The Keys to the Kingdom: How Michael Eisner Lost His Grip

Overview

A riveting account of Michael Eisner's outrageous, thrilling, and often self-destructive tenure as head of the Walt Disney Company

Kim Masters, coauthor of the New York Times bestseller Hit & Run, has written a page-turning account of Michael Eisner's ascent at The Magic Kingdom. Based on hundreds of interviews with Hollywood's power players, she weaves Eisner's story together with those who have crossed his path: Barry Diller, Jeffrey Katzenberg, and Michael Ovitz. Masters ...

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Overview

A riveting account of Michael Eisner's outrageous, thrilling, and often self-destructive tenure as head of the Walt Disney Company

Kim Masters, coauthor of the New York Times bestseller Hit & Run, has written a page-turning account of Michael Eisner's ascent at The Magic Kingdom. Based on hundreds of interviews with Hollywood's power players, she weaves Eisner's story together with those who have crossed his path: Barry Diller, Jeffrey Katzenberg, and Michael Ovitz. Masters traces Eisner's rivalry with Diller at ABC and Paramount and shows how at Disney, Eisner and Frank Wells rejuvenated the company. Masters also details the fallout between Eisner and Katzenberg (who was responsible for hits like Aladdin and The Lion King) after Wells's untimely death, and traces the move of uber-agent Michael Ovitz from CAA to an executive position at Disney, one of Hollywood's most spectacular failures.Kim Masters, coauthor of the New York Times bestseller Hit & Run, has written a page-turning account of Michael Eisner's ascent at The Magic Kingdom. Based on hundreds of interviews with Hollywood's power players, she weaves Eisner's story together with those who have crossed his path: Barry Diller, Jeffrey Katzenberg, and Michael Ovitz. Masters traces Eisner's rivalry with Diller at ABC and Paramount and shows how at Disney, Eisner and Frank Wells rejuvenated the company. Masters also details the fallout between Eisner and Katzenberg (who was responsible for hits like Aladdin and The Lion King) after Wells's untimely death, and traces the move of uber-agent Michael Ovitz from CAA to an executive position at Disney, one of Hollywood's most spectacular failures.

The Keys to the Kingdom climaxes with the shocking and incredibly personal court battle between Eisner and Katzenberg, involving hundreds of millions of dollars.Kim Masters, coauthor of the New York Times bestseller Hit & Run, has written a page-turning account of Michael Eisner's ascent at The Magic Kingdom. Based on hundreds of interviews with Hollywood's power players, she weaves Eisner's story together with those who have crossed his path: Barry Diller, Jeffrey Katzenberg, and Michael Ovitz. Masters traces Eisner's rivalry with Diller at ABC and Paramount and shows how at Disney, Eisner and Frank Wells rejuvenated the company. Masters also details the fallout between Eisner and Katzenberg (who was responsible for hits like Aladdin and The Lion King) after Wells's untimely death, and traces the move of uber-agent Michael Ovitz from CAA to an executive position at Disney, one of Hollywood's most spectacular failures.

The Keys to the Kingdom climaxes with the shocking and incredibly personal court battle between Eisner and Katzenberg, involving hundreds of millions of dollars.

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Editorial Reviews

Library Journal
Hit & Run coauthor Masters on Eisner's reign at Disney. Copyright 1999 Cahners Business Information.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780688174491
  • Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
  • Publication date: 3/22/2000
  • Edition description: 1 ED
  • Pages: 480
  • Product dimensions: 6.12 (w) x 9.25 (h) x 1.45 (d)

Meet the Author

Kim Masters, a contributing editor for Time and Vanity Fair and a former reporter for the Washington Post, is coauthor with Nancy Griffin of Hit & Run. She lives in Los Angeles.

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Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

Poor Little Rich Boy

It must have been difficult, even frightening, for a poor little rich boy whose parents wanted so much for him and demanded so much from him. But a boy who had a lively imagination yet a very short attention span did not necessarily possess the qualities that ensure a brilliant academic career. And in fact, Michael Dammann Eisner had to get used to trying hard without always succeeding. The son of a wealthy New York family, he had grown up on Park Avenue, spending weekends in wealthy Bedford Hills at his maternal grandparents' estate.

The Eisners were wealthy but not extravagant, and Michael was inculcated with a sense of thrift bordering on cheapness. His mother constantly admonished him to turn out lights when he left a room. If the family went to dinner and Michael wanted a shrimp cocktail that wasn't included in the prix fixe menu, his father complained that this indulgence was "ridiculous and unnecessary." Early on, Eisner was taught to believe that money was to be taken very seriously. The message that his father drilled into his head was that "you do not spend capital."

