Arts & Culture » Eye Drive

Eisner on the edge?



The news that "Lilo & Stitch" earned over $35 million its first weekend, the biggest opening gross for a Disney feature-length animated film since "The Lion King" in 1994, brought some welcome relief to Walt Disney Co. Chairman Michael Eisner. But, will the little blue alien's enormous earnings potential be enough to repair Eisner's tattered reputation, perhaps even providing him a little more job security?

Right now, Michael Eisner seems to need better job security. For months, there have been whispers around Hollywood that he has lost touch with what audiences want to watch. Critics point to ABC's loss of 25 percent of its viewers last season. Not to mention Disney Studio's dismal performance at the box office during the past 12 months, including its latest big-budget bomb, "Bad Company." The Chris Rock and Anthony Hopkins espionage comedy reportedly cost Mickey $100 million to make and market. But, after two weeks in release, the film managed to earn only $26 million.

As Disney's stock tumbled, investment firms like Merrill Lynch last week cut back on their earnings projections for the Walt Disney Co. Some Wall Street insiders suggested that it could be months -- years, even -- before Mickey is able to pull himself out of his hole.

No one on Disney's board has been willing to go on record about what all the bad news might mean for Eisner. Even so, the company reportedly has begun searching for a strong creative executive to serve as Eisner's new second-in-command, to replace the current president and chief operating officer, Robert Iger. The idea is that the new exec might eventually fill Eisner's shoes.

Members of Disney's board were said to be mortified earlier this month when news leaked via the Internet that they were supposedly talking with Bob Pittman. Currently co-chief operating officer at AOL Time Warner, Pittman certainly seems to have the right credentials for the top spot at Disney. A co-founder of MTV, Pittman also rode herd on Time Warner's Six Flags division. Given his extensive experience in broadcast and theme-park management, he could be an excellent candidate to replace Eisner.

Not that Eisner, whose current contract doesn't run out until 2006, has any desire to go. If anything, over the past few months he has dug himself in even deeper at Disney, determined to do whatever he has to do to restore his reputation as one of Hollywood's most influential movers and shakers.

Eisner is determined to change his company's fortunes, but some of the potions he has been cooking up lately seem truly stale. Take his plans for fixing ABC. Back in the early 1970s, Eisner worked in programming at the network; and he played a key role in creating many of its hit shows of that era: "Happy Days," "Barney Miller" and "Welcome Back, Kotter," among them.

Now, about three decades later, Eisner is building new programs around some of his old sitcom stars. He has particularly high hopes for a fall series, "8 Simple Rules for Dating My Teenage Daughter," which will star "Three's Company" vet John Ritter.

In an approach not even close to fresh, Eisner also has been buying up the rights to do feature-film remakes of such marginally successful old TV series as "The Greatest American Hero" and "Underdog."

And he's counting on another ABC sitcom vet, Ron Howard, to help turn Disney Studios' fortunes around. Not that hiring an Academy Award-winning director like Howard is a bad idea, but the project is a $100 million remake of "The Alamo."

Given how disappointed Disney execs were with the box-office performance of last year's "Pearl Harbor," it seems surprising that the studio would make another difficult-to-promote historical epic so soon. But something in "The Alamo's" subject matter clearly appeals to Eisner -- perhaps it's the notion of embattled heroes making a desperate last stand.

Back when Michael Eisner was brought in to replace Disney Productions CEO Ron Miller in 1984, the company's stock price had been tanking. And its TV and movie divisions were both underperforming. The board of directors was looking for someone new to get them out of a pickle.

History does seem to repeat from time to time.

Everyone at Disney will be watching closely to see how the company's next three summer film releases -- "Reign of Fire," "The Country Bears" and "Signs" -- perform at the box office. Should any of them hit big, Eisner may buy himself a little time. But, if ABC doesn't have at least one enormously successful TV series in its fall lineup, it's Michael Eisner who just might find himself getting canceled.

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