I called up the three most prominent agents in New York and left a message (agents don’t take calls; they only return calls – if you’re lucky) that I wanted to talk about Michael Ovitz and the business of agenting.
“Andrew doesn’t believe he would have anything to contribute to the subject,” said the assistant to Andrew Wylie, the agent known as the Jackal.
“I just don’t want to,” said Amanda Urban, known as Binky, who runs the New York literary department at International Creative Management, when I pressed her about why she wouldn’t talk about her business.
“He’s packing for an overseas trip,” said the assistant to the king of New York agents, Morton Janklow, when I called back a seventh time.
Of course, this was a fool’s errand. In my 25-year experience of having an agent – from a Wellesley-ish woman with a circle pin, to a diva who changed her middle name to Superagent, to junior members of the movie department at ICM, to the top honchos (who suddenly became interested in me when Michael Eisner mistakenly called me up), to my present agent, with whom, remarkably, I actually get along (whom I might even have in my home) – the one thing I have learned agents do not want to talk about is agents. There are many reasons for this, beginning with the fact that there are a million agent jokes (there is something about working on commission that turns people comical and sociopathic) and going on to the discomfort of the middleman (and the inherent conflicts of interests); the difficulties of explaining the idiosyncrasies of a “relationship” business (and its inherent conflicts of interests); the lack of professional training, standards, and performance goals; and, of course, the fact that the agenting business itself depends upon the relative ignorance of an agent’s clients about what exactly an agent does. The other reason agents don’t want to talk about agenting is that it is hard to explain the logic for how they get paid: why what they do today is worth 10 or 15 percent for all eternity.
But the agenting business is now open for discussion in a way that it has perhaps never been open before, because the most famous agent of all time (other than Lucianne Goldberg) may not want to be an agent anymore – or, maybe, really does want to be an agent again.
Part of Michael Ovitz’s accomplishment is that he made being an agent seem like something so much larger than just being an agent; he made it a profession that regular, upwardly mobile people might even take up. So it is, to say the least, a kick in the pants that Michael Ovitz, beginning what many of his former colleagues feel is a new march to world domination – with the recent launch of his Artists Management Group – is back to stealing clients and making agents look like weasels again. Of course, the fact that other agents keep screaming that stealing clients just isn’t done in this business tends to reinforce the weaseliness.
He has been out of the agenting business for almost four years. What’s more, he’s had three career-blotting failures in that time – he screwed up his own negotiation to become the CEO of MCA/ Universal; he inexplicably agreed to become the No. 2 at Disney and then, fourteen months later, was ignominiously fired; he took over Garth Drabinsky’s Livent without apparently realizing that its books were cooked and it was headed for bankruptcy. But as soon as he rented new office space at the end of the summer to start a talent-management firm, he became the focus of the entertainment industry’s vast anxieties. What would he do? Whom would he take with him? From whom would he exact tribute or retribution?
Ah, the Ovitz obsession.
He created an agency called CAA that does pretty much what its competitors – ICM, William Morris, and a host of smaller agencies – do. CAA was (and remains) highly profitable; it afforded Ovitz and his team a fabulous living; and, through clever use of its relationships, it built a franchise at the center of the movie business. Still, a service company, without hard assets and with limited revenues, is not what we mean when we say Michael Ovitz.
What, then, goes the Hollywood parlor game, is the magic he possesses?
“You want to know about Michael Ovitz? I’ll tell you about Michael Ovitz,” says his rival and antagonist Bernie Brillstein, of the talent-management firm Brillstein-Grey. “He’s full of crap.”
Or, to put it another way, business, like art, has a lot to do with the Zeitgeist, the bullshit artist standing alone at the intersection of cultural crosscurrents and power shifts.
The main theme in the media business during the Ovitz years has been the transformation of relatively discrete producers of entertainment products into massive financial combines. One result of this concentration of capital has been that producing movies, or making television shows, or publishing books, or discovering and cultivating talent, has fallen way down on the list of corporate priorities. (Buying or merging with other conglomerates is more to the point.) Indeed, movie executives are so risk-averse that they spend much of their time trying to figure out how not to make movies. If Titanic, the most successful movie of all time, failed to move the share price of the two companies that backed the project – News Corp and Viacom – then, well, why bother?
It is, in other words, massively difficult to get anything accomplished within these empires except on the grandest scale: The bureaucracy is too great, the ass-protecting too pervasive, the corporate focus too fleeting. Insiders have therefore turned to outsiders to get their jobs done. (This is true not just in the media business but in virtually all business; on this basis, the consulting industry has been created.) It became more efficient for Mike Ovitz to put together the elements of movies – the package – than it was for executives at any of the various media companies. Ovitz could cut through red tape; Ovitz could circumvent corporate hierarchies; Ovitz could provide political cover; Ovitz could employ his independent power base; Ovitz could give, in effect, the green light. The paradigm shift is that pre-Ovitz, talent was dependent on agents; post-Ovitz, purchasers of talent were dependent on agents, too.
