Michael S. Ovitz, the former president of the Walt Disney Company, vigorously defended his 14-month tenure on Tuesday, saying his efforts to expand and improve the company were undercut at nearly every turn by recalcitrant senior executives and the man who lured him there, Michael D. Eisner, the chief executive.
Mr. Ovitz was a witness in the trial of a lawsuit filed by Disney shareholders, who contend its board of directors breached its fiduciary responsibility when Mr. Eisner hired Mr. Ovitz as president in 1995 and then signed off on a severance package valued at $140 million 14 months later.
Mr. Ovitz, who waved to reporters in the back row when he entered the courtroom, spent much of his four hours of testimony describing how his vision for a substantially different Disney was thwarted. To bolster Disney’s relatively weak Hollywood Records division, he said, he tried to sign the pop singer Janet Jackson and explored acquisitions of or joint ventures with the EMI Group and Sony Corporation’s music operation. Mr. Eisner rejected those prospective deals as too expensive, and then used Hollywood’s poor performance as a reason to fire him, Mr. Ovitz said.
Discussions of a joint venture with Sony in the video game business went nowhere, the acquisition of the film studio Beacon Pictures was blocked and a chance to buy a stake in Yahoo back in 1995 was derailed by Mr. Eisner, Mr. Ovitz added.
Mr. Eisner “had the final say on everything,” Mr. Ovitz said.
Mr. Ovitz, considered one of the most powerful people in Hollywood when he ran the Creative Artists Agency in the 1980’s and 1990’s, said he found himself hamstrung as soon as he arrived at Disney. He recounted a meeting at Mr. Eisner’s house where two top executives, Stephen Bollenbach, then Disney’s chief financial officer, and Sanford M. Litvack, the chief of corporate operations at the time, informed him that they would not report to him.
“This was an interesting way to start my career at the Walt Disney Company,” Mr. Ovitz said.
When Mr. Ovitz turned to Mr. Eisner to intercede on his behalf, Mr. Eisner declined, instead suggesting that Mr. Ovitz back out of his deal to come to Disney. Mr. Ovitz testified that it was too late to back out because he had already told colleagues at Creative Artists that he was leaving for Disney. During his testimony, Mr. Ovitz forcefully tried to show how hard he worked, only to be stymied in his efforts at change. In part, his testimony seemed to be intended to counter the arguments of the shareholders’ lawyers, who plan to argue that Mr. Ovitz should have been fired by Disney’s board because he failed to do his job.
Mr. Ovitz said he logged 600 to 700 hours in travel time, shuttling between New York and Los Angeles, as well as going to Europe and Asia. He entertained many executives at his home, he said, even dignitaries from China, to foster good relations with Disney.
Mr. Ovitz testified that he played a vital part in recruiting key talent and assuaging bruised egos. Disney, he said, dealt poorly with Hollywood talent. For example, after the actor Tim Allen walked off the set of the hit ABC show, “Home Improvement,” Mr. Ovitz said he was the one who wooed him back. He invited Mr. Allen to dinner at his house and gave him a $1,200 Roy Lichtenstein print as a gift; Mr. Allen soon returned to the set. Mr. Ovitz, however, said he found out later that his gift was against Disney policy, and he was lectured about corporate governance by a senior Disney executive.