Michael Eisner: Interview transcript
Tornante CEO Michael Eisner
TEXT OF INTERVIEW
Kai Ryssdal: Michael Eisner, good to have you with us.
Micheal Eisner: Thank you, thank you for inviting me.
Ryssdal: Tell us about this program you've got going on about this dentist Glenn Martin DDS. What is that?
Eisner: It's an animated show. It's an adult animated show in the sense of Simpsons or Family Guy. It's about a dentist . . . basically it's about a dentist and his whole family who decide to see America and every week they go to a different place. I try to figure out a profession from which you would most like to leave and go on a family journey and I thought, well . . . a dentist would be a good one. Done it a few times in live action; Chevy Chase did it pretty well in Vacation and Albert Brooks has done it, Little Miss Sunshine did it in a sense, so this is kind of an animated version of it but it's different in that it's stop-action. Kind of going back to the days that I was involved with Frosty the Snowman and Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer and stuff like that. Comedy.
Ryssdal: Well let me ask you about how this relates to your history, I mean you've had a hand in some of the most successful television shows ever to be seen in this country. Is this going to measure up?
Eisner: I think so. It's very funny. It's going to be on Nickelodeon. It's going to be on Comedy Central in at least its premier week. I think it's hysterical. I think it also touches America now. We did it in the Vietnam Era, I mean that's how old I am, in a thing called In Search of America. And it was about a family where the son comes home from college and says, "I'm dropping out," and the father says, "I'm going with you, let's go see America," and the mother says, "You're not leaving me and little Jenny home" and the person serving them their dinner says, "I'm going with you." And they go off and they go to a commune and they do all this stuff during the Vietnam era that you could imagined that they would've done. It was the highest rated movie of the year. So the idea of a family reconnecting in a comedic way and traveling across the country with a dog . . . of course with a dog . . .
Ryssdal: Of course.
Eisner: Is funny.
Ryssdal: Since you left Disney though, you've been concentrating mostly on Internet content and bringing programs on line and yet you took this one to Nickelodeon. How come?
Eisner: I've done several things as I left Disney. I've invested in new companies; I bought Topps, the baseball card company.
Ryssdal: Yeah, we're going to talk about that in a bit.
Eisner: But interestingly, I'm completely driven back to content. I've always thought content was the most important. I think now in this new era where there's infinite amount of distribution, where the consumer really controls what's happening, it's only the high-end content that's going to work from now on. The better content, all that middle stuff that used to work during the era of three networks on least objectionable programming or when cable and satellite and home video exploded; even that mediocre product would work, although the big product still was the most economically advantageous. Going forward is only going to be about the content because the mediocre content is going to fall away. So I just have driven back to the area of content. I started off, and we're going to gear up to less maybe in the next 3 years, 30 different Internet story-driven shows a year specifically for the Internet. And I'm doing that because I think it's kind of revolutionary and interesting and proving that user-generated contact is in fact still unedited; user-generated content is not done by professionals. The best user-generated content eventually becomes those people gravitated in the professional world. This show Glenn Martin DDS, which had just occurred to me practically while I was driving out of the gates of Disney, it just seemed so perfect for broadcast cable that I just made a pilot myself, had the script written myself, and then sent it out and a lot of people were interested in it.
Ryssdal: If content is going to be king though and you really don't care what the platform is...Internet, broadcasts, movies, what have you. Where's the money coming from? Where are you going to make your money?
Eisner: Well I think content has always been at least king. There are eras where it's been kind of a queen to the king of the Comcasts of the world or the ABC's of the world or the pre-1948's when Paramount and Warner's owned their own theaters and before the Supreme Court came in and said, "That's a no-no." Content has always driven the business. Now it's no longer the queen to a king of distribution; it is the king, king, king, because the consumer has complete choice. Obviously content starting in a movie theater, high-end content this summer has proved it without stars: Star Trek, Up, Transformers, you know some of the big stars have come out in movies that have not worked so it is still about the idea, so you can make a lot of money by the first distribution window being the motion picture theater. But today, television is very much like the motion picture; you need high-end product that will first go on broadcast or cable and eventually on the Internet, and then the lifespan of this content being distributed worldwide. Television content now, really the good content, is being distributed on home video and digital downloads. It's all about what is the show and once you figure out the show then you have to figure out the best distribution platform to premier it on, let's put it that way.
