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California and the West | MIKE DOWNEY

Forget Joe Schmoe! I'll Take Mike and Jeff Any Day

April 30, 1999|MIKE DOWNEY

Somebody recently asked me what I liked best about doing this job. "Real" news? Crime? Politics? Bill and Hillary? Bill and Monica? Or perhaps it was writing about "the little guy." Columnists always seem to love doing stories about "the little guy"--which, in case you're curious, does include little women.

Well, not me.

I'm not that big on the little guy.

I like bigger guys. I like reading about richer and more famous people. Many of us feel this way, but we are too embarrassed to admit it. It sounds a lot better to support the little guy, even though a little guy isn't usually all that interesting, even to littler guys.

TV producers and newspaper editors make this same mistake all the time. They assign reporters to do "man on the street" interviews, or to go into public bars for drunk sound bites.

Personally, I think a man on the street should be allowed to keep on walking, and that people in bars shouldn't be asked after six beers how they feel about anything except coffee.

I hate stories that include quotes like: " 'Yes, I think Slobodan Milosevic should give up,' said John Q. Plunger, 47, a plumber from Placentia."

Yes, I'm sorry, I'm ashamed, but give me the millionaires, the celebrities, the big guys. Nobody wants to watch a TV program about lifestyles of the poor and unknown.

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Which brings me to Jeffrey Katzenberg.

I am having such a good time, following his court case this week. You know the one. The one where he's suing the Walt Disney Co. for $250 million!

Whenever a little guy sues a former employer for lost wages, he usually asks for a few thousand, maybe four figures, possibly five, sometimes even six.

A big guy sues for nine figures.

Now that's what I call a lawsuit. A quarter-billion in back pay.

Katzenberg and Disney have been going 'round and 'round, ever since he left the company a few years ago when he wasn't made president. The job went instead to Mike Ovitz . . . you know, the famous pro football guy.

According to testimony this week, Ovitz might or might not have proposed a financial settlement to Katzenberg, maybe even in a healthy lump sum up around 100 million bucks, but it might or might not have been shot down by Michael Eisner, a guy who is even bigger than most of California's biggest guys.

"[Ovitz] was trying to make a deal, but Michael Eisner wouldn't let him," Katzenberg testified.

I obviously wouldn't know if this is true or untrue. I only know that Eisner has made approximately 100 gazillion jillion dollars at Disney, and that Ovitz got the job Katzenberg apparently wanted to get, and that Ovitz only did this job for a year or so before Eisner gave him a multi-zillion dollars to stop doing it.

This is so much fun.

I know, as a human being, I should be a lot more interested in some poor soul who lost his job in a factory cutback or a school district layoff. These are the regular people, the real people, the important people who build our cities, teach our children!

Nahhh. . . .

I'd rather read about Katzenberg vs. Disney. Katz versus Mouse. Because in my everyday dull little life, I could meet practically anybody who could tell me a tale of woe. But it isn't every day that I get to see somebody sue somebody else for 250 mil.

Asked why he didn't fully realize the consequences of leaving Disney, Katzenberg told the court: "I was running a $5-billion company. I wasn't aware of every deal and the details."

I know how he must feel. I was once treasurer of my school class, and responsible for $55 we raised from a bake sale. I got such a headache, just trying to handle that.

Katzenberg believes he is entitled to a percentage of money made off Disney films including "The Lion King" and "Sister Act," including licensing and merchandise.

I, personally, don't own any "Lion King" merchandise, but several of my friends do collect "Sister Act" stuff. We love those singing nun action figures.

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Katzenberg is now part of the DreamWorks company, the one he runs with Steven Spielberg and David Geffen, a couple of really big guys. I hope he never sues them for $250 million, although they could probably take it out of petty cash.

One catch in this case is proving that Disney's movies did make a profit. As you know, no Hollywood studio ever admits to making a profit if it owes anybody any of the profits.

I am mainly just interested in how the big guys get the big money.

After all, one of my employers recently told me, "Mike, we'd pay you to leave."

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Mike Downey's column appears Sundays, Wednesdays and Fridays. Write to him at Times Mirror Square, Los Angeles 90053. E-mail: mike.downey@latimes.com

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