It would be somewhat of an understatement to say that I’m a Disney fan. I don’t just like the movies, or the parks, or the man. I like it all. I find all of it fascinating; so I do a lot of research on the subject (there’s a lot of other worse things I could be spending my time on).
Michael Eisner’s reign of power (1984 – 2005) was a fascinating time. A lot of Disney fans tend to shy away from that era because they either didn’t like what Eisner did to the company (I would mostly agree); or because they don’t believe “recent history” could possibly be all that interesting. Au’ contraire!
Take these tidbits for example. Here’s a very small sampling of the treasure trove that was the Eisner era:
In the early ‘80s George Lucas offered Stan Kinsey, one of the Disney VPs in charge of operations and technology, a chance to purchase a vector based graphics machine called the P-II Image Computer (running a program called Motion Doctor). One computer/software bundle would cost Disney $24,000; and Kinsey wanted two. Michael Eisner and Frank Wells had plans to sell off Disney’s Animation division because it had been losing money – so Eisner said no. Kinsey was fired (for unrelated reasons) in 1984, after nearly a year of trying to persuade Disney management. However, it should be noted that Disney did end up buying many P-II machines in 1986 for use in their super-secret CAPS department.
George Lucas hung on to the program for a few more years and eventually turned it into an entire computer-aided animation division. When Lucas grew tired of this money-losing division Steve Jobs stepped in. In 1986 he purchased the Pixar Advanced Computer Graphics division for $10 million ($5 million cash, plus $5 million capital back into the company). Under Jobs the Pixar team used the software mainly for testing but also created a few commercials (including a semi-famous one featuring a boxing Listerine bottle) and even Sesame Street shorts.
Then, in 1990 Pixar’s Oscar-winning short film Tin Toy caught Jeffrey Katzenberg’s attention; and Eisner agreed to distribute three full length Pixar films. Toy Story was released for the 1995 holiday season.
On January 24, 2006 Disney announced they had purchased Pixar for approximately $7.4 billion. It was an all-stock deal that made Steve Jobs the majority stock holder (with 50.1% of Disney stock).
All of the following ideas were pitched to Michael Eisner while he was at Disney. He passed on every one.
CSI: Crime Scene Investigation
Lord of the Rings
The Man Show
The Producers (on Broadway)
Disney was originally going to produce The Sixth Sense; but after Bruce Willis signed on Disney got cold feet (due to how much the budget for Armageddon had spiraled out of control). Disney sold the rights to SpyGlass – retaining only a small distribution fee.
It always amazes me how, over Eisner’s tenure, he wasn’t just unlikable – he actually turned people into major competitors! One of my favorite stories happens in February 1999 when Eisner decided to move all of the ABC operations from New York to Burbank, CA (effectively uprooting 5,000 people). This infuriated Steve Burke, then President of ABC Broadcasting. He quit ABC and took the job as President of a small cable company based in Philadelphia: Comcast.
I told all of this to a friend once, who quipped, “Perhaps Eisner and Jobs are actually the same person – the good and bad versions of one super-human. You see, the Eisner half touches business things and they burn to the ground. The Jobs half touches business things and they turn into the next thing everyone has four of.”