Peter Bart and Mike Fleming Jr. worked together for two decades at Daily Variety. In this weekly column, two old friends get together and grind their axes, mostly on the movie business.
FLEMING: Since we agreed we would discuss it in this column, I waded through Power House, the oral history written by James Andrew Miller that has been foisted on us as a definitive history of CAA. I know it is being feted tonight at the home of Irwin Winkler, who regales the book with tales of which agent did what on Goodfellas. I hate to be a wet blanket, but I find myself underwhelmed by the oral history format used by James Andrew Miller, who did the same thing with ESPN in Those Guys Have All The Fun. I love SportsCenter and the occasional playful archival footage dips back into their own history that were always a fun part of that newscast, so I read that book as a fan. I found it dense, with too much long-winded reminiscing and credit grabbing that got in the way of a narrative flow and made me feel that the title wasn’t talking about the reader. Aside from wondering how you can claim your book is definitive anything when you don’t bother to provide an index, I found Power House a bit masturbatory, for the same reasons the ESPN book didn’t get it done for me. Here, a lot of people try to grab glory for exploits like how Ghostbusters, Goodfellas, Jurassic Park or ER were constructed. I reported many of those deals in real time and even I was left thinking, who cares? I asked around, to others who observed that agency’s history up close, and who eyeballed this book. Was I missing something? So here is the observation of one wag who saw it all, consistent with others I asked. “There’s plenty of oral,” he said. “But a definitive history? No way. There are too many factual mistakes and other problems for it to be regarded as that.”
BART: Power House is being shrewdly promoted around the industry, but I wish the book were as focused as the promotion. Most of its 707 pages consist of direct quotes from a vast range of agents and executives who leap from topic to topic amidst what is often a maze of contradiction. In reading the book, I felt as though I had been imprisoned in a locker room, listening to a bunch of macho guys boasting about their accomplishments. And I think of Bill Haber’s quote: “Mike Ovitz makes up the truth to get where he needs to go.” Isn’t that true of most of the myriad sources in the book? I have to hand it to Miller for his perseverance in tracking down his 500 or so interviews. I appreciate that he tried to “separate as much fact from fiction as possible.” Perhaps he should have added, “not much separation was in fact possible.” The book contains so many contradictions that the reader is tempted to affirm David Geffen’s quote: “Agents in general are incredibly full of shit.”
FLEMING: There are lots of fun inside baseball anecdotes like Adam Fields’ admission that he phoned in a bomb threat to hold a plane for a producer (what’s the statute of limitations for calling in bomb threats on international flights?). Unfortunately, the author is hamstrung by the oral history format he clearly loves. I think of my favorite showbiz books, including Neal Gabler’s Winchell, David McClintick’s Indecent Exposure, Peter Biskind’s Easy Riders, Raging Bulls and Down And Dirty Pictures, Stephen Bach’s Heaven’s Gate debacle Final Cut or William Goldman’s Adventures In The Screen Trade. The connective tissue: those authors reported the story, vetted it and then played god with the narrative. They told me the story as they saw it, and owned all that entails. Miller did the work, but because he let these insiders ramble (followed by the next guy to debunk the previous story), he abdicated the opportunity and responsibility to vet the CAA story, and to own the narrative. Errors appear because of the reliance on memories that inevitably get faulty over time and must be discounted by ego and personal interest. And certain people come off better than others. For as long as I’ve known him, Richard Lovett has disdained the press and encouraged his agents to avoid people like me. I was surprised he participated in this book, but I wonder how he feels about that decision. He came off like an Eagle Scout, and Miller allowed his WME rival, Ari Emanuel, to then beat Lovett like he owed him money. There are bitter insults directed by Emanuel toward Lovett at every turn, and it wasn’t even Ari’s book. The biggest winner was Bryan Lourd, who didn’t take part. That is in keeping with how he rolls, solving high level problems and making things work, without needing to bask in the credit.
BART: Why write an enormous book giving agents a chance to boast about their successes? And, in doing so, why not write the book from the point of view of an astute journalist who asks the right questions and draws conclusions? Ovitz is quoted as stating that, at its peak, CAA represented more than 100 clients who were making in excess of $20 million a year, all of whom paid their full 10% commission (really?). Yet, having built an empire on the reputations (and incomes) of the superstars, Ovitz along with most other CAA agents whined about their late night phone calls and other crises, and rarely seemed to take pride in their artistic accomplishments (or agonies). And while dealing with these clients, Ovitz and his CAA confreres were courting big time corporate clients and charging them immense fees. Did entities like Matsushita or Credit Lyonnais or TeleTV get value for their hundreds of millions of dollars in fee payments? How many failed deals did CAA leave in its wake? And this was well before the present era when CAA (armed with TPG resources), like WMA-IMG, re-created themselves as multinational corporations, dealing in sports, music, marketing, investment banking and a myriad of other activities. Talent seems an anachronistic byproduct at a time when, in Bill Haber’s words, the agents have become richer and better known than their clients.
