Friday, July 15, 2005

Ovitz and Eisner at Disney

Remember when Michael Ovitz was the most powerful man in Hollywood? As the head of the Creative Artists Agency (CAA), he controlled most of the major talent and could force studios to accept the package deals he negotiated. In some ways, he helped to create the high-priced "blockbuster mentality" that Hollywood still has yet to stray from. The legend of Ovitz always ends with his single year working at the Walt Disney Company (1995-96), and how he proved to be a terrible executive.

But is this assessment really fair? If you read the book DisneyWar by James B. Stewart, you get a completely different idea of Ovitz. He had some ideas that were really, really brilliant, and Disney's market share would be much more vast if he had been allowed to implement some of them. Eisner, however--whom the book paints as a petty, jealous little martinet who hogs all of the credit for anything Disney does that's successful--turned all of his ideas down, in many cases out of hand. Here's a few of Ovitz's attempts at growing the company:

* To bring in Brad Grey as an executive in the hopes of turning around ABC (the Disney-Capitol Cities/ABC merger was at the time seen as disastrous as the AOL-Time Warner merger would later be). Grey was the head of Brillstein-Grey, a TV production/talent-management company which represented over 150 writers, plus Brad Pitt and Jennifer Aniston. When Bernie Brillstein started the Brillstein Co. in 1969, he helped launch shows like Saturday Night Live and The Muppet Show. By 1995, Brillstein-Grey had produced the series NewsRadio and Mr. Show with Bob and David, and made Adam Sandler a star in movies; since then, they've created The Sopranos. Brillstein-Grey now looks set to merge with Disney's own Touchstone Television, but Brad Grey has recently replaced Sherry Lansing as head of Paramount Pictures.

* To bring in former clients Michael Crichton and Stephen King, as well as Tom Clancy and John Grisham, in an attempt to make Hyperion Books a publisher that actually sold books. Ovitz also wanted to give King a deal with ABC that would have given Disney the rights to make miniseries based on his work. Eisner balked at the advances he would have paid.

* To buy Putnam publishing (home of Tom Clancy and 12 other bestselling authors) to merge it with Hyperion.

* To negotiate a seven-album deal with former client Janet Jackson, in the hopes that her presence at Disney's Hollywood Records would help gain a decent market share for the underperforming label. Eisner wanted to grow his own acts, something he has been incapable of doing (with the possible exception of Hilary Duff, whose popularity is seriously on the wane).

* To merge Hollywood Records with Sony Records for $3 billion, which would have given Hollywood not only a highly valuable back catalog (Sony seems to record an endless list of artists, and now owns Columbia--home of Jessica Simpson, Bruce Springsteen, and Bob Dylan--and Epic, who records Tori Amos, Shakira, AC/DC, Good Charlotte, Celine Dion, and Jennifer Lopez) but also access to what Hollywood didn't have: a worldwide distribution system and a market share with radio clout. It would also have given Disney a foothold on the Sony Playstation system, meaning they could've created their own video games in-house, and been able to book Sony's recording artists for appearances at the theme parks. $3 billion sure, but it might have been almost instantly profitable.

* To create Downtown Disney, an adult-oriented entertainment complex in downtown Los Angeles that would have included buying an NFL franchise (the Seattle Seahawks and the Carolina Panthers were put forward as possibilities) and purchasing an arena. Besides the obvious tie-in opportunities with the Disney-owned ESPN, the idea of a Disney park for adults is enormously appealing and sounds profitable. The LA City Council wanted it, the NFL wanted it--only Eisner didn't.

* To buy EMI Records, or the Los Angeles Lakers.

* To woo David Letterman to abandon CBS for ABC, which had no presence in late night television.

* To buy a minority share in Yahoo! while it was still cheap, in order to gain a digital outlet.

* To hire John F. Kennedy Jr. as the co-host of the charisma-challenged Good Morning, America.

Were any of these horrible ideas? I want the guy who thinks of these things and finds these opportunities on my team, no doubt about it! And besides these, he once kept Tim Allen from quitting Disney's biggest hit show at the time, Home Improvement, and some people think it was Ovitz's ability to ingratiate himself with the animators that was a key factor in Andreas Deja, Glen Keane, Ron Clements and John Musker's decisions not to leave Disney to join Jeffrey Katzenberg at DreamWorks Animation. (Disney has since dismissed Musker and Clements).

