Michael Eisner Biography
March 7, 1942 • Mt. Kisco, New York
CEO of Walt Disney Company
When Michael Eisner came on board as Disney's chairman of the board of directors and chief executive officer, or CEO, in 1984, many observers wondered if he could handle the business end of running an entertainment company. In his previous jobs as an executive at ABC and as president and CEO of Paramount Pictures, a major Hollywood film studio, Eisner had developed a reputation as a creative genius, an idea man. As the leader of the legendary Walt Disney Company, Eisner proved that he could balance creativity with sound business sense. He revitalized the company's animated films division, expanded and improved the Disney theme parks, acquired major television networks and cable stations, and made the Disney brand an almost universal presence, found everywhere from fast-food restaurants to toy stores to cruise ships.
In a 2000 interview with the Harvard Business Review, Eisner spoke of the need to weigh creative ideas against business demands, to create magic but at the same time keep within a strict budget. "In a creative person, just as in a creative company," he stated, "you have to have ... a creative outlook and one that embodies common sense, side by side, inseparable. If you don't, then you get neither art nor commerce." After Eisner had spent nearly twenty years at Disney, many of the company's investors began to feel that he was no longer maintaining that delicate balance between art and business, and that he had sacrificed some of Disney's special qualities for the sake of improving profits. Eisner came under attack from many on Disney's board of directors as well as members of the public who owned stock in the company, and in early 2004, he was ousted as chairman of the board. He kept his position as CEO, but many in the industry wondered how long he could continue at the helm of Disney.
"A leader, in my opinion, really has four roles. You've got to be an example. You've got to be there. You've got to be a nudge, which is another word for motivator, really. And you've got to show creative leadership—you have to be an idea generator, all the time, day and night."
Starting at the bottom
Michael Dammann Eisner was born in Mt. Kisco, a small town north of New York City, in 1942. His father, Lester Eisner Jr., was a Harvard-educated lawyer and an investor in real estate, and the family was quite wealthy. Eisner's parents placed a strong emphasis on social graces—Eisner wore a sport jacket and tie at family dinners—as well as on education and culture. They encouraged their children to read often, and the family frequently attended the theater. Eisner's interest in theater continued during his years at Lawrenceville School, an expensive boarding school in New Jersey, where he was in a theatrical club and pursued acting. During his college years, at Denison University in Ohio, Eisner again found himself drawn to the theater. Deciding that he did not want to be an actor, he began writing plays, one of which was produced by the school's drama club. During the summer between his junior and senior years of college, Eisner had a job as a page, or assistant, at NBC, a job he obtained through his father's friendship with the television network's then CEO, Robert Sarnoff. The job was neither glamorous nor important, but it laid the foundation for Eisner's long and celebrated career in the entertainment industry.
After he graduated from Denison in 1964, Eisner returned to NBC, working as a Federal Communications Commission (FCC) logging clerk, keeping track of the times that commercials aired. He then moved to CBS, where he was responsible for placing commercials during children's programs as well as such shows as The Ed Sullivan Show and Jeopardy. Feeling restless and eager for a more important job in television, Eisner sent out hundreds of resumes. He received one reply, from a twenty-four-year-old executive at ABC named Barry Diller. Diller hired Eisner, and in the fall of 1966, Eisner began working for ABC, where he would spend a significant part of his career. The following year he married Jane Breckenridge, a computer programmer; they would go on to have three sons together.
Express lane to the top
Eisner rose quickly through the ranks at ABC, becoming the head of daytime and children's programming by 1971. He created two long-running soap operas during that time, One Life to Live and All My Children, as well as launching the cult-favorite educational series Schoolhouse Rock. During that time, ABC became the top-rated network on Saturday mornings, when their children's cartoons aired. As an executive developing prime-time shows a few years later, Eisner had a critical role in delivering the long-running hit show Happy Days as well as such 1970s classics as Starsky and Hutch, Barney Miller, and Welcome Back, Kotter. During his time at ABC, Eisner helped bring the network from its third-place ratings slump to the first-place position.
In the spring of 1976, Paramount Pictures, one of the major film studios in the United States, hired Eisner as president and CEO; his former coworker at ABC, Barry Diller, was chairman of Paramount's board of directors. Paramount was struggling at the time, in last place among the studios, but it took Eisner just two years to reverse the company's fortunes, bringing it to the top of the list. He distinguished himself there as a studio head who skillfully controlled costs while also contributing to the creative end of filmmaking, overseeing script development and other aspects of film production. Under Eisner's guidance, the studio released such hits as Saturday Night Fever, Raiders of the Lost Ark, The Bad News Bears, Grease, and Beverly Hills Cop.
Walt Disney: The Man behind the Mouse House
Although Walt Disney died in 1966, his presence is still felt both within the walls of the Walt Disney Company and in the hearts of fans worldwide. He invented the concept of movie-length cartoons, in the process bringing to life such fairy tales as Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Sleeping Beauty, and Cinderella. He was also responsible for some of American popular culture's most enduring characters, including Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck, and Goofy. Disney established the theme parks Walt Disney World and Disneyland, which have endured as popular vacation destinations for tourists from all over the world.
