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Former Walt Disney Company CEO Michael Eisner received the lion's share of the credit when he reversed the company's declining fortunes in the mid-1980s, although charges of a lack of vision and an isolationist management style later led to his humiliating, forced departure in 2005. Beginning his career at the big three networks - NBC, CBS, and ABC, respectively - Eisner followed former boss Barry Diller over to Paramount Pictures in 1976. During his time as the studio's president and CEO, he oversaw an impressive string of hit films that included "Saturday Night Fever" (1977), "Star Trek: The Motion Picture" (1979), and "Beverly Hills Cop" (1984). After Diller's departure, Eisner felt he had hit the career ceiling at Paramount and began courting Disney for a position, ultimately consummating the relationship when he was named chairman and CEO in 1984. Under Eisner's stewardship the company experienced a startling transformation, beginning with its reemergence as the leader in animated feature films with the release of "The Little Mermaid" (1989). With studio chairman Jeffrey Katzenberg, he made Disney's live-action film company, Touchstone Pictures, a force to be reckoned with at the box office....
Former Walt Disney Company CEO Michael Eisner received the lion's share of the credit when he reversed the company's declining fortunes in the mid-1980s, although charges of a lack of vision and an isolationist management style later led to his humiliating, forced departure in 2005. Beginning his career at the big three networks - NBC, CBS, and ABC, respectively - Eisner followed former boss Barry Diller over to Paramount Pictures in 1976. During his time as the studio's president and CEO, he oversaw an impressive string of hit films that included "Saturday Night Fever" (1977), "Star Trek: The Motion Picture" (1979), and "Beverly Hills Cop" (1984). After Diller's departure, Eisner felt he had hit the career ceiling at Paramount and began courting Disney for a position, ultimately consummating the relationship when he was named chairman and CEO in 1984. Under Eisner's stewardship the company experienced a startling transformation, beginning with its reemergence as the leader in animated feature films with the release of "The Little Mermaid" (1989). With studio chairman Jeffrey Katzenberg, he made Disney's live-action film company, Touchstone Pictures, a force to be reckoned with at the box office. Major acquisitions, such as that of independent studio Miramax, sports cable channel ESPN, and major network ABC all added to the company's expanding fortunes. There were, however, several missteps along the way, including the Euro Disney debacle, and the highly publicized, litigious departures of Katzenberg and Michael Ovitz. These unflattering events, combined with charges of mismanagement by the late Walt Disney's nephew, Roy E. Disney, eventually led to shareholders forcing Eisner out of the company in 2005. Never known to shrink from a challenge or fail to create opportunities for himself, Eisner rebounded by forming his own investment company, hosting his own talk show, and developing a comedy series for television, making it clear that, to paraphrase the immortal Mark Twain - rumors of his (entrepreneurial) death had been greatly exaggerated.
Born Michael Dammann Eisner on March 7, 1942 in Mount Kisco, NY he was the son of second generation Jewish immigrant parents, Margaret and Lester Eisner, Jr. The scion of a well-to-do and highly successful family, Eisner's great-grandfather, Sigmund, was one of the first uniform suppliers to the Boy Scouts of America, his mother the child of a co-founder of the American Safety Razor Co., and his father a successful lawyer, entrepreneur, and public servant. As a child he grew up in the posh Park Avenue area of Manhattan, attended the Allen-Stevenson School, and later, The Lawrenceville School, a historic and exclusive preparatory academy near Princeton, NJ. After graduating from Ohio's Denison College with a degree in English and traveling throughout Europe for a brief period, Eisner accepted a clerk's position with NBC, prior to making the move to CBS, where he placed commercials in children's programming. In 1966, he signed on with ABC and began climbing the corporate ladder in the children's programming department. Eventually heading up the division, Eisner was instrumental in making the network the bright spot of Saturday morning television. As his reputation grew, so too did his list of promotions. In 1968, he was named Manager of Specials and Talent, and by year's end, was Director of East Coast Program Development. In 1971, Eisner was appointed President of Daytime Programming, and as the decade went on, established himself in primetime as well, eventually rising to the post of Senior Vice President of Primetime Production and Development for ABC Entertainment. Among the feathers in his cap were such mass appeal sitcoms as "Welcome Back, Kotter" (ABC, 1975-79) and "Happy Days" (ABC, 1974-1984).
