Ovitz Tells How He Lunched for Disney

02 November 2004

Cynics might presume that the sole reason for hiring a Hollywood talent agent as president of a vast publicly-owned company would be his luncheon skills and ability to distinguish a bottle of Chateau d'Yquem 1875 from a Turkish sauterne (and noble rot from tommy-rot).

On Monday, the ousted president of the Walt Disney Company Michael Ovitz, in his fifth and final day of testimony, outlined his corporate wining and dining chores.

Questioned by a lawyer for the shareholders, Ovitz defended the hundreds of thousands of dollars he spent on gifts, entertainment and charitable contributions.

"The entertainment business is very much about favors," he said. His munificence ranged from giving Disney character toys to more elaborate gifts like $601 in jewelry and food he force-fed talk-show host David Letterman.

And lunch with contacts like the editor of Variety helped "to keep good relationships with the trades" and soften Disney's [less than cuddlesome] image. As did a $25,000 contribution to the Museum of Modern Art, where Ovitz is a trustee.

The hearing in a Georgetown, Delaware, courthouse conducted by chancellor William B Chandler III, is the culmination of seven years of legal action.

In January 1997, Disney shareholders sued the company's directors including [then] chairman Michael Eisner and Ovitz, asserting that the latter should have been fired for gross negligence rather than receiving a $140 million (€110m, £76m) severance payoff plus interest. The shareholders also assert they should have been better informed about the decision to hire Ovitz in the first place, and the terms of his contract.

Following his testimony, Ovitz told reporters he could not describe his emotions until Chancellor Chandler had ruled. "But I couldn't be happier that I had the opportunity to give my side," he said. "I have been waiting for seven years to get this out and what better condition than under oath."

He added that people had begun calling him after reading accounts of the trial. "My side came out," he said, voicing the hope that "the company gets off, I get off and that verdict will allow me to move on."

Heavenly choir swells to climax as scene dissolves to black and houselights fade up.

Data sourced from New York Times; additional content by WARC staff