Speaking of, there was something else. Eisner, who saw little future in animation, agreed around 1988 or 1989 to give Katzenberg an annuity payment of 2% of the gross on any money made by the company from projects which he generated in the event that he left the company. This lasted from 1989 to Katzenberg's departure in 1995 (Ovitz was his replacement). But the 2% kept building and building and building, until it snowballed into a huge payout--Katzenberg's projects included Pretty Woman, The Santa Clause, Home Improvement, Aladdin, Pocahontas, Toy Story, The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, and The Lion King (which he came up with the original idea for), including the successful Broadway show. Eisner didn't want to pay the money, of course, and the inherent value was enormous. Ovtiz tried to negotiate a fair deal with Katzanberg, and when Katzenberg agreed to settle the issue for $90 million, Ovitz knew Disney was getting off light. But Eisner refused to pay, and ended up having to settle the case in 2000 for $280 million.

Obviously, Ovitz was trying. Eisner has used him as a scapegoat for his own bad decisions. And Michael has made plenty of those while at Disney. Here are some of the bad decisions made while Disney was being run by the guy who, while at Paramount, wanted to replace Eddie Murphy in 48 Hrs. because he didn't think Murphy was funny:

* Eisner wanted to phase out animation when he first arrived at Disney; when it proved successful, he ramped up the production schedule to one movie a year, despite Roy Disney's (ultimately correct) warnings that the quality would dip as the budgets went up and the schedules became shorter.

* Eisner stubbornly went ahead with the large scale failure Euro Disney in France, rather than Spain (whose weather was much more conducive to tourism), because Paris is, to Eisner, "the center of Western culture."

* Katzenberg turned down the chance to buy Lucasfilm's majority share in Pixar for $15 million in 1986, because "we've got more important things to do."

* Eisner was reluctant to put Disney movies out on video (ultimately one of the most lucrative arms of the company) because he didn't think anyone would buy them.

* Eisner was stupidly blinded by his modest successes with Touchstone Pictures, and opened up an expensive sister-studio, Hollywood Pictures, despite Katzenberg's (ultimately correct) warnings that they would inevitably produce expensive flops if they spent too much money. Eisner also tends to back the wrong horse out of pride. In 1990, for example, he threw his support behind Warren Beatty's expensive Dick Tracy, ignoring and deriding Katzenberg's Pretty Woman because "no one would go see a movie about a prostitute." Pretty Woman, made on a budget of $14 million, grossed $463 million worldwide. Dick Tracy, which was made for $47 million, and had an advertising budget of $54 million, barely broke even with its $100 million gross. Later, he went against his own strategy of modestly-budgeted, smaller movies which made a profit and began allowing Touchstone to produce $100 million B-movies like Armageddon and Pearl Harbor (which was budgeted at $140 million--and marketed for $70 million--and which Eisner called "as close to a sure thing as you get in this business").

* Two words: Disney's America.

* Eisner resisted Harvey Weinstein's attempts to buy an interest in the Bravo and Independent Film Channel cable outlets in order to create a Miramax Channel. Harvey could've bought for $312 million--the channels were later sold to NBC for $1.4 billion.

* Eisner's TV record is terrible: after rejecting Survivor, he oversaturated the hit Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? by airing it so often so quickly that people were burned out on it. Eisner has also rejected, on behalf of ABC, CSI, American Idol, and The Apprentice. Despite his attempts to take credit for them now, he hated both Desperate Housewives and Lost, and only agreed to put them on the air because of the holes in the schedule. Both shows were just nominated for 27 Emmys between them.

* Joe Roth was so sure that The Sixth Sense wasn't going to make any money that he sold the foreign and domestic rights to Spyglass Entertainment, which means that, as a distribution fee, Disney only made 12.5% of a movie that grossed $300 million.

* Eisner refused to allow Harvey Weinstein to make Peter Jackson's pitch for a Lord of the Rings trilogy, on the grounds that he didn't think the book would translate, the 1978 animated version tanked, and he felt the audience for the fantasy genre was limited (despite the fact that 90% of Disney's film output has been fantasy in some way or another). Harvey managed to negotiate 5% of the gross for the few development costs Miramax had put into it, and when Eisner scoffed, Harvey asked to keep it for himself. Eisner agreed, which means that Disney lost out on a 5% share of the highest-grossing movie series in history, which has grossed nearly $3 billion around the world.

* Eisner also refused to approve Miramax's attempt to invest in Mel Brook's The Producers (Harvey spent his own money and made quite a return).

* He rejected an offer to buy America Online outright well before the Time Warner merger--an offer made by AOL itself! Eisner chose to go with instead, a venture the company lost--wait for it--$790 million on.

* Eisner turned the once special (and lucrative) Disney Store into the Starbuck's of mall retail by sticking one in seemingly every single mall in America (many have closed since).

