This article was updated at 8:15 p.m.
With or without Disney’s help, Michael Moore’s new docu about the Bush administration will likely be in theaters July 2. But that won’t be the end of the controversy.
A day after Moore and his agents openly accused Disney CEO Michael Eisner of blocking the release of “Fahrenheit 911” in order to curry tax favors from Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, D.C. pols have jumped into the fray.
Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.) asked the Senate Commerce Committee on Wednesday to hold hearings to address “a disturbing pattern of politically based corporate censorship of the news media and the entertainment industry.”
He cited as evidence Viacom’s recent derailment of CBS miniseries “The Reagans” and the decision of Sinclair Broadcasting to drop last week’s broadcast of “Nightline” on its seven ABC affiliates after host Ted Koppel announced plans to read the names of all the U.S. soldiers killed in Iraq.
Meanwhile, the Mouse House donned its Sunday asbestos to withstand the heat.
CEO Michael Eisner said that Moore’s assertion that Disney blocked the pic so as not to antagonize Gov. Bush and win tax breaks for its Orlando theme park were “ridiculous.”
“None of that was ever discussed,” he told reporters at Disneyland Wednesday, adding, “It is totally not true.”
Company spokeswoman Zenia Mucha defended the move, saying “it was not appropriate for Disney, a family entertainment company, to be the distributor of a politically charged movie in an election year.”
She noted that Moore had been informed of this a year ago, and that “he still has ample time and opportunity to find a distributor for his film.”
Miramax topper Harvey Weinstein maintained an uncharacteristic silence Wednesday and declined to comment.
The controversy comes as Eisner continues to struggle to convince investors he can boost Disney’s profits and its stock price. Theme parks have been a bright spot in recent months despite persistent problems at ABC and disappointing box office so far this year from duds like “Home on the Range” and “The Alamo.”
The title of Moore’s latest doc offers plenty of insight into what’s to come: It’s a riff on the 1951 Ray Bradbury sci-fi novel “Fahrenheit 451” — and Francois Truffaut’s 1966 film of it — about a government that outlaws independent thought. Some suggest that’s exactly what Eisner is trying to do to the Moore doc and, by extension, to the Weinsteins’ Miramax.
Hankering for financial flexibility, Miramax presented Eisner with a number of proposals in recent months from investment banks and industry partners to pump fresh cash into the division. The latest was $400 million in film financing from Goldman Sachs, which was subsequently rejected by Disney.
The Weinsteins, whose contracts expire in 2007, have become newly frustrated by Disney’s scrutiny of the cost of their movies and some stalled ventures, like a Miramax-branded cable net.
Last year Miramax said Disney tweaked its accounting practices in ways that reduced the Weinsteins’ compensation and started deducting new expenses from Miramax’s $700 million-plus annual budget.
The two sides are still discussing these and related issues.
Despite the recent tussles with Disney, Miramax toppers have proven resourceful in circumventing past Mouse dictates regarding their controversial releases and may do so this time as well.
While “Fahrenheit” does not appear on Miramax’s summer schedule, the film apparently has a July 2 release date — against Sony behemoth “Spider-Man 2” on Independence Day weekend — with a DVD launch planned for October. The strategy allows for a double hit before November’s presidential election.
The Miramax marketing staff has been working on promotional materials and that process is moving forward despite the Disney edict.
A hybrid distribution setup may evolve whereby Miramax handles marketing of the film, with physical distribution covered by an outside company like Lions Gate, Newmarket or Focus.
“We are considering all of our options and are looking forward to resolving the film’s distribution as soon as possible,” Miramax senior VP Matthew Hiltzik told Daily Variety on Wednesday. “We all want to do what’s best for the movie.”
Meanwhile Eisner insisted in an interview on CNBC Wednesday that “the film will get a distributor easily,” but that assertion did not apparently sway Sen. Lautenberg.
He termed Disney’s move to block Miramax’s distribbing “a fundamental question of free speech in our society.”
“As our troops are overseas fighting to give the Iraqi people the very freedoms we enjoy, we see some of this country’s largest media conglomerates undermining our freedoms here,” he said.
“Fahrenheit 911” deals with the period surrounding the September 2001 terrorist attacks in New York and Washington. More specifically, it examines longstanding links between the family of George W. Bush and prominent Saudi Arabians, including the ruling royal house of Saud.
“The whole story behind this and other attempts to kill our movie will be told in more detail as the days and weeks go on,” Moore said in a statement. “For nearly a year, this struggle has been a lesson in just how difficult it is in this country to create a piece of art that might upset those in charge (well, OK, sorry — it will upset them … big time. Did I mention it’s a comedy?).
“All I can say is, thank God for Harvey Weinstein and Miramax, who have stood by me during the entire production of this movie,” he continued.
Moore is in the lab completing post on “Fahrenheit” in time to take the doc next week to the Cannes Film Festival, where it is one of 18 features in the main Competition.
As Cannes draws closer and distribution execs bemoan the shortage of priority acquisition titles, the uncertainty surrounding North American distribution of the film has become an even hotter question.
It’s unclear, for example, how the release, or lack thereof Stateside, will affect foreign sales of the doc.
The Eisner-Weinstein standoff also raises questions about the autonomy of all specialty divisions from their corporate parents.
“What’s surprising about all this is that Disney is being so blunt about it,” said Magnolia Pictures president Eamonn Bowles, who once worked for Miramax handling hot potatoes like Larry Clark’s 1995 pic “Kids.”
“Obviously, this is for purely political reasons. I think Disney’s larger corporate interests are more important to them than their films — more important than this film anyway.”
The controversy, and whatever Cannes hoopla, could intensify and push the doc further into the public consciousness.
(Cathy Dunkley in Los Angeles and Jill Goldsmith in New York contributed to this report.)