6:26pm PT by Scott Feinberg
'Awards Chatter' Podcast — Michael Eisner ('BoJack Horseman')
"Very few people understood what we had," Michael Eisner, the veteran Hollywood executive, says of his latest project, BoJack Horseman, which his venture capital firm Tornante Company produces. "It is, by far, the best thing I've ever been involved with, as far as reviews," he adds, as we sit down in Tornante's Beverly Hills offices to record an episode of The Hollywood Reporter's 'Awards Chatter' podcast. (The third season of the edgy animated comedy series debuted on Netflix on July 22 and a fourth season was ordered that same day.)
Over the course of a 90-minute conversation, Eisner, 74, candidly discusses not only his current endeavors, but his entire 50-year career — and offers his take on his dealings with the likes of Barry Diller, Roy E. Disney, Steve Jobs, Michael Ovitz, Jeffrey Katzenberg, Harvey Weinstein and Hillary Clinton.
(Click above to listen to this episode now or click here to access all of our episodes via iTunes. Past guests include Steven Spielberg, Amy Schumer, Louis C.K., Lady Gaga, Will Smith, Kristen Stewart, Harvey Weinstein, Brie Larson, J.J. Abrams, Kate Winslet, Samuel L. Jackson, Jane Fonda and Michael Moore.)
From 1966-1976, as an executive at ABC, Eisner helped to lift the Alphabet Network from third to first among the broadcast networks in children's, daytime and primetime programming, developing shows like Happy Days along the way. Then, from 1976-1984, as president and CEO of Paramount Pictures, he, in partnership with Diller, greenlighted blockbusters like Saturday Night Fever (1977), Grease (1978), Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) and Beverly Hills Cop (1984) and critical darlings like Ordinary People (1980), Reds (1981) and Terms of Endearment (1983).
Most famously, from 1984-2005, as chairman and CEO of The Walt Disney Company, he presided over an animation revival that included instant-classics like The Little Mermaid (1991) and The Lion King (1994); massive growth of theme park and theatrical endeavors; and the purchase of Capital Cities/ABC, which included the ESPN and Lifetime networks — "It saved the Disney Company," he says today. We would've been, as we became, a target for a takeover."
During Eisner's 21-year tenure, Disney's annual revenue soared from $1.5 billion to nearly $31 billion and its market value went from $1.9 billion to $57.4 billion. But, following a series of clashes in the mid-2000s, he was pushed out of his job and went on to establish Tornante. Through it, he backs digital and new media projects; purchased the Topps Company; and produces BoJack Horseman, which he fully owns — and never could have made at Disney. After four-plus decades working for public companies, he is delighted to run a private one. "I don't answer illogical questions [anymore]," he says with a laugh.
A few highlights from our full conversation:
On Roy E. Disney, the late nephew of The Walt Disney Company's namesake, who initially recruited Eisner to the company, but years later used his influence on its board to help push him out of his job: "He looked like Walt and he had the name Disney. He could be a troublemaker. He represented the Disney culture. He appeared to be a very nice man. He was a nice man, but he had a point-of-view. He had been treated terribly by Walt Disney — Walt called him 'the idiot nephew' and things like that — and he didn't want to be treated that way again."
On Michael Ovitz, the former CAA chief who Eisner hired as Disney's president after Frank Wells' death in a 1994 plane crash, but fired after little more than a year, at a reported cost of $140 million: "I made a mistake... Everybody — Warren Buffett, Tom Murphy, everybody — thought this was the most brilliant move ever made. He was on the cover of magazines as 'the most powerful guy in Hollywood.' He was enough younger than me that it would be a very comfortable thing. It just didn't work. He was the opposite of Frank Wells. It was a partnership that was born in hell. Whether it was his fault or my fault is irrelevant. ... Very quickly, I realized it was a mistake. ... It only took a year to get out of it, but it was a year of difficulty."
On Jeffrey Katzenberg, the executive who worked under Eisner first at Paramount and then Disney (New York magazine labeled him Eisner's "Golden Retriever"), but who left Disney after being denied Wells' job and sued the company for $250 million (they settled and he then established Disney's rival, DreamWorks Animation): "Rightly so, Jeff Katzenberg wanted to be promoted. I'm not sure that was the right idea, but Roy Disney, who did not like him at all — I forget the reason, but Jeffrey probably did not treat him the way that Roy would have wanted to be treated — said to me, 'If you make him the president, I will start a proxy fight.' So that was out of the question. Couldn't do it. Had to let him go. ... I probably could have talked him into doing something less than that [president], but Roy made it absolutely crystal clear and it wasn't worth the fight. ... And we had an alternative for him who was very good, Joe Roth."
On Bob and Harvey Weinstein, the brothers behind the art-house film company Miramax Films, which Eisner brought to Disney for $60 million in 1993, and then dumped in 2010 following a series of clashes over the Weinsteins' spending and behavior, culminating in a dispute over Michael Moore's controversial 2004 documentary Fahrenheit 9/11: "That was just a peripheral pain in the ass. ... They're kind of troublemakers. I said we would release the film after the election. The Disney Company is a non-partisan company. This is totally a partisan film. After the election. ... I made it clear we can't do it. Well, they paid for it through some fund that we didn't know about, and the next thing I know, 'We do own it.' And we put our foot down. ... Frankly, they were entertaining in areas that had nothing to do with making movies — Talk magazine and all these things — and we were losing a lot of money with them. I mean, really a lot of money. We put our foot down. Unfortunately, they were the darlings of the New York press, so I was the heavy, but that's okay. I was responsible to the Disney shareholders and I was not about to let them [the Weinsteins] lose — as they have for a lot of people — a lot of money."
On Bob Iger, who came to Disney as part of the Capital Cities/ABC deal and ultimately succeeded Eisner: "I would not have agreed to [leave] if it hadn't been Bob. ... Because of governance, they wanted a big search and everything. ... And by the end of the search, it was clear that I was able to convince the board — our newly-constructed board — that Bob was great. ... He's different than me, but equally good or better. What he saw was the same thing I saw when we bought Capital Cities/ABC. We'd had the growth, to a certain point. To continue the growth, what do you do? He did what I don't think I would have done, which is great: he bought Pixar, and bought peace with Steve [Jobs], for much too much money, in my opinion — however, it all worked out well because they delivered. ... I had looked at Marvel many, many years earlier, and not done it. He did [deals to acquire] Marvel and he did Lucasfilm. So what Bob did was he protected the company, I think in the medium-term. Something's gonna have to happen in the next five years, but right now? He used an acquisition strategy, where I used a growth-from-inside [strategy] plus Capital Cities/ABC. ... [With regard to who should succeed Iger, who has announced that he will be leaving Disney in 2018] I hired Tom Staggs before Bob had ever been there — we hired Tom Staggs — and I think he's very good. I thought that was a good choice. It obviously, just like any other partnership, wasn't working. [Staggs, who rose to COO at Disney, announced in April that he would be leaving the company after its board declined to guarantee him Iger's job.] It would be better if they found it from inside — it's always better from inside, the devil you know is better than the devil you don't know — but they may not. "
On Hillary Clinton (Eisner and his wife dined with the 2016 presidential candidate and former president Bill Clinton, who Eisner hoped to employ at ABC News, in 2001, shortly after Bill left office): "She was like the cheerleader with her boyfriend who was the high school football star who had broken his leg. ... They started touching and holding hands and it was like I was in high school and the couple in the back was making out and you wished you weren't there... And I could tell in that moment that this was an absolutely real relationship."