* ABC oversaw the purchase of the Fox Family Channel for $5.5 billion, and later found out that it had overpaid to the tune of (a conservative estimate) $1.3 billion. Eisner didn't realize, either, that he didn't have the rights to take ABC series produced by outside companies and re-broadcast them on what became ABC Family. He also turned down attempts to turn ABC Family into the Pink Channel or the XYZ Channel to cater to the underserved audience of women, because it might be a threat to the Disney co-owned Lifetime Channel. Funnily enough, most of the programming (and original movies) shown on ABC Family seem to be there specifically to capture an audience of women who are home during the day. Or are there a lot of children out there who are desperate to see if Shannon Elizabeth can find a date to her sister's wedding?

* Eisner turned down the chance to get in on a new market by buying DirecTV.

* Eisner rejected Michael Ovitz's attempts to get Jon Stewart as a replacement for Politically Incorrect with Bill Maher, preferring Jimmy Kimmel instead.

* Eisner stupidly predicted that the $305 million-grossing Pirates of the Caribbean would fail because people would find Johnny Depp's performance too weird, and chose not to market any tie-ins because he believed the plot was too convoluted for the movie to be a hit. He also famously said that Finding Nemo wouldn't be a hit, either.

* Some people feel that the reason Steve Jobs refuses to reunite Pixar with Disney while Eisner still commands is because Eisner badmouthed Apple Computers and its file-sharing and CD burning technology in a congressional testimony on electronic piracy.

* Dick Cook let Hilary Duff, who had the potential to be Disney's biggest star (Lizzie McGuire was certainly the most financially successful show in Disney Channel history), walk away from Disney over a matter of $500,000. A bad decision for both, as it turns out. But at least Disney still has Lindsay Lohan to make them tons of money. Oh, wait...

* And most famously, Eisner's mismanagement opened up the company to an attempted buyout by Comcast.

So, who's right and who's wrong? It's impossible to say. But to make Michael Ovitz a scapegoat for Eisner's mismanagement seems pretty shameful to me.

Thursday, July 14, 2005

Happy Birthday

July is the birthday month of three women I absolutely adore (it would be four--Lindsay turned 19 on the 2nd, but she doesn't look like this anymore), and I just find it interesting because my own birthday is this Sunday.

Happy Birthday to Liv Tyler, who turned 28 on 1 July. I absolutely adore Liv, and I've seen One Night at McCool's probably more times than any person should.

Happy Birthday to Liv's mother, one of my rock 'n' roll heroes, Bebe Buell, who turns 52 today.

Happy belated Birthday to Jessica (doing her best Debbie Harry here), who turned 25 last Sunday.

Wednesday, July 13, 2005

Look Up and Share the Wonders

NASA cancelled the Discovery countdown this morning because of a faulty fuel gauge on the external tank. While this is incredibly disappointing (this would've been the first shuttle launch since the Columbia tragedy on 1 February 2003), it is also cause for relief. The Columbia and Challenger disasters both occured because preventative measures that should have been routine were not taken. NASA, an underfunded body of our government, has been forced, due to costs, to operate with technology that hasn't been cutting-edge since the late seventies. The basic shuttle design had been unchanged since the Enterprise was unveiled in 1976.

To make matters worse, there are always these Luddites and God-mongers who take something like the Columbia disaster and turn it into evidence that "there are some things man wasn't meant to know," and we shouldn't be exploring outer space. If this kind of thinking dominated, we'd still be living in caves in Spain and wearing animal skins while we tried not to get killed by leopards. The idea that progress should stop because some people died is the kind of stupid, backward thinking that makes one wonder how people ever started walking upright in the first place.

For the record, there have been very few fatalities since NASA was created by President Eisenhower on 29 July 1958. To date, there have only been three disasters that resulted in death. The first was the Apollo I, which saw a fire sweep through the cabin while still on the launchpad on 27 January 1967, killing all three of its occupants: Ed White, Roger Chaffee, and Gus Grissom (the second American in space). The crew was consumed seconds after the fire was reported. Though it did not end in fatality, the Apollo 13 mission nearly did. On 28 January 1986, as anyone who saw it live on TV (I did) remembers, the space shuttle Challenger exploded 73 seconds after launch, killing schoolteacher Christa McAuliffe and all six crew members, because of a fuel leak in one of the rocket boosters. And then, on 1 February 2003, the Columbia disintegrated on re-entry, killing all 7 of its crew just 16 minutes before it would have landed safely. There was a breach in the wing.

What business did the Columbia have still flying? She was the first space shuttle to enter space in 1981. Shit, racers don't drive the same stock cars from 20 years ago. It is criminal to think that an organization as important as NASA is so underfunded that they have to make do with materials that are so horribly outdated.

That's why I'm going to be watching the Discovery so intently when it tries to launch again (hopefully before the end of this month). It, too, is a 2o-year-old ship, but one that has been upgraded to bring it forward. NASA has been running on low operating cash for so long that we practically have to rewrite everything we know about shuttle design to bring us up to speed. The sad thing is, we're still probably far behind where we could be right now.

