Wednesday, January 30, 2008
Suit Vs. Suit...
Edna Mode: "Never look back, darling. It distracts from the now."
It's hard to believe that it has been over two years since Bob Iger took over from Michael Eisner. It seemed like only yesterday we Disney Geeks/Fans were grumbling over the direction of the parks, the studios and the Mouse in general. A couple years later and look how the outlook has changed. It's during times like this that the empty parts of my mind start to wonder...
What different corporate creatures Eisner and Iger are. Oh, there are traits that they share, but mainly the different way they handle the corporate structure is entirely different.
I mean, let's start with Michael Eisner.
Eisner began his career as a page at NBC. He eventually got hired by Barry Diller as an assistant at ABC. He rose quickly in the ranks and eventually becoming a senior vice president in charge of programming and development. ABC created many hits during his tenure in programming there. Shows like "Happy Days" helped ABC in the ratings and Eisner with the having the clout to bring in viewers. One of the things that Eisner was involved in developing that I loved as a child was "School House Rock", the little animated educational cartoons between programs.
His bond with Diller was strong and when Diller left ABC to become head of Paramount Pictures in 1976, Eisner followed him and became CEO of the studio. During his time there, Paramount became a very hot studio known for hits like "Saturday Night Fever" and a small arthouse film called "Raiders of the Lost Ark". Perhaps you've heard of it?
Anyway, eventually Diller left and Eisner was not offered Diller's job so he put out feelers that he was looking...
Someone who was looking: Walt Disney Productions. Roy E. Disney, the kingmaker himself and Stanley Gold were wanting to make Disney relevant again and Ron Miller, Walt Disney's son-in-law that was running the place wasn't exactly believed to be the one capable of doing it(perhaps one too many Herbie film?). Eisner was initially offered the job of studio chief, like the one he had before at Paramount. He said no. He wanted to be the CEO of the entire company... not just the studio. Finally the company agreed to make him CEO and brought Frank Wells in as COO for the company. Frank Wells and Eisner were a very good match for each other. As I've said in earlier posts, Wells was the Yang to Eisner's Yin. Eisner handled the creative side and Wells took care of the other side.
Eisner immediately started getting Disney involved in films that it wouldn't make or some believed it shouldn't make. He used the Touchstone Pictures name(created by Ron Miller, btw) to make films that wouldn't fit under the Disney label. Eisner was brash and showy and unlike any Disney executive before him.
He immediately started turning around the fortunes of the company. He brought in Jeffrey Katzenberg, also from Paramount to run Disney's movie division. He even at one point early in his tenure considered ending animation. To be fair, he wasn't trying to do this, but was looking at what was best and profitable for the company. With the success of "The Little Mermaid" he realized the potential of animation.
Eisner was very combative with the people in his organization and was known for having others fight out battles. He believed that this combative approach was good for bringing out the best in ideas for the company. Unfortunately, many divisions like WED, which eventually became known as Walt Disney Imagineering suffered from this dog eat dog approach and instead of having each other work towards common goals, it set about balkanizing sections of the company and pitted people against one another.
Eisner's personality was abrasive at times as well. The reason that there are no more Roger Rabbit cartoons or the demise of a potential sequel to it(purported to star Tom Cruise if you believe that) are from the strained relationship he developed with Steven Spielberg. His approach to most creative enterprises during his first decade were usually quite successful. After Wells died in that helicopter crash in 1994 it was a chance to find another balance to Eisner. Hard though it may have been, it didn't happen. No counterweight came to take Frank Wells place and his second decade would go on to do much damage to the success he built up in the first. Eisner did help realize Disney's full potential. He turned a much smaller company that was stuck in the shadow of its founder into a large entertainment giant that had become the second largest entertainment company in the world by the time he left it. The small, almost family run studio that was under threat of hostel takeover attempts in the early 80's was not what most people remember.
Eisner did a great deal to help catapult Disney back to relevance and then his own human faults got the company in trouble again in the early part of this decade. Ironically, it was Roy E. Disney that then started looking for another CEO to replace Eisner when, by 2003, he felt the current CEO had lost his magical touch...
