Let the games begin!

Jeffrey Katzenberg and Michael Eisner may just be two rich white guys squaring off in court -- but they're two very, very rich white guys who really, really don't like each other.

Published April 27, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

Unlike so many Hollywood movies about courtroom conundrums, at least this real-life legal spectacle didn't disappoint.

After five years of rancorous feuding with his former employer, Dreamworks SKG co-founder Jeffrey Katzenberg finally had his day in court Monday, as his $250 million lawsuit against the Walt Disney Company got under way before a private judge.

Set inside a broom-closet-sized make-believe courtroom inside the plush offices of a Century City law firm whose lead litigator is defending Katzenberg, the former Walt Disney Studios chairman (the venue switches to the other side's tony address every other week), the trial opened with a rapid-fire exchange of charges and counter-charges. Suddenly and rather shockingly, words like "fraud" and "deceit" went flying through the air, as well as references to a CIA-like secret Disney plot called "Operation Snowball," whose sole purpose, according to Katzenberg attorney Bert Fields, was to cheat his client out of hundreds of millions of dollars of hard-earned bonus money. For the defense, Disney mouthpiece Lou Meisinger maintained that if everything Fields had alleged were true, then Katzenberg was either the stupidest entertainment executive who'd ever worked in Hollywood or the most incompetent.

Let the games begin!

The two dozen print and television reporters who were chronicling the trial spent much of the time with their mouths agape: This kind of raw-meat legal battling is not only rare in Hollywood business circles, it's almost never conducted out in the open. (The reason this case is being heard before a retired judge in a private setting -- think "Judge Judy" -- is because both sides agreed it would take forever to wend its way through the clogged Los Angeles court system.) Key magazines and newspapers of the entertainment business press had gone to court for the right to cover this trial in all its inglory. So not only were some 10 journalists sitting up close and personal during the proceedings, but another 14 were watching Sony TVs and listening in stereo around a granite-topped conference table in an overflow room. Emphasizing not just the abnormality of the situation but also its absurdity, a bevy of beefy security guards monitored every movement of the media. Even a trip to the bathroom meant being accompanied by one of the rent-a-hunks supervised by well-known Los Angeles private investigator Anthony Pelicano, best known for his nonstop work on behalf of celebrities-in-crisis like Michael Jackson.

It was clear from Monday's opening statements by the lead attorneys for both the plaintiffs and defendants that the key issues in this case haven't altered since Katzenberg jumped (before he was pushed) from the Disney executive suite in April 1994 after 10 years as head of the company's movie and television division. When all is said and done (and this trial is expected to last at least seven weeks), it's still a coupla rich white guys fighting about money. And while that, on the surface, doesn't sound like sexy stuff, well, then, you know NOTHING about the history between Katzenberg and his long, long-time boss, Walt Disney Co. chairman Michael Eisner. Think of President Clinton and Ken Starr, or Larry Flynt and Bob Barr, and maybe you've got an inkling. Again and again Monday, allegations were batted back and forth about the "personal animus" between the pair.

And if that weren't enough to cloud even the clearest minds in Hollywood, then there's the problem that the only guy who can really settle this thing once and for all just happens to be dead. Again and again Monday, both sides argued that the key memos, key letters, key contracts and key everything were written by then-Disney president and chief operating officer Frank Wells, who died in a 1994 helicopter accident. It was after Wells' death that the relationship between Katzenberg and Eisner went to hell: Katzenberg asked to be made the new Disney president, Eisner refused, Katzenberg left. The quagmire described Monday concerns what Katzenberg's contract called for and what he was entitled to get once he resigned from Disney. And since Wells was the executive lawyer who negotiated the terms of Katzenberg's deal, the actual number is subject to either side's legal interpretation.

If Fields' opening statement Monday is to be believed, then Katzenberg could clip Disney for millions upon millions upon millions, or any time anyone even hums a song from "The Lion King." If Meisinger is to be believed, then Disney needs to write a check with not nearly so many zeros at the end of it since the entertainment giant has already paid Katzenberg most of what he's owed.

In all, it was a bloody beginning to what promises to be a legal duel to the death for both sides -- conducted, of course, with all the politeness such important companies and executives deserve. Want more proof? As the first day's arguments drew to a close, Fields complained that neither Eisner nor two of his top lieutenants had responded yet to their 24-hour notices of appearance. "Your honor, I am not suggesting they go to jail," Katzenberg's lawyer noted jocularly.

"Gee, Bert," Meisinger replied drily. "I'm overwhelmed."

By Nikki Finke

Nikki Finke is Salon's Hollywood correspondent and the West Coast editor for New York magazine.

MORE FROM Nikki Finke

Related Topics ------------------------------------------