The Day After: Eisner Talks About “Fahrenheit 9/11” and The Future of Miramax
by Eugene Hernandez
In New York Wednesday, Walt Disney Company CEO Michael Eisner, who has faced considerable criticism since deciding not to allow Miramax to release Michael Moore‘s “Fahrenheit 9/11,” addressed the issue at an afternoon conference. He also talked a bit about his ongoing negotiations with Harvey and Bob Weinstein regarding their roles at Miramax. The executive defended his own actions, saying that it was the right decision to stop the distribution of “Fahrenheit,” adding that he would make the same decision again.
The drama surrounding the release of Michael Moore’s “Fahrenheit 9/11” began with Moore announcing on May 5th, in a posting on his website, that the Walt Disney Company would not allow Miramax to release the film. “Disney has blocked the distribution of my new film,” read the headline, referring to the Disney decision to stop Miramax from releasing the movie. The New York Times reported at the time, in a front-page story, that Disney CEO Michael Eisner made the decision in order to avoid losing tax breaks in Florida, a state where Disney maintains many operations and attractions, and where President George W. Bush’s brother Jeb is the Governor.
One month later, the Palme d’Or winning film is set for a release via the deal announced earlier this week. Lions Gate, with IFC Films and the Weinsteins (who are working outside of their role at Miramax), plan to open the movie in more than 1,000 theaters on June 25th.
Speaking Wednesday afternoon at the Sanford C. Bernstein & Co. 20th annual Strategic Decisions Conference at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel in Manhattan, Michael Eisner defended his decision as the right thing to do for shareholders and to avoid antagonizing customers. Eisner said the decision is consistent with a “long-standing [Disney] policy” of staying out of the political fray. Perhaps to avoid a follow-up question about other partisan content from the company, the executive acknowledged that while Disney radio stations employ conservative voices, he countered that they have an equal number of people offering liberal views.
“We just didn’t think that our shareholders should be involved in it,” Eisner said, “I still think it was the right decision, and would make it again tomorrow.”
Even though Eisner apparently sent word to the Weinsteins that they should stay away from the movie, the brothers offered Moore bridge financing once a deal with Mel Gibson and Bruce Davey‘s Icon fell apart. Trade reports over the past year have clearly indicated that Miramax was involved with the film, and well before Eisner’s decision became public it was widely believed within New York’s film community that Miramax might exercise its option to distribute “Fahrenheit 9/11.”
“We decided a year ago that the Walt Disney Company would not be involved,” Eisner reiterated on Wednesday, saying that it was a decision made to protect shareholders. “We weren’t interested in getting involved in a national conversation that would alienate half of our customers — when 49.9 percent of a political party loses, its still 49%.”
“Yes, the film may be somewhat profitable,” admitted Eisner, adding, “It’s a gut call, we make them every day.”
“It just seemed like Michael Moore, coming off that Academy Awards presentation — and what the film was about — that it just was something that we shouldn’t do,” Eisner said Wednesday. “And the fact of the matter is, this has nothing to do with censorship, we are paid to make these kinds of decisions.” Continuing he said, “We are not the federal government, we are not a judge, we are not a mayor, we are not saying that the voice should not be heard, we have never made it incumbent upon Miramax or anyone else to bury the film.”
Eisner’s appearance, which included a moderated discussion about all aspects of the Walt Disney Company’s business, concluded with a question about Miramax. Would Miramax still be a part of Disney in five years, Eisner was asked.
“That’s like asking whether Disneyland will still be a part of Disney in five years,” Eisner said plainly, “We own 100% of Miramax.” Continuing he said, “If you are asking about who will manage Disneyland in five years I am not sure, but Miramax is a 100% owned entity of the Walt Disney Company and that’s the way we treat it, and by the way, we like it.”
Referencing a current plan to reduce the amount of money spent by its moviemaking divisions, Eisner offered some insight into the nature of the current discussions that he is having with the Weinsteins.
“We are attempting to take capital out of Miramax,” Eisner said frankly, “They were a little boutique making independent films, they are now more of a major spending a lot more money and these and are ongoing conversations, friendly conversations, with the management of Miramax.”