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Uneven Steven

A look at the man behind the camera

Who is Steven Soderbergh? Anyone examining his filmography would reasonably conclude he is several people, all of whom apparently thrive on living within a bewildering maelstrom of projects.

His own directing efforts veer from blatant commerce (“Ocean’s Twelve”) to militant-arty (“Schizopolis”). He can score a bull’s-eye (“Erin Brockovich”) and serve up a weird stiff (“Kafka”). He and George Clooney keep summoning up a baffling mix of productions — they recently announced an improv comedy series on HBO (where they hatched the short-lived “K Street”) only to next come forth with a biblical series for FX called “The Ten Commandments.”

Always an anomaly, Soderbergh hates giving interviews but loves making announcements. A couple of years ago he was going to form a new film directors company involving Spike Jonze, David Fincher, Alexander Payne and Sam Mendes, but it never happened. A year ago he said he’d replace Terrence Malick as director of “Che,” a film about the Cuban revolutionary, but that has yet to happen as well.

He is the national VP of the Directors Guild of America and has persistently lobbied exhibitors to turn up the volume of films playing in theaters (he says that since trailers are often too loud, theater managers turn down the sound and forget to turn it up when the main feature comes on). Now he’s also enmeshed with the festivities heralding Miramax’s 25th anniversary.

Is this blizzard of hyper-activity healthy for Soderbergh’s career? In a rare interview in the New York Times several years ago he complained that there’s “a shortage of films being made by smart filmmakers.” Soderbergh, at age 41, seems determined to remedy that shortage single-handedly. Even if he totally misses the mark much of the time.

* * *

So which way is China headed? The global media companies that are gambling enormous resources in China may be gulping over the latest crackdowns by that country’s new uber-boss, Hu Jintao.

In his first four months as ruler of both the party and the army, Hu seems bent on imposing repressive policies aimed at the media, news coverage and pop culture.

The arrests of a series of writers and academics, as reported in the New York Times and other media, suggest that American companies may have misunderstood the direction of China’s regime. In making deals to co-produce films and co-fund TV companies, Viacom, Time Warner and News Corp. have acted on the premise that China would be “opening up” to the West — a trend that seemed to be taking place under the aging former leader, Jiang Zemin.

But now the so-called Propaganda Dept. is again on the march against dissent, and some in China wonder whether the tide of censorship may be on the rise, rather than waning. A new “broadcast regulator” has also been appointed — a veteran party functionary who is unknown within the broadcast industry. China has again lifted its goals for economic growth as of last week. But if the trend toward liberalization is reversed the rash of China deals may drift away.

* * *

Now that the Eisner-Ovitz deliberations in Delaware have essentially run their course, a fascinating debate still rages on the following question: What really happened to Michael Ovitz? How could such a brilliantly effective agent end up playing such a disastrous role at Disney?

Talk to former associates and major players who dealt with him and you encounter three basic theories.

Theory one: “His own ego destroyed him,” says one rival agent. “He couldn’t deal with his own success.”

Theory two: “Ovitz is a great salesman, but his other skills are wafer thin,” offers the CEO of a major entertainment company. He believes Ovitz, a great persuader, simply got in over his head.

Theory three: “I’m convinced Michael had the equivalent of a nervous breakdown,” declares a senior CAA agent. “Nothing else would account for his total personality transformation.”

Of course, yet another theory emerged from the trial: Namely, that no one other than tactful, pliant Bob Iger could ever have survived as the No. 2 at Disney and that Eisner and Ovitz, though friends on one level, were truly rivals on another. In short, Ovitz was doomed from the start and then seemed to become unmoored in his actions — indeed, the simplest explanation of all.

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