Michael Moore, the establishment-bashing film-maker, accused the Walt Disney Company of political censorship yesterday because it is refusing to distribute his latest documentary which attacks the Bush administration's handling of national security since 11 September.
Controversy over the film, entitled Fahrenheit 911, erupted on the front page of The New York Times just days before Mr Moore is due to take the film to the Cannes Film Festival for its world premiere.
In an open letter to his supporters, Mr Moore accused Disney of trying to kill the film, which is being produced by the Disney subsidiary Miramax, because the company was worried about its business interests in Florida and did not want to offend Governor Jeb Bush, the President's brother.
"I would have hoped by now that I would be able to put my work out to the public without having to experience the profound censorship obstacles I often seem to encounter," he wrote. "For nearly a year, this struggle has been a lesson in just how difficult it is in this country to create a piece of art that might upset those in charge." Disney officials appeared to be caught off guard by this onslaught and denied that the company's decision was motivated by political interests in Florida. They also pointed out that the company had made clear a year ago that it wanted no involvement with Fahrenheit 911, which was picked up by Miramax against the wishes of its corporate parent.
Both The New York Times and Variety, the entertainment industry trade paper of record, suggested the flap over Mr Moore's film could drive a further wedge between Michael Eisner, the Disney chairman, and the Weinstein brothers who run Miramax. The Weinsteins and Mr Eisner have been at loggerheads for some time, and speculation is rife in Hollywood that Miramax may prefer to find a new corporate sponsor when its contract with Disney comes up for renewal later this year.
Matthew Hiltzik, a Miramax spokesman, remained guarded on these issues, saying only: "We're discussing the issue with Disney. We're looking at all of our options and look forward to resolving this amicably."
The flap gave rise to two competing interpretations yesterday. One, that Mr Moore is indeed a victim of an attempted corporate muzzling, and the other that he is deliberately creating a controversy where little or none exists to generate publicity for the film and trigger a bidding war for the US distribution rights, which have yet to be settled.
Either way, the documentary-maker has once again put himself front and centre of a political row likely to inflame partisan passions on all sides. In 2001, he fought with his publishers, Harper Collins, over the publication of his anti-Bush book Stupid White Men, which Harper Collins felt was politically insensitive in the immediate wake of 11 September. The book was delayed but eventually released in its original form, becoming an overnight bestseller.
Last year, Mr Moore cried censorship again after his unabashedly political speech at the Oscars - he called Mr Bush a "fictitious" president who had just started the Iraq invasion for "fictitious reasons" - was greeted with jeers and boos.
His film about gun violence, Bowling for Columbine, had just picked up the Academy Award for Best Documentary and went on to gross $22m (£12m) in North America alone, from an original budget of about $3m. Fahrenheit 911 was conceived as a provocative project from the outset. It promises to blow the cover on the cosy connections between the Bush family and the Saudi royal family and show how the White House has only exposed Americans to greater danger, instead of protecting them, since the suicide attacks on the World Trade Centre and Pentagon two and a half years ago.
Mel Gibson's production company, Icon, was originally involved but dropped out this time last year. Miramax then decided to pick up the $6m production cost on its own. Despite the near-certainty of making a profit on the venture, this was done against the express opposition of Mr Eisner.
"Michael Eisner asked me not to sell this movie to Harvey Weinstein; that doesn't mean I listened to him," Mr Moore's agent, Ari Emanuel, was quoted saying in The New York Times. "He definitely indicated there were tax incentives he was getting for the Disney corporation [in Florida] and that's why he didn't want me to sell it to Miramax. He didn't want a Disney company involved." Whether or not Florida was a factor, Disney certainly came under pressure from other quarters. Various conservative organisations threatened to boycott Disney, blasting the company, as one right-wing internet activist put it, "for involving itself with this vile director and his offensive abuse of a national tragedy that is considered sacred to most Americans".
At the same time, Miramax was bombarded with messages from the other side of the political fence praising the company for its support of Mr Moore.
Miramax would clearly like Disney to distribute the film in the United States, because it avoids the need to share profits with another company. The company appears to have held out some hope that it could talk Mr Eisner into it once the film was completed. There is no indication, however, that it was counting on this, or that Mr Eisner has somehow reneged on an earlier promise.
"The only thing that's new here is in Disney's reaffirmation of their previously stated position," one well-placed source said on condition of anonymity. "Miramax never said it was distributing the film, even if people assumed it would find a way." The source also denied that Fahrenheit 911 was causing any significant personal friction between Mr Eisner and Mr Weinstein, pointing out that they could hardly be getting along worse as it is. "There's plenty of other issues to have catfights over," he said.
Mr Moore was not immediately available to answer the charge that he was creating controversy for promotional purposes. He is still at work finalising the print he will take to Cannes.Reuse content