FLEMING: The book will get a further push when Ovitz and Meyer take the stage for a reunion conversation with the author. It’s an event that sold out quickly. I’d heard that Haber was invited and wanted no part of it. The surprise is how vested Ovitz has become in trying to rehabilitate his image with this book. In my 20 years at Variety, I think I had one conversation with him, when he called to holler about deal details I spilled about some Tom Clancy book-to-movie deal he was shopping. I was content to leave the Ovitz and Meyer relationships with you, at Variety, while I spoke to guys below him. Meyer seemed like a nice guy but I always heard Ovitz was this media svengali, and people would tell me you and he did a lot of business and that he held a lot of editorial sway with Daily Variety. How true was that?
BART: As editor in chief of Variety for twenty years, I had extensive dealings with Ovitz and was well aware that he told studio chiefs and other journalists that he had me in his pocket. I found these reports hilarious; some people believed him. In point of fact, the best strategy for dealing with Ovitz was adversarial; he’d be most helpful on stories if he distrusted me. Our mutually distrustful relationship was rewarding over the long term. Did he ever do me favors? No; he was a lousy news source (his CAA partner, Ron Meyer, was always gracious and helpful, when he could be). Did I do Ovitz favors? Occasionally. When Ovitz told me he was searching for a new president of a revived United Artists, I recommended an old friend, John Calley, who had dropped out of the business. He hired him within a week, but didn’t tip me to the story. As Bill Haber said, Ovitz got where he needed to get.
Next topic, and I hope you don’t mind me putting your feet to the fire. Many of us don’t want to acknowledge it, but the awards season is already upon us. As evidence, witness the ubiquity of Meryl Streep on virtually every show and cover story, explaining why she tries to sing so badly as Florence Foster Jenkins (she never apologized for Mamma Mia!). The downside of award season is that, as in presidential politics, you get to know details about people you don’t really want to know. A case in point, Mike, is your story the other day about Nate Parker, the director and co-writer of The Birth of A Nation, which will surely be an Oscar contender. Your piece brought out an event in Parker’s past – a rape charge – which, were it not for the anticipated ‘heat’ of awards season, likely would have escaped our attention. I thought your piece was both very fair, and very detailed, and from the reader’s standpoint, it reflected the willingness of the subject, and the distributor, to “get in front of the story.” Was this in fact the case? Was Parker a willing subject?
FLEMING: There are so many judgement calls you have to make, deciding what is relevant to business. We made what still feels like the right call to not revel in those seamy stolen Sony hack emails because it didn’t feel fair (that decision became more defensible when North Korea was fingered as the perpetrator), or not going whole hog like the trades did when that guy accused a bunch of Hollywood men of molesting him, only to recant. Here, we knew that Fox Searchlight was reeling, trying to figure out how best to handle information that could marginalize this movie for which it paid a Sundance record $17.5 million to buy last January. We decided we weren’t going to ignore it and after Michael Cieply compiled an exhaustive record of the entire original trial from 17 years ago, we made it clear to the studio we had the whole story and that we had to be dealt with, now. Parker, who has never hidden from this, invited me to his home, and I quickly bought a ticket, drove to his home, looked him in the eye and discussed the last thing Parker wanted to discuss. Cieply and I worked all night, broke it, and I was on a plane back the following morning. So we were not a convenient landing place for a sympathetic story. It was going to come out; we just got there first.
BART: The “victim” in the story was not interviewed and, apparently, did not cooperate in the second trial of Parker’s co-writer. Your piece did not mention whether she is white or black, but was this relevant to her story – her nervous breakdown, withdrawal from college, etc?
FLEMING: Her skin color was not an issue in the trial. That information is included in the links to testimony in the trial. Our job, as we saw it, was to present the facts, nothing more and nothing less, framed in an explanation of why it was newsworthy. It was newsworthy because Parker and the studio knew it was coming out during Oscar season, and Parker chose to address it head on and not try to let it sit there like some deep dark secret. Readers of that story were able to take the time (a lot did, judging by the comments) to wade as far into this case as they wanted to. Her skin color was discussed there but dismissed as being an issue by lawyers on both sides. Even though he refused to relive events for which he was found not guilty, and didn’t say when Fox Searchlight found about the charges, Parker was forthcoming in facing a terrible night in college, one filled with bad decisions. I found myself thinking about a night at college I still regret. I never drove drunk. But I was plenty drunk when I made a beer run with a guy who was ossified and who, when we carried six packs to the counter, passed the whipped cream display and began sucking the gas out of these cans, which I guess gets you high. He was caught, covered with whipped cream, but we were allowed to leave. Did I take the long walk back to campus myself? No. I got in the car with him. Nobody wore seat belts back then, and the passenger in those crashes always dies. We managed to make it back. My point is, college is newfound freedom that includes decisions that get made by kids who often handle it badly. I am not judging Parker, or deciding who was telling the truth in that rape trial where a jury of his peers judged him not guilty. That wasn’t our objective. Parker was engaging when I met him, and we sat there like two guys trying to pass kidney stones. He wasn’t going to re-litigate a charge for which he had been found not guilty, but to his credit he did not hide from a past which would nobody would have cared about if he didn’t have a film in the Oscar race. As we said goodbye, Parker said: “Don’t feel bad for doing your job. You’re a journalist, and a good one. This is what it takes.”