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Disney War Hardcover – February 11, 2005
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"Neverworld Wake" by Marisha Pessl
Read the absorbing new psychological suspense thriller from acclaimed New York Times bestselling author Marisha Pessl. Learn more
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
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.
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About my only complaint is the moment it stopped, right in the middle of Spring, 2005 - I was hoping for a little more of an epilogue on Iger's successful transition and the subsequent recovery of Pixar (and ultimate loss of Miramax), as well as a bit of a conclusion to the building story of ABC's turnaround and Iger's focus on the parks. While the book talks about Iger's roles up to that point, it does little to connect the dots between his past support for Eisner in all things and his subsequent tremendous success as a leader once out of that shadow, since that hadn't happened at the time of publication.
As some of the other reviewers note - the book is lengthy and tends to be a bit biased and slow going in spots. However, it is an entertaining read in the same vein as a Kurt Eichenwald or other investigative journalist. It provides a unique and easy to understand view on some very complex business topics, and also proves to be an easy to digest format for those who are new to or deeply familiar with board level politics in their business lives.
A good, entertaining read on one of the more interesting personalities and companies in business history.
Things changed drastically when Eisner broke with Katzenberg, Wells died in a helicopter crash, and Disney bought ABC. The network became a drag on Disney rather than an engine for growth. Eisner advocated the need for ABC to protect Disney from a hostile takeover. Others never really bought that notion. Some have seen Eisner has trying to recapture his early success in TV, but times had changed no matter what Eisner thought of his ability to make the network successful. Whatever the reason, the integration of ABC into Disney has not been smooth or seamless. The overpriced acquisition of Fox Family and the failed scheme of repurposing ABC programming on ABC Family was also an anchor to earnings and growth.
However, this book is much more than a narrative of actions, acquisitions, and numbers. In fact, there are very few numbers. It provides rich insights into the politics, maneuvering, and outright fights between the many managers and directors involved in this story. The cast of characters the author provides at the front of the book is a real help in following the machinations of the people who make up the fabric of this tale of ambition, greed, betrayal, and boardroom war. The three main sections of the book tell the arc of the story: The Wonderful World of Disney, The Disenchanted Kingdom, and Disney War.
I found the background story of how certain programs got on the air, how movies were greenlighted and then backed or abandoned all fascinating. The way failure was assigned to people often had nothing to do with their actual culpability, but rather the need to get someone off the plank and into the sea so that another's career ambitions could continue. It was also fascinating how Eisner's ego never lets him be wrong even when he so clearly was. As his power grew, and he carefully groomed its growth, his identity of self with this public corporation became not only odd, but also a bit creepy. It is clear to me that the board of Disney managed the company for their own benefit and their egos rather than for the benefit of all shareholders. However, I am sure that Eisner and others on the board do not see it that way. One of the many strengths of this book is that the author does not take sides or make anyone out to be a villain (or a hero). In fact, he often points out contradictory accounts of certain conversations and actions. Stewart provides a balanced account that is very clear and lets each character speak for himself (or herself).
For me, the saddest part of the story is the really bad behavior at the highest levels of management in the way they treated not only each other, but the employees they were managing. One person said that Eisner liked to put six pit bulls together and see which five died. Since Eisner was above the firing line, it was easy for him to keep rivals from becoming a threat to him by keeping them tearing each other apart. One of Eisner's methods of staying in power was keeping the board afraid that he would leave because there was no one left who could run the company. Just as a possible successor would appear, something would happen to undermine them and drive them away. All coincidences.
The epilogue does a superb job of analyzing Eisner and his time at the top of running Disney and noting that even though it appears Eisner is through in 2006, that it might not be so. This is a book that should be widely read and I strongly recommend it.