Born in Chicago, Illinois, in 1901, Disney grew up on a farm in Missouri, later moving to Kansas City. He began drawing at a young age, incorporating into his creations the many animals on the family farm. He learned basic drawing skills from a course he completed by mail and from classes he took at local museums. After volunteering with the Red Cross during World War I, Disney began his career drawing illustrations and creating primitive animated cartoons for an advertising agency. He moved to Hollywood in 1923, with few possessions and no prospects. His brother, Roy, already living in California, supported Walt emotionally and financially, and the two set up shop together. With the new company struggling and desperate for a break, Walt developed a cartoon character named Mortimer Mouse; his wife, Lillian, suggested he change the name to Mickey, and thus, a legend was born.
Mickey Mouse's first appearance was in a 1928 cartoon short called Steamboat Willie, notable for being the first fully synchronized sound cartoon, meaning that the sound aligned with the actions of the characters. Walt Disney himself provided the voice of Mickey, with drawings by Ub Iwerks. Mickey Mouse was an immediate sensation, and the Disney company could stay afloat. Walt displayed a tireless drive for technical innovation, constantly seeking out ways to improve his cartoon shorts. He also proved to be a creative powerhouse, contributing his own ideas and shaping others' storylines as well.
Disney expanded his company's operations with the opening of a studio where a crew of animators could train and work. In 1937 Disney released Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, the first feature-length cartoon. Taking several years and costing nearly $1.5 million to make—an unheard-of sum in those days— Snow White retains its status as a film classic today. Disney followed the success of this film with other such animated classics as Pinocchio, Dumbo, and Bambi. Disney also achieved tremendous success with live-action family films, with his greatest success being the 1964 masterpiece Mary Poppins. In the mid-1950s, Disney began producing cartoons and live-action programs for television, including The Mickey Mouse Club and Zorro.
After attending an amusement park with his children, Disney began to dream of creating a Disney theme park that would appeal to children and adults alike. He opened Disneyland in Anaheim, California, in 1957. In just a decade, the park attracted nearly seven million visitors. Years later, Disney made plans for a second theme park in Orlando, Florida; Walt Disney World opened in 1971, five years after his death. His dream of developing a city of the future was realized in 1982 with the opening of the Epcot Center (Epcot stands for Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow).
In Disney's assessment, his greatest contribution to future generations was the establishment of the California Institute of the Arts, known as Cal Arts, a college-level school designed to train students in the visual and performing arts. In Disney's biography at the company's Web site, he is quoted as saying of Cal Arts, "It's the principal thing I hope to leave when
In the fall of 1984, Eisner left Paramount to become the CEO of Disney at the request of founder Walt Disney's nephew, Roy Disney. At the time of Eisner's arrival at the Mouse House, the entertainment giant was struggling. Most of Disney's profits came from its theme parks, and even the parks were not doing as well as they once had. The company's films were not successful, and it did not have a strong presence on television. Eisner quickly set about to change Disney's fortunes, and he was tremendously successful: within less than twenty years, Eisner increased the company's annual revenues from less than $2 billion to more than $25 billion. He began by expanding Disney's television programming, approving the sale of old cartoons, films, and television shows to TV networks. He initiated substantial additions and improvements to the company's U.S. theme parks, Disneyland Resort in California and Walt Disney World in Florida. Eisner also approved the construction of two theme parks outside the United States, Euro Disney in France and Tokyo Disneyland in Japan. While Euro Disney initially performed relatively poorly, the Disney parks in the United States became far more successful than in years past. Disney even took to the seas, establishing the Disney Cruise Line with ships acting as floating miniature theme parks.
Disney saw huge profits once it began releasing videotapes—and later, DVDs—of its popular films and flooding the market with toys, clothing, and other products that tied in to the films. The natural next step was to open retail stores to sell these products, and the Disney Store became a staple at shopping malls all across the United States.
Under Eisner's leadership, Disney became a major player in television, purchasing Capital Cities, the company that owned Eisner's former employer, ABC, in 1996. Disney thus also became the owner of another Capital Cities property, the cable sports network ESPN. Disney also owns the cable networks Lifetime, E! Entertainment Television, and others. Eisner established the company's own cable network, the Disney Channel. With hit shows like That's So Raven, Lizzie McGuire, and Kim Possible, the Disney Channel has earned a huge following among kids of all ages.