Having become chairman of Paramount Pictures in 1974, Barry Diller, Eisner's former boss at ABC, lured Eisner away with the position of studio president in 1976. Together, Diller and Eisner were a formidable pair, overseeing such monster hit films as "Saturday Night Fever" (1977), "Grease" (1978), "Star Trek" (1979), "Raiders of the Lost Ark" (1981), "48 Hours" (1982), "Flashdance" (1983) and "Beverly Hills Cop" (1984). By the time of the latter film's release, Diller had left the studio and when Eisner was passed over as his replacement, he began looking to the horizon. That led him to Walt Disney Productions, a company whose fortunes in recent years had been waning and whose future seemed uncertain. After a series of skillful negotiations with Roy E. Disney - lookalike nephew of Walt and son of company co-founder Roy O. Disney - and other influential stockholders, Eisner secured the position of CEO at the Walt Disney Company. Hired along with Eisner was former Warner Bros. executive Frank Wells, who was installed as company president and Chief Operating Officer. Given nearly free reign by the shareholders, Eisner and his senior partner soon produced amazing results. First steps included raising admissions at the theme parks and a concerted effort to capitalize on their main assets by selling the classic Disney feature films on videocassette. Also integral to the revitalization of Disney was the focus on new animated feature film production, overseen by studio chairman Jeffrey Katzenberg. Early on, Eisner made moves to become the face of the company, exemplified by his decision to become the host of "The Disney Sunday Night Movie" (ABC, 1986-88). The film and anthology series, previously hosted by Walt until his death in 1966, would continue under various name changes (including "The Wonderful World of Disney") and with various networks until 2008.
On Eisner's watch, Disney also began devoting more resources to TV production and enjoyed a substantial hit with "The Golden Girls" (NBC, 1985-1992), a long-running sitcom targeted at older audiences but attracted a wide demographic swath. Working with Katzenberg, Eisner and company pushed further into adult fare with its Touchstone Pictures and Hollywood Pictures divisions. Video sales and periodic theatrical reissues of the company's classic animated features such as "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs" (1937), "Pinocchio" (1940), and "Cinderella" (1950) added to profits with negligible outlay. Moreover, the steady release of new feature-length animated films - beginning with the seminal "The Little Mermaid" (1989) - brought in a bonanza in box office and merchandising receipts. At the time of its release, "The Lion King" (1994) was the most successful animated feature film of all time, and "Beauty and the Beast (1991) was that rare animated film to receive a Best Picture Oscar. Theme park and resort revenues - despite a well publicized slow start with the French-based Euro Disney - also contributed to Disney's enormous fiscal success, and had since the mid-80s. By 1995, company assets included the cable outlet The Disney Channel; Walt Disney Television; Touchstone Television; Miramax Films; Hollywood Records; Hyperion Books; four theme parks (two in the U.S.; one in France; one in Japan). Under Eisner's leadership, the company even diversified into professional sports with the acquisition of an NHL hockey team, the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim. Eisner's team at Disney was also responsible for two of the most popular sitcoms of the mid-1990s: "Home Improvement" (ABC, 1991-99) and "Ellen" (ABC, 1994-98).
Eisner achieved his greatest coup in August of 1995 when he made a surprise announcement of Disney's $19 billion takeover of Capital Cities/ABC. The second largest deal in corporate history was pulled off without any leaks to the media. Disney emerged as the world's largest entertainment company with a new jewel capping its collection of assets. The purchase of Capital Cities gave Disney not only the No. 1 TV network at that time but also eight TV stations, 21 radio stations, cable channels including ESPN, seven newspapers, as well as magazines and other ventures. Disney now possessed a ready international distribution arm for its product. Moreover, ABC already had a strong reputation for family entertainment. Eisner had come home to the site of his humble beginnings at the network - only now, he was the man in charge. Success, however, at times, can breed misfortune. After a grand opening in early 1992, Euro Disney was in financial ruin by August 1993; low attendance, poor management and bitter cultural clashes were to blame (Euro Disney would recover a few years later under its new name, Disneyland Paris.) In April 1994, Eisner's longtime partner, Frank Wells, was killed in a helicopter crash while heli-skiing in the Ruby Mountains in northeast Nevada. While coping with the sudden personal loss and the stress of trying to fill the void at Disney, Eisner underwent an angiogram after complaining of chest pains and had quadruple bypass surgery.
With the formidable Wells gone, many industry insiders considered Katzenberg - who had done such wonderful work in the film division - to be the natural choice to replace Wells as president. Katzenberg felt the same way, and when it became clear that his name was not on the list of candidates, the executive went into business for himself, forming DreamWorks SKG with fellow media moguls Steven Spielberg and David Geffen. Once partners, Eisner and Katzenberg were now rivals, and by all accounts, their friendship ended somewhat acrimoniously. Virtually alone at the top of the Disney heap, Eisner left nothing to chance. No detail was too small or to large - in particular, naming Wells' replacement; a detail that company shareholders were eager to have clarified, as Disney stock fell to its lowest price in years. In August 1995, Eisner brought in old friend Michael Ovitz from Creative Artists Agency to become president of Disney. The frenetic, excessive - and some claimed, ethically-challenged - deal broker soon ran afoul of Eisner, however, and by 1997 Ovitz was ushered back out by the CEO. When Ovitz secured a buyout of his contract for more that $120 million, Disney's Board of Directors cried foul. For his part, Ovitz claimed that the money had already been a part of the agreement that had enticed him to join Disney in the first place - a fact that did not sit well, or make Eisner look any better, in the eyes of the board. A lengthy lawsuit ensued, and nearly 10 years later, Ovitz' buyout was upheld. Meanwhile, in the midst of so much corporate intrigue and dysfunction, Disney continued to churn out such theatrical hits as "Toy Story" (1995) and "A Bug's Life" (1998), thanks in no small part to its partnership with the innovative digital animation company, Pixar.
