2004-05-07 05:40:15 UTC
By JIM RUTENBERG
New York Times
WASHINGTON, May 4 - The Walt Disney Company is blocking
its Miramax division from distributing a new
documentary by Michael Moore that harshly criticizes
President Bush, executives at both Disney and Miramax
The film, "Fahrenheit 911," links Mr. Bush and
prominent Saudis - including the family of Osama bin
Laden - and criticizes Mr. Bush's actions before and
after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
Disney, which bought Miramax more than a decade ago,
has a contractual agreement with the Miramax
principals, Bob and Harvey Weinstein, allowing it to
prevent the company from distributing films under
certain circumstances, like an excessive budget or an
Executives at Miramax, who became principal investors
in Mr. Moore's project last spring, do not believe that
this is one of those cases, people involved in the
production of the film said. If a compromise is not
reached, these people said, the matter could go to
mediation, though neither side is said to want to
travel that route.
In a statement, Matthew Hiltzik, a spokesman for
Miramax, said: "We're discussing the issue with Disney.
We're looking at all of our options and look forward to
resolving this amicably."
But Disney executives indicated that they would not
budge from their position forbidding Miramax to be the
distributor of the film in North America. Overseas
rights have been sold to a number of companies,
"We advised both the agent and Miramax in May of 2003
that the film would not be distributed by Miramax,"
said Zenia Mucha, a company spokeswoman, referring to
Mr. Moore's agent. "That decision stands."
Disney came under heavy criticism from conservatives
last May after the disclosure that Miramax had agreed
to finance the film when Icon Productions, Mel Gibson's
company, backed out.
Mr. Moore's agent, Ari Emanuel, said Michael D. Eisner,
Disney's chief executive, asked him last spring to pull
out of the deal with Miramax. Mr. Emanuel said Mr.
Eisner expressed particular concern that it would
endanger tax breaks Disney receives for its theme park,
hotels and other ventures in Florida, where Mr. Bush's
brother, Jeb, is governor.
"Michael Eisner asked me not to sell this movie to
Harvey Weinstein; that doesn't mean I listened to him,"
Mr. Emanuel said. "He definitely indicated there were
tax incentives he was getting for the Disney
corporation and that's why he didn't want me to sell it
to Miramax. He didn't want a Disney company involved."
Disney executives deny that accusation, though they
said their displeasure over the deal was made clear to
Miramax and Mr. Emanuel.
A senior Disney executive elaborated that the company
had the right to quash Miramax's distribution of films
if it deemed their distribution to be against the
interests of the company. The executive said Mr.
Moore's film is deemed to be against Disney's interests
not because of the company's business dealings with the
government but because Disney caters to families of all
political stripes and believes Mr. Moore's film, which
does not have a release date, could alienate many.
"It's not in the interest of any major corporation to
be dragged into a highly charged partisan political
battle," this executive said.
Miramax is free to seek another distributor in North
America, but such a deal would force it to share
profits and be a blow to Harvey Weinstein, a big donor
Mr. Moore, who will present the film at the Cannes film
festival this month, criticized Disney's decision in an
interview on Tuesday, saying, "At some point the
question has to be asked, `Should this be happening in
a free and open society where the monied interests
essentially call the shots regarding the information
that the public is allowed to see?' "
Mr. Moore's films, like "Roger and Me" and "Bowling for
Columbine," are often a political lightning rod, as Mr.
Moore sets out to skewer what he says are the misguided
priorities of conservatives and big business. They have
also often performed well at the box office. His most
recent movie, "Bowling for Columbine," took in about
$22 million in North America for United Artists. His
books, like "Stupid White Men," a jeremiad against the
Bush administration that has sold more than a million
copies, have also been lucrative.
Mr. Moore does not disagree that "Fahrenheit 911" is
highly charged, but he took issue with the description
of it as partisan. "If this is partisan in any way it
is partisan on the side of the poor and working people
in this country who provide fodder for this war
machine," he said.
Mr. Moore said the film describes financial connections
between the Bush family and its associates and
prominent Saudi Arabian families that go back three
decades. He said it closely explores the government's
role in the evacuation of relatives of Mr. bin Laden
from the United States immediately after the 2001
attacks. The film includes comments from American
soldiers on the ground in Iraq expressing
disillusionment with the war, he said.
Mr. Moore once planned to produce the film with Mr.
Gibson's company, but "the project wasn't right for
Icon," said Alan Nierob, an Icon spokesman, adding that
the decision had nothing to do with politics.
Miramax stepped in immediately. The company had
distributed Mr. Moore's 1997 film, "The Big One." In
return for providing most of the new film's $6 million
budget, Miramax was positioned to distribute it.
While Disney's objections were made clear early on, one
executive said the Miramax leadership hoped it would be
able to prevail upon Disney to sign off on
distribution, which would ideally happen this summer,
before the election and when political interest is