Soapbox December 2, 2010 ET.Michael Eisner
The former Disney CEO has reinvented himself as author and new-media entrepreneur. Seeing the potential to reach larger audiences than ever before via the Web, the complex mogul talks about the transformation of media from caveman days to those ahead and how content really is king
This is the greatest time in my career in the media. Was it easier when I worked at ABC and there were only three networks and the least objectionable program was still a big hit? Sure.
I don’t think I’m doing anything different now from what I did at Disney when I walked into Imagineering or animation or live action or television development. My interest was always: What is the show? Because if the show is right, everything works out.
But if you are still working in the media business, you would have to be a troglodyte, or in a wheelchair and drooling and incapable of thinking, not to be involved in new media.
I’m intrigued that in this technological world you can create entertainment that could reach 60 million people. But it is selective. Farmville reaches 60 million people, yet there are other games that reach no people. It is all about the selection.
The media have as much opportunity today as they have ever had. The creation of content has never been more important. It’s wide open for all sorts of new creative ventures. The dissemination of content to every nook and cranny of the world has never been easier. It has gone from paintings on cavemen’s walls to the ability to digitally beam movies, television, news, information and music into every cave in the world. The need for entertaining, informative, provocative and important ideas has never been close to what it is today.
I don’t think it’s all about the user generation of material or democracy in media. It’s still about human beings coming together and deciding what is and isn’t interesting.
This is the power of an idea being translated into a mass media: We’re buying “Another American,” a show about “don’t ask, don’t tell,” by a guy who spent three years interviewing people in the military. He put on a one-man show in a theater the size of my office and it was only produced on Sundays and Mondays in New York. It could have been done 3,000 years ago.We’re going to translate that to a digital experience going out on mobile phones and Internet connections for an audience that instead of being 30 people in a theater could be 30 million around the world. It’s an example of how far we’ve come—and how we’re still dependent on an individual mind.
I’m a big believer in what Woody Allen said: If “show business” were not a business, it would be called “show show.” No matter how articulate I like to be about the importance of entertainment to international trade and American culture and expression and democracy, it’s still a business and you have to be able to afford to do what you do and there has to be a return. I saw that I could play in this world of creating games with FameTown, that I didn’t have to be a conglomerate. I like that you can do it economically and entertainingly.
“If you’re working in the media business, you’d have to be a troglodyte, or in a wheelchair and drooling and incapable of thinking, not to be involved in new media”After Disney, I didn’t know what I wanted to do. I found new partners. I’ve always liked being part of a team, whether it was with Barry Diller [at Paramount] or Frank Wells [at Disney] or my wife or new people—finding the Shawn Fannings [of Napster] of the world. I believe in the idea of partners. I’m not a sole practitioner. Never have been. It’s more fun having somebody else there to commiserate with and celebrate with.
I used to be the youngest person in every organization I was at. My partners were always older. And then I woke up one day and I was the oldest person and my partners were significantly younger. Now my partners are generationally younger. When I left Disney, I brought Andy Redman with me. He was 25. We’ve worked together for five years absolutely the same way I worked with Frank and Barry and others—every day talking 22 times a day. And he is 38 years younger. I like young ideas.
I’m kind of back to doing things the way I did at the beginning of my career. When I started, I was the lowest person on the 37th floor at ABC. Everything is given to the lowest person to do. Now I do it all myself with a few people to help. All of a sudden delegation is not as available to you as when you had 125,000 people working for you. And that’s good. They say if you do the New York Times crossword puzzle it sharpens your mind, it keeps you young. Maybe being closer to the action does the same thing.
I know this is hard to believe, but I fly commercial. Disney had its own planes, but my wife, children and I traveled commercial when I wasn’t on Disney business. Now I fly private and commercial. As bad as airline travel has gotten—inconvenient and nasty, and you can only take one suitcase and it’s stuffed to the brim, and everybody’s fighting for the overhead racks—it’s so nice to have a little Kindle with your newspapers and magazines and the books you’re reading. What a great thing for content creators. I’m not talking about the economics—that will work out in time.
I would much rather hire an executive who has taken courses in history and philosophy and language and art, and English and Russian literature than somebody who has only studied a single element of one subject. When my son wanted to go to undergraduate film school, I called George Lucas, who told him: Don’t go. Learning to make a movie is like learning to drive. Anybody can learn to drive. It’s where you drive that counts.
A lot of people can learn to write computer code and understand the inner workings of the technological revolution we’re going through, but if you’re going to be in content, I would rather you understand what makes a good narrative. To find people who can make you laugh or cry or smile or get upset or learn something about yourself. Those people are rare. They are rarer, frankly, than the others. We always talk about the lack of engineers in America. I would say we lead in what is most important to create all this, which is the education system for liberal-arts students. To me, that’s key.
For people coming into the entertainment businesses, the openings are enormous. However, the rules of drama haven’t changed. Denouement has not been replaced by dead ends. You still have to have characters, you have to have an emotional reaction, and you have to learn something from it, preferably. Those things don’t go away.
I don’t know the third act of the transformation of media. I don’t even think we know the second act. We’re probably still in the first act or the prologue. I’ve gone to conferences where some people are getting carried around on top of shoulders like they just won the Super Bowl, and two years later it’s “whatever happened to that guy?” I sat at the Allen & Co. conference a couple of years ago and this guy Mark Pincus [CEO of Zynga, the company behind Farmville] was sitting at the table. Who knew that two years later he would have the best room at the lodge?
I remember talking to Barry in the 1960s about making entertainment like a phone book. You go to H for “Happy Days” and you dial it up, like you were ordering a pizza. We had no idea what we were talking about. But it was this concept of entertainment given over to the consumer to decide what he wanted to see.
Sometimes you have the right idea but you’re too early, or you have the right idea but there’s one tweak that’s wrong. We sat there and were very encouraged when Bill Gates was demonstrating his Tablet PC, but it wasn’t until now that the iPad has shown everybody the promise of what the tablet can be.
We shouldn’t complain about how technology is ruining our lives and our businesses. It’s not. You’ve got to adapt and move on.
Edited from Alan Deutschman’s interview with Eisner