While on the outside it looked as though Disney was flourishing, the foundations of the venerable entertainment institution were on increasingly shaky ground. Katzenberg took Disney to court for breach of contract, asking over $500 million in compensation, but settled for an estimated $275 million in 1999. The trial became a public soap opera, with cat fighting and insider intrigue dominating an otherwise mundane corporate trial. Meanwhile, Eisner - a man known for his incredibly competitive nature - was consolidating his power, often to the detriment of relations with the board and shareholders, in particular, Roy E. Disney. The high-ranking member of the board of directors was the last remaining Disney at the company, and for several years he had chafed at the way Eisner had run things. In 2003, Disney resigned his position with the board, citing Eisner's lack of focus on the animation division, his mishandling of the theme parks and ABC, and his managing the company with a "soulless, corporate mentality" as reasons for his departure. Not willing to leave the fate of Disney in the hands of a man he was convinced did not have the company's best interests at heart, Roy Disney began to publicly call for Eisner's resignation, going so far as to devote a web site - SaveDisney.com - to this express purpose. In the spring of 2004, at a Disney shareholders meeting, Roy E. Disney and another former board member, Stanley Gold, convinced the majority of shareholders not to renew Eisner's appointment to the board of directors. In response, the board removed Eisner from his chairmanship position at the company, although his job as CEO remained his - for the time being.
Despite a substantial turnaround at ABC, thanks to the hits "Lost" (ABC, 2005-2010) and "Desperate Housewives" (ABC, 2004- ), Eisner was increasingly under fire, and the cries for his ouster only became more vocal. The embattled CEO further proved himself unable to maintain relations with outside entities when his partnership with Bob and Harvey Weinstein ended after a bitter 12 years in 2005. Though Disney retained their company, the founding brothers were pushed out the door and even forced to give up the name Miramax - a moniker honoring their parents, Miriam and Max Weinstein. Eisner at last succumbed to the pressure, and in early 2005 announced that he would be stepping down from his post at Disney, one month before his contract was set to expire. One of his last ceremonial duties was cutting the ribbon at Disney's 11th theme park, Hong Kong Disneyland. His resignation became official in September 2005, at which time he severed all professional ties with the company that he had helped bring back from the brink of irrelevancy more than 20 years earlier. Eisner's longtime assistant, Bob Iger - who had eventually taken over as president after the departure of Ovitz - was named as Eisner's replacement as CEO.
Speculation ran rampant as to what Eisner would do next after more than two decades at Disney. In a surprising, if not necessarily monumental move, the former CEO made an October appearance on the venerable discussion program "The Charlie Rose Show" (PBS, 1991- ), as a guest host. His interviewees that night were actor John Travolta - star of some of Paramount's biggest hits during Eisner's tenure with the studio - and Barry Diller, his old boss. Impressed by his helming of the show, executives at CNBC later announced its new talk show, "Conversations with Michael Eisner" (CNBC, 2006- ). The once-a-month series, in which Eisner held convivial interviews with various celebrities, artists, and business leaders, was filmed at the same New York NBC studio where he had begun his career as a lowly clerk more than 40 years earlier. Other post-Disney enterprises included his venture capital investment firm, The Tornante Company, funded with seed money accumulated during his time as the head of the "House of Mouse." Among the company's ventures were Veoh, an online video sharing site, similar to YouTube, and Vuguru, an online video production company. Additionally, Eisner's company purchased the trading card manufacturer The Topps Company in 2007, and soon began developing a feature film based on its famous bubble gum comic strip character "Bazooka Joe." Returning to the world of television, Eisner developed and executive produced the stop-motion animated comedy series "Glenn Martin, DDS" (Nickelodeon, 2009- ), the story of a dentist who plies his trade from a Winnebago as he attempts to bond with his family on a cross-country road trip.
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In 1985, his first full year at Disney, Eisner earned $2,120,000 in salary and bonuses; in 1986 he earned $2,600,000, only $750,000 of which was in salary. His 1989 income was $9,589,360. According to The New York Times (August 1, 1995): "In fiscal 1994 he made about $10.6 million in salary, bonuses and restricted stock awards. The previous year, he received no bonus but exercised stock options valued at $202 million and sold them for a profit of $127 million."
Eisner received the IRTS Gold Medal Award in 1992.
From Cindy Adams'column in the New York Post (August 7, 1995): "Disney's buyout of ABC really began 41 years ago."
"In 1954 ABC and Disney made a deal for "The Wonderful World of Color", later renamed "The Wonderful World of Disney". The weekly show ran seven years. So successful was it that Robert Kitner, the network's then head honcho, took Walt Disney aside and said 'This is so great that . . . who knows . . . if things work out well, you may own this company someday.'
"And Walt said: 'I like that idea. Let's go for it.'"
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