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DisneyWar [Paperback]

James B. Stewart
4.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (144 customer reviews)

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Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

James Stewart has done it again. The author of the mega-bestselling Den of Thieves, about the 1980s insider-trading scandals on Wall Street, and Bloodsport, the 1990s tale of the Clintons' Whitewater affair, now gives us another epic story, this one culminating in late 2004. With DisneyWar, Stewart turns his investigative and storytelling lens on Michael Eisner and the corporate intrigue which has overtaken the Walt Disney Company in the last decade. He explains how this once-proud institution, long one of America's most admired and well-known businesses, has stumbled in recent years amid a disastrous swirl of egos, personalities, and bad business decisions.

Like one of the roller coasters at DisneyLand, Stewart's epic book takes readers through a wild up-and-down ride as it describes Eisner's regime as CEO. The tale begins with Eisner's early successes rejuvenating Disney's live-action movie franchise and theme parks, the kickoff of the modern animation era with blockbuster hits like The Lion King and Beauty and the Beast, and the cultivation of a highly talented cadre of lieutenants, which reads like a Who's Who of executive talent now dispersed across the Fortune 500: Stephen Bollenbach (Hilton Hotels), Steve Burke (Comcast), Geraldine Laybourne (Oxygen Media), Richard Nanula (Amgen), Joe Roth (Revolution Studios), and so on. Stewart makes clear that Eisner has had a major eye for strong creative content himself, both as a young executive in his pre-Disney years at ABC and at Paramount Pictures and more recently in building partnerships like Disney's extremely lucrative one with Pixar.

Just as he credits Eisner for various Disney successes, though, Stewart assigns blame for the failures, too. The thoroughly researched 534 pages of DisneyWar make clear that his overall verdict on the CEO is negative. Much of the book describes detailed and specific interactions between Eisner and his rivals. Readers interested in the entertainment industry or in the personalities which drive it will not be disappointed. The blow-by-blow accounts of Eisner's feuds with Dreamworks SKG founder Jeffrey Katzenberg, who was his chief aide for nearly two decades, and Michael Ovitz, the superagent from CAA who had been friends with Eisner for even longer than that, are amazingly detailed. They show Eisner to be creative, funny, and charming when he wants to be--and devious, dishonest, and horribly Machiavellian when he doesn't.

Though dispassionate in his writing, Stewart assembles a withering portrait of Eisner as a grasping, self-centered, manipulative, and ultimately self-destructive executive. He shows how the Disney CEO has consistently undercut his potential successors within the company, in many cases drawing on Eisner's own writings and conversations with board members. He shows how Eisner's erratic attitude towards paying severance to former employees--in some cases being overly stubborn (as with Katzenberg, to whom he had a chance to close out for $90 million, but whom Disney ended up paying $280 million) and in others being shockingly lenient (as with Ovitz, who received a $140 million golden parachute after one relatively ineffective year at the company). He shows the overreach of grandiose projects like Euro Disney, and the missed opportunities like Lord of the Rings, Sopranos, and Survivor, on all of which Disney passed.

In the end, Stewart has returned with DisneyWar to what he does best: drilling into a murky and complex subject, capturing an enormous amount of detail through personal interviews, emails, memos, court records, and other data sources, and then weaving together a rich tapestry of people and events to bring others to the same conclusions he has clearly reached himself. Though some readers might tire of the reams of detail Stewart offers--at certain points, the book reads like a gossip rag, with intricate he-said, she-said accounts of individual meetings--most will enjoy it. Beyond the entertainment value, this book also has serious value to students of corporate governance, as it presents a scathing portrait of Disney's captive board of directors and shows what happens with the lack of proper CEO oversight. --Peter Han --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Publishers Weekly

