Former Disney chief makes new pic play with Universal deal

Michael Eisner in years past has not always been the easiest person to get along with, but his determination to return to the front lines of filmmaking is to be admired. By closing a distribution deal with Universal last week, the 70-year-old former Disney boss will be putting his name and prestige on the line for a slate of mostly self-financed films.

It’s hard to remember another ex-CEO marshaling that bold a plan. Peter Chernin made a macho deal when he left 20th Century Fox allowing him to greenlight as many as eight “put” pictures that Fox would finance, but in four years he has yet to release one of them (Chernin says three are scheduled for release over the next few months). A highly self-protective man, Chernin insists he is “playing the movie business for the long term.”

Meanwhile he has made some 10 deals in the digital arena and in Asia. Chernin’s stash of capital includes $200 million from Providence Equity, $100 million from Qatar Holdings as well as his News Corp. funding.

Eisner has never been known for timidity. He says he wants to make “strong story-driven films” and he thrives on working with talent. While he has worked in recent years on a slate of online films, he clearly yearns for a bigger canvas. To that end he has been seeking to raise some $400 million in equity, and a solid distribution base at Universal will help this effort.

Living beyond the biz

While some former CEOs like Eisner hunger to return to the front lines and others simply disappear, the post-Hollywood odyssey of Alan J. Hirschfield has followed a sharply different storyline. Hirschfield’s emergence as the leading collector of Native American art and artifacts was revealed last week with publication of a lavish book titled “Living With American Indian Art.” The new book not only displays the art but chronicles its author’s storied Hollywood career.

A one-time investment banker, Hirschfield was a major power player in the ’70s and ’80s. He was CEO of Columbia, then Fox, and also orchestrated some of the seminal music deals of that period involving the acquisitions of Reprise and Atlantic as well as complex talent deals involving Frank Sinatra and Elton John. His Columbia career was vividly described in the 1982 book on David Begelman titled “Indecent Exposure.”

A relaxed man with an easy smile, the Oklahoma-bred Hirschfield settled in Jackson Hole, Wyo., in 1988. There he owns the hot local restaurant (Harrison Ford is a frequent patron). His home is filled, floor to ceiling, with Indian art — ornamented cradles, Apache basketry, Navajo textiles, Pueblo pottery.

“Collecting is a consuming passion,” he admits. As for filmmaking in Hollywood, Hirschfield frets that it has become “a loser’s game.” He concludes, “I respect the art of cinema, but I prefer to devote my time to America’s true indigenous art.”

Mitt’s wild pitch

Movie marketers are especially avid students of presidential politics because they, like their political brethren, spend a lot of money in a short period of time selling an evanescent product of dubious quality.

So here’s a few conclusions about the 2012 presidential election drawn from conversations with Hollywood’s ad community:

First, pinning a campaign on a candidate’s CEO credentials is a dangerous proposition because voters don’t like CEOs. This bias was reinforced as Mitt Romney, boasting of his management skills, ran an ineptly managed campaign.

As Andrew Kohut, president of Pew Research, wrote in his post-election analysis, the biggest problem with the Romney campaign was that not even Republican voters particularly liked Romney. It wasn’t the economy, stupid. It was the candidate, stupid.

Hollywood’s marketing community is all too familiar with the problem of selling a movie when neither the plot nor the protagonist works for the audience. There was therefore no surprise when Romney’s B.O. showed no sizzle.

A talent for talent

A memorial was held last week for Lois Smith, who symbolized for many a kinder and gentler era in the media business. A publicist by trade, Smith was a master at managing the runaway egos of her superstar clients — witness the affectionate tributes at her memorial from Robert Redford and Sean Penn. Both of these famously difficult stars remain intensely suspicious of (and hostile to) both the press and publicists, but Smith was almost a “den mother” (Redford’s phrase) to them as to many reporters.

Smith’s career spanned many clients and companies (she was a partner with Pat Kingsley at PMK) and, as her daughter, Brooke, reminded the sizable audience, “she truly loved talent and wanted to nurture it.” The Redford relationship dated back to 1963 when, the star acknowledged, “I was boneheaded about publicity. It all seemed smarmy to me. I needed her calm voice in my ear.”

Journalists found that Smith came through for them, too, overcoming the customary chorus of “nos.”

“She protected us,” Penn observed.

As a newsman, I felt she protected me as well. Column Calendar: Monday: Peter Bart Tuesday: Cynthia Littleton/Josh L. Dickey wednesday: Brian Lowry Thursday: Andrew Barker/David S. Cohen Friday: Tim Gray/Ted Johnson

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