Serving Il Disney Duce’s Head on a Silver Platter

Today’s so-called "big" and "stunning" and "end of an era" news that Michael Eisner is going to leave Disney when his contract is up in September 2006 isn’t very newsy. Ah, c’mon: Given the thrashing he’s received in the past year by Average Joe stockholders and institutional investors, not to mention Roy and Stanley, did anybody in their right mind really think he was going to be allowed to stay past his expiration date?

Let’s get the most obvious reason out of the way first. Nobody, and we do mean nobody, on Planet Earth wants to work for Eisner. So the only way to start succession discussions with potential candidates was to give them Il Disney Duce’s head on a silver platter. Ergo, this public reassurance that Michael is leaving with no ifs, ands or buts.

Now for the far more subtle stuff. Eisner’s due date was never September 2006. The real dilemma for him is a date much sooner. It’s really six months from now, March 2005 to be precise. The issue will be whether he’ll survive the next Disney shareholders’ meeting.

Of course, the Wall Street Journal, which is as close to being Eisner’s in-house newsletter as it is the Bush administration’s, "broke" this retirement stuff to spin it in exactly the direction Eisner chose. What’s laughable is how the other media lapped up the non-story as well. But Eisner’s "I’m really, really leaving" announcement stops nothing. It certainly doesn’t put an end to ex–board members Roy Disney and Stanley Gold’s dissidence. If anything, it breathes new life into their anti-Eisner jihad.

True, fielding a new slate of company managers and board members by March 2005 to compete with the corporation’s already seated one will be costly financially and psychically to Roy and Stanley personally. So many lawyers to employ, SEC filings to make, mailings to shareholders, threats from Dopey Drive, and so on. But the dynamic duo have not veered from their mission of throwing out not only Eisner. And Eisner’s No. 2 lap dog, Bob Iger. (Heir apparent? Oh, puh-leeze! Not after nearly 10 years of ABC still in the ratings toilet.) But also Eisner’s insider-packed Disney board.

Nor will they be thwarted in 2005, like they were this year, by ridiculous New York Stock Exchange regulations over whether their proxy fight against Eisner did or did not constitute a contested election. This time around, they’ll surely send out their own proxy card instead of basing their battle on the corporation’s ballot. Consider this: In a contested corporate election, brokers who routinely hold shares of stock on behalf of clients have to go back to shareholders for specific voting instructions. That means no pro forma activity by brokers who almost automatically side with a corporation’s current management. Suddenly, every one of those average 400 million shares (about 20 percent of all outstanding Disney stock) normally voted by brokers is up for grabs.

It can even be argued that Eisner’s announced retirement makes Roy and Stanley’s Sisyphean job a little easier. Since whomever they tap to run the company will now have the assurance that, if voted in by shareholders, Eisner will not be standing guard at the Buena Vista gate past September 2006. And who among us would not put it past Eisner to have each new slate member arrested as trespassers?

Sheesh, we’ve already seen the lengths Eisner will go to keep his job. Remember last March? When Eisner went on Larry King and said the shareholders’ meeting was in Baltimore, not Philadelphia? When Disney’s proxy ballots arrived very late or not at all for many stockholders since a company known for clockwork precision on investor matters mysteriously messed up and sent out the paperwork two weeks late and by third-class mail, the slowest possible?

We haven’t heard yet which city will host the 2005 shareholders’ meeting, but Eisner could wish to revisit Denver, where the airport was closed due to a horrendous blizzard — surprise, surprise, snow in Colorado in winter — and shareholder attendance stayed sparse. Or he could be even more diabolical and choose Anchorage, Alaska.

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