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Alex Stroup and Kevin Yee
June 14, 2000

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Eisner's Work in Progress
Eisner's Autobiography: 
Work In Progress
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  MICHAEL EISNER
- Work in Progress

Reviewed:
Eisner's autobiography
(written with Tony Schwartz)

 

ALEX KEVIN
  This is a book which both delivers on its promise and yet manages to annoy me consistently. I found myself yelling at Eisner repeatedly for never admitting his personality faults or ever taking the blame, and in general much of what he says I found unconvincing.

Still, the book is at times really interesting. On the whole, a mixed bag.

Kevin I can see how you would feel that way, but I really don't view those as faults in this type of book. What I want from an autobiography is not objectivity but rather for the person to be present his view of things. And, except for the final few chapters, I never really felt that he was purposely obscuring facts or events, but simply telling them the way he remembers them. Which, whether you agree or not, tells you a lot about the man.  
  It does tell me a lot about him. I found myself in the position of armchair psychologist, writing in the margins of the book when he really comes across as egotistical and megalomaniacal. He takes credit for things which other people did (in this way, he's actually a bit like Walt, but with less genius). 

A few examples: he makes it sound like he created DCA's California theme. Or that Splash Mountain was somehow his brainchild. He's sneaky the way he does it though. Take Splash Mountain: "It grew out of a visit to Imagineering that Frank and I made with my son Breck, then fifteen, on a Saturday afternoon just weeks after our arrival at Disney" (209). Uhhh no it didn't, Michael. It did not "grow out of your visit"; the idea already existed! A page later, he acknowledges that Tony Baxter had created the ride. But here, he phrases it as though he had something to do with it.

Ok, our reading of that is different. I don't view that as taking credit for the concept, just for green-lighting it (which was a result of that visit).

I came away sensing pretty strongly that this is what Eisner prides himself on. Not in coming up with the original idea, but in having selected the good projects on which to follow through.

 
  Oh, now there I'd have to disagree. He takes great pains to name-drop, and especially to mention TV shows and movies he helped create. Beverly Hills Cop? He created that because of a traffic ticket he received. Happy Days? His creation. He says even that he's always worked that way, not waiting for writers to create stories. 

In the book, this comes across as an act of desperation to me, as if he's yearning for critical approval. And, like I said, I don't find it all that convincing, precisely because he tries so very hard.

I don't know, it doesn't seem so far-fetched to me. He worked in series development for ABC, and it seems to me he may actually have produced some ideas. With Happy Days, he was pretty detailed about what got done under his watch, and what happened later. I don't know enough of the history to say if there was exaggeration, but it didn't seem like a glory-grab to me.

Though the name-dropping could be annoying I did find it fascinating because it showed how this group of minor executives (Eisner, Diller, Ovitz, Katzenberg, et al.) kind of progressed as a class until they were all in major positions of power.

 
  I admit, I did like to watch the power players climb the ladder. It was also interesting to see current-day executives introduced, such as Paul Pressler and Bob Iger. But I'll tell you what I think bugs me about Eisner, both in real life and especially in this book: he admits no flaws. He has no weakness, no character drawbacks.

To hear him tell it, every clash he's ever had with a show biz personality was never his fault. This is so unrealistic as to render him in general rather suspicious.

In other words, if he skews the truth sometimes, maybe he does it alot. I have a good example: on p. 94 he sounds a bit like Clinton in his defensiveness. He thinks it's unfair that he has this reputation of making commitments only to reverse them, and he comments: "I never fake enthusiasm, but I also never assumed that saying let's do it was synonymous with let's do it no matter what." This is mincing words and it just ... grates on me.

He should just admit that he's wrong sometimes. It would sit so much better with me.

Ok, again I disagree. This "habit" is one I see at work all the time. Someone will bring our manager a potential project, which sounds great and our manager will tell them so. But somewhere down the road they are going to have to justify it beyond just being a good idea. Where's the money? Is that amount of money worth the trouble? etc. Just seems like good business to me.

But I can understand why a producer would be upset to find initial enthusiasm only to be later told that it isn't worth if the budget is $80 million.

 
  But couldn't he express appreciation for the idea without implying commitment? I don't see why he can't say: "intriguing. I love the idea. Let's see if it is worthwhile financially."
Of course, but then Eisner obviously doesn't feel he was implying a commitment.

Where I did notice a lack of self-reflection was in his dealings with Katzenberg. He mentions that from early in their relationship they respected each other but also had problems. Unfortunately, the only problems we ever hear about are Katzenberg flaws, none are Eisner's. That did bother me.

