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Michael Eisner: The Lion King of Hollywood

Imagine running Mickey Mouse, ABC News and ESPN! Imagine you bankroll a movie like “The Lion King”! Imagine your are Michael Eisner. Power like that is not easy to manage, when you have to keep everyone happy, from the kid who loves cartoons to the shareholders and analysts on Wall Street.

Eisner, as they say, has been there and done that, not without blemish, as such a vast portfolio cannot just be managed without toes being stepped on. But there is plenty in his career that he can be justifiably be proud of. “Brilliance, mixed with turmoil,” is what a Wall Street veteran said in September, 2005, when Eisner left the Chief Executive Officer’s job at The Walt Disney Company after overseeing colossal box-office hits, financial trouble, executive shake-ups and shareholder protests in his 21-year-tenure in the company, where he combined creativity, business sense and power play.

Michael Eisner

The 66-year-old Eisner now runs his own investment firm, The Tornante Company, which is looking for interesting and hot opportunities in the media and entertainment industry.

Eisner’s rise has the classic American success story written all over it. As a student, he was interested in English literature and theatre and did a summer job at the NBC Studios in New York. He was a clerk at the NBC later, doing work related to the Federal Communications Commission.

He later worked in the programming department of CBS and moved on in 1966 to the ABC television network —which he bought in 1995, when Disney acquired Capital Cities. That got him access to ESPN, The History Channel and E!, the popular window to the world of entertainment and Hollywood, where he was counted among the top three movers and shakers.

Eisner rose up steadily in ABC’s ranks since 1966 and moved with his mentor Barry Diller in 1976 to Paramount Pictures, where he became president and chief operating officer. Here, he mixed the tricks of network television with movie-making to keep production costs down. When the industry’s average movie cost $12.5 million to produce, Paramount could do the same in $8.0 million.

His blockbusters in Paramount include Saturday Night Fever, Grease, Beverly Hills Cop, An Officer and A Gentleman and Flashdance, besides three parts of the Star Trek cycle. Bringing quality and box-office together with cost management is not an easy task, of course, and this automatically led Eisner to the big job that took him to the pinnacle of his career.

Eisner left Paramount for Disney to become its chairman and chief executive officer in 1984 and transformed the company into an industry leader. His early exposure to animation movies must have helped, and Eisner’s record at the Disney studios included The Lion King, Beauty and the Beast and Alladin — which must speak for themselves. Not content with mass success, he acquired Miramax to make niche movies for the urban market, producing hits like Shakespeare in Love.

In the 21 years that he spent in Disney, the company’s annual revenue rose from $1.5 billion to $ 31 billion and the stock price from $1.33 to $24, and in terms of wealth creation, investors would have multiplied their money 20-fold during his reign.

After acquiring Capital Cities/ABC in 1995, Eisner’s career suffered some jolts. His No. 2 Frank Wells died in a helicopter crash a year later, and he also suffered clashes with his immediate subordinates.

ABC had its ups and downs, but managed to come up with the hit comedy, Desperate Housewives. This period also coincided with the Internet’s rise as a strong force, and Disney acquired Go.com, which resulted in $800 million in write-offs in 2001 with the collapse of the “dotcoms” which took Go.com with it.

Such problems were the less visible side of Eisner’s career, which also saw a brilliant strategic partnership with Pixar, the innovative studio founded by Apple Computer’s charismatic chief Steve Jobs.

That resulted in computer animation classics like Toy Story and Monsters, Inc. But the contract suffered, resulting in shareholder problems for Eisner. But nothing of that would take away from the brilliance of Eisner as a man who was undoubtedly one of the tallest figures in Hollywood and Wall Street.

“You can’t succeed, unless you’ve got failure, especially creatively,” he once said famously, perhaps capturing both the romance and risk involved in the media and entertainment empire that he ran.

Born to wealthy Jewish parents but disciplined early in life, Eisner is the kind who would talk through his work. Eisner and his wife Jane started the Eisner Foundation in 1996 on the philanthropic side of his glitzy life. The foundation, which had a corpus worth $130 million last year, donates to non-profit organizations around Los Angeles, not far from the Hollywood studios where his name still inspires all.

- Email Narayanan Madhavan: madhavan.n@hindustantimes.com
 
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