updated 8/10/2005 10:36:14 AM ET 2005-08-10T14:36:14

So this is what millions in legal fees, days of embarrassing testimony and months of legal wrangling are worth: zilch. That's what a Delaware judge said Disney board members owed shareholders after allowing Chief Executive Michael Eisner to hire his former pal Michael Ovitz as president, then force him out — while handing him a $140 million severance package.

But this case was never really about money — even a worst-case scenario wouldn't have done much damage to The Walt Disney Co., not when it's generating some $32 billion a year in revenue. And, despite what straight-faced commentators said yesterday evening, it had little to with corporate governance issues, either, no matter how serious the repercussions for see-no-evil board members might be.

Instead, this was, entertainment from the get-go: A Hollywood plot about a Hollywood company that really played best in Hollywood itself. When Ovitz and Eisner were taking the stand in late 2004, to tell their own, conflicting tales about who said what to whom, it was Hollywood executives who were most fascinated by the case. Think of it like a Scott Peterson trial for the Brentwood set, except instead of a victim and scoundrel, there were simply two rich, powerful men.

The fact that the trial didn't have a standard good guy/bad guy narrative — just one rich, powerful guy who either was or wasn't fair to another rich, powerful guy — may have diminished the appeal of the whole affair for the American public (another negative: the fact that at no point was there a role for an attractive woman). But in Hollywood, the fact that both men had, at least at one point, been both feared and loathed by many of their colleagues was what made the whole thing compelling.

Eisner rescued Disney in the mid-1980s and restored the luster to a faded brand; along the way he seemed to specialize in alienating almost every talented, strong willed executive who worked for him. At the same time, Ovitz made Creative Artists Agency the most revered, and reviled, talent shop in the business, famous for bundling its A-list clients together into one take 'em or leave 'em package. These guys had lots of enemies, but few willing to admit to it in public.

Of course, by the time the long-running case went to trial nearly two years ago, both men had been brought down a notch — or several, in Ovitz's case: After being bounced out of Disney, he tried to assemble a combined talent management and television production business. Now he is out of both industries, after burning through millions of his own dollars. Meanwhile his former partners at CAA are either firmly ensconced as talent agents or have moved on to running movie studios.

Meanwhile Eisner went from Hollywood heavyweight to an easy target, as Disney stumbled and its stock stalled. He was pilloried for not grooming a successor, even as his most vocal critics demanded that he step down. Disney heir Roy Disney launched a high-profile campaign demanding his head, and finally won: Eisner will step down as chief executive September 30.

So at least give Hollywood credit: Two villains, not quite as scary as they used to be. No heroes. A plot that hinges on issues of corporate governance. You can't say this was a cookie-cutter script.

© 2012


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