Wednesday, April 09, 2014

Ending a Productive Ten-Year Run

Twenty years further on, Kim Masters recalls the unraveling of a Diz Co. management team.

[Disney President Frank] Wells' death stunned the industry and instantly created a vacuum in the Hollywood hierarchy. Ambitions were inflamed and dominoes began to fall. By August, just weeks after The Lion King had opened as the latest and greatest in a string of hits from a revitalized animation unit, Disney's chairman and chief executive, Michael Eisner, then 52, would fire his studio chief, Jeffrey Katzenberg, then 43.

After Katzenberg's dismissal, Spielberg publicly denounced Eisner as "Machiavellian," while Disney board member Stanley Gold -- who would later turn on Eisner and lead a shareholder revolt with Roy Disney -- said Katzenberg had been brought low by "his ego and almost pathological need to be important."

Eisner told the Los Angeles Times, "This is not a Shakespearean tragedy," but it did have its Shakespearean qualities. I had quoted a source in my Vanity Fair story describing Geffen as "the Iago" of the Disney drama -- a reference to the whispering villain in Othello. The idea was that Geffen had been behind the scenes, pushing Katzenberg to push Eisner, and the strategy had backfired spectacularly. The insult drove Geffen wild, and he set out to discover who had said it. (Among his guesses: Eisner and Diller.) He failed.

I'll tell you who said it now, but only because he's dead and left no wife or children. It was Don Simpson, who knew the players well and had watched the whole spectacle with fascination. ...

It was weird, watching all the above unfold from just outside the studios gates.

Disney animation directors told me how, in Jeffrey's last weeks at the studio, he went from being ferociously hands on to laid back and aloof. Artists said that at a story session for Hunchback of Notre Dame, Eisner and Katzenberg sat side by side, with Jeffrey scrunched as far away from Michael as possible. At the time, there were lots of gag drawings of what Jeffrey would be doing after leaving the studio: Car salesman, real estate agent in a blazer, you name it.

Nobody then could have predicted how events played out: Eisner ultimately knocked off the high perch by a vengeful Roy Disney, and Jeffrey running his own animation studio.

That helicopter crash in the snowy Sierras two decades ago started a lot of changes at Disney and the wider movie industry.


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