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The "Star Tours" saga continues: George, Michael, Ron and Steven

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The "Star Tours" saga continues: George, Michael, Ron and Steven

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Picking up where we left off on Friday: Hollywood is a very small town. Where you always have to be careful about what you say and -- more importantly -- who you say it to.

Case in point: The old ABC television, "Happy Days." George Lucas wasn't exactly thrilled with this Paramount sitcom. He always saw it as sort of a rip-off of his highly acclaimed 1973 feature, "American Grafitti."

Now guess which then-ABC executive actually got this hit show on the air? More importantly, claims to have played a large part in this sitcom's creation? You guessed it! Michael Eisner.

Now -- of course -- Lucas could have made a fuss about how "Happy Days" so obviously rode on "American Grafitti" 's coattails. How this Paramount Television production even went so far as cast Ron Howard -- one of the members of "Graffiti" 's ensemble cast -- to play Richie Cunningham.

But even back then, George was too smart to provide fodder for the Hollywood rumor mill. So though he may have groused privately about that TV show, Lucas never spoke out in public about how unhappy "Happy Days" made him.

And it was probably a good thing that he kept his mouth shut. For -- five years later -- when George and Steven Spielberg are going around Hollywood, trying to get some studio to cover "Raiders of the Lost Ark" 's estimated $20 million production cost, only one guy was brave enough to take a flyer on the project. And that was then-Paramount Pictures president Michael Eisner.

Mind you, before they went to Paramount, Lucas & Spielberg did make a stop at Walt Disney Productions. And then-Disney studio head Ron Miller did really want to make "Raiders of the Lost Ark." But then-CEO Card Walker absolutely refused to allow Ron to pursue this project.

Why for? Because Card felt that the production deal that George & Steven had outlined (EX: The studio that ultimately produced "Raiders" would have to agree to share all of the revenue that this film produced with Lucas & Spielberg from the very first dollar that "Lost Ark" earned. Plus George & Steven would be entitled to part of the money that "Raiders" made off of the film's merchandise and video sales. Plus Spielberg & Lucas would share the sequel rights with the studio) too heavily favored the two film-makers. Most importantly, that -- were Walt Disney Productions to actually agree to produce "Raiders of the Lost Ark" -- that the studio would be assuming all of the risk. With no guarantee -- given the steep financial terms that George and Steven were insisting upon -- that Disney would ever see any return on its investment.

Miller countered by saying that -- given Lucas & Spielberg's track record -- that "Raiders" was almost certainly a sure thing. That this action adventure picture was virtually guaranteed to be a blockbuster. And that -- even with the lopsided deal that George & Steven were putting on the table -- Disney would still benefit in the long run by establishing a business relationship with two of Tinsel Town's top hit-makers.

But Walker said "No." And when Card said "No" ... That pretty much ended all discussion at the Mouse House.

Which frustrated Ron to no end. Given how hard he'd worked at wooing George & Steven. Saying "Yes, of course!" when Spielberg asked Miller if he could use Disney's "When You Wish Upon a Star" in his 1977 smash, "Close Encounters of the Third Kind." Then "Yes, of course!" again when Steven called Ron to see if the film-maker could use clips from "Dumbo" in his 1979 slapstick salute to the early days of World War II, "1941."

Miller knew that -- if he was going to move the Mouse Factory back into the mainstream, if he was going to make Disney a serious Hollywood player again -- then he had to start doing business with people like Spielberg & Lucas. Or -- at the very least -- people who worked with George & Steven.

Which is why -- in the Spring of 1982 -- Ron Miller reached out to Michael Eisner and asked if the then-president and CEO of Paramount Pictures might be interested in running the studio side of Walt Disney Productions.

Mind you, Ron didn't just pick Eisner's name out of a hat. Miller and Eisner had already had some dealings back in 1980, when Paramount Pictures -- when that studio was looking to cut some of the risk involved with producing two pretty iffy pictures -- went over the hill to Burbank to see if Walt Disney Productions might be interested in co-financing "Popeye" and "Dragonslayer."

Sensing that this was the studio's chance to get back into big-time show business, Miller and Walker quickly agreed. And -- by agreeing to put up half of the production costs for that Robert Altman film as well as that Matthew Robbins swords-and-sorcery fantasy -- Disney won the right to release "Popeye" and "Dragonslayer" internationally. While Paramount retained the rights to release these two pictures domestically.

And -- given that "Popeye" and "Dragonslayer" both made more money overseas than these two films did during their stateside run -- it's clear that Disney got the better end of the deal. At least this time around.

Anyway ... Getting back to Ron's meeting with Michael. So what exactly happened? Here, let me pull a quote from Eisner's 1998 autobiography, "Work in Progress":

"I want to know if you would be interested in running our studio," [Miller] said. I explained that I was already president of a very successful studio. I listened sympathetically as he talked about movies for a broader audience beyond families with young children. I also encouraged him when he spoke about launching a second non-Disney label to produce more contemporary films aimed at an adult audience.

