AP Interview: Michael Eisner Says 'Turbulence' at Disney Was Part of Doing Things Better
By William Foreman, Associated Press Writer
HONG KONG (AP) -- Michael Eisner said Friday that the "turbulence" at the Walt Disney Co. during his reign as chief executive was just part of trying to do things better at one of the world's biggest entertainment companies.
Eisner, who survived a shareholder revolt last year, reflected on his 21 years at Disney as he planned to step down as CEO when his contract expires in three weeks. He spoke to The Associated Press at his company's newest theme park, Hong Kong Disneyland, which opens Monday.
With the new "Space Mountain" dome behind him, Eisner seemed upbeat and enthusiastic about his Disney departure and avoided naming some of the people he battled with in his last years at the helm.
One of the biggest conflicts was with Michael Ovitz, a Hollywood superagent Disney hired as president in 1995. Ovitz clashed with Eisner and other executives, and he left 14 months later with a US$140 million severance package.
The payment sparked a shareholder derivative trial, and a U.S. court ruled last month that Disney's board didn't breach its fiscal responsibilities by paying Ovitz the money.
Eisner shrugged off the stormy periods at Disney.
"You should have seen the turbulence at my fraternity house," the 63-year-old executive said.
"There is turbulence. Life is turbulence. Life isn't only Disneyesque," Eisner said. "Disneyesque is the end result of trying to do it better. A lot of people don't like to try to do things better. A lot of people like to take the easy road, short cuts. Some people even take the unethical cuts. We've never done any of that."
Eisner said that hiring Ovitz wasn't his worst decision. He said his biggest mistake was acquiring baseball star slugger Mo Vaughn for the then Disney-owned Anaheim Angels team. Vaughn was paid US$80 million, but he injured his ankle in his first game for the team.
Acquiring Vaughn "was the worst personnel move I've ever made or approved, worse than the one you're probably thinking about," Eisner said, in an obvious reference to Ovitz.
"The only time I've ever had conflict is when someone was trying to compromise either our ethics or they were trying to compromise the quality of our products."
Eisner praised the man slated to be Disney's next CEO, Robert Iger, currently the company's president and chief operating officer. Iger joined Disney in 1996 when the company acquired Capital Cities/ABC, where Iger was president and chief operating officer.
"We have a great new CEO," Eisner said about Iger. "I've known him a decade and he understands broadcasting. He understands the creation of product."
Eisner said Hong Kong Disneyland, the company's 11th theme park, would be a big hit. He said the attraction would be like Disney's first park in Anaheim, California, in 1955. Like the United States, Asia doesn't have a castle culture, so the park will be novel.
"Asia never really had a big Disney presence. It did not know the Disney product. It was not a castle-oriented environment," he said.
He added, "I believe overtime this will be, as it is now in Japan, one of our biggest properties in the world."
Hong Kong Disneyland said that about 40 percent of its customers will come from across the border in mainland China. Eisner said that the Chinese would be good customers because they like family entertainment.
"A company that pays attention to the family unit is a successful company," Eisner said. "We don't isolate the family. We don't make rides that say, 'Hey mom, dad, you go sit on the bench.'"
Eisner declined to say what he plans to do next. But he hinted that he still wanted to be involved in a major entertainment company, saying he wanted to be involved "in a large scale, not a one-off scale."
"I can't imagine that I wouldn't do anything that wasn't in the area of making fun and watching audiences be excited," he said, "whether they're watching a DVD or in a Broadway theater or an ice show or a big movie screen or on a cell phone."