The Mouse Wears a Duncecap

For the first 64 years of its existence, the Baseball Hall of Fame avoided any political controversies. That all changed last year when Hall of Fame President Dale Petrovskey cancelled a planned appearance by Tim Robbins and Susan Sarandon. Robbins and Sarandon, you may recall, were and likely still are vocal opponents of the Iraq war. As you may also recall, Robbins and Sarandon were due to appear at the Hall Fame not to discuss the war, President Bush, or even foreign policy issues in general. They were going to participate in a celebration of the landmark baseball film Bull Durham, in which they both starred. If their appearance had proceeded as planned, few would have noticed. Instead, Petrovskey's rash decision immersed the Hall of Fame into political turmoil. Some short-sighted left-wing activists even called for a boycott. Luckily for baseball fans everywhere, the furor has subsided, but Petrovskey's action brought harm to the Hall of Fame that could have easily been avoided.

Petrovskey's stupidity, blatant as it was, pales in comparison to Michael Eisner and the other decisionmakers at Disney. Miramax, owned by Disney, had the rights to Fahrenheit 9/11, Michael Moore's polemic on President Bush, the Iraq war and other ramifications of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Disney blocked Miramax from releasing the film. At the time Eisner said that he didn't want Disney to take sides in the political debate. You know the rest . . . Fahrenheit wins the Palme d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival. Lions Gate and IFC pick up distribution rights. Film earns critical raves and has to date grossed more than $103 million, shattering the box office record for non-IMAX documentaries (previously held by Moore's last film, Bowling for Columbine).

Now it's easy in hindsight to say Disney made a bad move. So lets go back and look at the situation as it was in May, when the decision was announced (Disney officials claim the decision was actually made last year, but, as it was out of the public eye, it could have easily been reversed). You have a film costing $6 million. The director's last film won an Oscar and made more money than any non-IMAX documentary in history. This director is also a publicity machine, enabling you to advertise the film without large marketing expenses. Think this would be an easy call, right? Well instead of going with common sense, Disney gave into fear.

Fear of what exactly? That Moore's critics would hold Disney accountable for the film? That people would think that Disney was a far-left anti-Bush corporation? I don't know, but it doesn't make much sense. Few people blame a studio for the political content of it's films. Think of one of the most controversial films of the last 15 years, Oliver Stone's JFK. Quick, name the studio that distributed JFK. Do you remember? If you do, you're in the minority (it was Warner Brothers by the way). Remember who distributed Bob Roberts, a scathing satire of right-wing politics? You get the gold star if you guessed Paramount. How about Bowling for Columbine? Got many folks upset? Name the distributor. If you did, congratulations. I had to look it up (MGM-United Artists). Few people care who distributes a film in the first place, and those who do are usually intelligent enough not to hold the distributor responsible for it's political content. Even now, with all the flak directed at Fahrenheit 9/11, little if any goes to Lions Gate or IFC. As you might expect, most of the criticism is aimed at Moore. Lions Gate and IFC did not take sides in the political debate; Moore did.
Eisner's decisions may have made some sense if it was another one of Disney's properties, ABC, looking to show the film. On broadcast television, sponsors support the programs. Political groups know who the sponsors are, and in some cases threaten to launch boycotts against the sponsor's product. That was the case last year when CBS elected not to broadcast "The Reagans," after the Republican National Committee and many conservative groups complained. While this decision did not speak well for CBS's artistic integrity (insert your own punch line here), it may have made sense on the business side. But none of these factors come into play with film. There are no commercial sponsors. In some ways's it's capitalism at its purest. If people want to see the film they buy a ticket. If not, they don't.

Besides, what sells documentaries is often different from what sells other films. The big moneymakers among features usually avoid offending people (The Passion of the Christ serving as a notable exception). Documentaries usually don't play to everyone; if you can get a smaller market excited, it will be successful. As such, the more controversial documentaries usually draw the most. Witness Moore's other films, or this year's other documentary hit, Super Size Me. Moore, in particular, feeds off the uproar. Disney could have used his self-publicity skills to its advantage. Instead, it threw a pitch right into Moore's wheelhouse. It gave him free media attention, and fed into his "Me vs. the all-powerful forces" arguments. How could anyone at Disney not anticipate what would happen?

So often the film business is described as a struggle between art and commerce. It was no struggle this time; Disney failed at both. It tuned down an opportunity to present a stellar work from a gifted filmmaker. More importantly from the business end, it turned down a huge profit. Let's see . . . $6 million to produce, $103 million grossed so far in the U.S. alone with much more overseas. You do the math. Of course this is all before the DVD release this fall, likely another windfall.

The ironic part of this issue is that Disney could have desperately used a hit this summer. It's last two tentpole releases, Around the World in 80 Days and King Arthur, bombed. Eisner has come under severe criticism from outside and inside Disney circles. Fahrenheit 9/11 won't help. You and I can look at the situation with amusement. Imagine you're a Disney shareholder, and you know that Disney had a guaranteed moneymaker in it's lap and gave it away. Probably not too happy with the leadership. Disney shareholders can only hope that Eisner and his cohorts learned what Dale Petrovskey found out last year: When you try too hard to avoid a political calamity, you end up creating one.

Adam Spector
July 26, 2004

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