and complacency. With the massive success of the Animation Renaissance and the new park attractions Michael Eisner was a victim of all of the horribleness that comes with becoming successful. The only person who could have possibly prevented Michael Eisner from becoming a victim of success was Frank Wells. Peter Schneider in “Waking Sleeping Beauty” states that “Frank was kind of the peacemaker”. He would balance out the egos of Roy E. Disney, Michael Eisner and Jeffrey Katzenberg. After his tragic death from a helicopter crash in 1994 the peacemaker was gone and everything fell apart. There is a very uncomfortable scene in “Waking Sleeping Beauty” where at the memorial service for Frank Wells both Roy E. Disney (he was also as much a victim of success as Eisner) and Eisner get into a pissing match ONSTAGE! They couldn’t let their egos go while at a colleague’s and friend’s FUNERAL! UNPROFESSIONAL! NOT COOL! HORRIBLE! Shortly after “The Lion King” premiere Jeffrey Katzenberg resigned from Disney, and the Animation Renaissance with some exceptions went with him.
As if this wasn’t bad enough 2 years earlier in 1992 Disneyland Paris opened and even to this day that park still costs Disney money. The economic failure of then called Euro Disneyland cannot be overstated. It had a massive ripple effect throughout the entire company and had major negative consequences on the park division of the Walt Disney Company. Why Euro Disneyland failed is an article in and of itself so I won’t talk about it here. While Eisner was very enthusiastic and initially creator friendly he was way more of a businessman than Walt. At the end of the day Eisner knew this was all about numbers and dollars. In his earlier years this was more in balance, but after Paris this slowly started to go away and it became about the bottom line and EXTENSIVE AND MAJOR cost cutting in every aspect of the Walt Disney Company. The parks suffered the most with many projects either being completely scrapped or cut down and not achieving anywhere near their full potential. This is where Disneyland’s infamous Tomorrowland 1998 “redesign” comes from. This is why Dinoland USA in Animal Kingdom is a cheap carnival knockoff that loses relevance with each passing second. This is why the tv shows kept getting worse like “Quack Pack” and the “Mighty Ducks” cartoon. This is where the Disney sequels spawn from. With the massive failure of Paris Eisner was not willing to properly fund projects so that Imagineers and the film teams could make quality products. It was the complacency of the Disney name and past success and have merchandise take care of the rest. This led Disney into a second dark age of stagnation that is debatably worse than the last. Roy E. Disney once again planned to change gears by bringing on Bob Iger as CEO and Jon Lasseter as Chief Creative Officer.
On a positive note it is very possible Eisner greenlit Kingdom Hearts so that is something I’m eternally grateful for!
I’m not going to go into his park blunders because each blunder could potentially be a whole article. I may talk about these in the future.
That is the rise and fall of Michael Eisner. This article ended up being about 3 times longer than planned because Eisner and the events and teams of people surrounding him are so fascinating that the article just expanded. To be honest though this article is meant to display context for future articles on Tomorrowland that I’ll be writing soon. When I eventually talk about Tomorrowland and I mention Eisner’s mindset on the parks you as a reader will know what I’m talking about thanks to this article. The context isn’t over yet because the next article is about why Euro Disneyland failed because that effected SO MUCH of why Disney is the way it is and gives a reason for all of the permanently shelved, cancelled projects and projects that morphed into something else. That failure is so significant and explains A LOT! Once the Paris article is done then I will start on my Tomorrowland saga of articles.
In the meantime enjoy a list of films from Touchstone Pictures that are Disney films by proxy that you might NEVER have known were technically Disney films!
This list is taken directly from the Disney Wiki
The Color of Money (1986) (Yes the Paul Newman and Tom Cruise movie)
Good Morning Vietnam (1987)
Can’t Buy Me Love (1987)
Dead Poet’s Society (1989)
Turner and Hooch (1989)
Pretty Woman (1990)
Dick Tracy (1990)
The Rocketeer (1991) (Now it’s under the Disney name)
Father of the Bride (1991)
Sister Act (1992)
3 Ninjas (1992)
Ed Wood (1994)
Kazaam (1996) (Thanks Disney for giving us a rapping Shaq)
The Preacher’s Wife (1996)
Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion (1997)
Con Air (1997)
Armageddon (1998) (Yes Armageddon)
Enemy of the State (1998)
10 Things I Hate About You (1999)
Deuce Bigelow: Male Gigolo (1999) (OH GOD we have Disney to thank for Rob Schneider!!)
Bicentennial Man (1999)
Shanghai Noon and Shanghai Knights (2000 and 2003)
Gone in 60 Seconds (2000)
Coyote Ugly (2000)
Unbreakable (2000) (Yes, the Shyamalan movie!) (distributed by Touchstone)
O Brother Where Art Thou (2000)
Pearl Harbor (2001)
Signs (2002) (Yep more Shyamalan) (distributed by Touchstone)
The Hot Chick (2002) (Really!!?? More Rob Schneider!!??)
Gangs of New York (2002)
Under the Tuscan Sun (2003)
King Arthur (2004) (the Clive Owen and Keira Knightly one)
Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (2005)
The Step Up series up till 3D (2006, 2008, 2010)
Real Steel (2011)