During Eisner's years on the job, Disney also made a comeback in the film department, creating movies for adults as well as scoring new hits with their traditional animated fare for children. In addition to owning such film studios as Touchstone Pictures, Dimension Films, and Hollywood Pictures, Disney acquired the independent production company Miramax, which went on to create numerous critical and popular successes, including Shakespeare in Love, Chicago, and the Spy Kids series. For several years, it seemed Disney could not miss with its children's fare, releasing one animated smash after another: The Little Mermaid in 1989, Beauty and the Beast in 1991, Aladdin in 1992, and The Lion King in 1994. In the mid-1990s, animated films created on computers began to edge out the traditional two-dimensional animation of the Disney classics, but Eisner had ensured that Disney had a piece of that pie as well. Disney had formed a partnership with Pixar Animation Studios, the innovative company responsible for the computer-animated Toy Story movies, A Bug's Life, Monster's Inc., and Finding Nemo. Disney found new life for its animated classics on the Broadway stage, achieving huge success with the theatrical versions of Beauty and the Beast and The Lion King.
Trouble in paradise
During 1994, Disney's president and Eisner's trusted partner, Frank Wells, died in a helicopter crash. In the years following, highly public battles between Eisner and such top Disney executives as Michael Ovitz and Jeffrey Katzenberg played out in the press. By the beginning of the twenty-first century, Disney was struggling on many fronts, returning to the pre-Eisner days of relying on the theme parks for a significant portion of its profits. After the terrorist attacks in New York City and Washington, D.C., on September 11, 2001, tourism fell off drastically, and even the theme parks' earnings began to dip.
During 2004, Disney's relationships with Pixar and Miramax soured. Pixar, demanding a greater share of earnings from the Pixar/Disney film partnership, refused to sign a new distribution contract with Disney and set about finding another partner. When Disney sought to prevent Miramax from distributing a politically charged documentary, Fahrenheit 9/11, by controversial filmmaker Michael Moore, Miramax's founders, Bob and Harvey Weinstein, found a way to sidestep parent company Disney for the film's distribution. The scuffle over Fahrenheit 9/11 was just one in a series of disputes between Eisner and the Weinsteins, and speculation grew that Disney might be willing to sell Miramax.
Also during 2004, Eisner found himself doing battle with his company's board of directors, some of whom questioned whether he was the right man to lead Disney in the twenty-first century. Chief among his detractors was Roy Disney, nephew of Walt, the same man who had pushed for Eisner's hire back in 1984. Roy Disney, as well as many people who own Disney stock, had begun to feel that Eisner's aggressive selling strategies had robbed the company of much of its magic. Eisner's enthusiasm for "branding"—tirelessly promoting the Disney brand through the creation of sequels for nearly every Disney film or by emphasizing a film's product tie-ins as much as the film itself—had angered devoted Disney fans. At the annual shareholders' meeting in March 2004, thousands gathered to express their displeasure. Roy Disney spoke to the audience, summing up the feelings of many, as quoted in Newsweek: "Branding is something you do to cows. Branding is what you do when there's nothing original about your product. But there is something original about our products. Or at least there used to be." Applause erupted from the crowd. When it came time to vote, 43 percent of the shareholders refused to vote for Eisner's reelection to Disney's board of directors. This vote of no confidence resulted in his being removed as chairman. Eisner remained as the CEO, though many in the industry speculated that his grasp on the company had weakened and he would not remain at Disney for long.
When Disney encountered difficulties at the turn of the twenty-first century, Eisner expressed his confidence that the company would rebound. In an interview with the Harvard Business Review, Eisner stated that while Disney might occasionally miss the mark, the company has never lost the ability to entertain. Speaking of Disney's various theme parks, he told interviewer Suzy Wetlaufer: "If you look at people's faces, you'll see that Disney still knows how to sweep people off their feet, out of their busy or stress-filled lives, and into experiences filled with wonder and excitement. We sell fun and—not to sound arrogant, really just to sound proud—we still do that better than anyone." The problem, according to many investors and Disney insiders, is that Eisner places too much emphasis on the "sell" part of that formula, and not enough on the "fun." Whatever Eisner's future at Disney, few could argue that he has failed to leave his mark. In the years since he took over, Disney has gone from a beloved but struggling company to a media powerhouse with a significant presence in film, television, radio, publishing, and on the Internet—not to mention the more than seven hundred Disney stores and the hugely successful theme parks. Under Eisner's guidance, the company has gone far beyond Mickey Mouse and Snow White. Not every fan appreciates Eisner's influence on the company, but his powerful leadership style has ensured a lasting future for Disney.
For More Information
Eisner, Michael, with Tony Schwartz. Work in Progress. New York: Random House, 1998.
Bart, Peter. "The Ultimate Survivor Mobilizes New Tactics." Daily Variety (March 15, 2004): p. 4.
"Eisner's Resume: A Rapid Rise." Newsweek (September 28, 1998): p. 54.
Jefferson, David J., and Johnnie L. Roberts. "The Magic Is Gone." Newsweek (March 15, 2004): p. 52.
Wetlaufer, Suzy. "Common Sense and Conflict: An Interview with Disney's Michael Eisner." Harvard Business Review (January 2000): p. 115.
"Michael D. Eisner." Disney Online. http://psc.disney.go.com/corporate/communications/bios/Eisner.html (accessed August 1, 2004).
"Walt Disney: A Biography." Disney Online. http://disney.go.com/vault/read/walt/index.html (accessed August 1, 2004).