Starred Review. The most explosive chapter of this exceptional, much-anticipated book may be its last, wherein Stewart (Den of Thieves, etc.) indicts Disney chief Michael Eisner on multiple charges: "Eisner squandered Disney's assets" [and] "committed personnel and judgment errors which... in the vitriol and publicity they generated, are without parallel in American business history." Eisner, Stewart finds, is a "Shakespearean tragic character" whose fatal flaw is "dishonesty," which in the author's view led directly to the ruptures with Steve Jobs (Pixar) and the Weinstein brothers (Miramax), the Disney Company's most important partners, and to former animation head Jeffrey Katzenberg's successful $280 million suit against Disney for moneys owed upon his firing. Stewart's DisneyWorld is a land riven by naked ambition and its necessary consequence, hubris, as during his reign (1984–present) Eisner left behind "a trail of deeply embittered former employees."One of Eisner's many achievements—Stewart tosses his subject petals as well as thorns—was the construction of the Team Disney headquarters in Burbank, buttressed by towering models of the Seven Dwarves; but there's no real place for Happy in the Disney world that the author portrays with unflagging precision. Stewart smartly frames his book with personal experience, opening with a description of his difficult training and inept performance in a Goofy suit at DisneyWorld, and closing with several encounters with Eisner (who, amazingly, cooperated with the book in part); at one, Eisner explained to Stewart that "Disney" is a French name, and that a Frenchman would pronounce the name D'Eisner as "Disney." Stewart understands the medieval nature of corporate life and presents business as a clash not only of ideas but of personalities. With a dream cast that includes Katzenberg and fallen überagent Michael Ovitz—both of whom come off no worse than Eisner, which is faint praise—plus heir apparent Robert Iger and ultimate Eisner nemesis Roy Disney (the book's hero, if there is one), Stewart has an astonishing story to tell. His notable accomplishment is that he tells it so well. The book is hypnotically absorbing—nearly 600 dense pages drawing on an impressive array of sources to build what reads like an airtight case against Eisner's leadership. There's much more craft than art here—Stewart's prose and approach are meticulous but lack the empathy and deep insight that can make a character truly Shakespearean; this is journalism told not with a novelist's eye but with a master journalist's—yet that craft is expert throughout and will help thrust this book toward the top of national bestseller lists. (Feb.)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Bookmarks Magazine

Pulitzer Prize-winning Stewart, author of Den of Thieves (1991) about Wall Street insider-trading scandals, and Blood Sport (1996) about the Clintons’ Whitewater caper, offers an “often brilliant” business history and character study with DisneyWar (Washington Post). Stewart, who couldn’t have timed his investigative reporting any better, had inside access to Eisner, who cooperated somewhat. Balanced, informative, and exceptionally well-researched, Stewart provides a compelling tale of Disney’s creative successes under Eisner’s early reign, then his painful missteps (like Euro Disney) and missed opportunities (Lord of the Rings, CSI). Sadly, the details that make DisneyWar so juicy can also make it long, gossipy, and tedious.

Copyright © 2004 Phillips & Nelson Media, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

Review

"Compelling and often brilliant . . . A monumental achievement." (The Washington Post Book World)

"A messy, fractious story complete with its own Seven Dwarfs: Sneaky, Screamy, Pushy, Greedy, Grabby, Nasty and Snarky. Snow White is nowhere to be seen." (The New York Times)

"A deliciously toxic [package] . . . a lust roll in greed and spite. In other words, a good old-fashioned Hollywood production." (Time)

"The fall of Michael Eisner, with its Shakespearean overtones, is a business history, a character study, and a record of how lives are lived at the peak of American business . . . in every way admirable and finely written." (Orlando Sentinel)

"Stewart's story speeds ahead as smoothly as a theme park ride, with a narrative more like a psychodrama than a business book . . . a smooth read." (USA Today)

"[Stewart] weaves the creative, corporate, financial and personality streams of the Disney Co.'s fate into one astonishingly complete and gripping real-life drama." (Houston Chronicle)

About the Author

James B. Stewart is the author of Heart of a Soldier, the bestselling Blind Eye and Blood Sport, and the blockbuster Den of Thieves. A former Page-One editor at The Wall Street Journal, Stewart won a Pulitzer Prize in 1988 for his reporting on the stock market crash and insider trading. He is a regular contributor to SmartMoney and The New Yorker. He lives in New York.

From The Washington Post

To understand the universe of DisneyWar, James B. Stewart's exhaustive study of corporate and personal neurosis during Michael D. Eisner's 21-year tenure as head of the Disney empire, consider this: In 1995, Michael Ovitz -- once the most powerful person in Hollywood, then the president of Disney -- was trying to persuade Disney CEO Eisner that they should give a gift to Robert Iger, then the head of ABC television, to acknowledge his hard work. "Why?" Eisner asked. "He's got a contract. He's not going anywhere."

"Don't you want him to be comfortable, happy in his job?" Ovitz asked.

Eisner seemed to think about that. "Not really," he replied. Thus does Stewart reveal Eisner's management DNA: keep everyone deep in self-doubt, mired in uncertainty, off-balance, their heads swirling with contradictory information. At Eisner's Disney, inducing paranoia was a leadership strategy. As Eisner offhandedly remarks, "I sort of liked stress." Readers of DisneyWar will doubt only the "sort of," and they'll probably laugh out loud.