We have not been on the moon since 1972. That means that, during my lifetime (I was born in 1976), we have not even thought about going there. Who knew, back in the sixties when we were trying so hard to reach our nearest neighbor, that there would ever be a time when we could go to the moon, but we wouldn't really bother?

Monday, July 11, 2005

Governing the Internet Means Silencing Dissent

Here's a scary outcropping of thought after thought, just as an example of how my mind goes from one action to large consequences.

First, I notice this law Bush has passed ham-handedly attempting to govern internet porn, which makes it easier for the government to prosecute crimes on moral grounds rather than legal grounds. It is also, notably, an attack on free speech and free expression. What no one seems to notice is that political criticism or humor can somehow be identified as offensive, and therefore removed. Further thought about this makes it seem as though the porn issue is a smokescreen to distract us from what is actually Bush's attempt to silence bloggers who might not wholeheartedly support his future empire.

Second, I think about how Dan Rather and Tom Brokaw, newsmen that a lot of older people I know trusted, have effectively been silenced by the Bush administration. Peter Jennings, who is fighting cancer, is also no longer on television. All of the trustworthy anchors are disappearing from news commentary.

Third, I think about the FCC's attempts to add more restrictions to basic cable channels, which, technically, don't have to conform to broadcast standards because they can't be broadcast over airwaves. They're cable. And then I wonder, given Howard Dean's comment that the only people who get decent political information watch The Daily Show or read internet news, if The Daily Show can be silenced.

Fourth, I envision a horrible very near future where we only have one media outlet: Fox News. Although I think we might have to rename it something like Pravda.

Hey, there are parallels there. It's illegal to burn the flag now. Just like it was illegal to burn Nazi icons. Just saying.

Nationalism Just Might Be Outdated

The International Olympic Committee has voted not to include baseball and softball as events at the 2012 Olympics. As you can imagine, the American pundits are all over that story this morning, using this as proof of an anti-American bias in the international community. Apparently, the pundits couldn't figure out that when you go around bullying everyone they're bound to be offended by it, but now that the Great American Pastime has been given the cold shoulder, they're well aware of it.

Of course, America isn't the only country that plays baseball, but I wonder if it's really a necessary Olympic event. I also wonder if basketball is a necessary Olympic event, for that matter. Frankly, they can cut all they want: it'll just make it easier for me to avoid the Olympics altogether. I hate it when the Olympics are on--then nothing else is on TV, and you have to listen to idiots like Helen Hunt say things like "Don't you wish we could have the Olympics all year long?" Sometimes it seems like the only reason the Olympics are every four years is because they take four years to play out.

But, to be honest, I don't really give a shit about the Olympics. What bothers me more is the tone of the American punditry. A lot of it takes this idiotic tone of "How dare they mess with America and not give us the respect we demand." When I hear this kind of thing, I cringe and remind myself to tell people I'm Canadian if I'm ever in a foreign country. Some people have even gone as far as to hitch up their rope belts and bring out this old saw: "They'd all be speaking German in Europe if it wasn't for us!" Actually, they'd probably all be speaking Russian, since the Soviet Union defeated Germany, not America.

This kind of nationalism--the kind where America throws its 60 year-old imagined credentials in the face of the world community every time it feels a little sensitive and ignores the fact that, hey, maybe we deserve some disrespect for the shameful actions Darth Dubya takes with the international community on our behalf, since he is our representative to the world--is wholly outdated and offensive. In a world that is making a dash towards globalism, in a world where the internet has made borders disappear and made the world smaller, it's incredibly stupid and short-sighted to respond to any criticism with "Hey, 60 years ago we cleaned up Germany after the Soviets had conquered it." So fucking what? What have you done for Europe lately?

And what makes America so great, exactly? Is it our overpriced prescription medication and shitty, prohibitively expensive healthcare system? Is it our horrible education system, which says that self-esteem and sensitivity are more important than actual learning? Is it the fact that our president is basically a criminal? Honestly, our ignorance in this country is staggering. What do we have to be proud of? Nothing lately, I think. We failed at our latest chance to be heroes; when we were targeted by terrorists, we invaded the wrong country. And when the actual heroes, the firemen and policemen of New York, came through for us, what did Dubya do? He cut their benefits, just like he'll cut the benefits of the soldiers who won't be coming home anytime soon. Shame, Governor Bush. Shame.

Don't get me wrong, if there is an anti-American bias in the International Olympic Committee (and no one knows if there is, this is just the assumption of a bunch of smartass American commentators), it's unfortunate to take it out on the Olympics. It's the sort of high-handed action that makes Americans overreact with their idiot form of nationalism. The global community has a long way to go before we can all really work together. But the first step is to take national pride out of international politics.