The acrimonious Eisner-Katzenberg proceedings are stirring criticism in management circles. It is indecorous, if not downright unprofessional, for CEO types to be battling publicly about pay, perks and parachutes, it is argued.
However, I was talking the other day with Dr. Ernst Weberschmitt, a noted psychiatrist whose practice includes members of the corporate elite, and Weberschmitt sees a hidden benefit in the Disney clash. Senior executives, he points out, live in a state of suppressed rage as a result of the extraordinary pressures of their jobs. It is a healthy exercise, therefore, for two moguls like Michael Eisner and Jeffrey Katzenberg to confront each other and express pent-up hostilities. In short, it’s cool to grouse, even in the Mouse House.
Hostility has certainly been on display during week one of the trial, as Eisner charged, through his attorney, that Katzenberg hogged credit in the press , even though his live- action movies lost money, and was dismissive of Walt Disney’s billionaire nephew Roy. Katzenberg in turn declared, through his lawyer , that Eisner’s “personal animus” was behind the entire controversy.
A petulant confrontation between two egotistical hierarchs? Perhaps. But in the view of Weberschmitt, it’s also a healthy exercise in blowing off steam.
Indeed, the good doctor suggests that these proceedings could be a model for other prospective face-offs. Under this model, the ever-contentious Bert Fields, who is Katzenberg’s attorney, might be repositioned as a sort of Judge Judy, weighing the charges and counter-charges as various industry figures confront one another.
Hence Edgar Bronfman Jr. would be able to go head-to-head with Chris McGurk, who defected from Universal last week for the stormy shores of MGM. Under this scenario, Edgar Jr. might call McGurk an “ungrateful cad,” adding: “You wanted Polygram International, and I gave it to you. You wanted Working Title, and I got it for you. And now you bail on me?”
To which McGurk might respond: “It’s been 30 years since Kirk Kerkorian first bought MGM and he has yet to have a profitable year, so I figure there’s no place to go but up. Besides, you have to pick your best shot if you weren’t born with a billion bucks in your trust fund.”
Yet another set of proceedings could bring Michael Ovitz and CAA’s Richard Lovett together for a heart-to-heart. “How could you set out to dismantle the very institution you created?” the earnest Lovett might inquire. “Who’s dismantling?” Ovitz would reply. “All through my life wherever I go, I turn around and find people following me. I even had Michael Eisner following me for a while until he lost his sense of direction.”
Even more valuable would be an encounter involving Garry Shandling and his former manager, Brad Grey, whose trial will commence in a few weeks. According to Weberschmitt, it would be extremely therapeutic for Shandling to quietly tell his one-time friend, “I’ve always valued you as my manager, but must you also produce all of my shows, collect a packaging fee, own my company, receive a percentage of everything including my dry-cleaning bill, and bill me for dental care?”
Grey, a soft-spoken and eminently reasonable man who never loses his temper, could respond, “Garry, you are an ungrateful piece of shit.” That’s healthy stuff, according to Weberschmitt.
The problem with Hollywood, the good doctor asserts, is that an excess of suppressed fear and loathing has been allowed to build up. This is what accounts for the increasing number of pitched battles between studios, between networks and station groups and even between colleagues within individual companies.
Given this phenomenon, Michael Eisner and Jeffrey Katzenberg should be held up as role models — men who are honest about their emotions and healthy enough to vent them in public. “Neither of them will ever need therapy,” says Weberschmitt, with a certain regret.