Ryssdal: Well all right but let me take one of your, probably your best known for Web-only programs, this show called Prom Queen which you've been quoted as saying, "It made a little bit of profit its first season, not so much its second season, now it's going to come back for its third." How are you going to make money-making programming only for the Web?
Eisner: Well the answer is if you make good programming and even though you don't know where you are going to get it down the road and you can kind of break even in the first window, there is that pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.
Ryssdal: If you build it they will come, right?
Eisner: Yes, and I had lunch with somebody who used to work for me who did great theatrical work at Disney and she came to me and we had lunch last week and she said, "Would you agree to do Prom Queen as a musical, not for Broadway yet, but to travel around the country?"
Eisner:And I said, "Well, you know I've turned down the idea of Prom Queen for a movie or a television movie because I think I passed doing Prom Queen for a movie." I think I liked doing it for the Internet it just seemed like having my tombstone, the last thing I'd do...if I'm going to buy a truck, Prom Queen the movie didn't interest me. But Prom Queen . . .
Ryssdal: The musical is somehow . . .
Eisner: Yes. Who dies at the night of the prom as a kind of a campy quality musical? So here, I never thought of Prom Queen as a musical and who knows where that will end up. The point I'm making is: do it well, tell a good story, try to make a little cultural noise and you have something of value. Whether it was Happy Days or Laverne and Shirley or Barney Miller or Cheers or all this stuff in television that I was involved with, there's no limit to where you can synergize it, to use a business over-used word, there's no limit to where you can do that.
Ryssdal: You must have had visions of Lion King flashing through your head.
Eisner: Well, I didn't but when we did Beauty and the Beast as a theatrical animated movie, and I had done several Broadway plays, musicals that were my one and only...for instance that were relatively OK, I decided that I would never do another Broadway show because it was as much work making a Broadway show as it was a movie but a movie went in 2,000, 3000, 4000 theaters and the show was in one. When I saw what Andrew Lloyd Webber and Cameron Macintosh were able to do with their musicals, with their Phantom of the Opera and so forth, and we reviewed with Beauty and the Beast as the best Broadway musical that was not made for Broadway but made for animation we said, "Why don't we try it on Broadway?" And when that worked so incredibly well and when Lion King came up, the next place that seemed logical was Lion King on Broadway; which may be worth, just the Broadway piece, a billion dollars. Just the Broadway piece! So it's all about what is the content and how great is it because all the stuff that is in the middle that is too expensive today, is what brings companies down. Paramount Pictures...I'm an alumni of Paramount Pictures you know 25 years ago...Paramount Pictures has some big movies but they made no money last year because all of their mediocre movies, their middle level movies in the past had a distribution platform say in home video. It doesn't exist anymore so it wiped out all their profits.
Ryssdal: Let me get back to that pot of gold you were talking about; if you build good web content, eventually you are going to figure out how to make money out of it. What right now, is standing in the way of that? Is there an obstacle between you and the pot of gold?
Eisner: On the Internet you mean?