Eventually, at Disney's annual shareholders' meeting in early 2003, a surprising and unprecedented 43% of Disney's shareholders withheld their vote to renew him on the Board. At this point the press and everyone including Eisner knew that the times had changed. The writing was on the wall. Eisner knew it was time to go. He soon announced that he would retire a year before his contract ran out in 2006. Before heading out the door, Eisner suggested the board elect his second in command, Bob Iger as the new CEO. Roy E. Disney and others schofed at the idea. Thinking that Iger would be just another puppet of Eisner, many didn't believe that Iger would be the final choice. After being interviewed by the board, Bob Iger became the first Disney CEO of the 21st Century... the first CEO in almost two and a half decades. That's a long time in business. On September 30th, 2005, Michael Eisner retired as head of the Walt Disney Company and Robert A. Iger took over.
Now who is Bob Iger? He really is an enigma when compared to Michael Eisner... He doesn't have the flashy history, legendary ego or other things associated with Eisner's reign. Just where did Bob Iger com from and what has he done to get where he is?
Well, he started working at ABC in 1973 while Michael Eisner was in programing there. He quickly rose though inside the network until he became president of the ABC Network Television Group in 1993. He held that position for a year and was then offered the job of president and CEO of ABC's corporate parent, Capital Cities/ABC.
Two years later Disney came a knocking and bought Capital Cities thus making Iger a cast member of the Mouse. In 1999 he was named the president of Walt Disney International which handles the overseas operations of the WDC. Now, can many of you can see why he places such an importance of foreign markets? He only held that job for about a year as Eisner named him president and chief operating officer in 1999. This was the title Frank Wells had while he was at the company from 1984-94.
Within a couple years, the revolt against Eisner began and Iger continued to run his part of the company as the number two man in the corporation. After the Board decided that Iger was the right man to succeed Eisner, Iger set about a course that seemed intent on showing his independence and give a signal that he was his own man, not just someone that Eisner could control. He replaced key Eisner associates to show that he was in charge and even disbanded the much dreaded "strategic planning division" which was known as an elephant graveyard for creative ideas. This group was a layer of bureaucracy that Eisner set up to question creativity and drown ideas. Many in the animation division loathed this division and a good portion of WDI hated it. Simply hated it...
He immediately earned kudos for doing these things and raised a few eyebrows of those that believed he wouldn't be so independents. More surprises were to come.
January 24, 2006, Bob Iger announced the Walt Disney Company would buy Pixar Animation Studios for US $7.4 billion. This would have been unthinkable a year earlier. But now Bob Iger was showing the company and its stockholders that he capable of some surprising things.
His style seems to be much more laid back that Eisner's. He lets the divisions have more control over their own areas of the company... so long as they produce he doesn't seem to micromanage them the way the former CEO did. The style he deals with people is far from the confrontational one Michael Eisner used to intimidate people into submission. He's also announced several projects to lead the company into the new century. He's focusing on internet far more than Eisner and seems to embrace technology in a much more forward-centric business practice. His dealings with Apple and its mercurial CEO, Steve Jobs are a world apart from how Eisner handled things. He's even started addressing the problems that people have had with DCA... the ones that Eisner tried to put band-aids on. The Extreme Makeover of Disney's California Adventure marks the first of several projects that Iger and company are planning to strengthen and broaden the growth of the company over the next few years.
As I've mentioned to several commenters... Iger appears to be taking the middle road while guiding the Walt Disney Company forward. Having learned from Eisner's mistakes of extravagance with Euro Disneyland and cheapness with DCA, he's decided to carve out a center path. One that tries to give the company's theme parks the needed attention they deserve while not going all out at once. Cautious optimism seems to be a trademark of this path.
Some people have called Iger the "Anti-Eisner"... because of his exact opposite decision making process... examples in film show a 180 degree different strategy from what Michael Eisner did in the 80's. Where Eisner used Touchstone to strike out into more adult terrain... Iger appears to be going the reverse and focusing on the Walt Disney brand instead concentrating on family terrain. Bob Iger seems to have taken the wisdom of watching all of Eisner's faults and heading in the opposite direction. Hopefully in the future when he encounters his own mistakes he will find his own wisdom to guide him through the changes. Life is filled with challenges... time will tell us how well Bob's done. In the mean time, he seems to be looking forward and has dramatically changed the atmosphere at Disney. Looking forward is what Walt would do...
It's nice to see the current head cheese doing the same.