The other day I was playing Asheron’s Call, a fun online game that my wife calls Asheron’s Crack for reasons I’ll leave up to the reader to discern. A group of eight or nine of us had ventured to a rather nasty section of the Dires to slay some difficult monsters. Our aim was simple: to slay as many fly-ridden Lugians as we could and maximize the amount of experience per hour we could earn, so we could improve our skills. To maximize our chances of success, we were grouped together. The leader of our fellowship was a character called Code-Red, and it was soon apparent that she had problems associating with several of the other players. My friend Tan Po and I noticed that all the other members of the fellowship got along just fine, but Code-Red kept having issues with various people. To paraphrase her own words, “There’s a bunch of jerks around today.”
Two women, old friends, met up again after having lost track of each other for many years, and started to catch up on each other’s lives. Out came the family pictures. During this reunion, one of the women was surprised to find out that her friend had been married and divorced multiple times. Her surprised comment was, “Wow! You married all those guys, and each one of them turned out to be a jerk!”
One of the things I learned from growing up in a military family is that time is short. I came to expect that my family would stay somewhere between one and three years in any place. I learned how to make friends quickly because if I waited too long, either I or the other person would be gone. Every place we lived was the best place to be, and the people around us were the nicest people. But I have met other former military brats who never had it that good. As the military transferred them around the globe, they were always sent to the worst hell-holes. To make matters worse, every time they moved, they had the rottenest luck to be transferred right into the midst of a bunch of jerks. Every time.
In the early ’80s, the Walt Disney Company was in trouble. Its first animated feature film of the decade–actually, its first animated feature film since 1977–was the critically-panned The Fox and the Hound, and it wouldn’t be followed by anything until the release of The Black Cauldron four years later. Neither of these titles did much to improve Disney’s standing in the entertainment world. It was almost as if the company had run out of steam, too tired to do anything really interesting.
Enter Michael D. Eisner from Paramount Pictures. Eisner took the reins at Disney in 1984; during his run, the Disney corporation grew from a $2 billion company to a $58 billion behemoth in 2005. Under Eisner, the animation department has turned out blockbusters such as Finding Nemo, The Lion King, The Incredibles, Monsters Inc., Toy Story 2, Aladdin, Toy Story, and Beauty and the Beast. That’s a pretty impressive group of movies. I listed them in the order they appear in the Top 100 grossing movies of all time (as of this writing).
But not all is well in the Mouse House. Eisner took home $737 million from 1996 – 2001 as Disney’s CEO. That’s a pretty penny for any company to spend. And if you add to that figure just two examples of situations where Eisner has cost Disney, the amount goes up past the one billion dollar mark. Eisner picked Michael Ovitz to replace Disney president Frank Wells, who died in a helicopter crash in 1994. But a year later Ovitz was out, with a severance package of about $90 million. I wouldn’t mind being fired from my job if I could walk away with a golden parachute of that size. (Fire me now! Please!) Eisner also had personality clashes with the former Disney studio head, Jeffrey Katzenberg. The primary creative force behind the Disney animation renaissance, Katzenberg was awarded $250 million for broken contractual agreements, and he went off to become the K in Dreamworks SKG, an entertainment empire in direct competition with Disney.
Eisner is also having very public issues with the Weinstein brothers of Miramax Pictures, a Disney subsidiary. This breakup has been compared to a messy divorce with children involved. Each side is pointing various fingers at the other and calling the other jerks. The end result is that the brains behind the Miramax label will soon be out of Eisner’s control.
Another blow is hammering away at Eisner’s continued control of Disney: the Pixar debacle. The Pixar animation team has one more movie that it is contractually obligated to create for Disney, and then the company is free to produce movies for itself. This is not only a major creative loss for Disney, but a serious financial blow as well. Pixar has been a huge cash cow for Disney; in the above-mentioned list of animated Disney movies which make the top 100, five of the eight are Pixar creations. And the loss of Pixar falls squarely on Eisner’s shoulders.
If you saw The Incredibles in theaters, you probably noticed the Pixar short that preceded it–a brief cartoon called Boundin’. Some have been puzzled by this short. As Pixar shorts go, it isn’t nearly as funny as Geri’s Game, For the Birds, or Knick Knack. But the lovely and talented wife sees Boundin’ as an allegory of Pixar and its soured relationship with Disney. *Spoiler Warning* The lamb could be seen as Pixar getting fleeced by Disney for all it is worth. Then along comes wise advice in the shape of the Jackalope, who could be the ghost of Walt Disney, telling the shorn sheep to buck up and to bounce back from the misfortunes. The interesting thing is that Pixar was able to put this allegory past the Disney people, including Eisner.
So Michael Eisner was successful in pulling Disney up from the doldrums where it was languishing in the ’70s and early ’80s, turning it into an entertainment powerhouse, but he continues to have run-ins with creative, talented people. When they inevitably knock heads, Eisner gives them the boot. I guess that’s what you do when you are surrounded by jerks.
There is an old phrase that keeps coming to mind as I think about these stories: “If everyone around you is a jerk, then maybe, just maybe, it’s you.”