Michael Eisner and the L.A. Times—A Marriage Made in Heaven?

I should know: In my nefarious career, I worked for both the L.A. Times and Michael Eisner

michael eisnerMichael Eisner running to the Tribune Company, the man in charge of the Los Angeles Times? That seems to be the word – and, actually, it does make perfect sense. After all, more than most companies what does a newspaper need to thrive? A visionary leader. And more than most leaders with experience running an intellectual-property company, what does Michael Eisner have but vision?

I should know — in my nefarious career, I happened to have worked for both the L.A. Times and Michael Eisner. Perhaps more than most I have some insight into each’s strength and weaknesses. In fact, I can hardly think of any downsides.

When I came to L.A. in the early ‘80s, the Times was at its peak. The largest paper in the nation (by circulation), under legendary publisher Otis Chandler it had ambitions to become an international paper of record, like the New York Times. The downside was, as the saying went, you could find out anything that happened in the world the day before, from Cairo to Karachi, Toronto to Tokyo … but you couldn’t find any news about the three-alarm fire that had swallowed up a factory down the street from your house!

Worse, because it was so fat with ads, for journalists it became “the golden coffin” — the place good journalists went to die. One writer I knew had a contract for $150,000 per year (when that was a lot of money) for four stories per annum!

On the flip side, I remember my friend Randy Harvey got an offer from the Times. I asked how many words he had in his typewriter (we still used typewriters then). When he looked at me quizzically, I reminded him that at the Times, they didn’t so much as “edit” your stories as shovel them into type, always calling out for another paragraph or two to fill out a column.

I pictured Randy in two or three years, a burnt-out hulk lying by the side of the freeway begging passersby for more words. Oh, please, just one more word, kind sir….

(Fortunately, Randy, a hearty Texan, not only survived but thrived, rising to associate editor of the paper, number four on the masthead.)

My own experience with the Times began in New York. While I was at Newsweek, I had published a piece in the august New York Times’ Sunday Magazine. By that time Chandler had retired, leaving the editorship a seemingly revolving bank of editors, one of whom happened to be another friend of mine from the Newsweek days, Shelby Coffey. When Shelby saw my piece in the New York Times, he quickly summoned me (I had moved to California) and demanded to know how I could be writing for that hated rival when I lived right here in Tinsel Town! Thus began years of sporadic contributions to everything from Life & Style (remember that?) to Sports, etc.

As for Michael Eisner, I had a more direct introduction. When I got off the plane as an entertainment reporter for Newsweek, the first call I got was from Paramount to interview then-studio head Barry Diller. Now, all of four or five years out of college, a former sportswriter with no entertainment experience (well, I had been at the premiere of “Raging Bull”), I had no idea who Diller was. But since my bosses thought he was a bigwig, I hustled from the airport, luggage in tow, to get this first interview out of the way. I’ll never forget how we met — arriving at Paramount at lunch time, I was ushered into Barry’s office, assured he was waiting. What I found was an office bigger than a bank lobby and, in the distance, bent over a glass-topped desk, Barry’s bald pate. I “hrummphed” as loudly as I could until he finally looked up and snapped: “What do you want?”

I looked to see to whom he could be talking, decided it was me and picked up my bags — “Excuse me, I thought it was you who wanted to see me” — and turned and walked out. Before I was 15 feet down the hall Barry caught up and stammered some lame apology like “I thought you were someone else.”

We went back to his office for the interview (it was about the war between HBO and the studios then raging, if anyone cares today.) He must have liked the story because the next week he called and invited me to lunch with himself and President of Production Michael Eisner. He explained to me while it might be he, Barry, as Chairman, who did the deep-think business policy—and attached himself to prestige (if fiscally uneven) movies like “Reds” and “Terms of Endearment”–it was Michael who ramrodded the churning out of mass-market hits like “Flashdance,” “Footloose,” “Officer and a Gentleman” and the nascent “Star Trek” franchise that kept the studio going.

After that, I never saw Barry again, my contact being with Michael. Later there was the executive meltdown at the studio when Diller left to take over Fox. Passed over for Diller’s job, Eisner decamped in a huff for Disney. I remember running into Michael that first weekend he headed Disney—it was a Sunday afternoon, but he already had the place working weekends. He was leading some investors on a tour of the studio, explaining his ideas for ramping up revenues by re-releasing Disney classics on an expedited schedule, broadening films by moving into “R” movies and reentering the TV market with an updated Disney Sunday movie and a new Mickey Mouse Club (featuring the prepubescent Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera.) In short, he was like a kid on a sugar high in F.A.O. Schwarz.

Eventually, of course, the high wears down, investors run out of patience and the exec needs new toys to play with—which explains Eisner no longer running Disney. But don’t underestimate him—a year or so after that chance encounter, he hired me as a vice-president and I’ll never forget running into him one day, now the chairman of the board of a multibillion-dollar company, idly standing with his hands in the pockets of his requisite blue suit, marveling at a display of some old animation cels—the very cels of Mickey Mouse from which the company had sprung. I stopped and asked him if everything was alright.

He smiled that Goofy grin of his and said he was wondering where Walt would have put the still-in-the-planning.EuroDisney. I reminded him that the south of Spain was sunny all year long and (like Florida) where the Europeans went for winter break. While Paris was a big city centrally located, it had the weather of New York—hot in the summer, wet and cold in the winter. He thanked me.

Sure enough, when EuroDisney was announced, he chose Paris, a world capital, over the pastoral Costa Brava. I said he was a visionary; I didn’t say he was always right. It might have taken millions, but he finally got EuroDisney into the black.

If I worked at the L.A. Times right now, I’d stop thinking about my “golden coffin” retirement—and think a lot more about working weekends. That’s when your putative boss will be working.