Who’s the leader of the club who carried the Walt Disney Co. into the billion-dollar black-ink zone with box-office whoppers? Who extended the Mouse Empire into television networks and cruise ships and pro hockey and Pixar and Miramax? M-i-c-h-a-e-l E-i-s-n-e-r. Eisner is also the man whose corner-office conflicts cost Disney dearly, generating friction with Pixar and, eventually, Disney’s board, which showed him the door. He walked through it in 2005, after 21 years as Disney’s chief executive.
Media is still his game. He started as an NBC page, on his way to executive suites at ABC and later at Paramount Pictures. At Disney, he stepped in front of the cameras, taking on the role that Walt had held as host of the company’s signature TV show. Life post-Disney put him back into the host chair, this time at a CNBC chat show.
And, between corporate board meetings, he has also taken a chair at the computer keyboard, most recently as the coauthor of a book, with Aaron Cohen, “Working Together: Why Great Partnerships Succeed.” Its roots are in Eisner’s work with his Disney partner, the late Frank Wells, and he went looking for other business duets in a world of soloists. First, I want to establish that I’ve been trying to talk to you for some time, lest anyone think I’m sucking up because of the recent talk that you might be running The Times’ parent company, Tribune.
[ Laughs] It’s as unlikely that you would suck up as it is that I might run Tribune, let’s put it that way.
I have to ask — what about Tribune?
It’s typical media speculation. Somebody found out I bought some Tribune debt as an investment, and obviously I’m interested in Tribune doing well so I get my debt back and make a profit, maybe. To the extent that anyone wants to ask me what I think or who I think would be good to run the company, I’m certainly available for that. More than that, it’s early speculation.
I’d be glad to hear who you think would be a good candidate.
I don’t know!
What do you make of the fundamental shift in the public’s mind about online content and media — that it should all be free? Where is that going to take us?
I think that’s over. That was the Napster era. I think it was a moment in time. I think most of what’s called the developed world understands that content has value. That doesn’t mean they don’t want it less expensively and more efficiently and everywhere all the time, but I think the idea of free is no longer the dominant thinking of the day.
So you think the pay model will be accepted?
It depends. Things that are commodities with no brand and no editorial expertise — it’s just news or information or sports or weather or stock quotes — the premium pricing for those things is over forever. It’s just too available everywhere. But paying for gifted people, one-of-a-kind books or movies or television shows, for opinions — not only is it not over but it’s valuable. All of this will have to evolve.
Your book is about how business partners work together, like you and Frank Wells at Disney, Warren Buffett and Charlie Munger. You cite an exemplary moment in partnership, the moment before filmmakers Ron Howard and Brian Grazer won the best picture Oscar. Howard groaned with a stomachache, and Grazer pulled a Tums out of his tuxedo pocket.
All of these partnerships are interesting in their own way. [I] only concentrated on partnerships that were long lasting, and the ups and downs, the success and failure together. They reached the pinnacle of their success [together], and what did they need? ATums.
Nowadays the image of the CEO seems to be someone who’s part cowboy and part serial killer, answerable to no one. Your book is about the opposite model: sharing power.
One of the reasons Shakespeare was so revered [was that] he took people in very high places and made them very human, with all the tragedy and comedy that goes with that. We all tend to think that these companies are monolith[s], that they’re all [operated] by some divine choice, and of course that’s not true. They’re all run by people, and [if the leaders] don’t have their act together, they can destroy a company. My premise is that you’re better off with partnerships, the checks and balances. There’s no envy or jealousy between each other.
You make it sound almost magical.
Many marriages are the same way. People have a common interest; they enjoy being in the foxhole together, the dark humor that comes of failure and then the high-fiving that comes of success. They protect each other; they trust each other. Sometimes people who act alone and don’t have a sounding board start believing their own words, get arrogant, do things that are over the line, finally destroying themselves. It’s not always the case; many single practitioners do have a strong [counter] voice somewhere in their life.