Eisner: Well, in the scope of things, it's in its infancy and advertisers haven't completely come there other than its search. They're a little nervous in what surrounds the, you know on the Internet, a story-driven piece of material. Generally, incorrectly people think that America in the world has got ADD and can only watch something that is two and a half minutes long. They can only watch something that's two and a half minutes long because that's all that anybody's been able to make that is any good. But we started making shows that were two and a half, three, seven, eight minutes long. And if you look at Hulu and you look at the off-network shows that run a full 30 minutes or longer, the audience stays with them. So that's ridiculous. If you give them quality content and that there's so much available and that they don't have to stay with it, you know it's like the infinite "clicker." If they don't like it, they go to the next Web site. But if you make something good, eventually the audience will be there, eventually there will be something on the Internet that is a cultural phenomenon that's not available anywhere else, that's not available on television broadcasts, that's not on cable, it's only on some Web site. And the world will find it. And when that happens, it will be what the 'kiss' was to the theatrical movie business, 5,000 years ago or whenever it was. It's what, I don't know whether it was Maverick or it was early show of shows or Milton Berle or you know what Sex and the City was to cable or the Sopranos was to cable, eventually there will be a show that demands you go to the Internet. Very much like the way breaking news stories now, whether it's like the Michael Jackson death, or any big breaking event forces tremendous viewing, some day and it's not that far away and it will probably come from somebody that nobody expects it to come from, there will be a show that everybody the next morning talks about. And it will be on ABC.com or it will be on Vuguru.com, or it will be on Hulu.com or it will be somewhere.
Ryssdal: Do you ever wish you had left Disney earlier to get started working on the Web?
Eisner: Well it's not that I thought about 'wish that I left earlier to work on the web' but in hindsight, I'm glad I left when I did; although if I had left five or six years earlier I would have a longer span to do...get back into the content business. I was very on the line, always in the content on the theme parks, I was very much on the line for the first five years that I was there in the movie business. I was less on the line the second five years and the last period, we got so big at Disney and there were so many issues of a conglomerate, that other than the parks where we didn't do that many new things every year, I couldn't really do what I found as my only ability. You know I can read a balance sheet but not that great. I can host a Board meeting I guess as well as anybody else, but boringly. But content I am more interested in so I'm glad I'm back to that. Being in a Board meeting and seeing one more flip-card presentation or one more return on equity or one more conversation abut financial endeavors is less interesting to me than finding out what's funny about a dog on Glenn Martin DDS. Now that's a failing probably but I'm more interested in finding out about that dog than I am in the "dog of finance."
Ryssdal: Are you surprised then that you were at Disney as long as you were?
Eisner: No, because we had a great run, Disney is a fantastic company. All the people that I was associated with and brought into Disney are still there. I certainly have a big rooting interest in Disney. I'm very close to the management at Disney but I don't have the responsibility of 120,000 employees right now, which is OK. I can actually turn my Blackberry off for this interview and not think how many people would like to be driving me crazy. I'm not that worried about analysts. I'm in a private company so it doesn't matter; it's just not of public concern. I'm no longer of that much interest to the media, which is nice. This is one of the few interviews I've done in a while. So it's a different life although I'm just as obsessed as ever so I guess it's not that different.
Ryssdal: What would you say has been your biggest creative success since you drove out those gates at Disney?
Eisner: Well I had two of my children got married since I left to the extent that they asked me what they creatively should do. I like that.
Ryssdal: Fair enough.
Eisner: I don't know, some financial creative successes. I got out of the equity markets completely more than a year ago so I feel like I was . . .
Ryssdal: Good timing.
Eisner: I was creative in that endeavor. And the first thing I've done that has the potential to be as big a cultural phenomena...the potential, it won't be, they usually aren't...the potential worldwide, this Glenn Martin DDS. I haven't been as close to the line, to the stage, to the voices in a long time as I am to this specific show. It will come and go probably but maybe not, maybe it'll be like The Simpsons.
Ryssdal: I have to ask you about buying a controlling interest in Topps, the baseball card company. I have three little boys, all of whom play baseball, none of whom know baseball cards from "Shineola." How do you take that and make that something that is in the common cultural currency so that you can make money out of it again?
Eisner: Well first of all, I just thought the brand Topps meant something. The Disney brand means family. The Coke brand means thirst and drinks. The Kodak used to mean what it means. How many brands make you feel good and make you smile, even if they're tired and rusty? Topps means sports, it means heroes, it means the past; and of course there's Bazooka Joe and a lot of other things that are part of Topps. But first of all, baseball cards are still a very good business as are football cards as are hockey and so forth, but the most fun I've had since I've owned Topps is making a deal with the Bundis Leaga in Germany for soccer . . .