 
  "[Katzenberg's] diminutive frame and lean, long face made him look as if all excess had been burned away, leaving only glasses and teeth" (90). Haha, I reveled in his meanness. Yeah, this is part and parcel of Eisner's one-sidedness. 

As further proof check out p. 333, Eisner's smug comments that doomed Disney's America.

But he did admit that those horrible quotes were his mistake.  
  I didn't see that at all! Rather than acknowledge he misspoke, Eisner uses this book to argue his case for how we should be viewing what he says. This is just plain wrong- headed, to lecture us on how to receive his words.
"Looking back, I realize how much my brief moment of intemperance undermined our case" (334).  
  But what about: "The glib reference to historians was an irritated response to a group of people who I believed had attacked us unfairly, without making any real effort to understand what we were trying to do" (334).
But that just explains why he said it, it doesn't deny that saying it was a mistake. I happen to agree with him on that point.

I felt at the time (I was working on my history BA at the time) that people were WAY overreacting to the threat Disney posed to history.

 
  It just *feels* to me like he was ducking the responsibility issue. I read his quote there as belated lip service rather than a real admission of fault. But let's move on. How about Ovitz? If Katzenberg was given short shrift, if you'll pardon the pun, then Ovitz was almost ignored, I thought.
Yeah, he was pretty much ignored. And I saw two reasons for this, one reflecting well on Eisner and one more cynical. First, Eisner said throughout the book that he didn't mind what people said within the company but that nobody does their laundry in public.

It is my general criticism that at the end of the book as it got closer to current time, Eisner simply became a booster for everything, mostly because it goes against his policy to air dirty laundry and most of the people were still with the company as of writing (for this reason, he probably should have taken his wife's advice and waited to write this book). 

The more cynical reason I saw for providing little attention to Ovitz was that Eisner was probably trying to avoid the need to discuss and justify the golden parachute.

 
  YES! I have written in my notes here "Eisner is in Annual Report mode, Eisner as Head Cheerleader." I agree entirely that the last couple of chapters read very unconvincingly, and frankly they bothered me.

However, the several chapters before them were, in my opinion, the best part of the book. During those chapters, Eisner stopped talking about himself and started talking about the corporate expansion, through home video releases, synergy, EuroDisney, Broadway, and so on. These were all very interesting stories.

I think what really came through in those chapters was how happy Eisner was with the company before Frank Wells died. He denies it in the book, but there really seemed to be a change in his feelings for the company following Frank's death and his bypass surgery. 

I really wish he had spent more time specifically discussing how Wells' death affected management of the company.

 
  Good point. The book - and his entire tenure at Disney - could easily be seen from the perspective of his relationship with the number two man at the company: Wells was great, being alone was tough, Katzenberg would have been untenable, and Ovitz was impossible.

Switching tracks slightly: what do you make of the title? It's commercially viable I suppose, but I find it unrevealing. Which "work" is in progress? Disney the company or Eisner the man? And the subtitle is just too vague and full of buzzwords to mean anything, if you ask me.

It is a pretty bland title, but he does return to the "surviving success" theme many times throughout the book. He pounded on the idea that a successful company / division / department will become increasingly bureaucratic, self-protective, and conservative.

And what I find interesting about this point, is that while it is a lesson he seems to have internalized, it is my sense that this is exactly what happened at Disney over the last couple of years. They became so focused on synergy and cross- promotion of existing products that they forgot to focus on innovation.

 
  Agreed and agreed, to both of your points, though the current status of the company is a Dual Review for another day, I feel.

My final comment would have to be a reminder that I did not hate this book at all, despite all my misgivings. It made for interesting reading in fact. But I did not care for Eisner before, and do so even less after reading the book. If there are readers out there such as myself with a prejudice against him, they would be well served to know that this book does little to assuage their fears.

Eisner's worst traits are amplified here, at least in my biased opinion.

For a "business bio" I found Work in Progress to be surprisingly readable (credit for which goes to Tony Schwartz, I'm sure). But except for the early chapters this is almost purely a business bio. 

Once Eisner is out of his teens, the reader is going to find very little personal information in this book. Because of that I found myself evaluating Eisner more as a businessman than as a person or artist. 

You'll have to admit that regardless of what you think of the man, you must admit that he has been a fabulous business success story. This book lets you see how Michael Eisner himself views that story and if for no other reason was worth the read.

 
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Dual Reviews

Alex and Kevin debate current events and review Disney books.

This column is about opinions; unfortunately, we don't know any important Disney insiders so they are just our opinions. We are bringing this column to you as two ordinary Disney fans, much like yourself. We hope you enjoy and respond .

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