Monday, January 09, 2012

Roy Disney's Farewell

Eight years and one month back, the ongoing battle between Roy Disney and Michael Eisner came to a (temporary) end with this ...


December 3, 2003

Dear Disney Cast Members,

It was nearly 20 years ago that a small group of us recognized that dramatic changes were necessary to reinvigorate and reenergize the Disney Company. We changed the composition of the Board and assembled a new leadership team headed by Frank Wells and Michael Eisner. I returned to the Disney cast and, working as a team, we planted the seeds that rekindled the spirit and creativity that is synonymous with Disney. Those efforts paid off handsomely in the late '80s and early '90s. Once again, Disney was admired for the wholesome family entertainment it brought to millions of people of all ages. Together we created the dreams and excitement that made Disney respected and beloved throughout the world. We succeeded in recapturing the dream born of Walt and my father and the heritage they left us.

Sadly, times have changed. Michael Eisner has lost sight of the vision upon which this Company was founded. The focus has shifted to the chase for the quick buck instead of a dedication to new and high quality ideas, the development of enduring value. This has led to division within the Disney work force, a revolving door of managers, and the exodus of too many of our most creative and inspired employees.

For the last several years, Michael Eisner has done his utmost to isolate me from the members of Disney's Animation Department and exclude me from participation in decision making regarding the Department. Most recently, I was prevented from even attending the Animation Department screening of three feature animation projects. The collegiality and openness that once typified the Disney workplace has been destroyed.

It is against this backdrop that I had no choice but to resign as Chairman of Disney's Animation Department and as a member of Disney's Board of Directors. This has been a very painful decision. I am torn between my duties and loyalties to all of you who have made my journey so memorable and special, and the need to preserve the Disney heritage for future generations. However, I cannot stand idle as the heart and soul of this Company is being systematically eliminated by senior management protected by an ineffective Board of Directors. This is a Board that seeks to avoid constructive tension necessary to guide management through difficult times. Instead, it is a Board that seeks to stifle dissent and, to that end, has asked me to leave the Board of Directors.

Although this is not how and when I would have liked to leave the Disney Company, I assure you that I view it not as an isolated and sad event, but as part of a process. I hope it is not too late for the Disney Board of Directors to finally recognize that fundamental change is needed to restore the Disney luster, nurture and protect the wonderful characters that together we have developed and, most importantly, to create the environment within the workplace necessary to give life to new Disney icons for the generations to come.

As I now set off on a different course, I cannot fail to publicly and openly once again express to all of you my most heartfelt thanks. I am grateful that we have shared this journey. Without you, your contributions and camaraderie, we would not have been able to make the magic and wonder that is Disney. I hope that one day soon the Disney Board gets the message.

Yours faithfully,

Roy E. Disney

And so began Roy E. Disney's second campaign to oust a Disney chief executive.

The first was Ron Miller, whom Roy was successful in eliminating in 1984. The second was Michael Eisner. Roy saw Mr. Eisner depart in 2006, after a proxy fight and press/internet campaign, and he then rejoined the Board as Director Emeritus.

The reason for the fights between two Disney CEOs and Roy Disney were similar. Neither Ron Miller nor Michael Eisner (at the end) gave R. E. Disney much respect. They viewed him as a lightweight, made that view clear, and in retaliation, Roy brought both of them down.

I wasn't privvy to much of the back-and-forth between Ron Miller and Roy Disney during the first corporate dust-up. I was a lowly feature animation employee down in the trenches. But during that second battle, I happened to have a lengthy conversation with Roy about what was going on.

The occasion was one of TAG's Christmas parties. Roy had launched, and was talking to shareholder groups and pension funds about pressuring Eisner to resign. And he was looking for allies wherever he could find them.

A labor union not might seem like a natural fit as "best friend" for a Disney family member, but a lot of Disney animation employees were ticked at management running the House of Mouse. So when Roy showed up at two Animation Guild holiday festivities (he was invited by TAG board member Karen Nugent), they welcomed Roy with open arms.