Ryssdal: The German soccer league, yeah.
Eisner: The German soccer league; Premier League in the U.K. Creating an online interface between the card and games...you have special things on the cards you input into the computer and then you have power in the game; the kids are all into that. We have a thing called Topps Attacks, in Europe it's called Match Attacks because of soccer. In Germany, I have had my office called by the top political people in German establishment asking if we could send them some extra cards for their kids. In Germany Topps, and in the U.K., is as big as anything I've ever been involved with as far as a cultural phenomena. We created this card and this game and attached to the physical card the Internet game. It's outlawed in some schools in the U.K. because kids are playing it. So your kids, if I had a couple of Topps Attacks baseball cards on me and I'd give them to you, your kids would be addicted. The problem in the U.S. is the idea of the newsstand; the local newsstand where you'd go buy things has kind of gone away whereas in Germany and the U.K. you get your newspaper and all that stuff through kiosks. So the distribution in a country of 80 million has been a little easier to figure out for some of these things than the distribution for Topps in the U.S. where it's Wal-Mart and Target, and that's a different way to deal at hobby stores.
Ryssdal: How much of your investment in Topps and Bazooka Joe and coming up with these games based on the cards, how much of that is your own nostalgia for the way it was when you were a kid? I mean, I remember baseball cards; I know you do.
Eisner: Look at it this way, I was not a baseball card collector. I never went to a Disney movie until...
Ryssdal: Until you had to right?
Eisner: Well not till my son was born. I had never been to Disneyland. You know, you don't have to be a chicken to know a good egg to say a very cliche statement that I heard on the Dick Cavett show once. I get interested in it later. I grew up in Manhattan. I grew up going to shows. I wasn't a card collector but now I like it and I see that it was...so it's not nostalgia. I remember when we were at Disney trying to write a book for our new book publishing company called Hyperion on Sam Walton, and he was dying. And I talked to the writer, which actually we didn't end up getting the book, but I talked to the writer and he said her went to see Sam Walton in the hospital. Now he's dying, critically ill, I don't know how long it was before he died; and he tried to talk to Sam Walton about the past. "What was it like when you had three stores and what was it like when you had ten stores and how did you do it?" He couldn't get Sam Walton to even talk about the past. All Sam Walton, in his dying moments wanted to talk about was the future. "Look what I'm doing...Sam's Clubs is starting, this is starting, look how we've improved." I think people that are on the cutting edge of innovation and are connected to public, I think the past bores them. I think when you get inured with the past, you get committed to the past, you stop growing.
Ryssdal: And is that you?
Eisner: I'm not Sam Walton for sure but the past does bore me. I mean it's not that I don't like somebody saying, "Oh, they saw Grease or they saw Saturday Night Fever or whatever," but I can't look at it again. I wrote four plays in college; I've never read them since. My wife's never even read them. I'm just not interested in that; I'm interested in Glenn Martin work and what's the second season and what's the spin-off and how do you put your pedal to the medal to make sure that you create a little industry work to this kind of animation which is different than anything else that has been done.
Ryssdal: But for a guy who for 25 years was running a hugely influential company in the culture of this country and in the world, doesn't that only going forward and not looking back mindset cost you a little bit of context?
Eisner: No because one of the problems with Disney, I'm told was that everybody there from 1966 to 1984 says, "What would Walter have done?" And when I was asked, "What would Walter have done?" I would say, "I have no idea." I've seen these great movies, I know a lot about him obviously I read everything about him, I never met him, I interviewed all the people at Disney that knew him, but I never thought what Walt would have done. I thought what we would have done. I knew that I was nowhere near as talented as Walt. And one of the problems was, I don't know if the company before I got there recognized that Walt wasn't there. And so what I did was went and hired twenty people that together we added up to one Walt and you know we had Steven Spielberg and George Lucas working with us in the beginning, Roger Rabbit and Captain Eo with Michael Jackson, and Star Tours, and then we started bringing in Bob Zemeckis and started bringing in a lot of people in the industry that added up to a Walt. But it wasn't what Walt would've done, it's what you would do going forward. The fact of the matter is, people were making Disney movies but they weren't at Disney when I went to Disney -- Grease, Saturday Night Fever, E.T., Star Wars -- these are all Disney kind of movies but they weren't made at Disney. So time moves on.
