Peter Bart: New CAA Book Lets Subjects Tell Their Own Story – But What’s The Truth?

Yes, journalists, too, have a conscience. When we write about an individual or an event, we try to get it right. So in writing his new book about the CAA talent agency, James Andrew Miller uses an unusual format for “getting it right”: His book is mainly told through direct quotations from the principals. Hence characters can make their case straight to the reader without filters. The problem: “None of us has the chance for a rebuttal,” explains one principal. And there’s no narrator offering a fact check.

Two of the principals in Miller’s book are taking a direct route to deal with this problem. Michael Ovitz and Ron Meyer, who have rarely talked to each other in the years since their departure from CAA, have agreed to take the stage in a public forum and express their own accounts of their careers at the agency. It might be an interesting confrontation between these two ex-partners, tentatively slated for April 25.

I have not read Miller’s book, titled Powerhouse: The Untold Story of CAA, other than the Mike Ovitz Ron Meyer 2-shotchapter that ran this month in Vanity Fair, which dealt mainly with Ovitz and Meyer. And while their lengthy quotes prove to be passionate and occasionally illuminating — David Geffen, Irving Azoff, Edgar Bronfman Jr, Jeffrey Katzenberg and others also are quoted – I find the format distracting, if not disturbing. It’s fine to hear the voices, but what’s the truth? The issues are hardly earth-shaking, but, since they’ve been raised, why, for example, did Bronfman decide, mid-negotiation, that Ovitz was more trouble than he was worth? What made him hire Meyer instead as his CEO at Universal? What special deals with superstar clients were carved by Bryan Lourd and Richard Lovett in sustaining their client list post the sudden departures?

Powerhouse CAA bookAn investigative journalist might have relished digging into the intrigues of the agency business – the secret promises and blood-lettings. Miller, however, is content with letting everyone have their say. His book, by the way, is not an authorized account of CAA’s history, but the agency still extended cooperation, unlike the William Morris Agency a decade ago, which foolishly refused cooperation with Frank Rose.
The “speak for yourself” format theoretically should make things easier for a writer, but Miller — who says he talked with 500 people over three years — ran into problems. Predictably, many individuals were nervous about speaking for the record. Some, says Miller, walked back their statements. Miller had intended to finish his book in time for a summer publishing date, but as of this week he is still making revisions. His publisher, HarperCollins, awaits eagerly.

Miller has used his format for books about ESPN and Saturday Night Live but found that his sources on those were less paranoid about the consequences of their remarks.. Given his heavy list of interviews, Miller’s first draft ran 1,400 pages, which is much more information about the agency business than I, or anyone I know, craves.

Related Peter Bart: A Year Away From Union Bargaining, Can Writers, Directors & Actors Expect Pay Hikes As Profits Rise?

I asked Miller what it was like spending the bulk of his time over three years in the company of agents, but he was not eager to engage on this issue. Sure, agents are habitual negotiators, he acknowledged, but ultimately he got accustomed to that trait. Sure, agents are ambitious and materialistic, Miller said, but he learned to deal with their ferocity. “What sustained me was the fact that I felt I was writing about a topic that has never been written about before,” he declares.

That, of course, is not true. The agency business has been intensely covered by the media. Ovitz himself has been the subject of myriad articles, most of them critical. At times excessively critical. Ovitz, like Meyer, was a brilliant and innovative agent who re-defined the way talent agencies interact with their buyers. While Ovitz proved an effective overseer of CAA, however, when he tried to translate his skills to a company that made products, not just deals (Disney), he failed the test.

Agents are essentially salesmen. They say what they need to get the job done. In Miller’s book, they also say what they want to make themselves look good. I haven’t read the rest of Miller’s book, but I’m already persuaded that, while I will enjoy the read, I won’t learn the truth. Maybe I will go to the Ovitz-Meyer discussion to advance that cause.

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