Month: August 2019

SHORTAKES: Al Lutz or Not Al Lutz, That is the Question

A disclaimer: Over the past decade, I have been a contributor to Disney fan-operated websites Jim Hill Media and MiceChat. I am currently a shareholder of the Walt Disney Company and I write on a regular basis both professionally and as a blogger about the company and its competitors. I personally have known Todd Regan, AKA Dusty Sage, for close to twenty-five years, though only in the capacity of us both being theme park fans and on a professional basis. I have read Al Lutz’s writings for decades and chatted with him via IRQ a few times in the mid-90s. I have never met Al in person. Until yesterday, I had no idea who in the hell Gary Snyder was. I thought he was one of our greatest poets. Apparently, anybody can tarnish a name. Everything I’ll be writing in this post is opinion and observation based on facts readily available on the internet. For those that are lawsuit happy, there’s a disclaimer tab above which goes into more detail on how opinions work on this blog.

On August 18, a blog post appeared (some call it an article, but it lacks the finesse of editorial oversight), which stated that the columns of the long-time Disney critic Al Lutz on the MiceChat website were actually being written in one form or another by a Disney staffer. I won’t link to this particular blog post because it’s difficult to read, but rather will link to Madness Kingdom’s crib notes version, because it’s much easier on the eyes and the brain.

So I have three questions:

  • Did Disney’s communications team manipulate social media to impact public opinion?
  • Is there a personal agenda between the author and MiceChat?
  • What was Gary Snyder hoping to get out of this?

I’ll start with the question of whether or not Disney manipulates social media.

Of course they do. All large corporations do. There is plenty of data (not necessarily from Disney) of corporate employees participating en masse in surveys and polls to manipulate results. It’s also common for corporate representatives to participate in message boards or on social media channels under monikers and bios that do not give out their true identities or intent.

So, I have no doubt that Disney manipulates social media. But did a Disney employee start writing Al Lutz’s opinion pieces for him?

Back in the early and mid-90s, I was a young IMAX projectionist looking for something to do on my days off when I discovered the internet in the local university library. Via Usenet and later IRQ, I participated in a board called alt.disney.disneyland (A.D.D.). Many of the people who went on to found leading Disney and theme park fan sites – Rob Alvey (Theme Park Review), Jim Hill (Jim Hill Media), Kevin Yee (Ultimate Orlando), Todd Regan (now going by his moniker as CEO of MiceChat, Dusty Sage), and Al – were all there.

One thing was very clear from the start – Al was surprisingly well connected within the Disney organization and, even back then, most – not all – but most of what he reported proved to be true. A few years later, as I developed professional contacts within Disney – both on the film side and at Imagineering – inevitably someone at the company would ask if I knew Al and if I knew where he got his information. This happened about three or four times between 1997 and 2005.

Did a Disney staffer try to use Al’s pedestal to oust Michael Eisner?

If he did, it wasn’t necessary. Al has always been cantankerous, yet eloquent, and he’s always spoken his mind. If he wasn’t happy with something, he’d let you know.  And if Al wanted someone out, he didn’t need someone whispering in his ear to tell him so.

Did this same Disney staffer write Al’s recent piece on the failure of Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge?

Likely not. I have a feeling that Al, in his feeble state, dictated what he could, still remaining in contact with people at Disney in the know. Then someone at MiceChat transcribed it and gave it the elocution that the site’s readers expected from Al.

Is Al correct?

He’s been right quite a bit of the time. But over the years, some of his information has been off – way off – to the point of completely missing the mark.

Is there an agenda between the writer and MiceChat?

According to an official statement that was posted on the MiceChat forums,

Folks, as we digest what was alleged in this nearly unreadable hit piece by Dusty’s ex-husband and his friend (and banned MiceChat user), we can tell you without a shadow of a doubt that the entire gist of the article is wrong. In fact, it’s slander. Anyone that has ever read the Al Articles knows the truth.

