Chapter 10: A Big Name in the Big Peach
Excerpt from Man of Iron: The Michael Eisner Story, an unauthorized biography by Anthony Edward Stark
In the spring of 1998 Michael and Jane Eisner were in their fanciest designer formal wear, walking down the red carpet amid flashing bulbs and the calls of interviewers. They smiled and waved but kept walking and soon the press turned their attention to Dolly Parton and her husband Carl Dean as they arrived. The Eisners were at the Nederlander Theater on Broadway in New York City for the opening night of My Tennessee Mountain Home, The Musical
, released in tandem with the film, and which would prove a smash success with many Tony nominations and a couple of wins.
It was a strange homecoming for the Eisners and their old Manhattan friends alike. Tinsel Town and The Big Apple had always been two sides of the same gold-plated coin in some respects, but The Big Peach, Y’Allywood, Hotlanta, whatever you chose to call it, was a whole different world. The Eisners felt subtly out of phase with the vibe of NYC after their years at the center of the increasingly cosmopolitan and yet uniquely New South Atlanta social scene, which moved like “Sequined Molasses,” (slow, steady, sweet, and stylish) to quote Jane Eisner. Instead, their old friends treated them like strange doppelgangers (“Wait, did you just say ‘Y’all’?”). Even so, the very fact that he’d reached such a level of power and influence in his new home and industry, despite individual New York opinions about Atlanta, meant that he still commanded attention and respect (“Y’all heard me right, then!”).
And if New York and Hollywood were forced to respect them despite their “exile”, The Big Peach had adopted the Eisners as paragons of the New South. Jane in particular got involved in local causes, becoming a prime mover alongside Jane Fonda in supporting Coretta Scott King, the local NAACP, and local business interests (who were suffering branding difficulties) in lobbying for a change to the Georgia State Flag. The ultimate coalition between the Black community, Progressive politicians, the film industry, and Libertarian-leaning financiers and white-collar Atlanta Suburbanites ultimately succeeded, despite a ferocious counter-campaign led by Newt Gingrich, to remove the Confederate Battle Flag portion in 2002, resulting in the current flag with the Georgia “Three Pillars” seal on a simple blue background, which was ironically also the original flag prior to Jim Crow.
However, events would soon split up the Janes when Jane Fonda filed for divorce against Turner citing infidelity and emotional distress, ultimately moving back to LA. Turner and Fonda’s marriage had been a rollercoaster of emotions from the start, driven by passions both amorous and acrimonious. Jane Eisner had heard Fonda complaining for months about her husband’s many indiscretions and how she reluctantly tolerated them. Turner and Fonda would occasionally get in loud fights. And starting in 1996 when Turner was consumed by the ups and downs and stresses of the Atlanta Olympics and all but forced Jane Fonda to be personally active in supporting them, the stresses of the already tumultuous relationship became increasingly unbearable. The two separated briefly in 1997 and then got back together only for continued infidelities and lingering resentments to drive a wedge so deep that even the best marriage counselors in Atlanta, New York, and LA couldn’t bridge the gap.
Who says the magic is gone? (Image source Grunge)
In January of 1998 after an ugly falling out over Christmas, Jane filed for divorce. Tabloids picked up the story and ran with it in a nasty media feeding frenzy with allegations of affairs and fights all over the newspapers. The two divorced amicably after an undisclosed but reportedly extremely high payout to Fonda, but still the headlines continued, with stories heavy with rumor and innuendo but light in actual fact. Only persistent rumors of a gay affair between Freddie Mercury and Elton John drove the Turner/Fonda stories from the pages, which were soon eclipsed in turn when Freddy formally outed himself. Columbia employees recalled it as a “dark time” where Turner was “even more argumentative and short tempered than normal.”
And the Eisners, while not exactly caught up in the middle (Turner and Fonda never tried to force them to choose sides), still found themselves caught in the “blast radius” and beset themselves by aggressive Paparazzi fishing for dirt. Jane Eisner found herself trying to comfort her friend Jane Fonda while Michael found himself trying to talk around the issue with Ted, whose foul mood was making him volatile and prone to rash and ill-considered actions. Eisner more than once had to play damage control after Turner made a hasty decision, controversial statement, or reneged on an earlier deal. “It’s all that I can do to keep him from trying to buy up UA again or some other whim,” he told one employee.
In the meantime, Eisner buried himself in his work, which provided a good way to avoid the increasingly domineering and tumultuous Turner. Hoping to distract Turner from his troubles, Eisner made a new production deal with Dolly Parton and Andy Griffith for a made-for-TV film featuring Griffith as a likeable but racist grandfather trying to come to terms with the fact that his beloved granddaughter Miriam (Brittany Murphy) is engaged to a black man, an Atlanta hip hop producer named Terry (Mos Def). “It’s basically Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner
, but from the perspective of the racist having to confront his racism,” Griffith said of the film, which gained him an Emmy nomination.
was also in filming, with Guillermo del Toro and Peter Jackson in New Zealand. Eisner asked his son Breck to keep an eye on costs. But the news was not good in that respect. They were spending tens of millions building sets and armor. Del Toro’s perfectionism combined with Jackson’s almost obsessive intent to stay true to Tolkien’s vision were filling up the film reels. WETA Digital was spending lots of money trying to upgrade their resources to handle the necessary effects. And Eisner developed an acute case of anxiety as memories of The Postman
came flooding back.
