Analysis: Michael Moore's salesmanship

By PAT NASON, UPI Hollywood Reporter   |   May 7, 2004 at 9:55 AM   |   0 comments

LOS ANGELES, May 6 (UPI) -- The Walt Disney Co. may be washing its hands of the upcoming Michael Moore documentary, "Fahrenheit 911," but Moore is not likely to feel much, if any, of the mortification filmmakers customarily experience when a studio throws the product of their labor over the side.

More likely, if Moore does shed any tears, they will not outlast the trip to the bank.

"Fahrenheit 911" is Moore's follow-up to the Oscar-winning documentary "Bowling for Columbine." It questions President George W. Bush's actions prior to and after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and examines business dealings between the Bush family and prominent citizens of Saudi Arabia, including the family of Osama bin Laden.

Disney issued a statement saying it informed its Miramax subsidiary in May 2003 that it would invoke its contractual prerogative to prevent Miramax from distributing "Fahrenheit 911" in the United States. Moore's critics suggest he is only now making a public issue of Disney's decision so he can promote the movie ahead of the Cannes Film Festival, where it will be screened in competition later this month, but Moore said he only received final word from Disney last Monday that the company will not distribute the movie.

Moore's agent, Ari Emanuel, told the New York Times that Disney CEO Michael Eisner had asked him to pull out of the distribution deal with Miramax. Emanuel said Eisner expressed concern that the movie might jeopardize Disney tax breaks in Florida, where the company operates entertainment resorts including theme parks, hotels and a cruise line -- and where President Bush's brother Jeb is the governor.

Disney issued a statement saying that Moore "has had and continues to have every opportunity to either find another distributor or distribute the film himself." Eisner told CNBC Moore shouldn't have any trouble finding a distributor for the movie.

"I think it's a totally appropriate film, and I can think of about 11 people who would love to have it," he said.

In a message on his Web site, Moore characterized Disney's decision not to distribute the movie as an attempt "to kill" it.

"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," he said.

On the other hand, as liberal L.A. Weekly commentator Marc Cooper pointed out in a column on his Web site, Disney has some political cover against that sort of claim.

"Publicity-hound Moore's allegations about Disney ring false," wrote Cooper. "The very same Disney Company, through its Hyperion division, just published Pacifica Radio host Amy Goodman's new book, 'The Exception to the Rulers,' a volume brimming with just as much lefty fringe politics and anti-Bush theorizing as contained in Moore's films."

Oscar-winning documentarian Errol Morris told United Press International he was concerned about what he called increasing talk of censorship in the media.

"What is unnerving is this feeling about the general erosion of civil liberties in this country," he said, "and that's why something like this creates so much news."

Morris won the Oscar for "The Fog of War," based on interviews with Robert McNamara in which the Vietnam-era secretary of defense conceded that that war had been a mistake and apologized for his part in it. Morris said he's sure that Moore will find a distributor for his movie, but political calculations always enter into distributors' decisions.

Morris said he was glad that Sony Pictures Classics took on "The Fog of War," but he said it is routine for movie distributors to try to avoid political controversy.

That, essentially, is Eisner's point. He told CNBC that his company "did not want a film in the middle of the political process where we're such a non-partisan company and our guests, that participate in all of our attractions, do not look for us to take sides."

But then, that's central to Moore's argument, too.

"Our media companies are invested with the public trust," Moore told CNN. "That trust states that they're there to allow all voices to be heard. We live in a free and open society where dissent is not to be stifled or silenced. They have violated that trust."

In some important ways, the "Fahrenheit 911" controversy resembles the current imbroglio over indecency on the nation's airwaves.

Broadcasters have generally pulled back from the wild and woolly content that -- with a significant push from political pressure applied by the public -- led to a crackdown by federal regulators. Whether the broadcasters' retrenchment resulted from a new sense of responsibility or a fear of losing their licenses remains an open question.

Eisner's observation about the bottom-line risk of distributing a politically polarizing documentary stands out as a comparatively candid acknowledgement in the contemporary corporate media culture.

Moore may be an Oscar-winning filmmaker and a best-selling author, but he is also a world-class provocateur. If he had not capitalized on the Disney distribution deal to promote his movie, that would have been news.

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(Please send comments to nationaldesk@upi.com.)

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