"If Disney really wants to be competitive in the family movie business," I said, "you're going to have to start attracting top outside talent and compensate them at the same level that other studios do. You've never replaced Walt creatively, and people like Steven Spielberg and George Lucas have become the Walt Disneys of our time. They've taken away your franchise." A second non-Disney label, I told Ron, wouldn't simply be a way to broaden the company's business, but also to forge relationships with the best filmmakers. "They have children of their own, and once you're in business with them, they'll do Disney family films for you, too."

Finally, I returned to my situation. "If you're asking me to come and do the same job that I've been doing at Paramount, then reluctantly I'll have to decline," I said. "What does interest me is a job that includes running the studio and overseeing the theme parks."

Obviously, this suggestion by Eisner (In essence, he was asking for Miller's job) didn't go over all that well with Ron. So he politely thanked Michael for coming over the hill to Burbank.

And that should have been the end of things ... Except that ... Well, it wasn't.

You seem, now Disney was on Michael Eisner's radar. And he knew that Miller was deeply unhappy with the way things were going at Walt Disney Productions. Which is why Michael now made it his business to keep close tabs on what was going on inside the Mouse House.

Which is why -- in the Fall of 1982, when Card Walker suddenly announced that he would stepping down as Walt Disney Productions' Chairman & CEO in 1983 -- Eisner cold-called Miller. With Michael brazenly suggesting that he take over at Disney's president while Ron assumed the chairmanship of the company. So that Eisner would then be in charge of Disney's movies & television division while Miller was in charge of the theme parks.

Now wouldn't this have been kind of an interesting little twist on Disney history? Instead of Michael Eisner replacing Ron Miller, how about the two of them working together to rebuild Walt Disney Productions in the early 1980s?

Now where this gets interesting is ... Ron didn't automatically dismiss Michael's suggestion. In fact -- again according to "Work in Progress" -- Eisner, Miller and Walker actually had a meeting where Card officially offered Michael the job of president of Walt Disney Productions ... Only to have Walker (Who evidently decided -- after this meeting was over -- that Eisner was some sort of slick Hollywood character) suddenly get cold feet and hurriedly withdrew the offer before it could be announced to the press.

In the end, Card seemed to think that what the Mouse House really needed wasn't some Tinsel Town insider. But -- rather -- a good solid businessman who could then carefully groom Ron Miller for the big chair at Disney.

Of course, what Ron, Ray and Card didn't realize was that Roy E. Disney and Stanley Gold were both deeply unhappy with the direction that Walt Disney Company was taking. Which was why -- on March 9, 1984 -- Roy resigned from Walt Disney Productions' board of director and then ...

(I know, I know. It's deja vu all over again ...)

Anyway ... I'm pretty sure that you all remember how things worked out the first time around. Except that you may have forgotten a few behind-the-scenes twists on this tale. Like how the Bass Brothers of Fort Worth, TX -- after they'd become the majority shareholders in Walt Disney Productions -- allegedly approached George Lucas and asked him if he'd consider taking over as head of Disney Studios.

Lucas reportedly politely demurred, but then suggested Michael Eisner for the gig. At first, the Basses weren't all that convinced that Eisner had what it took to run the Mouse House. But George was quick to talk up Michael's good qualities to Richard Rainwater, Sid Bass's top dealmaker. How -- as head of Paramount Pictures -- Eisner had this uncanny ability to pick hits. How "Airplane," "Beverly Hills Cop," "Flashdance," "Footloose," "Grease," "Heaven Can Wait," "An Officer and a Gentleman," "Saturday Night Fever," "Terms of Endearment" and "Trading Places" -- not to mention three installments of the big screen version of "Star Trek" -- had all been produced on Michael's watch.

More importantly, Eisner was fearless. After all, wasn't he the only executive brave enough to say "Yes" to "Raiders of the Lost Ark" after everyone else in Hollywood was saying "No"? That film went on to make $335 million worldwide, which meant that Paramount made a nice chunk of change. All because Michael was the only one to see that this project was worth the risk?

Mind you, Lucas didn't just stop there. He called Spielberg and then had Steven phone individual members of the Disney board to say that the high grossing helmer actively supported Michael Eisner for CEO of the Walt Disney Company. More importantly, if the board did make Michael Disney's new Big Cheese, Spielberg virtually guaranteed that he and Lucas would then come make movies for the Mouse Factory.

And Eisner ... He was no slouch when it came to talking up his close ties with George and Steven. In conversations that Michael had with the Bass Brothers, he deliberately mentioned that -- once Eisner got to be Disney's new CEO -- how he'd reach out to Lucas and negotiate a deal which would then bring the "Star Wars" characters to the Disney theme parks.

So -- with that tempting bit of bait being dangled in front of them -- is it really any wonder that the Basses and Disney's board of directors eventually caved in and hired Michael Eisner and Frank Wells, making them ( respectively) the new CEO and the president of the Walt Disney Company?

Or that -- in October of 1984, just two weeks after Michael had officially come to power at the Mouse House -- Eisner made a call to Skywalker Ranch. when Disney's new CEO personally invited the "Star Wars" creator to come tour WED Headquarters with him.

And what exactly did George see when he made that fateful trip to Glendale? Well, that I'll tell you about tomorrow ...

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