Law Religion Culture Review

Exploring the intersections of law, religion and culture. Copyright by Richard J. Radcliffe. All rights reserved.

Wednesday, May 02, 2007

Book Review: DisneyWar.

I arrived late to this party.

Published in 2005, I have just discovered and then devoured James B. Stewart's 534 page tome, DisneyWar. I have just discovered James B. Stewart for that matter. A recovering attorney, Stewart has been distinguishing himself for many years authoring such best-selling, investigative works as Den of Thieves and Blood Sport. Stewart leverages his legal training as he skillfully sifts through legal issues and maneuvers, and reports them in a simplified, yet accurate fashion.

While I had followed Disney's corporate affairs with a detached bemusement in newspapers, this expansive book pealed back the curtains to take the reader inside Disney, the corporation.

Among many other things, Stewart explored Jeffrey Katzenberg's lawsuit against Disney, the shareholder derivative action over Michael Ovitz's severance, the effort to unseat Michael Eisner as Chairman and Chief Executive Officer (spearheaded by Roy Disney), and decisions to "greenlight" or pass on various entertainment properties, such as television shows and movies. The common denominator in each was Eisner.

Ironically, Eisner agreed to cooperate with Stewart and to give him access to Disney and its executives. Stewart even got to portray one of the costumed characters (Goofy) at one of the company's amusement parks. Stewart however felt free to repay this ostensible beneficence with a scathing indictment of Eisner, especially his grasping at the end of his tenure to control his "disenchanted kingdom."

Some samples:

"Beginning with the lavish, even reckless overspending on Euro Disney, and continuing with the poorly planned and executed foray into the Internet, and perhaps worst of all, the acquisition of the Fox Family cable network--each of which is a more than $1 billion mistake--Eisner squandered Disney's assets. Even one blunder of that magnitude, let alone three, might have cost a chief executive his job at any public company that was acting in the interests of its shareholders and had any meaningful board oversight. This is even before considering the exit of Jeffrey Katzenberg, the failure to honor his contract, and the hiring and firing of Michael Ovitz, personnel and judgment errors which, in the cost to Disney and the vitriol and publicity they generated, are without parallel in American business history." (p. 530)

Ouch; that's gonna leave a mark.

"And even Eisner's vaunted creativity--clearly the attribute that he himself holds most dear--seems to to have been in eclipse. There have been some recent successes, such as Pirates of the Caribbean, but even there, Eisner criticized Johnny Depp's teeth and effeminate demeanor. The animation unit as been devastated and is a shadow of its former self, overshadowed by Pixar and DreamWorks. The film studio has never again duplicated the string of hits during the early years under Eisner and Katzenberg. Eisner dismissed Finding Nemo, and Disney sold off most of the rights to Sixth Sense. Eisner criticized 'Lost', ABC's first breakout hit in years. Although he insists on being judged only by what he has done, and not what he has failed to do, the hit projects he rejected, from 'CSI' to Lord of the Rings and Fahrenheit 9/11 loom large." (p. 530.)

Because Disney is a corporation as well as a content-provider Stewart assesses Eisner's management abilities. "[Eisner's] management failures include an inability to delegate, a frequent mistrust of subordinates, impulsive and uncritical judgments, his pitting of one executive against another, his disrespect for any hierarchy of authority other than his own, his encouragement of a culture of spying and back-channeling, his frequent failure to acknowledge the achievement of others, and above all, his inability to groom a successor...." (p. 532.)

In turn, Stewart posits that this led to an exodus of management talent from Disney, which reads like a "Who's-Who" list of American corporate executives: "[T]he roster of Disney alumni either fired, forced to resign, or who left of their own initiative and who now occupy important posts elsewhere in corporate American is also unparalleled...." (Id.)

Reading Stewart's prose is much like parting butter with a warm knife. Stewart's masterfully paces his nonfiction books much like break-neck fiction--replete with dialogue and action. It's a cliche but DisneyWar was nearly impossible to put down. Immediately after I finished the book, I set out to find another book--almost any book--written by Stewart. Concordantly, I am reading Blood Sport (about Clintons' Whitewater matter), and find the same trademark Stewartian textual flourishes.

Highly recommended.

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