Disney came close to buying Twitter in 2016. Michael Eisner made an impassioned pitch to the Disney board to block Bob Iger’s acquisition of Pixar. In the mid-1980s, Iger almost joined ICM as a sports agent.
Those are some of the intriguing revelations in Iger’s new book “The Ride of a Lifetime: Lessons Learned From 15 Years as CEO of the Walt Disney Company.” Iger describes the book as not so much a memoir as an effort to share the knowledge and leadership skills he’s gained after more than 45 years in the trenches, starting out at ABC in 1974 and at Disney since 1995.
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Iger’s book is liveliest in the passages discussing the big transactions that have transformed Disney on his watch: the acquisition of Pixar in 2006, followed by Marvel in 2009 and Lucasfilm in 2012. He also explains the reasoning behind his famous regimen of waking at 4:15 a.m. to exercise and start his day. In part it’s to give his brain a little goof-off time before the daily deluge begins.
“It’s vital to create space in each day to let your thoughts wander beyond your immediate job responsibilities,” Iger writes. “I am certain I’d be less productive and less creative in my work if I didn’t also spend those first hours away from the emails and text messages and phone calls that require so much attention as the day goes on.”
Here are 10 takeaways of particular interest to industryites from “Ride of a Lifetime”:
1. In January 2006, former Disney CEO Michael Eisner made his case to the Disney board of directors why they should not support Iger’s bid to buy Pixar for $7.4 billion. Eisner, who had a public battle with Steve Jobs toward the end of his tenure at Disney, had been gone from the company for four months at the time. The move offended Iger, and he was none too happy with then-board chairman George Mitchell for letting it happen. But he notes that Eisner later acknowledged he was wrong. “Which was gracious of him,” Iger writes.
2. After getting over the board’s squeamishness, Iger got another surprise just 30 minutes before he and Apple and Pixar chief Steve Jobs were to announce the Pixar acquisition from the company’s Emeryville, Calif. campus. Jobs took him on a walk to confide in Iger that his pancreatic cancer had returned and because of that, Jobs wanted to give Iger an eleventh-hour chance to back out of the deal, which made Jobs the single-largest individual shareholder in Disney. Iger didn’t waver on the deal, but the news hit Iger and his wife, Willow Bay, hard on a personal level. “Instead of toasting what had been a momentous day in my early days as CEO, we cried together over the news,” Iger writes.
3. In the summer of 2016, Disney came close to buying Twitter. Iger saw it as a distribution platform with global reach. The Disney board gave Iger the OK to finalize a deal, but he soon got cold feet after considering the problems that Disney would inherit in addressing hate speech, fake accounts and “the general rage and lack of civility that was sometimes evident on the platform.” Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey, who is a member of Disney’s board of directors, “was stunned, but very polite” when Iger gave him the bad news. “I wished Jack luck, and I hung up feeling very relieved,” Iger writes.
4. In the mid-1980s, Iger almost joined ICM as a sports agent. After Capital Cities acquired ABC in 1986, there was a management transition at ABC Sports, where Iger worked at the time. Iger’s then-boss, Jim Spence, left to start a sports division at ICM. At first, Iger didn’t care for his new boss, who happened to be the respected broadcaster Dennis Swanson, so Iger worked out a deal to join Spence at ICM. But as Iger tried to give his notice, Swanson said he was planning to promote Iger to senior VP of programming. In short order, Iger came to like working for Swanson. “He was an amiable, funny guy; his energy and optimism were infectious and crucially, he knew what he didn’t know,” Iger writes. “This is a rare trait in a boss.”
5. Plenty of people who have worked at Disney and ABC will head right to the index of “Ride of a Lifetime” to see if they made the cut for a mention. Iger doesn’t name-drop too much. He has high praise for key mentors in his career including the legendary Roone Arledge, former head of ABC Sports and ABC News; Cap Cities leaders Tom Murphy and Dan Burke; and Eisner.
6. Iger also has kind words for key subordinates. ABC alums Stu Bloomberg and Ted Harbert helped him adjust to an unfamiliar world when Iger was tapped as ABC Entertainment president in 1989. “They would have been completely justified in their disdain for the guy who knew nothing about their business but was about to be their boss,” Iger writes of Bloomberg and Harbert. “Instead they were two of the most supportive people I’ve ever worked with.” Iger also has praise for longtime Disney corporate communications chief Zenia Mucha (he confirms that she has on occasion told him to “shut up”), general counsel Alan Braverman and Disney direct-to-consumer and international chief Kevin Mayer (“a master strategist and dealmaker”). But perhaps the highest compliment is paid to Disney Studios chief Alan Horn. Iger calls Horn “the best hire I’ve ever made.”
7. Iger discloses an incident of sexual misconduct from 1974 when he was managing studio facilities for ABC shows in New York. One night, after the broadcast of “The ABC Evening News with Harry Reasoner,” Iger went back into the control room to make sure no updates were needed for later time zones. The lone producer in the room “unzipped his pants, pulled out his penis, and replied ‘I don’t know. You tell me how it looks.’ Forty-five years later, I still get angry when I recall that scene,” Iger writes.
8. A more pleasant memory for Iger is the time he worked on ABC’s live 1974 telecast of Frank Sinatra’s “The Main Event” concert from Madison Square Garden. Not only was he sent out on a mission to buy a bottle of Listerine for Ol’ Blue Eyes, which earned him a $100 tip, but he was also among the crew members who was given a gold cigarette lighter inscribed “Love, Sinatra.” “The lighter sits in a drawer in my desk to this day,” Iger writes.
9. Iger offers a personal example of how hard it can be to achieve work-life balance. As he was having dinner with the Jesuit priest who would officiate at his 1995 wedding to Bay, Iger was also negotiating the final points of his new contract as Disney was sealing its acquisition of Capital Cities/ABC Inc. He had to interrupt the dinner every few minutes to take a call regarding to the deal. Finally, Iger asked the priest for “priest-client confidentiality” and disclosed the reason he had to keep taking calls, meaning that Father Ghirlando was one of only a handful of people in the world to know that Disney was buying ABC before it was announced on July 31, 1995.
10. Iger devotes most of the final three chapters to the evolution of his thinking about on-demand streaming, and, of course, the blockbuster $71.3 billion acquisition of 21st Century Fox. He addresses the challenges posed by such a radical realignment of businesses that were engineered to produce content for third-party distributors. Even the nature of incentive programs for executives had to be redesigned because the company is now using different metrics for success. Iger discloses that executive stock grants for some Disney employees would be determined by how much they contribute to the implementation of the strategy driving the launch of Disney Plus on Nov. 12 and other direct-to-consumer initiatives. Now, Disney is making stock grants “that would vest or mature based on my own assessment of whether executives were stepping up to make this new initiative successful,” Iger writes.
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