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In 1996 Letter, Eisner Confronts Ovitz: ‘You ... Manipulated Me’

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Times Staff Writer

It wasn’t a secret that the relationship between Michael Eisner and Michael Ovitz ended badly. But it wasn’t until Wednesday that some of the painful details came spilling out.

The difficulties between the entertainment titans were highlighted in a confidential, seven-page letter unsealed by a judge overseeing a shareholder lawsuit challenging Ovitz’s severance package when he was fired from his job as president of Walt Disney Co.

For the record:

12:00 a.m. Feb. 27, 2004 For The Record
Los Angeles Times Friday February 27, 2004 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 50 words Type of Material: Correction
Eisner letter -- An article in Thursday’s Business section incorrectly quoted a portion of a letter from Disney Chairman Michael Eisner to Michael Ovitz as saying, “Even on the phone, I could not get your attention.” The letter actually said, “Even on the plane, I could not get your attention.”

Eisner, Disney’s chairman, cut the former powerhouse agent loose -- in the November 1996 missive -- slightly more than a year after hiring him.

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The letter emerged as investor advisory firm Glass Lewis & Co., recommended against Eisner’s reelection as chairman during next week’s Disney annual meeting. Among the issues cited by Glass Lewis: Eisner’s hiring and firing of Ovitz.

In the letter, Eisner acknowledges that he had problems with Ovitz’s tenure “right from the beginning,” and bluntly confronts his former friend with a laundry list of his supposed shortcomings. Neither Ovitz nor a spokesman for Eisner responded to requests for comment.

Some excerpts from the letter:

Irreconcilable differences: “I believe you should resign (this is not a legal suggestion but a cosmetic one), and we should put the best possible face on it. When we talked last Friday I told you again that my biggest problem was that you played the angles too much, exaggerated the truth too far, manipulated me and others too much. I told you 98% of the problem was that I did not know when you were telling the truth, about big things, about small things. And while you were telling me those dishonest days were over, you were deceiving me.”

Lavish perks: “Michael, mostly a leader of a public company has to lead by example. It is in the little things. Your number of secretaries, the out of control renovation of your office, your attitude to costs. What do you think our executives think when you object to paying all the costs for [your daughter’s] bat mitzvah at the House of Blues, an operation owned partly by Disney? You were told you had to pay for their Saturday night lost profits. I have never checked. I hope you did.”

Communications breakdown: “I tried to talk to you but never could get connected. Even on the phone, I could not get your attention. The phone was the most important thing in your life.... You were late to almost all meetings. And often you lost your temper, to pilots, drivers, little people.”

Conspiracy theory: “By January, I was really concerned about our relationship. I wrote to you that ‘your view that there is a conspiracy with the people around me toward you is ridiculous.’ ”

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Ever the agent: “By the end of April, I hoped you were getting the point. I was frustrated because you wouldn’t take anything and follow through. You seemed to be agenting, not operating.... I tried to explain to you the difference between a public and private company. You obviously spent too many years getting unbelievable deals for executives with companies that did not care, or rather talent deals where leadership and real scrutiny did not matter.”

All about image: “Image is always important to you. When asked, I did agree for you to go on the executive committee of the board. I have always wanted to support you and do whatever I could to give you the stature you needed. I could not give you the COO [chief operating officer] title and responsibilities until you understood what they were and how to exercise them. I had hoped that company operations someday would become as important to you as image.”

Trouble with the truth: “Most of our executives were out of step with you. And that cadence problem basically was caused by lack of trust in you. As we’ve discussed many times, we all never knew when you were telling things as they were. The truth was often hard to decipher.”

Handling the press: “We do not agree on the way to handle the media. I feel distance and honestly [sic] and non-manipulation is the way to go. You want to control or handle or humor the press. In your letter you told me to read ‘Peter Bart [of Variety magazine] and I will better understand relationships.’ That’s all you said. When the article came out, you told me, he had sent it on to you beforehand for ‘corrections and tone and editing.’ That is not how we should run this company. We are the media.”

A slow start: “You started off slowly, with which I believe you would agree. You were nervous and wanted to impress everybody. And you would agree that this was a mistake.”

The end: “Michael, the more I dig with you, the more truth comes out. I really am tired of giving you the second degree. You must be tired of getting it? You may think that so much of what I have written in this letter is petty. I know that. But the time is finally, once again, to be clear. It cannot work. And I want it to end as soon as possible. I want you to direct your energies to how to exit, not how to cure.”

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To read Eisner’s letter to Ovitz, go to latimes.com/letter.

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