Still, agents are agents. Vulgarians who can talk. Mailroom- rather than B-school-trained. Michael Eisner in his autobiography paints Ovitz in classic agent mode – schmoozer, handler, sycophant. The first time they met, according to Eisner, Ovitz poured on the unctuous charm and the phone calls and sent Eisner’s wife flowers. No doubt a calculated dig by Eisner at his former friend and employee – because this is exactly the smarmy professional style that Ovitz has overcome. Ovitz (almost single-handedly) has brought agenting into the business (i.e., corporate) mainstream not least of all by bringing himself into the mainstream: He becomes a leading benefactor of UCLA Medical Center (as part of his schmooze, he can dole out the best medical treatment L.A. has to offer); he joins the board of the Museum of Modern Art (the real museum of modern art – the one in New York, not the L.A. Museum of Contemporary Art); he hires I. M. Pei to build CAA a corporate monument in the middle of Beverly Hills; he runs CAA using management science, smoothing the edges of the usual cutthroat internal agenting wars. (Ovitz is said to be a man of dazzling administrative skill – a scarcity in Hollywood.) And he distinguishes himself personally. In a town of excesses, he becomes the Zen master of control. A producer I know recounts a meeting between Michael Douglas and Ovitz. Douglas, a CAA client, invites Ovitz to a house in Maui he’s rented. “We’re going to party nonstop,” says Douglas. “Michael,” says Ovitz, “you know I spend weekends with my family.”
Perhaps most critical to the Ovitz myth: Ovitz steps out of Hollywood, one of the world’s great provincial towns. He learns to talk to investment bankers, to the Japanese, to Madison Avenue. In a profane business, Ovitz is one of the few people who can talk in the abstractions of financiers and global business thinkers.
“How many comedy clubs has Michael Ovitz ever been to?” asks Bernie Brillstein.
That is sort of the point.
But Hollywood has a glass ceiling. There’s everyone else, and then there are people who really control the media conglomerates. Ovitz made a series of ghastly mistakes trying to break through the glass ceiling. You can read these mistakes as those of an overreacher – he’s never run a large company, so why did he assume he could run Disney? Or you can read his mistakes as part of a restless search for a next chapter.
In other words, what does Michael Ovitz, at the age of 53, with riches beyond imagining, want to be?
He does not, apparently, want to be an agent; he says he wants to be a manager.
The distinction seems inbred: Theoretically, a manager develops talent and an agent sells it. Managers can produce and have ownership stakes; agents, falling under guild and other legal regulations, have to go through hoops to do that (and many do). Practically speaking, though, agents and managers are very much on the same turf – middlemen between freelance talent and institutional money. (From the studio’s point of view, talent pays the agent, whereas studios, through production deals, are forced to pay the managers.) Ovitz’s former partners clearly do not believe that he’s going to do anything different from what he’s always done. CAA has issued a Hollywood-style you’ll-never-work-in-this-town-again ultimatum, saying it won’t represent talent that signs up with Ovitz – Leonardo DiCaprio, Cameron Diaz, Robin Williams so far.
Others believe Ovitz really doesn’t want to be a middleman of any sort, that he wants to be Michael Eisner, or wants to be Barry Diller or Herbert Allen.
“What does he want to be? He wants to be Michael Ovitz again,” says Brillstein. “He wants to be back on top where he was.”
And then there is a school of thought that says he wants to be something that doesn’t exist in the movie business. A visionary. That is, he wants to engineer another paradigm shift. (Or, another school believes, he just wants you to think he’s capable of another paradigm shift.)
The insular Hollywood point of view is that there will always be stars and, hence, star vehicles, which protect the movie industry against the vagaries of the tectonic shifts occurring in the media, information, and entertainment businesses. On the other hand, Hollywood movies suck. Its dependable stars are old; its new stars have increasingly shorter life spans. Record companies – or, at least, the music-distribution system – are headed for the ash heap. Indeed, technology is creating a distribution revolution that no one in the entertainment business (not least of all because they know nothing about technology) wants to think about.
Can Michael Ovitz be the Hollywood guy who sees beyond Hollywood? Can he understand technology, grasp convergence, reengineer the way talent is cultivated, represented, financed, owned? Can he make content king and appoint himself regent? Is he that smart? Does he have that kind of energy?
Stay tuned … but in the meantime, hold on to your clients.