Supposedly, the unnamed source in the piece is Dusty’s ex. I don’t know the circumstances regarding their separation. Frankly, it’s not my concern. And that leaves two possibilities. This was either a personal hit piece out of spice. Or Dusty’s ex (who I’ve opted not to name) was manipulated by the author.

Finally, what was Gary Snyder hoping to get out of this? More importantly, who is Gary Snyder?

Snyder’s late father was the cousin to Sumner Redstone, who, through the company’s firm National Amusements, is the controlling shareholder of CBS and Viacom. By all appearances from his family’s interests in National, Snyder will be greatly affected by the impending merger of Viacom and CBS, of which Sumner’s daughter Shari will be Chair of the Board.

Snyder has placed himself in a pivotal position between Sumner and his daughter. For example, the Los Angeles Times reported on December 17, 2018, on a court ruling that the 98-year old Sumner was incapacitated. The article states:

The judge opened Monday’s hearing by disclosing that he had received an email hours earlier — at 1:38 a.m. — from a cousin of Redstone’s who had expressed an objection to the proceeding. In the email, which was reviewed by The Times, Redstone cousin Gary Snyder said that he had filed an elder-abuse report this year that alleged that Redstone’s former girlfriends had taken advantage of the mogul. “Obviously, I have not responded to this,” Cowan told the attorneys who participated in the hearing. “There are ways to do this during business hours…. We’re open for business from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.” Then, as the hearing was concluding, a man near the back of the courtroom raised his hand and asked to be heard. It was Snyder. The judge beckoned him to step forward. “My email speaks for itself,” Snyder told the judge. Then he noted that none of Redstone’s close family members were in attendance. “I am the only blood relative of Mr. Redstone to find this court hearing worthy of my time,” Snyder said. Outside the courtroom, Snyder acknowledged that he hadn’t seen Redstone for years. Still, he said, he was troubled that the only participants in the proceedings were eight attorneys, who represented the Redstone and Herzer sides. “They were arguing about the estate of a man who is still alive,” Snyder said. “And in some way, Sumner is paying for all of this.

In a Feb 17, 2016 opinion piece in The Wrap, in an eerie premonition of his allegations of Disney ghostwriting Lutz’s columns, Snyder states (Note: Dauman is former Viacom CEO Philippe Dauman):

 Shari Redstone only gains control upon Sumner’s death or incapacitation. Of the former, it is inevitable. Of the latter, with [former Sumner Redstone girlfriend] Manuela Herzer’s claims front and center, I believe Shari is confident she can bide her time. (She has waited this long, why take an unnecessary risk and show Manuela’s claims to be in any way legitimate?)

The situation is complicated. The board of a publicly traded company that has reason to believe its CEO has been making up the quotes and all of the communications of the company’s founder and majority shareholder should dismiss that individual. But instead Dauman has been repeatedly rewarded.

Dating to the summer of 2014, Dauman and other confidantes outside of the family have been acting in ways to make it appear Sumner is somehow actively involved in managing Viacom and CBS — and his own life — when that is wholly inconsistent with the day-to-day reality.

The truth: When it was not Manuela Herzer who appeared to be making up quotes attributed to Sumner, it was likely Dauman doing the ghostwriting.

Snyder’s public attacks on Shari Redstone continue to this day, as in this August 16, 2019 piece in Los Angeles Magazine, wherein author Alex Ben Block writes:

Shari’s strict adherence to Jewish law has at times conflicted with her duties as an executive, says Gary Snyder, her cousin and Sumner’s nephew.

“A common issue had to do with Shari’s refusal to accept telephone calls, or anything from the outside, on the Sabbath,” says Snyder. Snyder questions how Shari can be observant and be a mogul. “The strict tenants of Shari’s faith are totally incompatible with her new role,” says Snyder, who says Shari’s devout demeanor masks a ruthlessness that has successfully hobbled many of her unsuspecting opponents.