It was at the first party that Mr. Disney told me this:

"They [Disney management] fired me. Only I quit before I could get fired. Michael wouldn't let me come to my office at the Feature Building. Wouldn't tell me about screenings or meetings. I didn't like things that were going on and said so, so they were getting ready to kick me off the Board of Directors. But I left before they could do it."...

I always kind of understood the wrestling match between Ron and Roy. They were members of the same family, and they were having a feud. Ron Miller thought the status quo was okay; Roy wanted more changes. Ron won the first round and Roy left the company, then Roy won the second round and Ron was forced out.

But why Michael Eisner, who had always been careful to keep Roy Disney within the Golden Circle, got high-handed and started ostracizing Disney from corporate perks and functions that Roy had enjoyed for two decades, was always a mystery. I asked Kim Masters, author of Keys to the Kingdom, why Michael did it. She speculated:

"I guess Michael thought he was the company and didn't need Roy. But he didn't have the last name Disney, you know? Michael loved being CEO, he loved being the head of Disney, but I couldn't tell you why he treated Roy the way he did. ..."

I have my own theory. I think human beings often get caught up in their own self-importance. When they are surrounded by people who keep telling them how wonderful and indispensable they are, they begin believing it. And they lose sight of the cold reality that nobody is indispensable, that nobody can stand forever against bad news and powerful enemies with a grudge.

Just ask Moammar Gadhafi, or Louis the XVI. Or Michael Eisner.

* The reason for this post now? In the course of house cleaning today, I came across Roy's letter, sent to my Disney employee wife eight years ago. It started me reflecting.


Christopher M. Sobieniak said...

It still makes me a little sad thinking of what he tried to accomplish in those final years.

Anonymous said...

John Lasseter, are you reading this? Are you surrounding yourself with yes people?

Anonymous said...


Anonymous said...

John Lasseter is having a lie-in, today.

Anonymous said...

Too bad there isn't a Disney to oust Iger. I wouldn't necessarily kick out Lasseter, but the man needs to work harder, especially when it concerns Disney Animation.

Anonymous said...

As I recall, Roy originally disliked Iger almost as much as he disliked Eisner. Iger won him over, but I bet Roy would change his mind if he saw what Iger's done since then (buying Marvel, the stupid Avatar attraction at WDW, the Muppets movie, letting 2D languish, pushing out sequels like Cars 2 just to sell merchandise and thereby tarnishing the Pixar brand...)

Anonymous said...

You want Disney to put out crap? Go ahead, rush it out. Disney is building a slate of films and directors they'll be proud of under the leadership of Ed Catmull and John Lasseter. These films take YEARS to create. Princess and the Frog and Winnie the Pooh were both rushed through production, and it shows. Disney is in the business primarily to make money, but is struggling to find audiences like every other studio. As far as 2D goes, no one cares. I'd rather have a great movie, even IF it were 2D.

Floyd Norman said...

No surprises here. Human nature is pretty consistent, isn't it? Expect the worse.

Anonymous said...

... pushing out sequels like Cars 2 just to sell merchandise and thereby tarnishing the Pixar brand...)

Maybe he pushed it out, but it's Pixar that tarnished it's own name. They could have made a good movie out of it but they haven't. All Pixar movies, and most movies in general, are produced under some sort of pressure. If nothing else, Lasseter could have only enjoyed more freedom at directing it then his previous films.

A Guyy said...

Interestingly it sounds like your analysis re: human nature is more applicable to Roy throwing a tantrum that his unearned corporate benefits were drying up than either of the CEOs he ousted getting big headed. Ron Miller wasn't playing games and Michael Eisner finally got sick of them I guess. The current sad state of the Walt Disney Company is probably attributable to Roy's hissy fits that ousted Ron Miller and brought in the "professional" CEOs.

Site Meter