Who is Michael Ovitz?

Michael Ovitz

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Highly Recommend

Awesome book that really puts you in the head of Michael Ovitz, the most powerful man in Hollywood in the 80’s and 90’s. In addition to some great celebrity stories, it really shows how much he accomplished in his career (which I had no idea about before reading this book).


I taught our agents to reach for the club every day but to never, or almost never, pick it up. Power is only power until you exert it – it’s all perception. I was that club.

Was their hair dyed? Did they wear a wig? Did the elements of their outfits match? Were they clean shaven? This was before these scruffy look pervaded the business. Someone with hair curling out of his ears or dirty fingernails wasn’t someone I wanted to cultivate. If a guy walked in with a huge gold chain and gold watch he’d better be a hip-hop artist, otherwise he was announcing his insecurity. Anyone who scanned me would see a thoughtful dresser in a blue suit with a white or blue shirt and black shoes (never brown) accessorized only by a leather-strapped watch. I wore no jewelry, not even a wedding band. I sat up straight. I was sympathetic and I focused intensely on you, always turning the conversation away from myself. As I discovered by seeing my persona reflected in the eager eyes of my clients, that focus drew them in. And the contrast between the relaxed demeanor and the humming engine underneath, which people felt subconsciously, was comforting if you were on my side of the table and curiously alarming if you were across from me.

I was a deal maker. I could have hammered home a deal to get Dave [Letterman] his dream job, but I didn’t do it. Or even tell Dave that I could because it wasn’t right for him. A late night show wasn’t a one-off, like a book or a movie. His career hung in the balance. Sometimes representing a client’s best interests means not getting him what he thinks he wants. The judgment part of the job requires knowing when to redirect a client’s desires.

This grudge against my surroundings, this sense that I had been raised in the wrong nest like a cuckoo’s egg, fueled me when I began my working life. I always felt one step inferior to the people around me and one step superior. I wasn’t as creative or cultured as they were but I was a lot smarter and more hardworking than most of them. Insecurity and ambition make a powerful cocktail.

I was repulsed when I learned the methods of one of our agents: he’d sign aspiring actresses just to screw them (then tossed the contracts). Agents in those days were functionaries, fielders of offers. They weren’t respected in the creative community and they didn’t respect their clients all that much either. They didn’t poach because they weren’t aggressive. They lived by quantity of work, not quality.

…we would pioneer the “calm, no bullshit” approach, saying instead, “let me look into it and I’ll get right back to you.” We’d be better agents because we wouldn’t agent you. The other thing that would differentiate us, and it was a big one, was that we would create work for our clients not just field offers. Everyone agreed. Suddenly the revolt felt real.

I drained a glass of water and cleared my throat. I needed to believe in what I was about to say and my voice absolutely could not crack. I rang Leon Kaplan. He sounded arrogant and why not. He pegged CAA as weak broken defenseless. “Mr. Kaplan,” I said. “We haven’t met but I know who you represent. I think you’re trying to put us out of business. I think it’s inappropriate and unfair and it could be really interesting if this went to the Justice Department in the middle of their antitrust investigation.” My tone was firm but matter-of-fact. I went on: “you can rip up this letter and we can all be friends and forget about it or you can pursue it and I will call a pal of mine who happens to work at Justice and I’ll ask him to throw this into the hopper and we’ll see how it all sorts out.” Dead silence. Then Kaplan said, “what are you suggesting?” “I’m suggesting you send me a handwritten letter within the next two hours withdrawing the first letter or tomorrow morning I’ll call my friend.” Then I thanked him and hung up. I gave no thought to the repercussions or to the fact that I was bluffing because we’d be out of business before the feds could get around to dealing with the call I’d never make anyway to a friend I didn’t have. I played my hand as calmly as I could and waited for the outcome. Only after I hung up did I realize my hands were shaking. Time crawled by 15 minutes before the deadline. A messenger arrived with a new letter from Kaplan. In the space of an afternoon, he moved from cease and desist to cease fire.

If we filmed a movie with clients, and only with clients, we could present the whole package to the studios giving them nothing to do except say yes or no. This was a crucial shift. We began to view studios as little more than banks and distribution vehicles. They financed the movies and get them into the theater but the films were essentially ours.

