The nation’s reporters have convinced themselves Disney’s two Michaels are feuding, but is there any truth to the story?Reporters hate to give up on a story. Especially when it’s a “hot” story involving money and power in Hollywood. They hate giving up even if the “hot” story turns out to be a nonstory. I was pondering this anomaly the other day in the context of the saga of the “two Michaels.” For weeks now the rumor mill has been pumping out news that the relationship between Michael Eisner and Michael Ovitz has soured, and that the once-orderly Mouse House is unnerved by the clash. Several major magazines have assigned reporters to the story, their appetites further stoked by items in gossip columns, hinting that the personality clash is having dire effects. Whenever a story is repeated often enough it inevitably achieves its own respectability. Indeed, simply by repeating it, one takes on the credential of an “insider.” The problem is that no one ever asks: Is there any truth to it? In an onslaught of terminal naivete, I decided to attempt to answer just that question. I started by talking to several substantial people whom I’ve known for some years and who currently work with the two Michaels at disney. “Have you detected signs of friction?” I asked them. My question elicited a shrug. “Not really,” was their unanimous response. “Lots of action, on friction.” That seemed too tidy an answer, so I decided to escalate the inquiry. Why not ask the two Michaels themselves? Eisner and Ovitz were quick to respond; they didn’t care to dignify the rumor with any comment whatsoever. I decided to seek out the advice of a man who knows both Ovitz and Eisner quite well but who’s not employed by Disney. Indeed, he once confided to me that he didn’t really care for either of the two Michaels on a personal level. “Any sign of fear and loathing?” I asked him. “This feud stuff is bullshit,” he snapped. “It serves their purpose to get along, so they’ll get along. It’s not like we’re talking about two sensitive poets. These are tough guys.” The day after the conversation, I happened to find myself talking with one of the magazine editors who’d decided to run a story about the “great feud.” “It seems to be the feud that isn’t,” I cautioned him. “Impossible,” scoffed my editor friend. “I know it for a fact . . . from an insider.” OK. Since the town’s “insiders” are certain about their facts, I decided that the thing to do would be to marshal the circumstantial evidence. If the Mouse House were in disarray, then dealmaking should be at a standstill, employees should be streaming for the exits, and distress signals should be readily apparent. I started looking. On the film side, there’d been a modest exodus of executives as Joe Roth shut down the Hollywood Pictures label and thinned the well-populated executive echelons that he’d inherited. But deals were still being announced, movies being made and Roth himself seemed in good spirits, having led the pack this summer. The animated feature “The Hunchback of Notre Dame,” had been widely billed by the press as a “disappointment” compared with “The Lion King,” but “disappointments” on this order would positively thrill rival studios. “Hunchback” apparently would end up grossing about $350 million worldwide — tame perhaps compared with the $1.5 billion global take of “The Lion King,” (including all revenue streams), but in the end “Hunchback” could still approach $650 million in gross revenues, including video and merchandising. Not bad for a disappointment. Meanwhile, the second sequel to another alleged disappointment, “Aladdin,” had sold some 12 million videos, and sales could ultimately approach 20 million units. Spurred by these animated sequels, the Disney video mill was now accounting for about 40% of all videos sold worldwide. On the TV side, a clear culture clash has taken place between Disney’s hyper, shoot-from-the-hip troops and the tweedy, laid-back CapCities aggregation. The heightened visibility of the two Michaels at ABC affiliate meetings and the like predictably stoked speculation about who would have a say in the determination of scheduling and other gut issues at the ABC network. The intrigue surrounding Jamie Tarses, the new programming chief at ABC, was also perfect grist for speculation about Ovitz’s propensity for exec-nabbing. “Neither Mike nor I is going to run ABC,” Eisner assured ABC executives, but apparently that did not calm the troops. Again, decisions are being made. The network is functioning. There are no signs of dire distress, especially considering the sheer magnitude of the merger that took place. “The place is cooking,” explained one TV friend of mine who works at Disney. “It’s on edge. It’s even a little crazed, but that’s the way Disney is.” To be sure, Disney shareholders would love to see the price of the shares back at the $70 level (last week it was at $56). They wish the “creative content” division had shown an increase more pronounced than the 15% hike shown in the last quarter — results “The Street” dubbed “a little disappointing.” But life goes on. Theme parks are being expanded, new Disney stores opened, movies going into the pipeline. On the theme park front, not only is Euro Disney showing improved results, but Ovitz even met with the president of China to secure approvals to open that country up to the glories of Mousedom. Are the two Michaels really squabbling? When they were cycling down a country road on their Loire Valley vacation this summer, someone noticed a few harsh words. But then they may have been arguing over who’s going to pay for lunch.
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