Thankfully, production on Eastwood’s No Return
, a film about the Doolittle Raid, was proceeding well, on time and in budget. It would screen to success in 1999. Lucifer’s Hammer
was likewise in production, but a dispute was forming between director Roland Emmerich and producer Richard Zanuck over whether to follow the elements of the novel: a survival drama that follows life after a comet strikes the earth, or rewrite it into an action sci-fi where a ragtag band of misfits must land on the comet and destroy it with drills and nukes to save the day. Author Larry Niven was incensed at the proposed changes and nearly sued to take back the film rights.
The Velveteen Rabbit
would screen to disappointing numbers but Oscar gold in 1999 and soon Bluth’s next production, Ruler of the Roost
, based loosely upon the French stories of Chanticleer the Rooster and Reynard the Fox, was in animation, much to Francophile Eisner’s delight. It featured Belgian actor and (unbeknownst to Eisner) singer Jean-Claude Van Damme voicing Chanticleer, the cocky rooster who believes that his crowing is what makes the sun rise, only to be humiliatingly disabused of this notion. He instead heads to 1920s Paris for a Jazz singing career, represented by the shady agent Reynard the Fox, voiced by Eddie Murphy. It was scheduled for release in 2001.
On the TV front Tartikoff had been approached by Don Johnson and Carlton Cuse for a new police procedural comedy/drama that was marketed as “Starsky and Hutch
have a midlife crisis”. Set in San Francisco and starring Johnson as Detective Nash Burns and Cheech Marin as his partner Manny Mundo, two SFPD partners dealing with the changing society around them and their own dysfunctional-because-of-them private lives, The World Burns
became a success that went on to influence numerous other works going forward. The show was both a subtle exploration of the changes in society over the last two decades and the changes in entertainment, being in many ways a deconstruction of the “cowboy cop” tropes of the 1970s as two such cops come to terms with their past actions. After a couple of false starts, the series finally aired in the fall of 1997.
As summer rolled around and the divorce papers were finalized, Turner started to return to normal, or so Eisner thought. And then Turner took him and CBS head Brandon Tartikoff into his office with a big announcement. “I’m going to grab a piece of the Mouse.”
Word on the street was that someone, nobody yet knew whom, was making a play on Disney. Turner, it turned out, did know: a partnership between Norman Peltz and a bizarre alliance of Venture Capitalists, Hedge Fund managers, Broadcast Network groups, and Televangelists, of all people. Turner didn’t know their full plans, but he saw an opportunity in the impending chaos. “Whatever happens here, we have a chance to pinch off a share in the aftermath,” he told them.
Both Eisner and Tartikoff warned him not to be too hasty. Tartikoff specifically warned him that FCC regulators would consider it a conflict of interest for the owner of CBS to have a stake in the company that owned rival NBC. Plus, he warned, the board of directors wouldn’t like this risky plan. Eisner told him that in his experience Disney was solid. “These guys fought off ACC, if you recall, and from a much worse position. I tried to pry Sid Bass’s stake away for ABC when I was there,” said Eisner. “It was a no-sale. Between the Disneys and the Hensons they have it all but wrapped up by themselves, and Bass and Marriott will be very unlikely to break ranks.”
“Then I’ll Greenmail ‘em!”
“This isn’t the 1980s, Ted,” Tartikoff warned. “I doubt that the Disney board will respond well to threats. I really don’t see what you expect to get here.”
“As much of MGM as I can,” Turner replied. “And whatever else I can pry out of whoever I can when the shit eventually hits the fan.
“Trust me,” Turner added, “I have a plan.”
Eisner and Tartikoff realized that there was no talking him out of this. Eisner openly asked Tartikoff after the meeting if he thought that Turner was having a post-divorce breakdown ("most men would just buy a Corvette"). “Or is this about the Our Southern Cause
thing?” he asked, referring to the Hyperion historical comedy that appeared to openly mock both Turner and his Confederate sympathies. But as “loyal lieutenants” they endeavored to do their best to carry out his orders and mitigate the risks to the company and, if possible, keep Turner from completely going off the rails and jeopardizing the company itself.
So, they set out to make Turner’s “grab for the Mouse” as viable as possible within realistic limits. They had the CFO’s office run the numbers and determined that trying to grab much more than a 5% stake would be far too financially risky. Columbia was solvent, but not running a massive surplus. Interest rates were down, but picking up a ton of debt was far from optimal and could negatively impact share prices. 5% would cost over $2.2 billion at current market rates, which was a workable debt load. Worst case, they could flip their shares and not see Columbia lose too much on the deal. And if it failed, then Turner would be the one taking the blame.
Besides, they both figured, if Turner overplayed his hand and the board sought to remove him, they’d be the likely beneficiaries of any leadership vacuum at the top.
Stocks at a Glance: Walt Disney Entertainment (DIS)
June 25th, 1998
Stock price: $99.53
: Henson family (19.2%), Roy E. Disney family (12.7%), Disney-Miller family (12.7%), General Electric (10.5%), Sid Bass (8.7%), Bill Marriott (5.7%), Amblin Entertainment (1.2%), Apple Comp. (0.7%), Lucasfilm Ltd. (0.5%), Suspected “Knights Errant” (4.9%), Shepherd Group (3.2%) Other (20%; ~8% Institutional Investors)
Outstanding shares: 498.6 million
 They held out until 2001 in our timeline. Here, Mo’ Money = Mo’ Problems as Turner juggles all of the stresses of Columbia, CBS, the Olympics, and the parks and tries to take charge of all of it himself.