US entertainment executive whose leadership had transformed the Walt Disney Company into a major media conglomerate by the mid-1990s. However, he resigned from the company in 2005 in the face of increasing boardroom dissension and opposition from shareholders. In 2007 he launched Vuguru Studio, a firm specializing in the creation and distribution of video content.
In 1984 Eisner became chair and chief executive of Walt Disney Productions (renamed Walt Disney Company in 1986). He released Disney's library of classic films on video, including the best-selling Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937), and revived Disney animation with a new generation of box office hits, including The Little Mermaid (1989), Beauty and the Beast (1991), and The Lion King (1994). He also released action films through the Disney Touchstone label, and avant-garde films through Miramax, an independent film company acquired in 1993. Disney merchandising stores appeared from 1987. A $19 billion merger with ABC in 1996 provided new broadcasting and cable outlets but Disney's performance began to weaken in the late 1990s, faced with internal disputes and increasing competition. Eisner cut film production budgets, sold non-core interests, and released all but Disney's classic titles immediately on video and DVD to rekindle demand.
In the early 2000s his position as CEO became increasingly tenuous and in 2004 over 40% of Disney's shareholders withheld their proxies to re-elect him to the board, resulting in his resignation in 2005.
Eisner was born in Mount Kisco, New York, the son of a wealthy lawyer. After graduating from Denison University, Ohio, with a BA in literature in 1964, he worked for NBC and CBS before starting his career with ABC as a programming assistant in 1966. In 1968 he was director of programme development, in 1971 vice-president for daytime programming, and by 1975 senior vice-president of prime-time production and development (by which time ABC had achieved top network ratings with shows such as Happy Days).
In 1976 he joined the struggling Paramount Pictures studio as second-in command to his former ABC boss Barry Diller. During his tenure, Eisner turned the studio around, placing Paramount at the top of the Hollywood studio league with films such as Saturday Night Fever (1977) and Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981). It was said that Eisner could produce a film for $8.5 million against an industry average of $12 million.
He was poached from Paramount in 1984 to become chair and chief executive of a new management team to revive the ailing Walt Disney Productions, with president Frank Wells from Warner Brothers and studio chief Jeffrey Katzenberg. Under the Disney Touchstone label, he released new live action films including Three Men and a Baby (1987), the first Disney film to make over $100 million, and Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988). He also released two popular television shows, Golden Girls and Disney Sunday Movie, and launched the Disney Cable TV channel.
Eisner opened the first Disney store in 1987 and created new Walt Disney World attractions, including the Disney-MGM Studios and the initially debt-laden Euro Disney theme park, together with large hotel complexes. Eisner's $80 million acquisition of the independent film-maker Miramax in 1993 paved the way for more experimental films, such as Pulp Fiction (1994), The English Patient (1996), and the award-winning Shakespeare in Love (1998).
Following Wells' death in 1994, there were several top management departures, including Katzenberg (who, having been denied Wells' job, coupled with Eisner's reputed autocratic style, went to Steven Spielberg's DreamWorks), whose resignation ended in a highly publicized court case. Disney underperformed in the late 1990s, leading to criticism of Eisner's well-publicized bonus payments. In early 2000, Eisner was locked in a bitter dispute with Time Warner about cable transmission fees. Although this was resolved, Eisner remained a vociferous critic of its merger with AOL. Facing competition in all its business areas, Eisner appointed former ABC chair Robert Iger as his number two; cut film production; released all Disney content (with the exception of the classic titles) immediately on video and DVD; streamlined its merchandising operation; and sold non-core interests, including Fairchild Publishing. In early 2001, Eisner announced that the Go.com portal site set up in 1999 to establish Disney's presence on the Internet, would be closed.
Eisner is a founding member of the Points of Light Foundation, inspired by the then president, George Bush; a trustee of the California Institute of Arts and Deniston University; a member of the American Hospital of Paris Foundation, Conservation International, and the University of California Board for Medical Sciences.
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