Dear Eisner

It's not easy being you. You're Michael Eisner. You're running the corporate equivalent of the New York Yankees. Expectations run high. Every move is watched and publicly dissected. Anything less than victorious perfection and a commitment to quality taints the heritage and attracts the forked tongue.

Welcome to the Yankees, Eisner. Everyone's a Steinbrenner.

It's not fair, you say. Disney (NYSE: DIS  ) can't please everybody, yet it is somehow expected to do just that. The same park-happy woman that starts off her day riding Dumbo and would picket its potential closure is slamming you in online newsgroups for adding similar rides like Aladdin's Magic Carpet or Animal Kingdom's Triceratops Spin. The folks who claim that Disney should go back to making G-rated theatrical family fare and are quick to mutter "boycott Disney" didn't turn out in convincing numbers to see The Country Bears, The Straight Story, or Piglet's Big Movie.

If you haven't figured it out yet, Michael, you can't win. Travelers want you to spend more to upgrade your theme parks while your bean counters want you to spend less. Purists want more wholesome filmed entertainment while the movie-going masses are favoring flicks with explosions and flatulence jokes. There is no compromise. There is no lowest common denominator.

While the same two men who brought you into the company two decades ago resigned this week -- and asked you to follow suit -- something tells me that you won't. Either you don't realize the size of the angry mob of Disney traditionalists trailing behind your wake, or you think that you can fix this mess and walk away wearing glass slippers.

If you don't feel the heat yet, just see what happens if you let Pixar (Nasdaq: PIXR  ) get away. Want more media-injected venom? Drive a bigger wedge between Disney and the Weinsteins at Miramax. Let ABC continue to parlay its languishing future by airing The Bachelor -- or better yet, Monday Night Football -- four nights a week. Replace the park castles with Wal-Mart (NYSE: WMT  ) Supercenters.

But if things can get worse, one can reason that they can probably also get better. No, you still can't win. Give up on that notion, sir. However, if you don't mind settling for a draw -- and the way things are going for feature animation, a draw would be welcome on many different levels -- read on.

Eisner version 2.0
Over two years ago, I argued that Disney couldn't cheat quality and get away with it. It may have sounded like an untimely argument, with ABC on top and park attendance holding steady, but I saw it coming. Did you?

A year later, when I wrote a two-parter entitled "10 Tips to Save Disney," it was a game plan to deflect the very heat that you're facing today. Did you read it?

Of course not. And you're not reading this either, but that's OK. It was never really about you, anyway.

It's more about the myth than the Michael. People criticize your micromanaging ways yet everybody loved it when Sam Walton drove his pickup truck around the country to meet Wal-Mart's front line. Or, slice and vinaigrette the nugget that the same purists who are taking shots at you praised Walt Disney for sitting in on storyboard meetings with plenty to say. Some argue that Disney is cheap, but it spent more on one ride recently -- Mission: Space -- than Six Flags (NYSE: PKS  ) will be spending on all of its entire collection of three dozen parks given its $75 million capital expenditures budget come 2004.

That may be why you're marinating in Teflon. It doesn't sink in because the shots just don't ring true. So let me try again from a different angle. Micromanaging can be a thing of beauty. It's just bad art in the wrong hands. Disney isn't cheap. It just spends money the wrong way.

Micromanaging macroeconomics
EPCOT's Mission: Space was launched a few months ago. My wife, an aspiring astronaut until she turned about 8, came off the ride with tears of joy streaming down her face. I can't say that I was equally moved, but I walked away figuring that it was nine figures well spent by Disney and the ride's sponsor, Hewlett-Packard (NYSE: HPQ  ) .

Then I took a look around. Folks were exiting the ride either exhilarated or petrified. They were either pumped up or nauseated. How could a unifying experience like a day at a theme park be such a polarizing event?

I'm all for the quality thrill ride, but whatever became of the quality family dark ride? I'm not going to argue that Pirates of the Caribbean and The Haunted Mansion did so well at the local multiplex this year because the movies were based on perennially popular theme-park rides. Yet, something tells me that -- three decades from now -- I won't be buying a ticket to go see Primeval Whirl or Heimlich's Chew Chew Train.

Money is something that's best squandered by tourists but spent smartly by the tourist attraction. Are you going to tell me that the same company that was able to dish out tens of millions to kiss off the likes of Michael Ovitz and Jeffrey Katzenberg doesn't have enough jingle in petty cash to keep Carousel of Progress open year round? If Disney is the world's premiere theme park company, why is The Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man sitting on Universal's lot?

To paraphrase Jessica Rabbit, Disney's not bad -- it's just overdrawn that way. Animal Kingdom should have been more than just a half-day park by now. Disney's California Adventure should have been more than half of a half-day park by now. Build a park right the first time, not like the last time. When Disney raises the bar, as it has with its cruise ships, water parks, and rides like Twilight Zone's Tower of Terror or Splash Mountain, the floored competition can't manage a chin-up.

Before I go, Roy Disney and Stanley Gold wanted me to let you know that a chummy board of directors is useless. Life isn't about the friends you make. It's about the enemies you don't make. If you think there is more value to the praise posse that surrounds you than the talented executives who bolted because you replaced glass slippers with glass ceilings, you better check the currency exchange tables.

That's where micromanaging becomes a dirty word. Creative minds need room to expand with flexible boundaries. Sure, chime in, but don't go for the jugular and whip out the spleen. Don't pollute. Pollinate. Don't expire. Inspire.

If you forget all this, that's fine. Just drive out to the Pixar studio and watch a company that motivates without borders. Pinstripes aren't forever, you know.

Rick Aristotle Munarriz practically grew up in Disney World. Actually, he still hasn't even grown up yet. He owns shares of Disney and Pixar. Rick's other stock holdings can be viewed online, as can the Fool's disclosure policy.


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