Photos by Live Talks LA
The only reason I scored a ticket to the sold-out reunion of legendary Hollywood moguls (and foes) Michael Ovitz and Ron Meyer is because I slept with the producer.
For months, my boyfriend, Ted Habte-Gabr, had been receiving plaintive communiqués from tout le Hollywood, begging for seats to this particular event in his Live Talks LA speaker series--especially when they learned it would not be videotaped, as most of his events are.
Bestselling writer James Andrew Miller, whose new book "Powerhouse: The Untold Story of Hollywood's Creative Artists Agency" chronicles the rise of the talent agency CAA, would be on Ted's stage, quizzing the fabled firm's co-creators--who would be appearing publicly together for the first time in 20 years. If you were in "the business," you had to be present. "This is my Frost and Nixon," implored one appeal. "I MUST be there."
Though neither my professional nor personal interests take me anywhere near the Hollywood orbit, I'm wired, as a career journalist, to appreciate a good story. When Ovitz postponed the initial date because of back surgery, my curiosity was piqued further. Was he looking for a way out? What would happen when the two men met?
And so I went last Thursday to people-watch from the back of the room, diving into Miller's opus for the backstory.
The story of CAA's development is one of the most important business tales of the 20th century. Shades of the dot com run-up I long-ago happily covered for the NY Times and MSNBC were evident in abundance in Miller's pages: Young ambitious agents at entrenched old-guard William Morris brazenly strike out on their own, work their asses off, deflect alliances with anyone who doubts their ability to conquer the biggest stars, eventually change the way the industry does business--steadily becoming wealthier and more powerful (and cockier) by the moment.
As Miller lays out Studs Terkel-style with hundreds of candid interviews, the tale inevitably and predictably devolves with a power struggle and acrimonious split.
Hollywood insiders young and old arrived on the big night, eagerly scouting for the best seats in the DGA theatre so they could gaze at the expected fireworks. By now, many of them had devoured the book.
Now, the principals, once the closest of allies, were to be quizzed on stage, together, with Miller--Switzerland--between them.
Live before six hundred of their peers, the men recounted the story of the events that led to the founding of their agency. The necessary ingredient to success in most any industry was clearly evident in their reminiscences: unbridled ambition.
Forty minutes in, Miller asked Ovitz who besides Meyer he sought counsel from in those heady, early days.
"There was only one guy and he's sitting on my right," Ovitz said. "We pretty much steered everything the way we wanted it to go while we had everybody else involved in feeling as if they were part of the decisions."
Meyer: "We used to joke about it, while other agencies were home reading the newspaper and cracking their eggs in bed, we were in staff meetings. We had no lawyer, we had no money, we had nothing, so we decided fuck 'em, we'll go get them. And that's what we did. For better or worse, it was a much more gentlemanly.... business before we started. Once we were let loose..no one was safe. We didn't go to sleep at night unless we stole clients."
Ovitz: "Ron and I had a goal which was 100% market share. Unfortunately it doesn't work that way unless you're in the beer business. We made lists and factually strategically targeted who we wanted."
Meyer: "No one liked us cause we were raiding their clients."
Ovitz, once considered the most hated man in Hollywood: "That's not true. Everybody liked you."
Meyer, known for being one of the sweetest: "More than you."
When Miller asked Meyer's reaction to Ovitz' ascent as the public face of the business they'd built, the conversation took a turn not for the combative, but for the confessional.
Meyer: "It was much more personal than professional. We had been through so much together. It had very little to do with the business; business was fine...I felt that, you know, our relationship had changed. Whether it was me not feeling worthy, it sounds so silly to say that...I felt so disenfranchised from our relationship."
Ovitz: "Now that I'm an old man with a cane....you look back and say to yourself what could you have done differently. We were on such a roll in every aspect of the business that I was oblivious and insensitive to a lot of the people issues....There weren't enough hours in the day. I was flying 600 hours a year to do these deals. The economics were huge....I was basically myopic in the drive to build these different businesses. When I got a taste of it after we sold--Herb Allen and I worked with the guys who formed Blackstone on selling CBS records to Sony... and when I started building those kinds of relationships I didn't realize that I was sacrificing relationships that were more important to me. I was completely engrossed in what I was doing.... I wanted to win. And when you look back on your life and realize winning at all costs is not necessarily a good thing."
Meyer: "Look, I also have some responsibility. I did not tell Mike how I was feeling....I felt he wouldn't have handled it well. I don't want to sound too altruistic, but I felt there was a much bigger picture. It was easier to shine it on than to deal with it..... Stuff built up and I allowed it to build up."
Meyer dismissed the dissolution of their partnership and friendship almost nonchalantly, as if he were erasing the last twenty years of enmity. "You're with someone for 25 years day and night. We were as close as you could be. Shit happens."
Toward the end of the conversation, Miller asked Ovitz about his vindictive purchase of a property in Malibu that Meyer had said he wanted to buy.
Ovitz: "It's really simple and uncomplicated. I was pissed off. I took the property. ... It was a giant, giant mistake. One of the reasons I made the mistake is I didn't have him to advise me. I was pissed off, I was upset. I was getting a divorce from someone I didn't want a divorce from. [Ron.] Getting old sucks but the thing that's good about it is you look back and realize places you could have made some changes. You can't do anything about it. If it was someone else I did that to, it would never have happened because he would have walked into my office and said, 'You idiot what are you doing.'"
Meyer had nothing further to say. "There's too much said about it. I appreciate what Mike said. I think there's way too much said about it."
The talk was filled with inside Hollywood anecdotes that even this outsider found amusing. A highlight: Ovitz's retelling of one of his favorite business meetings, with Prince in white satin suit and platform heels arriving with his menacing bodyguard, and the unpopular decision to make "Purple Rain. Another: Squiring Steven Spielberg, with Kate Capshaw, to a movie theater on a Friday night to see "Jurassic Park"--the first time the director had seen his films in such a venue.
Perhaps the reflective hindsight was triggered by the interviews they'd done for Miller's book. Or the fact that their families, along with various players like Sandy Climan, Jeffrey Katzenberg, Ron Silver, Howard Weitzman, Irwin Winkler and others were apparently listening in on the reunion. Or, maybe it was advancing age and the challenges of time.
In the end, the hour and 45 minute conversation ultimately was more indy movie than blockbuster tent-pole, leaving some in the industry press disappointed.
Yet, witnessing two men who shaped an industry, older now, seemingly remorseful, even wistful, about their ruthless workaholic natures and their very public rout, left more of an imprint on me.
Lisa Napoli is the author of the upcoming book from Dutton, "Ray & Joan: The Man Who Made The McDonald's Fortune and the Woman Who Gave It All Away."