For the first three years of Michael's life, his father, Lester, was away flying transport planes in the Second World War. Being the only boy (he had one older sister), Eisner was his mother's young prince and he learned that by being "clever and playful and likable" he could almost always have his way. To the young boy, Lester's return seemed a change for the worse. It wasn't a happy dynamic. A longtime Eisner associate says that his father was weak and vacillating with his wife, but self-righteous and overbearing withothers, including his children. Relentlessly dissatisfied with them, Lester insisted that they call him by his first name. In his mother, Maggie, Michael had a powerful ally. Complain as Lester might, Maggie saw to it that her boy got to savor his a la carte shrimp cocktail.

Eisner says his father was popular, charming, and funny but also recalls that his best friend, John Angelo, was terrified of him." An avid sportsman, Lester was highly competitive and demanded much of his children. When he took them galloping on cross-country rides every weekend, he hardly noticed that they were seared to death. Both children learned to hate and fear riding.

Michael's sister, Margot, liked to figure-skate. Lester pushed her hard and she became a capable little technician, laboring at her performances with such grim determination that she failed to win over the judges in competitions. Her brother knew better how to have his way. "Smile," he told her. "Play the game." It was a natural gift for Michael, but for Margot, it was not.

Michael attended the exclusive Allen-Stevenson School on East Seventyeighth Street, a school known for its children's orchestra. (Eisner played glockenspiel.) He set out each morning dressed in a blue uniform with a blue cap. He was relatively happy there, not because of a love of learning, but because he was one of the best athletes in the relatively small school and got to be quarterback of the football team from the fourth through eighth grades. He found that he liked calling the plays. Academically, he never really distinguished himself — much to the unconcealed disappointment of his father. "I wanted to please him, and it was nearly impossible," Eisner said later. The anxious and protective Maggie did her best for her son, even forging his homework for him when he fell behind.

Eisner portrays himself as an insatiably curious child whose father begged for relief from his incessant questions. He also saw himself as having had a fairly adventuresome youth. "'Give me a subway station and I will go,' was my motto as I traveled to Yankee Stadium, to the Polo Grounds, to Madison Square Garden, and to the World's Fair," he later remembered. Certainly, a genuine and enthusiastic curiosity was one of Eisner's most engaging traits. Even so, the disciplined attention needed to shine in school eluded him.

Lester was also perennially dissatisfied with Michael's standards of conduct. Lester held himself out as a rigidly moral man, but even as a child, Michael had learned to "play the angles," as a boarding-school housemaster put it in a letter to his parents. Michael may not have been an academic star, but surely he learned some interesting lessons maneuvering between a constantly discontented, stiff-necked father and an iron-willed mother who helped him cheat at his schoolwork. At some point, clearly, he concluded that his father's standards could not be met-and he didn't intend to try.

Later, Michael would see something of his father, with his strong professions of morality, in Frank Wells. If he saw hypocrisy in either man, Eisner never said so. But the similarity was such that Michael would acknowledge that Wells served as "a governor" to him when he was "tempted to push the boundaries just a little too far."

At dinner in the family home, young Michael was expected to wear a tie and jacket. Similarly attired, he was dispatched to classes at the Viola Wolff dancing school with white-gloved little girls. His parents took him to concerts and Broadway shows starting at a tender age. A Picasso, The Bullfight, lent by an art-collector friend, hung on his bedroom wall. Television was restricted to an hour a day and that only after two hours of reading. Michael broke the rule when his parents went out and gradually absorbed a dream of a humbler, happier life, informed by sitcoms of the fifties The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet and Father Knows Best. When his father returned home and found the television still warm, Michael faced his fury for trying to pull off the deception.

Of course, Eisner was a rich boy in Manhattan (and a Jew — if a highly assimilated one who enjoyed his share of unkosher shrimp). His life had little in common with the middle-class, middle Americans portrayed on television. But the Eisners were hardly living as extravagantly as the family's circumstances would have allowed. "Michael had a privileged but not indulged upper-middle-class urban upbringing," says childhood friend Susan Baerwald. "It was not a lot of rich kids running around with expensive toys. Nobody had fancy cars or trappings of wealth."