Ryssdal: Does it ever wear you out though, always being on the lookout for the next thing whether it's Glenn Martin DDS or Prom Queen or what you want to do with Bazooka Joe in a movie, doesn't that ever get old?
Eisner: I don't know if it ever wears you out. Forget me or anything like that; the last couple years of Picassos life in one 30-day period for instance, he did 45 paintings that were gigantic. And for many years they were discounted as being inferior and then all of a sudden, in the Pace Gallery in New York there was an exhibition of these paintings and all of a sudden people realized they were amongst his most brilliant -- 45 in 30 days he had this constipation that he had to get this out of him. So anybody who is committed to any, and that's the high-end of all high-ends, but anybody who's committed to anything that they have a passion is always trying to get it out of their head; it's driving them crazy. And I don't feel enervated by the fact that I'm keeping looking for new ideas, I feel enervated by the fact that I have these new ideas and there's no way to execute them. When you are at Disney and you have all this help and you have an idea, you throw them out every day...you write e-mails when e-mails came into being otherwise you wrote notes and you sent them to people and half of them came back and said, "Are you nuts? Are you crazy?" and then a quarter of them came back and said, "That would be ridiculously non-Disney or too expensive." And then a quarter of them came back and said, "Let's look into it" -- that pushing of ideas when you can execute them. Everybody's mind is more complicated than a computer. Proust made it clear that Proustian remembrances of things past; they'd fly through your mind. The problem is not the ideas, the problem is getting them executed. And I don't or cannot remember a successful movie or television show that we've ever made that I didn't many letters saying, "That was my idea." And we'd get letters all the time saying, "Oh you did a movie. It was just like something I was thinking about doing." And what I want to say is, "Well, why didn't you do it?" And the problem is that it is a big step from having an idea flow from out of your head, and getting it on a piece of paper, getting people around you to think it's a good idea, finding a writer, putting on a show -- look how hard it is to put on a show in High School! -- well just take it to the next level.
Ryssdal: Do you have to be impatient to be a big, creative guy in this culture?
Eisner: Well I don't know whether impatience is the word...you need to be pervasive; persuasive as well. You need to be a nudger. You need to continually ask questions. You need to drive people a little bit crazy at the same time polite. There are much better people than me to ask this question to. I mean there's probably the premier filmmaker in this country is Steven Spielberg and he just has a way of recognizing an idea, getting it into the execution phase, which is not easy, and then coming on top of it and directing it. And I assume that he has a1000 ideas a day and has to pull them into the reality of where he wants to go.
Ryssdal: Does your experience at Disney as a classic old media guy: movies, television, theme parks...does that help you or hurt you as you try to get your creative ideas into the new media, into the Internet?
Eisner: I'm not sure I was a typical head of a company like that. Most people that run big companies come out of sales and they come out of marketing and they're quite serious and they have MBA's from very good schools and things like that. I'm an accidental CEO, thank the Disney Company. Look, I started off at ABC and somebody said, "Do you want to run daytime programming?" I had never seen a soap opera and I went and educated myself and ran General Hospital, I put on the air and I ran All My Children, put on the air One Life To Live -- you know I read scripts every day, I was a Theater major and it seemed like fun and let's go put on a show. So I did the same thing at Disney. I had never -- I've been to theme parks with my kids eventually but I didn't know how theme parks were made. When I went to Paramount, I never made a movie. I was a TV guy. So I was always the guy asking the questions. I was the guy...I mean, we only made in twenty plus years two acquisitions because I'm very conservative. We bought Capital City's ABC...
