Many a baby boomer has a soft spot in his or her heart for Walt Disney and the entertainment company he founded. Millions grew up watching the various television programs he hosted (such as The Wonderful World of Disney) and produced (The Mickey Mouse Club), visiting the theme parks he built, and watching his classic films. His avuncular presence as television host was comforting and inspiring. Thus, after his death in 1966, the slow, steady decline in the quality of Disney animated feature films was observed with dismay.
Michael Eisner, a successful former executive at ABC, then Paramount, was brought to Disney to rejuvenate it artistically. He became head of the company in 1984. After he took over, the decline of animated features reversed, and the Walt Disney Company returned to its former eminence with animated films such as The Little Mermaid (1989), Beauty and the Beast (1991), Aladdin (1992), and The Lion King (1994). Later in the 1990’s, Disney bought the ABC network, and Eisner began hosting Disney’s new weekly show. His wooden, shallow cheeriness was a far cry from Walt’s warmth and relaxed expertise. A gradual but unmistakable decline in the quality of traditionally animated Disney films was, in part, overshadowed by the spectacular rise of Disney’s Pixar Studios, groundbreaking pioneers in computer animation.
Problems with Eisner’s management style were revealed as former executives filed lawsuits after leaving the company. Disney’s attempts to build theme parks around the world came to a crash with the financial insolvency of EuroDisney. When Pixar’s contract with Disney ran out, negotiations over its renewal became bitter and acrimonious. Roy Disney, Walt’s nephew, who because of his physical resemblance to Walt was a tangible reminder of the Disney legacy, was forced into resigning from the board of directors. All these elements contributed to a contentious shareholders’ meeting in 2004, when a record-setting 43 percent of shareholders (many of them lifelong Disney fans) voted against Eisner’s continuing as chairman of Disney. The complicated story of his rise and fall is masterfully told by James B. Stewart in DisneyWar.
“Complicated” might be too mild an adjective to apply to the Byzantine intricacy and depth of this saga. A list of “cast members” at the beginning of the book helps the inattentive reader, and in general Stewart keeps the protagonists and chief subsidiary characters and companies differentiated. Near the end, when the number of Disney acquisitions has ballooned, and Stewart is writing not only about Disney and its main branches but also the ABC network, ESPN, Miramax Pictures, Pixar, and Dreamworks SKG, even a conscientious reader can be forgiven for having to check occasionally who Angela Shapiro and Anne Sweeney are.
Throughout the work, however, the focus is on Eisner. His career before Disney is outlined. At ABC television, Eisner claimed responsibility for the hit shows Taxi, Happy Days, and Laverne and Shirley. At Paramount film studios, Eisner and studio head Barry Diller made Saturday Night Fever (1977), Grease (1978), and Flashdance (1983). Eisner himself came up with the concept for Beverly Hills Cop (1984). From Paramount, Eisner took with him to Disney his production mind-set, as well as his assistant, Jeffrey Katzenberg. Formerly, when the owner of Paramount had suggested firing Katzenberg, Eisner assured his assistant that they were “partners for life.” This proved true, in the sense that people can be partnered in enmity as well as in amity.
Eisner’s filmmaking philosophy was encapsulated in a famous 1982 memo in which he used a baseball analogy to declare that studios were better off not swinging for the fences with every film, looking for a gigantic hit on the order of Star Wars (1977), but producing a steady stream of “singles and doubles”: more modest but nevertheless profitable motion pictures produced on economical budgets. The successful films would be “high concept” pictures, whose plot or point could be encapsulated in a few short sentences. For the most part, this is the strategy Eisner followed in his first years at Disney. He bragged that his order at Paramount to director James Brooks to stay on budget for his film Terms of Endearment (1983) made it, according to Brooks, a better picture. Eisner was not averse to supporting a few big-budget gambles, the sort of package...
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