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Table of Contents

Prologue 1
1 Poor Little Rich Boy 7
2 Enter the Dragon 20
3 Happy Days 37
4 Reversal of Fortune 51
5 Squirt 65
6 The Golden Retriever 76
7 The Killer Dillers 90
8 High Concept 104
9 Death of a Mogul 126
10 Risky Business 139
11 The Eighth Summit 155
12 A Ravenous Rat? 165
13 Hits and Misses 180
14 "A Whiff of the Mouse" 192
15 Winning Ugly 205
16 Toontown 218
17 Star Wars 230
18 One False Move 244
19 Mouschwitz 255
20 Beauty and the Debacle 266
21 The Crash 286
22 Chest Pains 305
23 A Bitter Divorce 321
24 Big Dreams 331
25 The Dominoes Fall 343
26 Superman Stumbles 351
27 A Platinum Parachute 362
28 Squaring off 385
29 Katz v. Mouse 411
30 "That Dark Person" 437
Source Notes 447
Acknowledgments 455
Index 457
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Interviews & Essays

An Interview with Kim Masters

Entertainment industry journalist Kim Masters recently had a candid discussion with our business editor, Amy Lambo, about her book's revealing look at Michael Eisner and his Disney empire.


bn.com: I thought we could start by pulling out a few comments from a live chat that Michael Eisner conducted on bn.com while promoting his book Work In Progress. When asked, "Why did you write this book?" Eisner said, "Because I thought it would be a challenge, kind of like a super term paper, and once I got started I couldn't stop." Why do you think Michael Eisner wrote Work In Progress?

Kim Masters: I actually think that is totally inexplicable. I don't understand why the sitting chairman of a publicly held company -- particularly a company like Disney -- really has a strong percentage in writing a book like that. It was all downside. I don't see what the possible upside is. For somebody who's retired, a memoir makes sense. But for Michael Eisner, it seems to me to be an exercise in explicable hubris. He doesn't need the money. It became a source of enormous embarrassment to him at the Katzenberg trial because the notes were introduced into evidence -- that's where his famous "I hate the little midget" quote about his former studio chief Jeffrey Katzenberg was revealed. It really skewered his credibility.

bn.com: Why is it important for the public to read and learn from your book, which could be called "the anti-Work In Progress"?

Kim Masters: Because Michael Eisner is a fascinating person. I've covered him for about ten years. He runs one of the best-known brand names in the world, a company that is part of the fabric of the social consciousness of both the U.S. and the entire world. Plus he and his colleagues and contemporaries have had an enormous impact on the way business is done and on the kind of movies and entertainment that people see.

bn.com: When I interviewed Michael Lewis about The New New Thing he said one of the most insightful moments of that book was when he visited Jim Clark's once-impoverished family in Texas. Was Eisner's privileged Upper East Side New York childhood of equal impact on his ambitions later in life?

Kim Masters: It had a tremendous impact. Obviously, I'm not a psychoanalyst, but I don't think you have to be one to figure it out. I think that Michael's family had a snobbishness that manifested itself in his career. One of the distinguishing characteristics that he has, which has been both a strength and a weakness, is that he has tremendous certitude, and very few people can really command Michael Eisner's respect. He came from this family that has this tradition of Princeton and Harvard, though Michael was not Ivy League material himself. So that's one side of that coin -- even though he didn't go to Princeton, he came from that tradition. Plus, he had a college education, whereas most of the characters in his career and in this book -- Barry Diller, Jeffrey Katzenberg, David Geffen -- don't have one. He's made it pretty clear that he's very aware of that. The other side of the coin is that since he was not Ivy League material -- rather, he was a very imaginative child with a very short attention span -- his parents clearly had a tremendous amount of anxiety about his performance and how he would fare in life. You can sense in Michael's constant sort of pessimistic worldview that he's sort of characterized by a fear that everything will be taken away tomorrow. From the standpoint of his parents, there was even something not quite satisfactory about his succeeding in the entertainment world. Even in letters to shareholders, he talks about how his mother wondered how he would make a living. The entertainment industry is not the same as saying "my son, the doctor."

bn.com: Which of Eisner's professional relationships did you find to be the most pivotal in his career and most captivating and interesting to research?