No part of the transaction I muscled through was about helping talented people pursue or refine their vision. It was zero Creative Artists and 100% Agency. I had become everything I detested in the 60s when I was a bleeding heart liberal at UCLA: the very symbol of the establishment. I had become The Man.

In the early 80s, I’d begun collecting relationships. For instance, I reached out to Felix Rohatyn, the Lazard Freres banker who had almost single-handedly rescued New York City from bankruptcy in the 70s, and who was on the board of FCA and had Lew Wasserman’s ear. I called and asked to see him saying, “I need no more than 10 minutes of your time.” On my next trip to New York, I went to his office, shook hands and placed my watch on his desk. Then I said, “I’d love to talk to you about how you saved New York and also how you advised Lew to learn from the dean. And I’d love to be helpful to you in L.A. in any way I can.” All to get him talking and to show that I knew what he’d done and that I admired it and wanted to learn from it. After 10 minutes I said, “thanks so much,” and stood to pick up my watch. Felix (and everyone else I used this strategy on) asked me to sit back down. In this way I got to know Herb Allen, the head of Allen & Company, and Bob Greenhill at Morgan Stanley.

I bought my parents a large condo and my dad was grateful, if a little embarrassed, that I was now taking care of them. My mother was grateful in a general way but she complained that I never spent enough time with her. She was a guilt expert. She increasingly reminded me of a demanding client, the kind you can never satisfy no matter what you do. Families always want you to stay the person they think you were.

Every actor, writer or director believes he or she is responsible for his or her own success. All I did was sell that belief back to them. “Look, you’re going to make it with or without us,” I’d say. “But we can keep you at the top because we see every project first we develop for you. We represent every important studio executive so we can match you with the perfect projects. And we take care of all your other personal needs so you can focus on your work.”

That’s sort of “when the chips are down” reliability that total focus on others when it’s life or death, reassures me that I can be a decent person. It reflects the best part of me to myself. Yet treating my clients like family was hard on me and my actual family. I was up at 5:45 a.m. and 15 minutes later I’d be riding the bike in my gym and making calls to Europe and skimming five newspapers, marking articles for my assistant to strip out and distribute to the firm. After 40 minutes on the bike I’d do 30 or 40 minutes of martial arts, working to exhaustion. By 8:00 a.m., after showering and eating a fast breakfast, I’d be on the car phone en route to the office. After our morning meeting, I’d take meetings, have lunch, a drink with a colleague, and a working dinner, all in between running calls (up to 300 phone conversations a day): Spielberg to Kubrick to dinero to Hoffman to Murray. Each call as important as the rest. I had all these brilliant and talented children as clients and I could never give them enough time and attention. And unlike with my actual children I could never make a mistake or they’d fire me.

If we had direct access to the moguls who own the media and would-be buyers had to go through us to get to those moguls, well that would be a great position to be in. It became the heart of our (meaning my) new five-year plan. Ultimately I wanted to own a studio but I figured that if we became deal advisors, or even principals, it would put more distance between us and the other agencies, bring in larger fees, and keep me from getting bored.

They listed their services, each one with a fee. They charged for everything but continental breakfast. Hirata’s smile grew wider as I leafed through them and I understood: CAA was the only one to forgo a fee letter. In all our dealings in Japan, we never had a written contract. Our attitude was, “we know you will do the honourable thing.”

I had convinced the last mogul to sell out before he went under to a company he’d met with only twice. I had proved myself in M&A. I had won. Hirata… gave me a colossal check to distribute as I saw fit: one hundred and thirty five million dollars. After paying the bankers and all the consultants, I was left with 60 million dollars for CAA worth (110 million dollars today).

Of course my elevated profile pissed off my partners and I began to feel that I was a hamster on a wheel. Part of me felt I was running on the wrong wheel, that I should be going into business for myself. And part of me believed I wasn’t really a hamster but a cheetah: the fastest animal in the field. Even as everyone from Ted Ashley, to Ron, to my wife was telling me to slow down, I wanted to speed up.

Seinfeld or Letterman aficionados weren’t the same people who followed daytime soaps or the NBA playoffs. Friday night sitcoms skewed younger than Saturday Night Live, and much younger than ABC Sunday Night Movie. Why not trade the shotgun for a rifle? Why not customize ads for each group?

