By KATHLEEN CASSEDY
Michael Eisner, chairman and CEO of the Walt Disney Co., never saw a Disney film until he was a grown man.
Yet, for the past 15 years, he has guided one of America's most cherished institutions into becoming one of the most profitable media companies in the world. As the first guest in a series of conversations with Parade magazine Editor Walter Anderson, Mr. Eisner shared his own defining experiences and how they have influenced his career.
Dr. Billington, who introduced the Oct. 5 program, noted that the Library contains a comprehensive record of the creative achievement of the Disney Co., beginning with the original copyright drawing for Mickey Mouse.
The interview was part of a series, "It's About Time," which was developed by Mr. Anderson and supported by the Library of Congress. The goal is to create a record that will give viewers in the future a sense of America at the turn of the millennium, which will be preserved and made available by the Library. The series was launched on May 4 at the New School University in New York City with Nobel Laureate Elie Wiesel. Subsequent interviewees have included former U.S. Sen. Bill Bradley and Marian Wright-Edelman, president of the Children's Defense Fund. Additional interviews with major government leaders are now being scheduled for next spring.
Mr. Anderson's questions explored Mr. Eisner's childhood influences, creative development and leadership throughout his career. Mr. Eisner, 57, grew up in New York City, where his affluent childhood was "relatively normal," he said, except that he was required to spend twice as much time reading as watching television. Disney film classics, such as "Cinderella" or "Snow White," were not part of his youth, as they were for others of his generation. Not until he became a new father, did Mr. Eisner see his first Disney film, "Pinocchio," with his son. (At the time, he was running children's programming at the ABC network.) As a college student, Mr. Eisner's predilection for producing entertainment appeared in the form of plays for a history thesis and other assignments. An internship at NBC led Mr. Eisner to seek a career in television. He went from NBC to CBS to ABC, then to Paramount Pictures Corp. as its president and chief operating officer, and finally to Disney, which acquired Capital Cities/ABC Inc. under his guidance.
Rather than relying on market research, many Disney products originate from Mr. Eisner's personal experiences. "I think you have to have a physical reaction, and feel it in your stomach," he says. For example, after enjoying a concert of music by Gustav Mahler, which he felt was "Disneyesque," he thought Disney should produce something similar for 2000. The result was Disney's Millennium Symphonies, which premiered in New York City in early October.
Mr. Eisner's school experiences deeply affected him. Because he believes that teachers are the most influential people for some children, he initiated Disney's American Teacher Awards. "It came about to honor teachers the same way we honor politicians and entertainers," he said. Mr. Eisner still recalls the words of his former headmaster, "'No matter what you do, do it the best that you can.'" Another of his teachers inspired the Disney film "Dead Poets Society," produced under Mr. Eisner's auspices.
When he was with ABC, Mr. Eisner wanted to make a TV comedy set in the 1950s. However, market research told TV executives it would never be successful. Meanwhile, both the 1950s musical Grease and the film "American Graffiti," became big hits. Mr. Eisner persisted with his idea and eventually the TV show, "Happy Days," was produced and became a huge success.
"Most cultural phenomena in the entertainment business, like [the television show] 'Seinfeld,' really are different, and they come out of left field," Mr. Eisner said.
Mr. Eisner believes in hands-on management. "I think the more involved the CEO, the better." The challenge and enjoyment of running Disney, he said, is that the company is working on 10 different products in one week, rather than reinventing the same product each year.
While Mr. Eisner is excited about the entertainment possibilities that the Internet and evolving technology offer, he had some words of advice for overvalued Internet companies, some of which have yet to make a profit. "At some point, the strength of the Internet is going to be beyond information," he said. Disney is "not an Internet upstart. ... The company is not going to make acquisitions and become overpriced. You have to be creative within a financial environment. If you are not financially strong, you will be replaced and then you can't do any creative work."
Mr. Eisner admits that "I've been in the right place at the right time. In the end, it is content and storytelling that drive everything in my world."
Kathleen Cassedy is a Washington free-lance writer.