October 30, 2004 in Business

When cultures collide

Mary McNamara Los Angeles Times

GEORGETOWN, Del. – Michael Ovitz stayed in a hotel with no room service.

High-powered L.A attorneys learned that there are places where “freeway accessibility” means there is one – an hour and a half away.

Vanity Fair columnist Dominick Dunne ate in a restaurant where the salad dressing came in plastic packets and, for a minute or two, no one knew who he was.

Hollywood has come to Georgetown, Del. The suit filed by Walt Disney Co. stockholders trying to recoup $200 million in payments and interest tied to the exit package given to Ovitz when he left the company in 1996 is finally being heard. It’s hard to tell who’s the most disoriented – the 5,000 residents of the tranquil and historic Sussex County seat who cannot imagine why photographers and TV cameramen are hanging around the Chancery Courthouse to film a bunch of lawyers and taking up perfectly good parking spaces, or the West Coast and New York litigants struggling to cope in a town with only one restaurant, no juice bar, no gym and a coffeehouse that closes at 1 p.m.

What is clear is that the celebrity of Hollywood Power Players has limits, and those limits do not extend into lower Delaware. “Who is he again?” a photographer up from Baltimore asked after he dutifully shot Ovitz entering the courtroom.

“I did hear Sidney Poitier might be in town,” said Debi Marker, a waitress at Smith’s, the town’s lone sit-down restaurant. (The actor was a Disney director when Ovitz was president.) “That would be interesting.”

Delaware, the self-proclaimed First State, is also the state in which many Fortune 500 companies, including Disney, choose to incorporate. If the Disney case had been heard a year ago, testimony would have occurred in Wilmington, which is an hour by train from New York or Washington D.C. But last May, a new Chancery Court building opened in Georgetown and, since William Chandler III, chief judge of the state’s Court of Chancery, lives nearby, this is where he decided to hold the trial. So lawyers and witnesses on both sides of the Disney debate found themselves two hours from any major airport, walking past half a dozen historic red brick buildings that, with their patriotic bunting and ornate weather vanes, could have been transported directly from Disneyland’s Main Street USA.

Inside the courtroom, which is so small there is room for only seven reporters, Ovitz defended his performance during his 15-month tenure at Disney in testimony that rang with Hollywoodese – CAA had been devoted to “packaging the talent” and cable pioneer Geraldine Laybourne was a “good get” for Disney. Money? Well money was not the point. “I took a million-dollar salary, which in this country is a lot of money but in the entertainment industry isn’t even a base salary. So it wasn’t about money; I didn’t even think about it.”

Outside, the folks who come into Smith’s or the nearby Georgetown Deli are lawyers and farmers, civil servants and shop owners. The waitresses are not looking to slip you a resume and head shot, no one is wearing Prada, everyone’s waistbands are worn at their waists and Botox is clearly not available anywhere nearby.

None of the attorneys is staying in Georgetown because there is no place to stay in Georgetown – the only hotel in town is a Comfort Inn out on DuPont Highway. So both teams, representing seven law firms in L.A., New York and Wilmington, and their witnesses are putting up in Rehoboth Beach, a small seaside vacation community 15 miles away. Every day the litigants board minivans and ride past the oceanside strip, with its sprawl of outlet malls and fast-food restaurants, then along the two-lane rural route that leads to Georgetown.

“It’s really lovely here,” said Ovitz when he arrived in court for the first time on Tuesday. “I spent last night eating at Friendly’s and walking through Wal-Mart. The two things the West Coast needs is Friendly’s and Steak ‘n Ale, and you can learn everything you need to know about America walking through Wal-Mart.”

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