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Going Digital With A Billion Dollar Bankroll


More than a year after leaving Walt Disney Co. (DIS), former Chairman and CEO Michael D. Eisner is once again doing what he likes best: making deals. An extremely wealthy man thanks to the more than $1 billion in salary, bonuses, and stock options he raked in during his 21 years as Head Mouse, Eisner, 64, is quietly building a private media company. Freed from the prying eyes of shareholders and board members, Eisner can be Eisner--inking deals, acting snarky, and, well, being master of his own universe.

That universe is the five-person Tornante Co., staffed by an ex-Disney MBA and a couple of secretaries and dealmakers. Operating from a tony Beverly Hills address, Eisner has gone all new media, plunking down an undisclosed sum to buy Team Baby Entertainment, which makes sport-themed DVDs for children, and taking a stake in Veoh Networks Inc., an ad-supported YouTube-like consumer-generated video site that claims 4 million unique monthly users.

Eisner hasn't been shy about using his Rolodex or hardball negotiating tactics to give his investments a boost. He got Regis Philbin and other buddies to lend their voices to Team Baby DVDs. And shortly after investing in Veoh, which also has such backers as Time Warner Inc., Eisner tracked down Jann Wenner, a former Disney partner in Us magazine, and persuaded him to put its celebrity sightings on Veoh's new broadband Celebrity Channel.

Veoh also hopes to find the next crop of Steven Spielbergs among the amateur auteurs putting videos up on the site and get them real jobs directing movies in Hollywood. So Eisner went to United Talent Agency and cut a deal whereby Veoh would create a special UTA site where aspiring filmmakers can post their work in the hopes that the agency will pick them up as clients. The kicker for Veoh is that it will get a healthy piece of the site's ad revenues thanks to some muscular deal-making by Eisner, "Hollywood people negotiate tough," marvels Veoh Chief Executive Dmitry Shapiro.

Eisner had originally planned to do deals with Disney. The Team Baby buy, for instance, would have been a perfect fit for his former company. After his resignation, Eisner agreed to sit on the Disney board and then realized that potential conflicts of interest would crimp his freedom. So he left the board and went out on his own. His people say more deals are coming, but Eisner is keeping mum.

When not tinkering with his investments, Eisner hosts his MSNBC show, Conversations with Michael Eisner. It's one of the business channel's lower-rated offerings; despite his fast-thinking and unscripted Hollywood persona, Eisner is no Oprah or Charlie Rose. Yes, he managed to get a rise out of Sumner M. Redstone when he suggested that the octogenarian chairman of Viacom Inc. hand the CEO reins to his daughter, Shari E. Redstone, president of National Amusements Inc. But skins don't get much thinner than Redstone's, so that was no coup.

Eisner has also become a fixture on the conference tour, interviewing IAC/Interactive CEO Barry Diller in Beverly Hills recently and Sony (SNE) CEO Howard Stringer at the annual Sun Valley summer gabfest hosted by Allen & Co. And like many rich or famous men with lots of time on their hands, he travels the globe making speeches at about $100,000 a pop. Mostly he uses his private jet. But sometimes he flies commercial, his ESPN cap worn low in a half-hearted attempt to conceal his identity. One of his crowd-pleasing addresses: Leadership: Succeeding by Failing and Other Paradoxes.

By Ronald Grover


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