I did. DisneyWar is a compelling and often brilliant tale of how Eisner kept his own -- and everyone else's -- stress levels churning. To give Eisner the benefit of the doubt, his intent seems to have been to maintain an atmosphere of creativity while containing the roaring, toxic egos of the numerous barons of the magic kingdom. But in the end, it was Eisner's own ego that swamped and infected Disney.

In the interest of full disclosure, Stewart and I have the same publisher, Simon & Schuster, and editor. That said, I believe by any fair measure, DisneyWar is a monumental achievement of in-depth reporting -- tough and scrupulous. It is so comprehensive that I suspect no one will ever have to -- or even try to -- write this story again.

Yet for many readers, the book's clear strength -- its more than 500 pages of detail -- will also be its weakness. Stewart brings a high-resolution microscope to the task -- perhaps too high. He focuses on nearly a hundred characters, and relentlessly examines each major Disney movie, ABC television series and countless Internet and cable deals.

But all this may be needed to underscore two of Stewart's key points. First, notwithstanding all of Disney's vaunted "family values" rhetoric, money drives the train: percentages of profits, payouts and simple greed. Box-office revenue and TV ratings become the ultimate measure of success. Second, Stewart shows that the human toll is significant, dissecting the treatment of everyone from the long-suffering animators (who provide a nice Greek chorus, as if Walt Disney himself were chiming in) to the jousting top executives. The Disney empire was rife with pain, confusion, lying and wasted opportunities. Indeed, DisneyWar shows us corporate leadership so dysfunctional that the book might have been entitled "Playpen" instead.

Still, Stewart has a cool eye and provides careful balance. Disney, he notes, has long been at the forefront of American entertainment and myth-making, from Mickey Mouse and Snow White to a striking recent run of popular animated movies such as "The Little Mermaid," "Aladdin" and "Beauty and the Beast." Stewart carefully charts the company's creative successes, especially in Eisner's first decade at the helm, from 1984 to 1995, which brought a tenfold return for stockholders.

Eisner fell as dramatically as he rose. Much publicity has attended the astonishing spats -- recorded in lawsuits -- Eisner has had with Ovitz (his former best friend, who received a pay-out of $140 million for about a year's work), Jeffrey Katzenberg (the head of Disney's movie studios, who pocketed a settlement of $280 million) and Roy E. Disney, Walt's nephew. These served as a wake-up call. Roy Disney was the board member who helped to recruit Eisner in 1984 then led the revolt against him. Eisner was stripped of the board's chairmanship in 2004, and he has said that he will retire as CEO next year. Stewart treats these sections -- the juiciest parts of the Eisner tragedy -- expansively, and on most pages a reader will wonder why someone at Disney didn't call for straitjackets from a psychiatric version of 911.

But the larger thrust of this book -- and the one that makes it such an important work -- is to call into the question the system of corporate governance, and the legal and moral responsibility of a board of directors to provide adult supervision of the firm it supposedly oversees. Disney was hardly alone; as even a casual newspaper reader knows, the financial pages are filled with tales of runaway CEOs and docile boards. One of Stewart's most memorable "characters" is Stanley Gold, a longtime Disney hand and board member who emerges as one of the book's few heroes. A wealthy lawyer and businessman, Gold finally woke up after years of deceit and bullying by Eisner and provided an unusual degree of introspection. After another director publicly defended Eisner in 2002, calling him "the best CEO in the business," Gold fired back. "We, the Directors, are guilty of not discussing the real issues affecting the Company," he wrote Eisner and his fellow directors. "We have not fully and critically addressed the failed plans of our executives or the broken promises that management has made to the Board and the shareholders over the last five years. We are too polite, too concerned with hurting each other's feelings. . . . we, the Disney Directors, have long been too compliant and uncritical of management's failures."

As with Machiavelli, the real Eisner story is in his technique -- the way the corporate Prince devises a staggering number of gambits to rattle subordinates and competitors, all in order to dilute their authority and enhance his own.

Eisner used several tactics. First was promising promotions (or hinting strongly about them) when he had no intention of following through, something he did to so many people on so many occasions that it seems impossible to count them. Disney's presidency, the number-two position under Eisner, is dangled, promised and withheld, floating throughout the narrative like Cinderella's glass slipper. For example, Eisner told Katzenberg, who had been among his closest colleagues and friends for nearly two decades, "I might consider [promoting you to president] down the road, if you earn it."

The second technique was bullying and accusation. In letters to Irwin Russell, Eisner's attorney (who functioned virtually as a psychiatrist), Eisner let loose a stream-of-consciousness barrage about almost everybody else's inadequacies. When another member of the board, Andrea Van de Kamp, joined forces with the rebellious Gold, Eisner summoned her to his office in 2003 and told her she was a dreadful director. "You are so loyal to Stanley [Gold] it's like you've carried his babies," Eisner said. At another point, Eisner called Steve Jobs, the chairman of Pixar, "impossible to negotiate with" and "a Shiite Muslim." It worked, too; Eisner publicly demeaned Katzenberg in the L.A. Times by calling him "the best golden retriever I ever met" because he had become so subservient.