How does the partnership model dovetail with the creative competition you encouraged at Disney?
What I encouraged [was] creativity, competition, but not necessarily competition inside your own organization. Competition outside, certainly. I think one of the reasons we never got in trouble in any ethical arenas is that we were always checking each other, putting the smell test to everything beyond the legal test. And it was just more fun to talk to someone on a daily basis about the ups and downs.
You write that the entertainment business is one of the most ethical you’ve found. That’ll raise a lot of eyebrows.
That’s because the media and everybody just loves looking with a microscope at movie stars, paparazzi trailing people to nightclubs and all that. I grew up in the television business; if you weren’t of your word, you couldn’t make it. It just moved too quickly. Contracts followed deals by a long time.
Barry Diller and I [were] trying to figure out why it was so ethical compared to other businesses. Maybe because in the early days, all broadcast stations were licensed by the government; there were very high hurdles to jump over to get a license. Or maybe it was just the nature of the business.
I found the movie business to be similar. Businesses where you keep having to go back to the same people over and over again, whether managers or talent or reporters — you have to deal honestly with people, otherwise you lose all credibility, and those people who don’t tend to be weeded out. I’ll hold up the entertainment business any day of the week
Your investment company owns Topps — baseball cards and bubble gum. Is there a sentimental attraction for you?
Just because it’s a digital age doesn’t mean that every other age is to be forgotten. There’s a sentimental hold, but it’s also a realistic business. If you’re dealing with sentimentality, which was [the situation when] I came to Disney in 1984, then you’re going to be a museum curator.
Speaking of baseball, are you a Dodgers fan?
I’m a New York Giants baseball fan. Unfortunately, they left [ New York for San
Francisco] about 40 years ago, which is still very annoying to me!
Every company seems to have a distinct culture and a character; if Disney were a person, how would you describe its character?
I just don’t know whether your question is valid. Companies are made up of people, and people change. I learned in my high school business course — the only one I took — that companies are immortal, companies live forever, or they should. People don’t, so companies change. Disney was established by a man who had a high sense of excellence and real true family values. I think we were able to maintain and grow it. Bob Iger is doing the same. Companies take on the personality of the groups of people that work in it, not just the founder or the present leader.
I guess I asked the question in part because of Roy Disney, Walt’s nephew, who died last year. He had his own vision of what the soul of Disney was; he brought you in but, years later, mounted a shareholders’ revolt to get you out.
He was very interested after his uncle died in preserving the company and thought he was having trouble doing that, and he brought me in. I worked very closely, kept him informed for many, many years. Toward the end, I didn’t really believe in what he wanted to do creatively inside the company, and I think he resented that, but I don’t think I found him ever struggling for the soul of the company.
Is Disney still a presence in your life?
I have a big fondness for Disney. I talk to all the people at Disney; I’m still very friendly with most of the senior managers. Most of the senior managers are still senior managers that I put in place or helped to put in place. I think it’s being well run. Did I want to stay on the board? No, because I’m doing things that would be in conflict if I were a board member.
Did you watch Bugs Bunny, the competition? Come on, you can ’fess up.
Of course! I never saw a Disney film until I had a child. I wasn’t really brought up on Disney. In Manhattan, when I grew up, we went to Broadway. I didn’t know anybody in the entertainment business; I wasn’t involved in the entertainment business; I probably knew as much about Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck as I did a Disney character.
You did a talk show; would you do it again?
I did something like 100 interviews and enjoyed it but got very busy doing a lot of [other] things. I enjoyed the interviewing process a lot. Did I like the arranging and all the organization? Not as much as I did when the camera turned on. You do a lot of research, it takes a lot of time, and if you’re going to do it well, you have to find the things that interest you that haven’t been asked a thousand times, and that’s not easy.
So who’s your next partner?
That’s to be decided. My wife will remain my next partner, for sure.