Kim Masters: There are three huge ones -- Barry Diller, Jeff Katzenberg, and Frank Wells. Ovitz is less interesting to me because their relationship struck me as ultimately so lacking in substance. Barry is always fascinating. Clearly, Barry doesn't have a college education, and Michael likes to point that out. Michael once talked about how he knew about Edith Wharton , then later caught Barry trying to read up on Wharton. But Barry, as anyone who's ever dealt with him knows, is one of the most intimidating and brilliant people alive in the world. So, he actually also commanded Michael's respect. I'd have to say that Barry, in the mentor sense, was the most interesting to me, mainly because there was so much ambivalence in their relationship. I had always assumed that when Barry hired Michael to run the Paramount studio it was because Michael was talented. But when I started to report on their ultracompetitive relationship when they were at ABC together, and I realized that Eisner was the last person that you'd think Diller would want to deal with at Paramount, I suddenly said, "Wait. What's wrong with this picture?" And David Geffen was the one who explained it. Diller hired Eisner to get him away from Geffen.

bn.com: You've covered this industry for a while, and to a lot of our customers out there, that seems very cool and intriguing. How did you end up as a Hollywood industry writer?

Kim Masters: I never made that decision. I utterly fell into it. I had been a legal reporter for a trade publication, which sounds pretty much like the opposite of covering Hollywood. I was hired at The Daily News here in Los Angeles, which is definitely the smaller paper in this community. I applied for a job thinking that they would assign me to a courthouse in Van Nuys, since that was more my experience. But they decided that if I could get inside a law firm -- which is basically a closed club -- and find out what was going on, that I could apply those skills to the studios. It was a pretty imaginative choice on their part. I was completely shocked and knew absolutely nothing about Hollywood. I went through a year of hell trying to get inside this industry from a newspaper that was not high profile. I remember the first time I called to interview Michael Eisner, the communications guy at the time at Disney actually laughed so hard that he called me later to apologize. He thought the idea was so ridiculous that I would come over an interview Michael Eisner. I eventually did get my interview.

bn.com: Do you have any interesting tidbits about insider industry people's reactions to you and your research while you were conducting interviews for this book?

Kim Masters: The fact that I had written Hit And Run with Nancy Griffin helped, because people instantly believed that this book would really happen. And I was very pleased by the number of people who were willing to go on the record. In the beginning, Michael didn't tell people not to cooperate. Some people called him and asked, and he said they could do what they liked. Which was good. And I tried to go from the outside in. I started with professional relationships from a long time ago, figuring the closer I got to family stuff, or childhood stuff, or current business stuff, the more his resistance would increase. He had made it clear from the start that he wouldn't cooperate, but he was only actively opposing me toward the end. I called one of his cousins, and at first she was very pleasant and chatty, and then she called him. Later she called me back and left a nasty message, saying Michael had told her I was going to do a hatchet job. That certainly wasn't my point of view, and I don't think it is a hatchet job.

But Michael does not have a great number of relationships in this industry. One of the things that was very obvious to me as I moved through reporting was that Jeffrey Katzenberg had relationships he could call on. He could ask Bob Zemeckis, the director of "Who Framed Roger Rabbit" and "Back to the Future," to do an interview, and Zemeckis would do it. It became pretty clear that there were people who were Katzenberg partisans. Michael doesn't have the sort of...you could call them "friendships in quotes," the sort of processional friendships in this community, which may not go that deep but nonetheless are standing arrangements. Eisner doesn't have that many people whom he's on great terms with. He's a pretty isolated figure. And those people within the company who would have to say nice things about him were told not to talk.

bn.com: What's your personal opinion of Eisner?

Kim Masters: I personally like Michael. I had a great relationship with him for a long time. I don't mean that I like him like my best friend. However, when he wants to be, he is a really entertaining, charming, funny guy. He learned to be funny and charming to get his way. At least until quite recently, he can turn that on. And talking to him is always really fun. Barry Diller once said to me that Michael Eisner's mind is like a pinball machine and just sort of goes flying in all different directions. It does. And you have to keep up with it. So I had a great relationship with him. Having said that, I obviously wrote about him as a very tough guy who was not just this funny, charming person. I realized from the beginning of the book that the relationship would suffer, and I was pretty sad that it did.

bn.com: What can readers expect to find revealed in your book about the Katzenberg lawsuit? What was the most significant result of that lawsuit for Eisner and Disney?

Kim Masters: I think it was very damaging and very inexplicable. When I say in the subtitle "How Michael Eisner Lost His Grip," I don't think anything exemplifies that more than that lawsuit. For Eisner to march into a courtroom knowing that he will be faced with having said, "I hate the little midget," how do you explain that? Bear in mind that at that point, Disney had already conceded that they owed Katzenberg a very substantial amount of money. Probably more than $100 million. They were in there litigating because they didn't want to pay interest. By what logic would you go in and reveal all of that dirty linen over interest payments? That's all it was about. If only I could get an honest answer from Michael Eisner to that question. At a glance, ego looks like the only explanation. If that's true, that is a stunning example of a high-level corporate executive, who's supposed to be all about the bottom line, making a decision that has nothing to do with the best interests of the company. I can't imagine that he was advised to do this by his lawyers. If he was, they really did him a grave disservice. If this was something that was an issue for Roy Disney, somebody should have talked him out of it. There's no way that should ever have happened.

bn.com: What do you think the next step is for Eisner or Disney?

