Eisner, Michael D(Ammann)

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Michael Eisner (1942), a shrewd businessman in a tough industry, chairman of the board at the Walt Disney Company, became one of the most important and most highly compensated figures in U.S. business by the end of the twentieth century. Eisner turned Walt Disney Company into what Fortune magazine called "the Cinderella story of Hollywood." By 1998 Disney's annual sales and earnings had grown to $22.9 billion and $1.9 billion, respectively. The wealth of Disney's shareholders increased more than $80 billion during Eisner's tenure as chairman. Through bonuses and stock options, in addition to an annual compensation of $764,423, Eisner became one of the nations most highly paid executives. In 1997, for example, he sold 5.4 million Disney stock shares, which at the time had a market value of $514 million. In June 1998 Fortune estimated the total value of Eisner's exercised and unexercised stock options to represent $1.43 billion.

The son of wealthy parents, Eisner was born in 1942. He was raised in suburban New York and educated at the Lawrenceville School and Denison University. His first brush with the entertainment industry was through a summer job as a page at NBC studios in New York. Following his college graduation in 1964, he worked briefly in low-level clerking jobs at NBC and CBS. Dissatisfied with these positions, Eisner mailed out 200 resumes. The only response was from a young ABC programmer, Barry Diller, who persuaded his network bosses to hire Eisner as assistant to the national programming director.

Eisner produced his first special, "Feelin' Groovy at Marine World," in 1967. The program was a success, and in 1968 Eisner became ABC's director of program development for the East Coast, responsible for Saturday morning programming. Among the projects he developed were animated programs based on the Jackson Five and the Osmond Brothers singing groups. Eisner's fast-paced career track took him through vice president for daytime programming (1971), vice president for program planning and development (1975), and senior vice president for prime time production and development (1976). During these years, ABC moved from third to first place among television networks.

In 1976 Eisner was offered the position of president and CEO at Paramount Pictures. Again, his track record was phenomenally successful. Costs were down and profits up. During Eisner's eight years at the helm, Paramount moved from last place to first among the six major studios. In October 1978, half the top ten box office attractions were Paramount films. Films produced by the studio during the Eisner years included Saturday Night Fever, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Bad News Bears, Grease, Heaven Can Wait, and Beverly Hills Cop.

In 1984 the Disney Company was looking for new direction. Since the death of its founder, creative genius Walt Disney (19011966), the studio had continued to earn profits on its theme parks and merchandising, and it had chalked up some box office successes. However, many analysts believed the company had failed to keep pace with changes in popular culture. With its earnings declining for three straight years, the company was vulnerable to corporate raiders.

Eisner's contract to join Disney in 1984 made him the highest-paid executive in the motion picture industry. With his colleague, Frank Wells, Eisner lost no time in demonstrating that his creativity and drive were worth the price. Within months, Disney began to turn around, and within a few years Eisner had transformed the company into an industry leader. New blood was brought into the management team; the Disney film archives were used to their fullest capacity; the theme parks were restored to profitability with attendance again rising annually; the animation division of Disney returned to feature-length films; and stocks rose dramatically in value.

Among Eisner's box office and merchandising triumphs in his first ten years at Disney were Down and Out in Beverly Hills (1986), Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988), The Little Mermaid (1989), Beauty and the Beast (1991) (the first animated feature to be nominated for an Academy Award as Best Picture), Aladdin (1992), and The Lion King (1994). Disney returned to television with the hit show "The Golden Girls" and the "Disney Sunday Movie." Disney diversified through its Hollywood Pictures subsidiary and, in order to produce films for a more sophisticated urban market, expanded through the acquisition of independent motion picture maker Miramax. A new amusement park, Euro Disney, was opened outside of Paris, France. In a move that positioned Eisner as the most powerful executive in the international communications industry, Disney acquired Capital Cities, which owned ABC television and the cable sports network ESPN. Revenues and stock market value skyrocketed.

In 1998 Disney launched a chain of interactive game attractions in major cities: Disney's Animal Kingdom (near Walt Disney World in Florida), the Disney Cruise Line, and Disney Quest. The company also financed renovation of Anaheim Stadium, home of the Disney-owned Anaheim Angels baseball team, and it purchased an Internet technology company, Starwave, as well as a search and information site, Infoseek. These investments dragged earnings down in 1998, but in a letter to stockholders published in Disney's 1998 annual report, Eisner promised that "in the long run (which is all that really matters), we believe they will enrich our company."

See also: Walt Disney, Entertainment Industry


Eisner, Michael D. Work in Progress. New York: Random House, 1998.

Current Biography Yearbook 1987. New York: H.W. Wilson, 1987, s.v. "Eisner, Michael D(ammann)."

Flower, Joe. Prince of the Magic Kingdom: Michael Eisner and the Re-making of Disney. New York: J. Wiley, 1991.

Grover, Ron. The Disney Touch: Disney, ABC and The Quest for the World's Greatest Media Empire. Chicago: Irwin Professional Publications, 1997.

Rose, Frank. "The Eisner School of Business." Fortune, July 6, 1998.