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Time for Eisner to Make Nicey-Nice

August 08, 1995|CLAUDIA ELLER

It's bury-the-hatchet time for Walt Disney Co. honcho Michael Eisner.

In light of Disney's planned $19-billion purchase of Capital Cities/ABC, announced last week, the uncharacteristically conciliatory power player now must make nicey-nice with his company's fiercest rival, Warner Bros., and his personal archenemy, Jeffrey Katzenberg.

Disney and Warner, who have long duked it out in the movie arena and were once partners in the international theatrical marketplace, are now back in business together on the television side.

And, late last week, Eisner made a rapprochement to Katzenberg and his Dream Team partners David Geffen and Steven Spielberg, in light of the fact that their start-up DreamWorks studio has a $200-million joint venture deal with Cap Cities/ABC.

As for Burbank-based Warner, it has several series on ABC, which is slated to be under the ownership of rival Disney.

Warner, just like other program suppliers, has to be wondering if Disney will favor its own shows and in turn squeeze its competitors off the network.

For years, Disney and Warner have battled it out for first and second place in the domestic box-office market-share rankings. Since 1991, the two studios have reigned among all other competitors. According to The Hollywood Reporter's box-office analyst, Art Murphy, Warner was No. 1 from 1991-'93. Buena Vista, which distributes Disney's three movie labels, unseated Warner and is leading so far this year with an 18.6% share, compared to Warner's 17.3%.

In late June, war practically broke out between the two Burbank-based distributors over the opening weekend grosses for Disney's new animated movie "Pocahontas" and Warner's sequel "Batman Forever." Before final box-office figures were counted, on a Sunday, Disney prematurely declared that, based on estimates, it had the top film of the weekend. The next morning, Warner suggested that Disney had overestimated "Pocahontas" and underestimated "Batman."

Final figures showed that "Pocahontas" nosed out "Batman" by just $300,000, but the incident underscored the level of competition between the two studio giants.

A couple of years ago, the rivals publicly feuded over their theme parks.

In 1993, Eisner went nuts when Warner continued to run television ads for its Six Flags unit that claimed the parks were "bigger than Disneyland and a whole lot closer."

A year earlier, Disney had tried on several occasions to get Six Flags to stop its campaign.

With the planned sale of Capital Cities/ABC to Disney, the plot now thickens.

But Warner Co-Chairman Robert Daly feels strongly that Eisner will do the right thing and not show favoritism toward Disney's own ABC shows, which include "Home Improvement" and "Ellen."

"The bottom line comes down to how good the [suppliers'] shows are," Daly said. "Michael Eisner knows how important ratings are. I don't think we'll have a problem selling our shows. But it does make it tougher when [a network's] in the hands of another studio."

Daly is quick to point out that Disney was "the first studio to sell a show ['Unhappily Ever After'] to the new Warner Bros. network," and that for five years Warner distributed Disney's movies overseas until the Mouse launched its own foreign operation a couple of years ago.

As of the upcoming fall TV season, Warner will have seven series on ABC. Four are return shows: "Step By Step," "Family Matters," "Lois and Clark" and "Hangin' With Mr. Cooper." Three are new: "Charlie Grace," "The Drew Carey Show" and "The Monroes."

Meanwhile, in the name of business, Eisner has appeared to make up with Katzenberg, with whom he has been feuding since he forced the former Disney studio chief out last year. Eisner placed calls last Thursday to each of the DreamWorks partners to patch things up.

While this rapprochement looks good on the surface, only time will tell how real it is given that DreamWorks' deal with ABC now stands to be restructured and that Katzenberg has been threatening to sue Disney for tens of millions of dollars from his days at the studio.

And, at least up until now, Eisner has not seen it Katzenberg's way and had no intentions of giving him what he says he is due. So, as they say, stay tuned.


Yes, Michael, It's Front Page News: Even the most powerful and ruthless figures in Hollywood can seem humble and naive.

When Disney announced its megabillion-dollar deal to acquire Capital Cities/ABC a week ago Monday, Eisner--now unequivocally the most powerful figure in the entertainment industry--innocently asked a Times reporter, "Do you think this [story] will make page one?" When it was suggested that the newspaper in fact had several stories in the works about the historic deal, he responded with surprise, "Really?" Really.


Another With a Big Week: Former Creative Artists Agency President Ron Meyer also had a memorable week, as it was his first as new president of MCA.

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