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Michael Eisner

Biography: Michael Eisner
Entertainment Executive

Michael Eisner Date of birth: March 7, 1942

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Michael Eisner was born in Mt. Kisco, New York. His father was a well-to-do lawyer and investor. Eisner was raised in his parents' apartment on Park Avenue in New York City. Despite the luxurious surroundings, discipline in the Eisner household was strict. Eisner's parents required two hours of reading for every hour of television watching and strictly rationed the children's consumption of TV and movies.

Michael Eisner enrolled in Denison University, as a pre-med student, but quickly found his true interests ran to English literature and the theater. He got his first taste of the entertainment industry with a summer job as a page at NBC studios in New York. After graduation in 1964, Michael Eisner returned to New York to work as an FCC logging clerk at NBC. Within six weeks, he had moved to the Programming Department at CBS, where he was responsible for slotting commercials in the right places in children's programs. Dissatisfied with this work, he mailed out hundreds of résumés, and received exactly one response. This came from Barry Diller in the programming department of ABC, who lobbied for Eisner's hire as Assistant to the National Programming Director at ABC, a post Eisner held from 1966 to 1968.

In 1967, Michael Eisner produced his first television special, Feelin' Groovy at Marine World. In 1968 he was promoted to Manager of Specials and Talent, and, within a year, became director of program development for the East Coast. In this capacity, the young executive was responsible for Saturday morning children's programming. Among other projects, he oversaw animated programs based on the popular singing groups the Jackson Five and the Osmond Brothers.

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In 1971, Eisner became ABC's Vice President for Daytime Programming, where he promoted the popular serials All My Children, and One Life To Live. In 1975, Eisner served ABC as Vice President for Program Planning and Development and as Senior Vice President for Prime Time Production and Development in 1976. In these posts, he fostered programs such as Happy Days, Welcome Back Kotter, Barney Miller, and Starsky and Hutch. During Eisner's years in the programming department, ABC had moved from a perennial third place among television networks to first place.

In 1974, Eisner's former mentor at ABC, Barry Diller, had moved on to become Chairman of the Board of Paramount Pictures. In 1976 Diller offered Michael Eisner the post of President and Chief Operating Officer of Paramount Pictures. At Paramount, Diller and Eisner applied lessons they had learned in network television to keep the studio's costs down. The average Paramount production during Eisner's tenure cost only $8.5 million to produce, when the industry average was $12 million per picture. During this time, Paramount moved from last place to first place among the six major studios. In October 1978, half of the top ten box office attractions were Paramount films.

Films produced at Paramount during Eisner's reign include: Raiders of the Lost Ark, Saturday Night Fever, Grease, Heaven Can Wait, Ordinary People, Terms of Endearment, An Officer and a Gentleman, The Elephant Man, Reds, Flashdance, Footloose, Trading Places, Beverly Hills Cop, Airplane and three installments of the Star Trek cycle.

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In September, 1984, Michael Eisner left Paramount to become Chairman and Chief Executive Officer of The Walt Disney Company. Since the death of Walt Disney in 1966, the studio had continued to enjoy periodic box office successes, and to earn profits from its theme parks and merchandising, but many in the industry felt the company was suffering from a lack of direction. Within a few years, Eisner transformed the company into the industry leader. In rapid succession, the studio turned out a new cycle of animated features such as The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin and The Lion King. Each proved to be a box office blockbuster and a merchandising bonanza.

At the same time, Disney diversified, releasing films for a wider audience through its Hollywood Pictures subsidiary, and acquiring independent Miramax to produce more offbeat films for the specialized urban market. Films released under the Miramax banner included critical and box office hits including Good Will Hunting and Shakespeare in Love. A new division, Walt Disney Theatrical, produced the enormously successful Broadway shows, Beauty & the Beast, Aida and the phenomenally successful stage version of The Lion King. Eisner's reign also saw the development of such theme park-related businesses as the Disney Cruise Line. As the value of Disney stock soared, market watchers described Eisner as the prince who awakened Sleeping Beauty and revived the Magic Kingdom. Since Eisner joined Disney, the company's annual revenues have grown from $1.7 billion to $25.4 billion, operating income has gone up from $291 million to $4.08 billion, and its stock price has risen some 30 times.

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One of Eisner's closest advisors, Disney Company President Frank Wells, died in a helicopter accident in 1994, a grave blow to the Company. When Eisner passed over studio chief Jeffrey Katzenberg for promotion to the presidency of the parent company, Katzenberg resigned, and a private feud between Eisner and Katzenberg eventually erupted in a very public lawsuit, costly to the Company in both money and negative publicity. More negative publicity followed Eisner's decision to hire his friend, the celebrated super-agent Michael Ovitz, to fill the post. Ovitz's tenure at Disney was brief, and releasing him from his contract proved another expensive embarrassment for Disney and Eisner.

In 1995, Michael Eisner announced the biggest coup of his career, Disney's acquisition of Capital Cities, owners of Eisner's old employer, the ABC television network. The network brought with it valuable cable television channels, including ESPN, The History Channel, Lifetime, A&E and E! Eisner was now the single most powerful figure in the international communications industry. The merger set off a wave of consolidation in the entertainment and information industries, with Time Warner acquired by America Online, and CBS by Viacom. Within a few years however, the acquisition of the television network came to be seen as a drain on the Disney Company's resources, and criticism of Eisner mounted.

As the decade ended, Disney turned from traditional pen-and-ink animation to embrace the new technology of computer animation. Through a strategic partnership with the innovative Pixar, led by Apple founder Steve Jobs, Disney developed and released such hits as Toy Story, Monsters, Inc. and Finding Nemo. When Jobs chose not to renew Pixar's contract with Disney, major shareholders, including Walt Disney's nephew Roy Disney, went public with their complaints, and at the March 2004 stockholders' meeting in Philadelphia, there was a widespread demand for a change in leadership.

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In 2004, Michael Eisner relinquished the post of Chairman. He stepped down as Chief Executive Officer in October, 2005. In his 21 years of Disney, Michael Eisner had transformed a film and theme park company with $3 billion in enterprise value into an international multimedia colossus valued at $60 billion. His record as a hit-maker and dominant figure in the American entertainment industry remains unparalleled.

Since leaving Disney, Michael Eisner has remained active in business and media. In 2005, he founded The Tornante Company (the name comes from the Italian for "hairpin turn") to invest in and develop companies in the media and entertainment sector. The following year, he hosted his own business and entertainment interview program, Conversations With Michael Eisner on the CNBC television network. Today, Tornante's holdings range from Team Baby Entertainment and the Internet television company Veoh Network, to the Topps bubblegum and trading card company.

While other "old media" figures have shrunk from the challenge of evolving technology, Eisner has thrown himself into the world of new media. Recent Tornante projects include the social-media-based game FameTown and a documentary series on the experience of gays in the military, Another American, to be broadcast digitally over the Internet and mobile phone networks. Michael Eisner has shared the lessons of his long experience in collaborative media in his 2010 book, Working Together: Why Great Partnerships Succeed.




This page last revised on Dec 09, 2010 14:04 EDT