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Tuesday, April 5, 2011

A profile of Ron Miller

Ronald William “Ron” Miller was introduced to Diane Disney on a blind date while he was attending USC, where he played left-end on the football team.  After dating for awhile and with the approval of Diane’s parents they were married on May 9th 1954 in Santa Barbara.  Shortly after marrying, Ron was draft into the Army.  Diane related a story one evening at the Museum that, at her father’s request, she was even there on Disneyland’s opening day.  She was at Fort Ord, in Monterey, where Ron was stationed at the time.  The Miller’s have seven children, Christopher, Joanna, Tamara, Jennifer, Walter, Ronald, and Patrick.  Walter being named after his Grandfather – Walter Elias Disney Miller.

After leaving the military, Ron played a season of professional football for the Los Angeles Rams as a tight-end.  Walt attended two games, seeing his son-in-law get pretty seriously laid out on the field.  Ron related one incident where he was laid out cold in the 1st quarter and didn’t wake up until the 3rd.  Walt was pretty sure Ron was going to wind up dead or worse crippled playing pro football, and recommended that Ron come to work for him.  Ron took him up on the offer and went to work at Walt Disney Production as a production assistant.  His first job as a PA was to pick up Tommy Kirk from the studio and deliver him to the location set for old yeller.  Ron learned the movie business from the ground up from his father-in-law, becoming a director, and producer (assistant to executive).  He rose through the company ranks to the position of President in 1980 and Chief Executive Officer in 1983.  Only to be ousted in 1984 by his cousin-in-law, Roy E. Disney, in favor of having the team of Eisner and Wells come in to run the company.

I’ve heard many claims that Ron Miller was an inept manager, and that the studio was bleeding cash from many failures at the box office, and that this was what led to his ouster.  I have found this information on several fan boards, where you can find a wealth of personal opinion on the anything Disney but a real dearth value and accurate data on this particular era in Disney History.  Ron was in the top executive leadership positions of the Walt Disney Productions for a very short time, President for about 4 years, and the top spot - CEO for a about a year. Let’s look at some of the accomplishments of Ron Miller during his very short tenure as President and even shorter term as CEO:

To start with, in 1980 Walt Disney Home Entertainment had its first releases, with Dumbo being the first animated release in 1981.  Disney had its first co-produced picture with Paramount Pictures – Popeye in 1980.  Epcot opened in 1982 with Tokyo Disneyland opening the next, and the Disney Channel, the cable network concept that began in 1977 and was announced in 1981, finally launched in 1983.  But the two events of 1983 and 1984 that I think laid a significant foundation for TWDC and Eisner’s early successes when he came in as CEO and Chairman of the Board, were the creation of Touchstone Films in 1984 and Silver Screen Partners in 1983.

Touchstone Films, later to be renamed Touchstone Pictures was created to the Disney Studios to create films that catered to an different audience then the traditional Disney animated and family friendly fare.  Disney’s earlier attempts to release movies targeted toward more adult audiences under the Disney banner failed to perform even marginally well at the box office, since audiences expected something different from Walt Disney.  With the other studios unencumbered by the expectation of producing a particular film genre, they had a pretty significant advantage competing for the audiences of the period.  While I rather doubt the hyperbolic claims that the Walt Disney Studio was hemorrhaging cash, the financial data doesn’t support this contention.  But, if the studio was losing money, it very well could have been the partially the result of releasing these adult oriented films under Walt Disney Pictures.  One also has to wonder if the movies had any negative impact on the normal stable of movies from Disney because of audience confusions.  Creation of the Touchstone label gave the Walt Disney Productions more options.

Silver Screen Partners is a Limited Partnership created to provide financing and ownership for movies of Walt Disney Pictures and Touchstone.  After associated offering cost and fees, the public offering raised $74 million available for investment in films.  Seven films were produced with Silver Screen Partners investment funds.  Flashpoint, released 8/31/1985, Heaven Help Us, 2/8/85, Volunteers, 8/16/85, Sweet Dreams, 10/2/85, Head Office, 1/3/86, The Hitcher, 2/21/86. And Odd Jobs, 3/7/86.  Total investment from the partnership for these pictures was $73.8 million.  I can’t find box office figures for the first and last film, but the middle 5 grossed about $45 million.  Giving more credit than if probably due, and assuming a simple average of the other 5, I’ll estimate the box office for the first and last of about a rather generous $8.1 million.  I only do this to demonstrate that, with a rather generous estimate, these films grossed about $61 million, well short of the $73.8 million invested.  One might look at this as an abject failure, however, from Walt Disney Productions’ perspective this was a win.  Disney got to produce these movies, on the chance they would be box office smashes, without having their resources or income statement, on the line.  Why was this possible?  While I haven’t done a detail investigation of SSP, I suspect that it was formed to take advantage of tax codes of the period.  Now with a bit of tip to my proletariat upbringing, these tax codes allow people with too much money to invest in activities suspected to be losing ventures, what we all know are tax shelters.  This limited partnership was successful enough from TWDC point of view that the partnership saw an SSP II, III, and IV offered, and stayed active until the tax laws changed in 1998.  There will be more on this in future articles about the next period in Disney history.  But for now, I think Ron Miller deserves a great deal more credit for laying a solid foundation for his successors’ and the company’s financial success in his short 4 years at the helm, instead of the bashing he seems to take among uninformed detractors that he was inept or ineffective as Disney President of CEO.  Would the Eisner/Wells team have succeeded so quick, had Ron taken a different coast before he was deposed?  I don’t think so.

Then there was the greenmail and corporate raid that was being attempted in 1984 by investor Saul Steinberg, with the intention of breaking up the company and selling off the pieces.  Roy E. resigned his board position and mounted his first “Save Disney” campaign leading to Ron’s ouster and replacement with Michael Eisner and Frank Wells at the head of the company.  Again this takeover attempt is touted by many as evidence of Ron’s ineffectiveness in leadership and a failing company.  While this may be a popular notion of corporate raids, fostered by movies like Pretty Woman and Wall Street, the truth in this case is that the Disney Company was worth more in separate pieces than as a whole operation.  The studio was probably being the weakest performer at the time, not surprisingly because Ron’s initiatives to correct the studio’s performance issues had only recently been instituted and yet to produce any real results.  Again, I have to challenge whether Eisner and Wells would have been able to enact their “turn around” strategies as successfully without Touchstone and SSP in place upon their arrival.  So, the takeover attempt was not a result of a failing company, but rather, and solid success company experiencing a momentary downturn and undervaluation in the market.  Those conditions create a perfect and prime target for corporate raiders.

I would content the Ron was a victim, so to speak, of his own success, not the inept or ineffective leader, as many claim.  It is impossible to say now, but, it is my opinion that The Walt Disney Company we all know today would not exist today with the actions of Ron Miller back in the earlier 80’s.  He deserves far more credit the he is receiving today.

Your comments or questions are always welcome.  If you have a correction or something you think I should look at in my research, please feel free to contact me at

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