It’s a description similar to that Snyder gives Zenia Mucha, the EVP of Corporate Communications for Disney in his current piece:

Mucha earned her reputation as an off-with-their-heads but always-on-message political operative for then-New York Governor George Pataki who came to Disney’s ABC television network having been courted by Robert A. Iger. At the time, Mucha had turned her role as communications director and advisor to the governor to include, as the New York Times noted, “virtually every major decision made by the governor.

Arriving on-scene in Burbank, the rise was swift and deliberate. By May of 2002, with longtime CEO Michael D. Eisner in a curiously choreographed media swiftboating, Mucha, who was known as “Director of Revenge” in her prior life as a politico and termed “Mickey Mouse’s Karl Rove” by journalist Matt Stoller, was promoted to director of corporate communications for ABC’s parent company — the Walt Disney Company. Replacing John Dreyer, a trusted and loyal keeper of the Disney brand, Mucha was a harsh turn from the almost family-like atmosphere Michael Eisner and Frank Wells, Disney’s former president, had fostered as part of their rise to the very top of the House of Mouse.

The timing on the Snyder piece on Al Lutz is interesting to say the least, coming a few days after the announcement of the Viacom-CBS merger and a few days before the D23 convention, where Disney will be unveiling its film, television, and theme park projects for the coming years.

Clearly, as an author, Snyder has an issue with Disney CEO Robert Iger. It’s apparent in a Huffington Post piece from 2015 on Iger’s impending departure from the company and again in a somewhat inaccurate piece on Disney in China (which fails to mention the successful Disney English centers, where Chinese children learn the language while being indoctrinated into Disney culture).

In the Al Lutz piece, I see Snyder positioning himself as a kingmaker. To paraphrase: “I came up with the idea of Disney using a trusted voice. I’m responsible for George Kalogridis getting a huge promotion. I made Bob Iger King. I can bring him down.”

But did he do all this?

In his new piece, he calls Al Lutz an “influencer,” someone that the mainstream media listen to and thus someone who could influence the board and shareholders. He cites an LA Times piece from 2007 and a Los Angeles Magazine piece from 2005. But according to Snyder, the appropriation of Al Lutz by the Disney Communications team took place in 2002.

And here’s the problem with all that. Four years ago, the infiltration program Snyder described was losing money. In his 2015 Huffington Post piece on Iger’s departure from the company, Snyder writes:

Starting in the mid-1990s, superfan Al Lutz became a prominent voice on the Disney brand as the Burbank-based media behemoth increasingly relied on the cash heavy theme parks and resorts as a backstop for failures and deficiencies in other segments of the company. Using at first the imprimatur and later that of, Lutz championed the vaunted Disney of Walt’s day.

Delivering management changes at the parks, specifically in Anaheim at the industry making Disneyland, Mr. Lutz became a well-known personality and pundit of the Disney product from the consumers’ lens. With that, for the first time, Disney found itself being questioned not by Wall Street but by Main Street.

Not long after Mr. Lutz launched into the Disney-verse, Stephen Frearson, an import from the United Kingdom, premiered — a Walt Disney World centered site. And around both, communities grew and conversations were had. Still today, these conversations occur with regularity. Only, the dollars spent on Disney by these most devoted of fans have dwindled.

Well, heck. If Disney’s not making money off its most adamant fans, then the infiltration’s not working and the kingmaker may turn out to just be a jester.

Just my opinion.

SHORTAKES: In An Epic Move, Universal Garnered Millions of Dollars of Free Publicity by Hyping Nothing

UPDATED to include D23 Seven days in advance, invitations went out to members of the Orlando media for a press conference to be held August 1 at the Orlando Convention Center. Theme park bloggers apparently weren’t on the list, which upset quite a few as … Continue reading SHORTAKES: In An Epic Move, Universal Garnered Millions of Dollars of Free Publicity by Hyping Nothing