NEW YORK (CNN/Money) -
Oscar-winning filmmaker Michael Moore's documentary critical of President Bush, and linking him with powerful Saudi families, including that of Osama bin Laden, is sparking the latest fight within Walt Disney Co.
Moore said in a letter on his Web site Wednesday that he was informed Tuesday that Disney has moved to prevent its Miramax Films unit from distributing "Fahrenheit 9/11." The New York Times and trade publication Daily Variety confirmed that Disney is blocking distribution of the film. The film, set to make its debut at the Cannes film festival later this month, has yet to be released.
The Disney edict could herald the bloodiest political battle yet between Miramax's feisty co-chairman, Harvey Weinstein, and Disney CEO Michael Eisner, who oversaw the purchase of Miramax a decade ago, trade publication Daily Variety said.
"Fahrenheit 9/11," is Moore's follow-up to his Academy Award-winning "Bowling for Columbine." Rumors had been circulating of a July release in North America, but the film does not appear on Miramax's summer schedule, the Daily Variety said.
Moore, a vocal critic who denounced Bush and the war in Iraq during his Oscar acceptance speech, caused a controversy during the Democratic primaries when he called Bush a "deserter" for not finishing his National Guard service during the Vietnam War.
CNNfn's Jen Rogers reports on Disney's attempts to block distribution of new Michael Moore film.
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Moore describes "Fahrenheit 9/11" as a comedy, and, according to Variety, the film examines the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and paints the Bush administration in an unflattering light.
"We're discussing the issue with Disney. We're looking at all of our options and look forward to resolving this amicably," said Matthew Hiltzik, a spokesman for Miramax.
But the media powerhouse shows no sign it's willing to budge on the issue.
"In May 2003, The Walt Disney Company communicated to Miramax and Mr. Moore's representatives that Miramax would not be the distributor of his film," Zenia Mucha, a Disney spokeswoman, said in a statement.
"Contrary to his assertions, Mr. Moore has had and continues to have every opportunity to either find another distributor or distribute the film himself," Mucha said.
In addition, Sen. Frank R. Lautenberg, Democrat of New Jersey, called for hearings of the Senate Commerce Committee to look into the pattern of politically based corporate censorship of the news media and the entertainment industry, the senator's office said.
"While corporate leaders rarely exercise discretion over gross indecency or violence, we have seen a number of corporate conglomerates censor material recently based on political content," Lautenberg sad in a letter to Commerce Committee Chairman Senator John McCain, Republican of Arizona.
The New Jersey senator said in the letter that Disney, which recently distributed "Kill Bill: Vol. 2," which Lautenberg described as "one of the most violent movies in history," is refusing to distribute the new film by Moore because it is critical of President Bush.
Harvey vs. Mike
Independent stock analyst Dennis McAlpine said that there has always been a tension between Miramax and Disney since the media conglomerate bought the independent studio in 1993.
|Disney is trying to block its Miramax unit from distributing of a film by Bush administration critic Michael Moore.
"They've done their own thing for the most part. Disney has been content to leave them alone and give them money and pull in all the Academy Awards," said McAlpine.
He said that despite the shareholder criticism of Eisner, he doesn't think that this battle will necessarily cause the embattled executive more problems.
"If there is a fallout, it's that some of the creative types say, 'I'm not going to take my next pic to Disney,'" said McAlpine. "But Hollywood is a wonderful place for saying one thing and doing the opposite the next time."
But Moore's agent Ari Emmanuel pointed out to Variety that "Bowling for Columbine" cost only $3 million but brought in $120 million through box office and DVD sales and rentals. So he argued that Eisner's decision to block the film is financially wrongheaded as well as politically obtuse.
The controversy and the attention the battle is getting will help draw viewers to the film, according to McAlpine and other box office analysts.
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"There is no better way to do this," said David Mumpower, president of box office tracking firm Box Office Prophet. "They're taking a page out of Mel Gibson's play book for 'The Passion of the Christ' to let the media coverage sell the movie. All the coverage is better than ads."
Mumpower doubts that Disney will be able to stop the film from being released altogether.
"I'm absolutely certain it will be released. Whether it's done by a Disney subsidiary is another question," he said.
McAlpine said that he could see Miramax releasing the film under a separate label, as it has done with some controversial films in the past.
In 1995 Miramax created a separate unit, Excalibur Films, to release the controversial film "Kids" as an unrated movie.
Miramax's Hiltzik told Variety that such an arrangement is being discussed with Disney again, but the trade paper suggested that with Miramax co-chairmen Bob and Harvey Weinstein's contracts with Disney under renegotiation at this time, such an agreement would be more difficult.
Moore's agent Emanuel told the New York Times that Eisner asked him last spring to pull out of the deal with Miramax. Emanuel said Eisner expressed particular concern that it would endanger tax breaks Disney receives for its theme park, hotels and other ventures in Florida, where President Bush's brother, Jeb Bush, is governor.
The Times reported that Disney executives denied that allegation. One executive told the paper it did not want to be seen taking sides in the election and risk alienating customers of different political views.
"It's not in the interest of any major corporation to be dragged into a highly charged partisan political battle," said the executive, who was not identified by the paper.
But Moore said he believed the protection of tax cuts was the reason for the media conglomerate's position.
"I would have hoped by now that I would be able to put my work out to the public without having to experience the profound censorship obstacles I often seem to encounter," Moore said in a statement Wednesday, referring to his agent's charge against Eisner.
"The whole story behind this (and other attempts) to kill our movie will be told in more detail as the days and weeks go on. All I can say is, thank God for Harvey Weinstein and Miramax, who have stood by me during the entire production of this movie."
The controversy had little effect on Disney (DIS: down $0.02 to $23.00, Research, Estimates) stock, which ended nearly flat Wednesday on the New York Stock Exchange.
-- Reuters contributed to this story.