My father used to tell me stories about the Seagram company’s patriarch Samuel Bronfman, the Canadian bootlegger who built a billion dollar dynasty. He was a seat-of-the-pants entrepreneur like the old studio chiefs. I could tell how much my dad respected him. In 1985, my father turned 65. I moved my parents to a house near us in Brentwood but my father had no outside interests, no hobbies. Without work, he’d fade away. Edgar Bronfman Jr., Sam’s grandson, was the company’s CEO. I made an appointment to see Edgar (whom I’d never met) in the Seagram building on Park Avenue. After the usual pleasantries, I said, “I’d like to ask a favor and I’ll owe you.” “What’s the favor?” My father, David Ovitz, has worked for you for 45 years and he’s about to be forced to retire. I’d like you to keep him on; I’ll reimburse you whatever you’re paying him including taxes, so won’t cost you anythings I just want to be sure he doesn’t lose his job. Edgar said, “I know your father has been with us since Chicago.” He clearly prepped for the meeting which I took as a sign of respect. “He’s a wonderful guy and everyone likes him. I’ll keep him on and you don’t have to pay me anything.” My dad worked for Seagram until he was nearly 80 and never knew why an exception had been made.

Like me Ron yearned for the status and ease of the buy-side. He’d recently caught a ride to New York on a company jet with Terry Semel the co-CEO at Warner. With a stack of scripts to read in between business calls, Ron worked five hours straight. Terry, meanwhile, had a little something to eat. He picked up a screenplay, leafed through it for an hour, laid it down and had a glass of wine. He read a few more pages. Then he took a nap. “He’s a buyer,” Ron told me afterward, wistfully. “He does whatever he wants. Everyone calls him and he doesn’t have to call anybody back.” That sounded pretty good.

I never stopped loving artists and the creative process. I never lost my fascination for the magic of making something from nothing, but agenting was a young person’s game and you could run just so long and so far. At 48, having run since my first day at William Morris, I was tired. I was tired of getting up at 6:00a.m. and squeezing in a workout while on the phone with Europe. I was tired of rolling through 300 calls a day, talking till my throat was raw. I was tired of having lunches and dinners scheduled three months out. I was tired of flying 600 hours a year, the equivalent of one work week a month. I was tired of owning six tuxedos for the 30 obligatory events between November 1st and Christmas. I was tired of returning calls to 7:00p.m., going to dinner till 10:00, coming home to a mountain of pink message slips, calling Japan till midnight and starting all over again tomorrow.

As Marc and Ben led me into their world, I felt like a privileged student in a graduate school of one. After they sold Opsware, I asked Marc about joining their angel investment group. “Funny you should mention that,” he said. “Ben and I are thinking about doing something more formal.” As their venture capital firm began to take shape I coached them about how to make Andreesen Horowitz stand out. The idea that took was to offer a full menu of business services, a novel approach in venture, whose stars tend to be one-man bands who freelance out of a larger firm. In other words, Marc and Ben set out to be the CAA of Silicon Valley.

I sat back down. eBay ended up buying the tech, and as we walked out John Donahoe put his arm around me and said, “you’ve just learned something very important about the valley. There are no manners here. Just brain challenges. It’s about getting to the truth of the idea anyway you can.” If Hollywood is like high school with money, as people often say, the lesson from that eBay meeting is that Silicon Valley is a true meritocracy. The best idea with the best execution wins. In Hollywood I was always going to be judged against my own legacy at CAA, whereas in Silicon Valley I was judged simply on the ideas I brought to the white board. My big mistake in retrospect had been starting AMG when I should have moved to Silicon Valley and become a principal in the tech revolution.

Brian asked, “how did you learn to think so big at CAA?” I reminded him that AirBnB had consistently thought big. It hadn’t been at all content with its original business of renting out air mattresses on floors. Then I added that one way to conceptualize how to think in business is a martial arts precept. If you aim at the target, you lose all your power. You have to hit through the target to really smash it. To get where you want to go, you have to set out to go even further.

In my empty fortress, I realized that I wasn’t out of the valley yet. I’m free of it in my daily life and in my bank account but I’ll never be free of it in my brain. You carry your origins with you. Still, those origins drove me here and built this place and attracted so many bright, funny, creative colleagues. In the silence, I discovered that the only thing I really miss about the agency business was the camaraderie: my comrades and friends and the passionate way we spent our lives together. I miss the people.

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