Father against son. Brother against brother. Writer against agent. In this town, feuds have always come in all shapes and sizes, but none have been bigger or more contentious than these classic Hollywood bouts.
One of the biggest battles for control of any media corporation began when Sumner Redstone attempted to buy Paramount in 1993. Martin Davis — the chairman and CEO of Paramount Communications — rebuffed him at first. But when it became apparent that sharks were circling and that a hostile takeover bid was likely, Davis circled back to Redstone and his company, Viacom. In September 1993, the two men announced that their companies were merging, a move that Redstone called an "act of destiny."
Barry Diller believed otherwise. He had recently left 20th Century Fox to go out on his own and knew Paramount better than anyone, having served as its chairman during the 1980s (when Michael Eisner and Jeffrey Katzenberg were among his hires). What followed was a monthslong tug-of-war that saw Redstone and Diller chasing after Paramount, each upping his bid on an almost weekly basis until they had reached stratospheric levels. In February 1994, Redstone made his final offer ($9.75 billion), which was too rich for his rival. "They won, we lost," said Diller. "Next."
Industry insiders seldom had the temerity to take on Michael Ovitz at the height of his powers at CAA. Joe Eszterhas was one of the few who did. In 1989, Eszterhas, the writer of such movies as 1985's Jagged Edge and 1992's Basic Instinct and at one point the highest-paid screenwriter in Hollywood, told Ovitz that he was leaving CAA to return to his former agent, Guy McElwaine. What happened in that meeting only is known to the two men.
But shortly afterward, a letter that Eszterhas wrote to Ovitz was strategically leaked, and even in the pre-internet age it became the talk of the town. Eszterhas accused Ovitz of strong-arming him to stay at CAA and claimed the agent had threatened him by saying, "My foot soldiers who go up and down Wilshire Boulevard each day will blow your brains out." The letter went on, "What you were threatening me with was a twisted new version of the old-fashioned blacklist. Plain and simple, cutting out all the smiles and friendliness, it's blackmail. You are agents. Your role is to help and encourage my career and creativity. Your role is not to threaten my family's livelihood if I don't do your bidding."
In April 1994, Hollywood was stunned to learn that Frank Wells, 62, president and COO of the Walt Disney Co., had been killed in a helicopter crash. A mountain climber and adventurer, Wells was the best friend and closest collaborator of his boss, Disney chairman Eisner. When Eisner refused to give Wells' job to Katzenberg (who then headed Disney's movie studio), Katzenberg, who'd revived Disney's animation reputation with such hits as The Lion King, quit and sued the studio for the $250 million he claimed he was owed as his share of the profits. That led to one of the ugliest trials in Hollywood history, in which Eisner's personal animus for his former protege came out in full. Among his more memorable quotes: "I think I hate that little midget." Katzenberg pocketed an undisclosed sum when the case settled and went on to persuade Steven Spielberg and David Geffen to join him in forming DreamWorks SKG.
In the late 1950s, 007 creator Ian Fleming got together with producer Kevin McClory to bring his most famous creation, James Bond, to the screen. The collaboration fizzled and the men went their separate ways — which would have ended the matter, until Fleming used the story they had created as the basis for his 1961 novel Thunderball. McClory sued and won a settlement that included the underlying rights to the movie material. That not only left bad blood between him and Bond producer Albert "Cubby" Broccoli, it also allowed him to remake Thunderball without Broccoli, which he did as the 1983 movie Never Say Never Again, returning Sean Connery to the role of the British secret agent.
The battle didn't end there, though. Years later, when John Calley (the executive who had overseen a Bond revival at United Artists) left UA for Sony, he decided to launch his own Bond franchise, using McClory's rights to do so. Sony and United Artists went to war, paralyzing the franchise and leaving the very real prospect of two competing Bonds. Finally, after MGM/UA sued Sony, Calley blinked. In 1999, he backed down in return for $10 million, leaving producers Barbara Broccoli and Michael Wilson the undisputed franchise owners.
Few people have loathed one another as viscerally as the four Warner brothers (Jack, Sam, Harry and Albert). For decades, following Sam's death in 1927, the remaining three duked it out behind the scenes, even as their studio became one of the most important in the world. And for all that time, they refused to sell it to anyone else. But that changed in 1956, when the brothers finally agreed to unload their company to a group of independent investors for the grand sum of $22 million (a little less than $200 million in today's dollars).
Jack, who initially had resisted the deal, agreed to take part on one condition: that the brothers sell their shares at the same time. They gathered at an L.A. restaurant to toast the done deal. It was only two weeks later that Harry discovered that Jack had been lying to him: He had secretly arranged to buy back the stock, leaving him in charge and his brothers ousted from power. He and Harry never spoke again.
WINNER Jack Warner
In the 1960s, legendary mogul Darryl F. Zanuck returned from exile in France to take charge of 20th Century Fox, the studio he had created, which at that time was bleeding money from the outlay needed for 1963's Cleopatra, soon to be a historic flop. The man Zanuck hired to help him right the sinking ship was none other than his own son, Richard, whom he named head of production. But after such hits as 1965's The Sound of Music and 1968's Planet of the Apes, the studio again began to flounder, especially after Darryl backed another expensive bomb, 1970's Tora! Tora! Tora! A restive board got worried; Darryl (who was spending more and more time with his 20-year-old French girlfriend, Genevieve Gilles) was bumped up to the grand-sounding but less powerful role of chairman, while Richard was named the studio's president.
When Richard exercised his newfound power to terminate Gilles' acting and producing deal with the studio, an enraged Darryl shot back. In late 1970, he summoned the board and used his remaining authority as chairman to have Richard fired. But the mogul's move backfired. His former wife, Virginia, furious about her son's ouster, teamed up with other disgruntled shareholders, using her own power as a shareholder, and in 1971 Darryl was fired, too. Richard went on to produce such films as Jaws, The Verdict and Driving Miss Daisy, for which he won an Oscar. Darryl never worked again.
In 1977, when Columbia Pictures president David Begelman was caught in a check-writing embezzlement scheme, it set off a power struggle on the studio's board, with mega-producer Ray Stark (who thought Begelman should keep his job) clashing with studio chairman Alan J. Hirschfield (who thought Begelman should be fired). When the smoke cleared, Begelman and Hirschfield were gone and the studio was so weakened that it was ripe for selling.
WINNER Coca-Cola, which bought Columbia in 1982
De Havilland is one of the only actresses to have a law named after her. By the early 1940s, the star was growing tired of appearing in a series of desultory roles — usually as the kind of milquetoast she played in 1939's Gone With the Wind. Despite being under contact to Warner Bros., she began to turn parts down. Her contract was nearly up when she learned that all the time she had not worked was being added to her deal, meaning that she would be bound to the studio for years — standard practice at the studios in those days.
De Havilland sued. In the protracted battle, it emerged that Warners was counting even her weekends as part of her contract. But in December 1944, a California Court of Appeals ruled that no personal services contract could last longer than seven years. Officially, the ruling is enshrined as California Labor Code section 2855; unofficially, it's known as the De Havilland Law.
WINNER De Havilland