Finally, Eisner seems to have deliberately created a world of denial, unimaginable contradiction, suspicion and even surveillance. People were praised, then knifed. Eisner said that Ovitz was great and then decided that Ovitz was a scoundrel so many times that the reader gets dizzy. At another point, Eisner "gestured toward several thick binders on his desk, and said that he had collected every e-mail Roy [Disney] had sent and received." Eisner did not just hold grudges; he nursed them.

Stewart's painstakingly amassed detail will make readers wonder how he got it all. The answer is hard work and a willingness to go through thousands of pages of original and publicly available documents, and to interview any available source.

Eisner was also interviewed for the book, but Stewart carefully notes that Eisner and Disney itself extended only "a degree of cooperation." But even that gave Stewart a telling glimpse of the full Eisner treatment. Once, while they were riding in Eisner's chauffeured SUV, Eisner told Stewart that Sandy Litvack, Disney's former general counsel, had "told me you can't be trusted." Eisner then added that he had decided to go ahead and grant Stewart interviews anyway. "Everybody has a dark side," the Disney chief said, demonstrating his uncanny knack for finding insecurities in others. "It's just a matter of finding out what it is." The remark sent Stewart into a spasm of unsettling self-examination. "The comment gives me pause," Stewart writes, "and I find myself still thinking about it days later." This was probably Eisner's precise intent. "I've heard others repeat similar comments from Eisner about a 'dark side,' " Stewart continues, "and it was something he mentioned several times during his testimony in the Katzenberg lawsuit. I wonder: Does everyone have a 'dark side'? Do I? Even if I'm not the best judge of my own character, I don't assume that everyone else has a 'dark side.' " Stewart also realizes "that by mentioning Litvack's remark -- assuming Litvack said it -- Eisner has simultaneously positioned Litvack as someone I can't trust, and has ingratiated himself with me. He has cleverly attempted to turn me against Litvack -- exactly what so many current and former Disney executives have told me happened to them."

All of this raises a question: Why didn't Eisner's kingdom collapse sooner? How did anyone tolerate the lack of charity, or the unending intrigue, ridicule and badmouthing? The answer, obviously, was the payoff, both creative and financial. It was the high-wire life: the amped-up universe of deals, tie-ins, "packages," "event movies," "talent relations," parties, private-plane flights, gifts and money.

As the lord of this environment, Eisner was an untethered ego. While the Disney board slept, he became the highest-paid CEO in America and wound up hijacking the corporation. The story of how he did so is essential reading for anyone who serves on the board of directors of any corporation or organization.

It's also a reminder of how Hollywood can corrupt and corrode. More than 22 years ago, I interviewed Eisner twice for Wired, my book on the comedian John Belushi's death from a drug overdose. Eisner, then president and creative head of Paramount, had been trying to work out a new movie deal with Belushi when he was in his final nosedive. For his previous movie for Paramount, the studio had given Belushi $2,500 a week in cash for expenses, no questions asked.

Eisner and his wife, Jane, told me a long story about spending an evening with Belushi at a club in Los Angeles called On the Rox. Belushi was watching reruns on a big screen of some of his best "Saturday Night Live" skits, including one in which he died. Returning to their car afterward, Jane Eisner said she found Belushi incredibly sad. "I feel as though I've just seen 'Sunset Boulevard,' " she said, referring to the 1950 classic in which Gloria Swanson plays Norma Desmond, an aging, failing silent-screen star who watches reruns of herself. Eisner disagreed, telling his wife that the film was about someone whose career was over, while Belushi's was still active. He saw no connection. " 'Sunset Boulevard,' " Jane Eisner replied. "I'm telling you. We just saw it." Three days later, Belushi was dead. Some of the drugs that caused his fatal overdose were paid for with Paramount cash.

Eisner said he felt no responsibility, calling it standard practice for studios not to nursemaid their stars' spending habits. This summons an uncomfortable echo; after all, Eisner no more took responsibility for Belushi than the Disney board did for Eisner. The Norma Desmond and John Belushi stories are warnings -- vivid, wrenching tales of the failure of success. And now, thanks to Stewart, we have the Michael Eisner story -- his very own "Sunset Boulevard."

Reviewed by Bob Woodward
Copyright 2005, The Washington Post Co. All Rights Reserved. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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