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When it comes to Disney's CEO, denial isn't just some river in Egypt

Jim Hill

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When it comes to Disney's CEO, denial isn't just some river in Egypt

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Poor Michael Eisner. The man just can't catch a break these days.

By that I mean: Have you heard about the joke that's supposedly making the rounds around Hollywood this morning? The one that keys off of Saddam Hussein being captured by U.S. forces in Iraq yesterday?

Q: Why did Saddam finally allow himself to be captured?

A: So that he too could come forward and voice his support for Michael Eisner.

I know, I know. That joke's not entirely in good taste. But let's face facts, folks. Even if he were to get support from Iraq's former dictator, Michael could use all the friends that he can get right about now.

Don't believe me? Then let's review who's come out in support of Disney's CEO to date? Sumner Redstone, the billionaire Chairman of the Board and CEO of Viacom, and Shirley Slesinger Lasswell, the 79-year-old woman who's suing the Walt Disney Company over the rights of the Winnie the Pooh characters (though -- it should be pointed out here -- that the only reason Shirley is said to be supporting Michael is that she supposedly thinks that she'll get a bigger settlement if Eisner's still in power once the Pooh case gets resolved).

And that's it. The rest of Tinsel Town? No one's heard a peep out of them when it comes to supporting Michael Eisner.

Now let's contrast that with the reception that Roy Disney received this past Friday night when he made a surprise appearance at the Animation Guild's annual holiday open house. The members of Local 839 applauded loudly as Walt's nephew entered the Royal Crest Room at the Pickwick Gardens-A Banquet facility in Burbank. They listened attentively as Roy gave a brief speech, thanking all those assembled for their support for his efforts. And these animators, they broke into cheers as Disney ended his remarks by saying "It ain't over yet."

Mind you, Michael's also tried to rally the troops. Witness what happened last Wednesday, when everyone who worked in the Team Disney Burbank building was suddenly told that they HAD TO attend an after-hours event at the Alex Theater in Glendale. Attendance at this meeting (which one Disney wag described as "... his majesty's command performance") was mandatory.

Said one Disney exec who attended the event:

It was truly bizarre, Jim. There was Eisner up on stage -- looking more haggard and beaten up than I've ever seen him -- going on and on about how great things were at the Walt Disney Company. How the future looked so bright. But the whole time Michael talked, he didn't mention word one about Roy or Stanley. We all sat in the audience, thinking "This is what it must feel like to be in a 'Twilight Zone' episode."

Before the meeting ended, Michael actually threw the thing open for questions. But no one there had the guts to ask the questions that we all had on our minds. Like: "What are you going to do about this Roy and Stanley thing?" But -- given that Eisner himself never brought the matter up -- none of us had the b*lls to bring it up either.

That meeting was just surreal, Jim. Instead of having the effect that Eisner was hoping for (I.E. Putting an end to all the gossip. Reassuring the crew at Team Disney Burbank that everything was going to work out just fine in the end) -- it had the opposite effect on all of us. If anything, it made Disney's executive staff even more uneasy. To see our CEO in such deep denial was just ... sad.

Of course, given Michael Eisner's comments just a few days earlier at the Century Plaza Hotel in Los Angeles, I guess we shouldn't have been all that surprised that Disney's CEO would behave as he reportedly did at the Alex Theater. For those of you who don't know: This was Eisner's infamous industry awards dinner appearance where Phil Collins' off-the-cuff "Hello, Michael. I know this has been a bit of a lousy week, but we're here to help you forget about that" remark sparked this somewhat bizarre response from Michael:

"I want to say this has been a great week ... So to say that I've had anything but a wonderful week would be an understatement ... I intend to be here in 30 years, in my wheelchair, applauding someone else getting this award."

It's this alleged "What Crisis?" attitude of Eisner's that's got all of Hollywood buzzing. Does Michael seriously think that Roy and Stanley are so small a threat that he doesn't even have to acknowledge them? Or is this all an act?

The smart money right now is on Eisner's odd behavior being just an act. After all, if Michael really didn't view Roy and Stanley's rabble-rousing as an actual threat to his power base, then why can't Disney employees access the "Save Disney" website through the Disney Company's own internet connections? Or -- for that matter -- why are they barred from using corporate computers to access that "Support Roy" petition that's online?

So what's Eisner plan here? Well -- given that Hollywood basically shuts down from the 2nd week of December through the 1st week of January for the holidays -- maybe Michael's hoping that while everyone's away on their Christmas vacation that this PR crisis will blow itself out. That maybe -- if he ignores them for long enough -- that Roy and Stanley really will just go away.

But -- in the meantime -- with the hope that it will help divert the attention of the business press from this Roy / Stanley nonsense, Disney's PR department has sent out a veritable blizzard of positive press releases last week. Each of them talking up how well the corporation is doing under the current regime. Here's just a few of the Disney-related news items that got heavily hyped over the past seven days:

"Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl" sold 11 million units during its first week on store shelves, making this Disney film the largest opening week live-action home entertainment title in history.

More than 17 million people tuned in last Wednesday night to watch "Trista and Ryan's Wedding," which allowed ABC to win the ratings battle for that night.

"The Santa Clause"'s debut TBS that same night was the cable channel's highest rated movie in two years.

Also on Wednesday, Disney announced that it expected the corporation's profits to grow by 30% or more in fiscal 2004, and that it also expected ABC to become profitable in 2005.

These are just a few of the aggressively positive press releases that Disney's PR machine churned out over the past few days. All with the hope that all of these stories would help draw reporters' attentions away from that other non-story. That whole Roy and Stanley resignation thing.

But -- given that Walt's nephew and Mr. Gold have quite a few more tricks up their sleeves -- I would imagine that, no matter how much Mr. Eisner pretends (in public, anyway) that there really isn't a problem here, that this story isn't going away. That -- in the weeks ahead -- Michael's eventually going to be forced to confront this matter head-on.

Or otherwise this non-story may just end up turning Eisner into a non-entity.

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