Kim Masters: I've maintained throughout this process that Disney is a great company. There's only one Mickey Mouse. Michael has referred to the problems as temporary. To some degree, I think he's right. I think what Disney has to offer is tremendously strong, notwithstanding its problems, which are still serious. It's a really interesting time because Eisner has made it very clear that he has heard the level of dissatisfaction with Disney's performance and his performance. He's been out trying to fix it. He's gotten a terrific break with " Who Wants to Be a Millionaire," which may in fact be a temporary solution, but it's still helping them. They've got a lot of strong possibilities from DVD, and there are plans for a theme park in Hong Kong and maybe ultimately China. There's a lot of potential for Disney to still grow. There was always the question, Will Michael Eisner share power? Who will be the No. 2 guy? And the promotion of Bob Iger to be that person has left a lot of people in the entertainment community sort of unconvinced. The view has been that this is not the strong No. 2 to really balance Eisner's more impulsive, less constructive decisions. It's almost like the book is to be continued. Can Michael Eisner right this ship, and can he right himself?


About Kim Masters

Kim Masters is a contributing editor to Time and Vanity Fair, covering the entertainment industry. From 1990 through 1996, she covered politics for The Washington Post's Style Section. Throughout her career, she has covered a variety of beats, from legal affairs and education to the Supreme Court. Her work has appeared in such newspapers as the Los Angeles Times, The Boston Globe, and the Portland Oregonian. She lives in Los Angeles.

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Sort by: Showing all of 3 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted August 4, 2000

    Very informative and a good read

    I found this book to be an interesting read. I have also read Michael Eisner¿s autobiography and was looking forward to reading more about his tenure at Disney. I appreciated the way that Kim Masters brought a different perspective to the events leading up to Eisner¿s taking the helm at Disney as well as the time since Eisner took over. There certainly were many things that Masters discussed that Eisner did not cover very well or at all in his book. I think it is important to get more of the total picture on events such as these and not just one point of view. I felt that Masters presented a point of view that was much more broad than the view presented by Eisner. Now for some of the things I did not like about this book. There is many times in this book that Masters¿ tone seemed almost gossipy which is something I do not like. Also, Masters seemed to dwell on the negative aspects of Eisner as well as other people that held or continue to hold power in the entertainment industry. She seemed very critical of anyone holding that power and said very little positive about them. There is (hopefully) good and bad in everyone, I would have liked to get a more balanced story from an author with Master¿s talent. Overall, I recommend this book. It is a good source of information that I have not found elsewhere. However, I felt this book left me unconvinced that Eisner has ¿Lost His Grip.¿

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  • Anonymous

    Posted June 11, 2000

    Clash of the Monster Egos

    A fascinating view of the rise of Michael Eisner, with a cast of notable supporting players: Barry Diller, Don Simpson, Jeffrey Katzenberg, David Geffen, Michael Ovitz, Lew Wasserman, Sidney Scheinberg. The book gives you a behind the scenes look at how these high powered executives go at eachother. Eisner made Disney what it is today because of his intuitive feel for the business; his ability to exploit money-making opportunities raised Disney to great heights. However, his stubborness and insincerity get him, and Disney, into major trouble.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 27, 2000

    Accuracy of the book needs serious questioning

    Read this book through as soon as it arrived. While it is an interesting read in terms of drama, there are some blatant factual errors. For example, on page 268, Ms. Masters uses box office returns to show the decline of Disney animated films after Jeffrey K's departure. 'Pocahontas' is credited with only generating $68 million at the box office, when in fact it made over $140 million domestically - not quite Lion King standards, but more than twice the amount that she quotes. Also, on page 325, 'The Rescuers Down Under' is described as the failed sequel to 'The Great Mouse Detective', when it is in fact the obvious sequel to 'The Rescuers'. While neither of these are unforgivable mistakes, it does reveal a certain sloppiness in the research behind this book. Personally, it makes me question the accuracy of the 'behind the scenes' stories/dialogues in the rest of the book. Check this one out at the library or borrow it from a friend who already purchased it.

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