The New York Times Company
May 4, 2004
Disney Forbids Distribution of Film That Criticizes Bush
by Jim Rutenberg
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 said Tuesday.
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 NC-17 rating.
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, executives said.
"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 to Democrats.
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 high.