Who Is Michael Eisner?

In many ways, the story of Michael Eisner is a story of the corporate entertainment world, with many household names playing their own part. People like Barry Diller and Jeffrey Katzenberg are like brand names for the entertainment industry, and Eisner took his place among them at stalwart companies such as Paramount Pictures and Walt Disney Productions.

Key Takeaways

  • Michael Eisner began as an Assistant at ABC under the tutelage of his mentor Barry Diller, eventually working his way up to VP.
  • He then left ABC to join Diller at Paramount Pictures in 1976, where he became the President and CEO.
  • While at Paramount, he spearheaded films such as Saturday Night Fever and Grease, and TV shows including Cheers.
  • After leaving Paramount, he joined Walt Disney, where he was CEO between 1984 and 2005.
  • At Disney, he brought in Jeffrey Katzenberg, and the two helped turn Disney into one of the biggest entertainment companies in the world.
  • Eisner's battle with Disney's heir Roy O. Disney ultimately led to his ouster from the company, following a proxy war rebellion in which Disney rallied shareholders against the CEO.

About Michael Eisner

Michael Eisner was born to an affluent family in New York City and raised in Manhattan. He attended a private day school until high school when he was sent to a boarding prep school and ultimately graduated from Denison University in Ohio with a Bachelor’s degree in English in 1964. Prior to graduation, he took his first job in media as a page for NBC.

Michael Eisner and Barry Diller

Eisner was “discovered” by Barry Diller when Diller hired him at ABC as Assistant to the National Programming Director. Over time, Eisner rose through the ranks to become a senior VP in charge of programming and development at ABC. In 1976, his old friend Barry Diller reached out to him again. By this time Diller was the chair of Paramount Pictures, and he recruited Eisner from ABC and brought him over to Paramount to become the President and CEO of the movie studio division. 

During his time at Paramount, Eisner would have a hand in producing a number of classic films and television shows that would help define the 1970s and early 1980s such as Saturday Night Fever, Grease, The Raiders of the Lost Ark, and Flashdance, as well as shows like Happy Days and Cheers.

Diller resigned as CEO of Paramount in 1984. Although Eisner was Diller's protégé, he was passed over for the top job at Paramount and began looking into other options. Ultimately, he pitched his expertise to become the CEO of Walt Disney Productions. It was a position both iconic in the industry and one of great longevity for Eisner, who ultimately held the CEO position from 1984–2005.

Michael Eisner at Disney

Jeffrey Katzenberg

One of Eisner’s earliest moves at Disney was to bring in Jeffrey Katzenberg as the new chair of the company. Under leadership from the pair, Disney transformed from a struggling media giant with a lot of recognition capital for its flagship characters into a powerhouse that would dominate the film industry.

This turnaround was cemented following the acquisition of Miramax Pictures, and later, ABC and ESPN. These movements were predicated on two smash hits for Disney under Eisner with Who Framed Roger Rabbit? and The Little Mermaid.

Michael Eisner was a media mogul and studio head in the second half of the 20th Century.

Roy O. Disney

While Eisner would produce success for Disney, all was not fluffy bunnies and seafaring cartoons in the boardroom. In 1993, Katzenberg lobbied to become the president of the company and thereby second in command to Eisner, and this led to tensions between the two and Katzenberg’s firing in 1994.

Eisner later reported that Roy O. Disney, the nephew of Walt, prevented him from elevating Katzenberg as President. Disney would later resign from his position as vice-chair of the board and chair of Walt Disney Feature Animation but would lead a proxy war rebellion in rallying the stockholders to keep Eisner from getting re-elected as chair.

At the time, Roy O. Disney felt there was too much micromanagement coming from on high, but he later used his shares in the company along with his name recognition among Disney company shareholders to mount a proxy war against Eisner, who was removed from the chair position as a result of these actions in 2004. However, Eisner was kept on as CEO of the company for another year.

In retirement, Eisner briefly had a talk show of his own entitled Conversations with Michael Eisner, but the show was canceled in 2009. He was also involved in a number of takeovers within the industry, most notably that of the Topps trading card company