Disney's Most Epic Battle: Off Screen

The story of Disney is more thrilling than anything Disney has ever made. A story worth watching on screen. Disney, will you take cue from your legacy?

This is the story of a banished king and his revenge. A story that starts with friendship and ends in betrayal. A story where you won’t be able to pick sides. It is a story of tragedy and redemption, ego and pride. 

But, does it end with a ‘happily ever after’? 

Well… Read on!

The story begins in 1976 when a man named Michael Eisner was appointed as the President of Paramount Studios. 

While Eisner was working at the top, another man worked there as a low level assistant - Katzenberg. 

Eight years went by. Katzenberg had risen through the ranks to become President of Production under Eisner. But, Eisner was not in luck. He was due for promotion, when a corporate reshuffle at Paramount Studios denied him the opportunity that he deserved. 

Now, like it is said, when one door closes, another opens. For Eisner, Disney was that other door. Paramount Studios' loss was Disney’s gain. 

Disney was in constant turmoil ever since the death of Walt Disney in 1966. His legacy continued breathing life to the otherwise dormant company that suffered in the absence of a strong leader. It had now become the target of several hostile takeovers (where outsiders attempted to take control of a company against the company’s will).

It was under those conditions that Roy Disney, Walt Disney’s nephew, brought Eisner to take charge of the Disney ship. But, Eisner didn’t come alone. He also brought Katzenberg along by giving him the bait of heading an entire division. Afterall, Katzenberg was the ‘Golden Retriever’, who managed to pull off anything that was required of him. He would definitely be a great asset for Disney.

Haah. You bet? The appointment of these two men changed the entire course of cinematic history. What happened?

Well, it depends on whose lens you are wearing.

The Katzenberg Lens

Eisner gave Katzenberg the division that he had very little hopes from: animated movies. This division had not given Disney a hit in years. So confident was Eisner about its failure, that he even offered Katzenberg 2% of the profits from all the new animated movies that were to be made under Katzenberg’s leadership. 

What followed was beyond Eisner's imagination. 

Katzenberg supervised the development of remarkable movies like The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, and The Lion King. 

He vowed to make one animation movie every year (in those days it was unheard of). 

Animation soon comprised almost a third of Disney’s profits! With his hardwork and determination, Katzenberg turned around not just the animation department, but also the history of cinema.

They say that the world can change in the blink of an eye. That’s precisely what happened with Katzenberg. In 1994, an unfortunate helicopter crash of the then Chief Operating Officer and President of Walt Disney Co., Frank Wells, led to a managerial void that had to be filled immediately. That’s when speculations that Katzenberg would be the successor arose.

But, Roy Diseny and Eisner did not let this happen. Furious with this corporate politics, Katzenberg resigned and launched the legendary DreamWorks alongside Steven Speilberg and David Geffen. 

DreamWorks was Katzenberg’s revenge against Disney. It gave us legendary films such as Shrek, Trolls, Kung-Fu Panda, How to Train Your Dragon, Madagascar, and The Boss Baby. (On a side note: You have to revisit Shrek again! That movie series leaves no stone unturned to mock Disney movies and looks like a vent for Katzenberg) (tweet this).

And, what about Eisner?

Remember the 2% profit that he promised to Katzenberg when he brought him to Disney? Well, it came to bite him in the ass as Katzenberg filed a suit against Disney. Disney ended up coughing about $250 million because of Eisner’s decisions.

This blunder was quickly followed by another blunder. The position that Eisner denied Katzenberg was filled by Eisner’s friend, Mr. Michael Ovitz. But he was fired too! And, this cost Disney another $100 million.

Now, this wasn’t the end of Eisner's dark times. Remember how Eisner and Roy Disney colluded to oust Katzenberg?

Well, tragically a few years later, both the men were drawn in a battle against each other. Eisner pushed Roy Disney to retire from the Board. But, Roy Disney did not go down alone, he took Eisner with him. 45% of Disney’s shareholders were rallied by Roy Disney to withhold their votes to re-elect Eisner. Eventually, Eisner resigned.

Eisner looks like the classic Disney villain, no? 

The Eisner Lens

The entire department suffered under Katzenberg. Animators were working day in, day out at the cost of their health. They had no time for family, no time for a social life. But, Katzenberg didn’t care. The department, as described by an animator in the documentary, Waking Sleeping Beauty, “was being driven by a maniac at the wheel with his foot on the accelerator, driving full speed in a very crowded city”.

You could say that it’s dedication like this that makes success stories, but this wasn’t entirely true in Katzenberg’s case. The decisions that he took, the movies that he passionately supported did not perform as well as he would have wanted to. 

The ones who worked with him doubted his taste.

And, what’s often overlooked is that Katzenberg was the Chairman of Walt Disney Studios. He was responsible for all the filmed entertainment that went out from the studio and not just the animated ones. Yet, for every successful animated movie that he made, there was also a disaster that was cooked elsewhere.

Katzenberg was blinded by success. He discounted the role that everyone else played for him to reach there. Roy Disney did not like his attitude and threatened Eisner to prevent Katzenberg’s promotion. And, you know the rest. 

Pain can fuel creativity. But, for how long?

Katzenberg’s high ambitions and the bitter feelings of vendetta were his undoing. No doubt that he made terrific films. But, why? Was it only for the love for cinema or was it to undermine Disney?

Eventually, Katzenberg had to remove the rose-tinted glasses that he was wearing and come to terms with reality. Running Dreamworks was no longer sustainable. His grandiose plans came crashing down as Dreamworks ran out of money. Eventually, Comcast acquired it.

Katzenberg passionately moved on to OTT, Quibi. Again, it was meant to be revolutionary (of course!). It was a $2 billion rich project. With top Hollywood talent, it was as glamorous as it could be. Yet, money and fame cannot guarantee success. 

Quibi was not in line with the current day and time and it failed just after it was launched. Either Katzenberg had lost his touch, or maybe he never had it in the first place?

We don’t know which side is innocent and which side guilty. Truth is often like that. Layered.  My story to a simple "What actually happened?" will differ from yours. There is no single truth.

But, whatever be the case, this corporate feud revolutionized the entire animation industry. 

Whose side are you on? Eisner or Katzenberg?

Wanna interact with the creators of these insightful pieces? Join our WhatsApp Channel! (it’s free).