Michael Eisner, CEO of Walt Disney Corp.
March 2, 2004
An ominous drum roll crescendoed in the days before this year's shareholder meeting of the Walt Disney Co. If it had been animated, the overture would have had huge, black thunderheads piling in to block the sky — indeed, to block out any prospect of hope.
The meeting was to have been a showdown of archetypal proportions — imperious king Michael Eisner facing his roused and disaffected peasantry. Eisner was the savior gone sour, the brilliance he brought to Disney 20 years ago curdled into arrogance and dismissiveness.
The struggle was all the more profound because we rarely think of Disney as anything so pedestrian as a company. Disney is the premier storyteller of our era. Mickey Mouse works for Eisner, and so does Barbara Walters, the curious cartoon boy Stanley, and NYPD Blue detective Andy Sipowicz. Few of us get through a day without hearing from Disney in some way.
The confrontation seemed sure to live up to the drum roll. It gave former directors Roy Disney and Stanley Gold a megaphone to broadcast Eisner's sins; it came as Comcast, a stringer of cable-TV wires, pursued a hostile Disney takeover. Inside the soaring Philadelphia Convention Center, Eisner had armed himself with 75 statues of Mickey Mouse, sentinels shipped in from Disney World. Shareholders had to be in line at 8 a.m., doors opened at 9, and by 9:15, it was tough to find a seat among the 3,250 set up. Expectation was in the air. That morning, The New York Times wrote, "Eisner must not only answer for his decisions . . . [he] must also respond to an emboldened investor class, armed and ready. . . ."
Right. I sat in the convention center for 6 hours and 45 minutes — I was the Disney shareholder in the third-to-last row, trying to take notes in the dark. The sad thing is that what the meeting lacked was . . . drama. At what should have been Michael Eisner's most important career performance, he offered no storytelling. Eisner—wizard-in-chief—should have marshaled his animators, his writers, his imagineers, to produce an event that would rebut the critics and enchant the nervous. In fact, he brought no such magic.
The meeting had no pacing, no energy. For all its tedious length, it felt perfunctory. Eisner, four days shy of his 62nd birthday, was crisply turned out in a dark gray suit, white shirt, and red tie patterned with respectful black silhouettes of Mickey. But he was hoarse, as if he had spent many days arguing. His jokes fell flat. If you watched his face closely on the video screens, you saw something new. Eisner looked tired. Not tired as in he lacked a good night's sleep, but tired around the eyes. Tired of it all.
It took Eisner two hours to tell us, "The magic is real."
It took Eisner two hours to tell us, "The magic is real." Then his lieutenant, Disney president Bob Iger, commenced a three-hour business review (complete with bulleted PowerPoint slides) by explaining, with a straight face, how the company is "bolstering Mickey's relevance across multiple demographic groups." The kids can't wait.
There were flashes of the Eisner we'd come expecting to see. One arrived after Roy Disney and Gold, the company's self-appointed defenders, made their case that Disney is hobbled and that Eisner must be fired at once. "While we the shareholders watched the value of our equity decline," said Gold, "Michael Eisner has never had a bad year." The crowd roared knowingly: In his 20 years with Disney, Eisner has been paid more than $1 billion — $1 million every week for 1,000 weeks.
Eisner's response was sly. "As Stanley and I have discussed over many years, the unwillingness to listen is not ever the issue. It's sometimes the unwillingness to agree which is the issue. . . . Stanley felt that we weren't listening; we felt we were listening and not agreeing. These things happen in corporate America." Ah, Michael Eisner, master listener.
Of course, Eisner lost one of his jobs just after the meeting — in private, the Disney board of directors stripped him of his chairman's title, "demoting" him to just CEO. The consequences will probably be imperceptible; the gesture came so late, it's unlikely to mollify the critics.
And the meeting itself left us with a lingering sense of disappointment. Where was Michael Eisner's fight, his determination, his passion? Was he too arrogant to respond?
These days, we need our mythmakers, our storytellers, as urgently as we ever have. Storytelling is what turns the pedestrian — a plush toy, a newscast — into something relevant, something moving. All arguments about Disney's performance aside (the company is, in fact, hardly crippled), it's time for Eisner to take his billion and retire for the most obvious reason. The spark in his eyes is gone, the spirit is spent, the spell has broken. Without those, how can anyone possibly make magic?
A version of this article appeared in the Table of Contents - May 2004 issue of Fast Company magazine.