When I told a few people at a dinner party last night that I was limiting my wine consumption since I had to be sharp for my interview with Michael Eisner the next morning, no one asked me, “Who?” Eisner’s last name alone is enough to raise eyebrows and see heads nod. As the top executive at ABC, Paramount Pictures and then Disney, his ability to turn out hits, make money and transform companies are legendary. (He’s also just as famous for a not-so-smooth exit from Disney in 2005. But that’s another story.)
Eisner was in Sarasota January 19 as the first speaker at the Ringling College Library Association Town Hall lecture series at Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall. He’s now the founder and owner of The Tornante Company, a privately held company that invests in, acquires and operates companies in media and entertainment. At a pre-lecture press conference and in front of a sold-out audience in the hall, Eisner was relaxed and a little self-deprecating when describing himself: “I don’t know my leadership style. I guess I’m a little less crazy. I have less hair. I’ve written several books on leadership [but] I still have no idea what I’m talking about.”
Eisner mostly talked about the importance of partnerships, the new media landscape, circus elephants and, oh, yes, did we know that his original Netflix show, BoJack Horseman, took the top prize at the 21st annual Critics Choice Awards last weekend?
Eisner says the media landscape has changed with over-the-top streaming services like Netflix, Amazon and Hulu beginning to dominate the marketplace. Networks and cable channels are “very nervous,” he says, as they wonder just how big Netflix, which is spending $5 billion on original content and is in 192 countries already, and other third party services will grow. (One estimate puts them at more than 330 million global subscribers in three years.) ESPN, which Eisner brought under the Disney umbrella about 20 years ago, announced recently that it has just gone from 98 million cable subscriber homes to 92 million homes. “That created a market run of all the historic broadcasting cable companies,” he says, adding that streaming Internet shows require a fraction of the time and cost to produce and have no limits on creativity. And viewers can watch them anytime, anywhere. “It’s changing the world,” he says.
But most of Eisner’s talk was about success in business. Partnerships are paramount, he says, referencing his book, Working Together: Why Great Partnerships Succeed, which describes his own happy partnership with Frank Wells at Disney and those of other business and entertainment titans. It’s important to find the right partner, of course. We have to look for what he calls “extreme compatibility” and “unqualified loyalty.”
The other ingredients Eisner puts in his box are creativity, financial discipline, micromanagement (“It’s really shorthand for saying managers should be involved in every facet of the operation and assume responsibility.”), meticulous brand-building (“I find brand-building to be like a pointillistic painting. Every toy, attraction, performance, topiary is another dot in the brand.”) and tolerance of failure (otherwise all you have in your organization is mediocrity since people are afraid of less than perfection).
And about those circus elephants that Feld Entertainment just announced it would be retiring this year? “I don’t know any elephants personally,” he says. “I’ve had a long relationship with the Felds because of Disney on Ice. If, in fact, elephants or any animals are abused or caged, that’s probably a good end.”