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Eisner Gives Clues to Next Move

Times Staff Writer

How does a media mogul who has run a world-famous corporation for two decades suddenly transform himself into an entrepreneur?

If you are Michael Eisner, you turn to people you know and trust -- the ones who previously worked for you.

Since retiring as chief executive of Walt Disney Co. Sept. 30, Eisner has reached out to two senior executives who still work at the Burbank entertainment giant. Although he has stopped short of offering them jobs, he has broached the subject of working together in the future.

The overtures -- to studio production chief Nina Jacobson and former head of strategic planning Peter Murphy -- underscore just how bound to Disney Eisner remains.

By putting out feelers to former colleagues, Eisner, 63, has provided the first real clues about his budding post-Disney plans. In Hollywood, where information is power, his schmoozing has also enlivened what was already a favorite parlor game.

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Among the top ranks of entertainment industry executives, predicting what Eisner will do next has become a fascination. After all, this is a guy who presided over the transformation of Disney from a struggling company worth $1.6 billion into a nearly $32-billion global empire with 10 theme parks, the ABC television network, cable channels such as ESPN, a library of more than 900 movie titles and 32,000 hotel rooms. It stands to reason his next move is worth watching.

Eisner hasn’t made it easy, however, to track his new venture -- in part, friends say, because he’s not sure what it will be.

“He hasn’t made up his mind about what comes next,” said one Hollywood executive who spoke with Eisner recently. “He’s looking at deals, deciding whether to buy or build.”

To aid in that pursuit, he has hired two former Disney analysts, said several Eisner acquaintances who asked not to be named for fear of offending their friend.

With his respected name and estimated $750 million in net worth, Eisner has the financial firepower, he has told friends, to create his own new entertainment company. Harvey and Bob Weinstein, the founders of Miramax Film Corp., recently raised nearly $500 million for a new studio, and many believe Eisner could raise even more than that.

Eisner has told friends that he plans to raise hundreds of millions of dollars to finance a company that would create film, TV and Broadway productions.

Sources said he approached Jacobson, the president of production at Disney’s film studio, about the possibility of working together.

Jacobson described their conversations as casual and said Eisner never offered her a job.

“No way did he approach me about working at his company,” she said. “We talked about maybe someday working together again in the distant future. But there was not a specific intention.”

Jacobson said in an interview that she planned to stay at Disney.

Eisner’s contract prevents him from raiding the ranks of the nation’s second-largest entertainment giant until 2007.

Through a spokesman, Eisner said he had not offered anyone at Disney a job.

Another Disney employee with whom Eisner has brainstormed is Murphy, who until recently headed up Disney’s strategic planning unit, which during the Eisner years was known as “the business prevention unit” because it torpedoed so many proposed ventures.

In his first act after being named Eisner’s designated successor in March, Robert Iger reduced Murphy’s powers by downsizing the strategic planning unit. Murphy, however, continues to serve in a key role. He is Disney’s point man in the sensitive negotiations with Comcast Corp. for the distribution of Disney content on the nation’s leading cable systems.

Murphy has made no secret of his desire to leave Disney to work in the investment world. Eisner has talked to him, sources say, about the possibility of working together to create a fund focusing on media.

In an interview, Murphy said it was premature to comment because he had not yet decided about his future.

Should Eisner opt for a financial future, it would be out of character. He made his name as a creative visionary, not an architect of high-stakes deals.

At Disney, no detail escaped him, from picking the wallpaper on Disney’s cruise ships to making suggestions about the replacement for Kathie Lee Gifford as Regis Philbin’s sidekick on the ABC talk show.

Some experts say Eisner’s reputation as a hands-on manager will serve him well, no matter how he structures his future.

“Certain kinds of people can’t make the transition to being an entrepreneur, but Eisner can,” said Jeffrey Sonnenfeld, senior associate dean at the Yale School of Management, who described Eisner’s role at Disney as “a hub with spokes coming off and everything within arm’s reach.”

“It was an entrepreneurial style Eisner displayed in bringing Disney back to life,” Sonnenfeld said, adding, “He has an ‘I’ll show you’ kind of attitude and will spend his last breath foiling the critics.”

Eisner has said publicly that he plans to stick to what he knows best: “the nitty-gritty of the creative process.” Golf holds no interest. Neither does lounging by the beach.

Not surprisingly, in recent weeks Eisner has asked his retired friends what they do all day, confiding in one that after working out and reading the paper in the morning, he’s at a loss for how to spend his time.

Even before leaving Disney, Eisner was beginning to plot his next move. With just weeks to go before retirement, he took Murphy to a meeting with the top management of Lions Gate Entertainment, a producer of horror and art-house films such as the recent box-office wonder “Saw II,” sources with knowledge of the meeting said.

According to those sources, during lunch with Lions Gate Chief Executive Jon Feltheimer and Vice Chairman Michael Burns on the outside patio of the Buffalo Club in Santa Monica, Eisner floated the idea of taking an equity stake in the independent film studio.

Lions Gate rejected the proposal, according to one source.

Eisner’s spokesman, Gary Lewi, said Eisner acknowledged the meeting but declined to comment on what was discussed.


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