Studio chiefs attack eacother's product

Samuel Goldwyn famously advised a screenwriter who wanted to send a message to “call Western Union.”

For media moguls, the preferred method is that time-honored curiosity known as the investor conference.

Recent days have brought forth a flurry of messages and pronouncements from both coasts, as Merrill Lynch and Goldman Sachs each hosted media confabs. Embedded within, in language dull and starch yet at the same time calculated and bruising, were messages from one conglom to another. Last week, all it took was just one word — as in when Viacom CEO Philippe Dauman labeled DreamWorks “immaterial”– to set off a frenzy of speculation as to just what he meant and why he said it when he did.

At Herb Allen‘s recent Sun Valley retreat, these guys can talk shop face to face during spa treatments. An investor conference, by contrast, is pure kabuki theater, all stylized gestures and formal presentations disguising sometimes lethal toxins.

Rupert Murdoch, perhaps the ultimate conference gladiator, let fly with a poison dart at the Goldman event in Gotham on Sept. 18, suggesting Viacom pocketed $50 million in exchange for supporting Toshiba’s HD-DVD format. Disney’s Bob Iger also took some animated shots at HD supporters.

The real rhetorical workout came in the appearance on successive days at Goldman’s event of Dauman and DreamWorks co-founder Jeffrey Katzenberg.

Asked about relations with DreamWorks at Paramount, Dauman said efforts were being undertaken to keep DreamWorks onboard once its contract expires at the end of 2008. Still, were the company to ankle, “The financial impact to Paramount first and especially to Viacom overall would be completely immaterial,” he said.

In seeking to reassure Wall Street, however, Dauman simultaneously slighted DreamWorks, which has been increasingly vocal about its gripes with Par.

Next morning, moderator Anthony Noto teed up a question to Katzenberg about Viacom, and for a brief moment it appeared he might take the high road. He offered the caveat that he could respond only in his capacity as chief exec of DreamWorks Animation, which has a “contractual and working relationship that is below the radar of all this.”

Then he laid the wood, floridly describing partner Steven Spielberg as a “national treasure” and declaring: “To suggest that not having Steven Spielberg is completely immaterial seems ill-advised. I think calmer heads need to prevail here.”

For Katzenberg, who has clashed with many titans in a 30-year Hollywood run, it was another day at the office. But Dauman is not known for such posturing; most of his public appearances are ridden with snooze-inducing biz-speak. So did something suddenly come over him? Or has the Paramount-DreamWorks relationship frayed to the point that it’s almost certainly splitsville?

These head-scratchers are par for the course during investor events that have a somewhat otherworldly feel. The Goldman event, held at the Grand Hyatt, a bland complex that recalls Tony Soprano’s coma dream about being a hotel-bound salesman in Orange County.

In between sessions, conducted successively in large ballrooms, participants were served chocolate Dove and Haagen-Dazs ice cream bars. The messages that suit-and-tied bankers were trying to impart were certainly undermined by their delivery of them while licking hungrily at ice cream bars.

It was hard to resist the idealistic notion that the kabuki warriors, having traded blows on the dais, were patching things up during an old-fashioned ice cream social.

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