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Of Mouse and men: Board dropped ball

What were members of the Mouse House thinking?

Monitoring the Eisner-Ovitz Delaware trial last week, one overriding question presented itself: What does it take to get fired in that company?

Michael Ovitz felt bulletproof initially because he was Michael Eisner’s “best friend.” Eisner, however, told the court that he considered Ovitz only a “good friend,” which apparently made him dispensable and Eisner clearly wanted to dispense with him.

After all, Ovitz was unilaterally negotiating deals he wasn’t authorized to make, snubbing corporate events and acknowledging to colleagues that he was not cut out to be a “number two.”

Did Eisner fire him? No. Sandy Litvack, his legal mentor, said he lacked cause. (Litvack, not exactly a laid-back type, had earlier helped paint Ovitz into a corner by refusing to report to him.)

Of course, the key issue facing the Delaware judge is: Where was the board of directors during this melodrama? Eisner insists they were kept informed, but some minutes of board meetings are non-existent. Stanley Gold, who quit the board, claimed that Disney’s “outside” directors were so “outside” it didn’t matter — they were clueless when it came to understanding the entertainment industry.

That left me wondering about one particular director, Sidney Poitier, who surely qualified as an “insider” but who has been steadfastly invisible during this entire controversy.

A director from 1994 to 2003, Poitier is articulate and gracious, to a fault. If you ask him the time, Sidney will respond with a discourse on the workmanship of Swiss watches and its impact on the Bahamian economy. But would he interrupt a board meeting to protest Ovitz’s golden parachute? When Eisner professed to be irritated with Ovitz, but still optimistic about his management skills, would Sidney have said, “Look Michael, I’ve acted in 50 movies and you’re a lousy actor”?

Sidney Poitier is a fine man, but he will never win an Oscar for Best Disney Director.

* * *

OK, I’ll admit it. I’m scared.

Having received the first batch of DVD screeners and soundtracks, so many warnings have been emblazoned on my mind that I’m afraid to open any of them. FBI banners proclaim that they’ll break my arms and legs if the videos leave my possession. DVDs from Fox Searchlight warn of “civil and criminal penalties,” but then add, “Help protect the films we all love and rely on for our livelihood.”

The soundtracks amp up the volume. The newly arrived “Beyond the Sea” CD, for example, has my name on it — a nice personal touch — and then states: “This CD should not be heard by any other party.” That’s when I realized it’s all over for me. I heard the valet parker at Spago listening to it. At a traffic light, the guy in the next car overheard the strains of “Mack the Knife” and yelled, “Nice sound — what’s that tape?”

I knew the end was near. Would the watermark explode? Would the FBI be at my door — or perhaps Kevin Spacey himself? And I found myself asking, “When did lunacy join piracy as the No. 1 enemy?”

* * *

Warner Bros. argues persuasively that “Polar Express” will have a long and successful shelf life. That may very well be true, but opening the film on the heels of “The Incredibles” still struck insiders as an act of hubris. The Tom Hanks/Bob Zemeckis team has formidable credentials, but it seemed inevitable that Pixar would ice “Polar,” and it did.

But there were other factors at play here besides release dates. Zemeckis, a loyal USC Film School alumnus, has lately warned the film faculty that students are obsessed with technology at the expense of storytelling. Yet “Polar’s” shortcomings suggest that the master, too, has fallen victim to this syndrome.

Considered as storytelling, “Polar Express” is skimpy stuff. From the standpoint of technology, the film is as distracting as it is fascinating. The landscape and action are unforgettable; the losers are personal interplay and empathy for its characters.

Zemeckis is a brilliant technician. Perhaps he should heed his own message.

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