Ryssdal: A big enough acquisition.
Eisner: It was the biggest acquisition at that time in history. We recognized the brand of ESPN. We knew that we valued ABC network at zero. Zero -- that's 1995 -- we figured the ABC network was worth zero. We valued the own stations at a reasonable price. The big value was ESPN and...we knew that the television age was changing but we also knew cable was growing. And we bought the Family Channel. Those are really the only two acquisitions in my tenure. e weren't a conglomerate in that we were like financially manipulative; you know we never took on a lot of debt, if any. You know we didn't have any debt until we bought Capital Cities ABC and for ten years the chief financial officer at Disney kept saying to me, "You are not letting the government help us run this company." So eventually we found something big enough for the government to help us run this company and we paid it off pretty quickly. So the Disney Company never had an ethical problem, a financial problem or a debt problem. You know, we were hurt after 9/11 for about a year because of tourism and all that; but we were more of a, hey, even though we're a giant, turned into a giant company (I don't know -- it went from $2 billion to $80 billion or something), it was always, "Put on a show!" Every day it was about "Let's put on a show. Let's put on a new parade. Let's put Aladdin in Disneyland!" It got a little more complicated when we were building in Hong Kong and building in Paris but it was very creatively driven, the company, It was driven on the concept of "What is the show?"
Ryssdal: Do me a favor -- I should've asked this before -- do me a favor, give me the 30-second thumbnail sketch of Prom Queen. What is Prom Queen about?
Eisner: Well I got kind-of interested in the Internet and user-generated programming and thought that you could do a professional story-driven show. So somebody talking ideas, somebody said Prom Queen and it sounded like the might by error be Movie of the week. When Barry Diller and I, mostly Barry, started the Movie of the Week for television, we try to find for the first 10 movies of the week, ten really strong hooks, promoteable ideas. Very much the way AIP did in its early years as a movie company, make the one sheet before they made the movie. Could it sell? So I won't tell you the ten ideas as we started the Movie of the Week but when somebody came to me and said, "Prom Queen. Internet." Yeah, it sounds like a good idea. We spent $2,000 a minute. My son was directing a Budweiser commercial which was a Million two a thirty. I was spending $2,000 a minute. People kept saying to me, "Shouldn't it be reversed? Shouldn't you get the million two and shouldn't your son get the $2,000?" I thought it was interesting. I think it's interesting...you know we're making a Bazooka Joe movie. We're going to make it an origin movie on Bazooka Joe because I want to reinvigorate the Bazooka name.
Ryssdal: Bazooka Joe the origins, right?
Ryssdal: Where does Joe come from? Where did that turtleneck come from?
Eisner: Well we don't know because nobody at the company knows where it came from so we have the leisure of making it up. So I've been trying to find a writer to do Bazooka Joe and every writer...most writers I've met with scoffed at the idea, which is not unusual for me. And the other half of the writers wanted so much money that I thought it was un-economic in today's environment. And somebody came in to me, a person came in to me who had seen on line...now here's the Internet coming to life . . . had read online a script by a guy at Chapman College, in the film department, a Junior who wrote a script as a Junior Thesis project. I read the script. I thought it was the best script, (it wasn't a Bazooka Joe script), since I read Raiders of the Lost Ark script. The guy is twenty. So we call him up, he hitchhikes or however he gets into Los Angeles, he tells me what he would do with Bazooka Joe, and we hire him to write the script!
Ryssdal: Not an outrageous amount of money.
Eisner: At 10 percent of what we would pay anybody else. And who knows. So here's the Internet, somebody reads a script that was posted on the Internet. Now it turns out that this kid at Chapman College had also been a runner up in the Coke competition to make short films for movie theaters which they had been running, he came in second I think so this kid obviously has talent and by the way, in five years he'll be one of the highest paid writers in California but right now...he's writing Bazooka Joe. I hope, I hope it comes in great.
Ryssdal: Michael Eisner, thanks a lot for your time.
Eisner: Thank you for inviting me, I enjoyed it.