Jeffrey Katzenberg Reflects on Getting Canned
Sixteen years ago, Michael Eisner called me into his office and fired me. When he did, The Lion King was the No. 1 movie in America, Beauty and the Beast was a blockbuster on Broadway, and Home Improvement was the No. 1 show on television. Being fired in failure hurts. Being fired in success is downright humiliating. The most difficult decision in my career was made for me, instead of by me.
Disney (DIS) put out a press release. When I got back to my office an hour later, I got three calls. The first was from Bill Gates. The second was from Tom Murphy, CEO of CapCities/ABC. The third was from Steven Spielberg and Bob Zemeckis, who were vacationing together in Jamaica. They called to congratulate me on getting fired. They thought it was hilarious.
I didn't see it coming. I felt as though I had given them the 10 best years of my ability to that point. I had had an 18-year partnership with Michael. We had shared a lot of triumphs and successes. I felt hurt that he chose not to continue the relationship.
Nobody likes to sue, but I had to. Numerous people tried to mediate this, but every single time, in every single way, it fell apart. What Michael had done to me was immoral, unethical. This was somebody who, out of anger, was trying to cheat me out of a black-and-white contract. I spent four years trying to get back what was mine at a cost of tens of millions of dollars. Everybody loses in some way when you find yourself in court.
I encourage people to make decisions as quickly as possible, to keep momentum; procrastinating causes a different set of problems. I tend to move on and not look back. But I can see now that the writing was on the wall at Disney. The way I was behaving was causing a level of friction I was unaware of. I wasn't thinking about my impact.
Even though I was angry, I walked off that studio lot with optimism. When we formed DreamWorks, David Geffen had sold his record company for the third or fourth time for another billion or two. Steven had done Schindler's List and Jurassic Park. And I had just been fired.