“The bottom line is the Malibu thing is completely his fault,” joked Michael Ovitz, to a capacity crowd at the DGA Theatre tonight for a Live Talks Los Angeles event. Appearing for the first time in more than 20 years alongside his one-time partner in the founding of CAA, Ron Meyer, Ovitz was setting the record straight on the beachside property he attempted to snatch from Meyer following what Ovitz hoped would be a reconciliation lunch in the years after their acrimonious split. “One of the reasons I made that mistake is I didn’t have him to advise me not to do that. That’s the way it went in our relationship.”
In front of an audience that seemed like a gathering of circa-1990s power agents, producers and executives – John Ptak, Sandy Climan, Fred Specktor, Rick Nicita, Mike Menchel, Glen Meredith as well as Jeffrey Katzenberg, Joel Silver, Lawrence Gordon, Irwin Winkler, Howard Weitzman, David Greenblatt, Bill Block, Adam Fields, Paul Haas and actor Tobey Maguire – and with moderator James Andrew Miller (the author of the recently-released Powerhouse: The Untold Story of Hollywood’s Creative Artists Agency) throwing in more than a few blunt questions, Ovitz and Meyer traveled the length of their time together, and didn’t hold back when it came to addressing the factors that brought it to a close.
“Getting old sucks,” said Ovitz, who walked onto stage with a cane following recent back surgery, “but the good thing is you look back and realize places you could have made some changes… I was pissed off. I made a mistake. I shouldn’t have done what I did and took the property. I should have just given it to him at the time. It was a giant mistake on my part.”
“This is where we get to our shrink session,” Meyer joked, when Miller raised the job at Universal that Ovitz claimed to have turned down—before Meyer took it. “Anytime a job opened in the city, running a major studio, it came to Mike,” Meyer explained. “And I always said we were in the 20th year of a 10 year plan [at CAA]. Some Mike would dismiss out of hand, some he would consider before dismissing them. As each one went away, in addition to my slow buildup of unhappiness, I think I was always disappointed it didn’t work.”
Ovitz said he had wanted the job initially – “until that interest just wasn’t going to work” – but he was rattled by Meyer’s departure from the company they had created together. “I felt I was going through a divorce from my male wife. It was a traumatic period for me, because I was blind and insensitive about things going on around me. I was all business all the time, and I had no idea he had years of being unhappy… When Ron decided to go I couldn’t picture working in the agency business without my partner. It took me a long time to get to that point. I didn’t get there quickly.”
Ovitz also said that, while CAA was on a roll, he was “oblivious and insensitive to a lot of the people issues.” He discussed co-founder Bill Haber’s decision to leave the company. “It was clearly a big mistake that I made, when I look back, but at the time, Bill always talked about leaving… In my mind, I failed, in that at that time I was blinded by what we were doing and I didn’t want to rock the boat. It was doing too well. Bill took a path all of a sudden and things tended to go in waves, though I can’t remember exactly what happened.”
Picking up the story, Meyer took issue with a line of Ovitz’s from the Powerhouse book, in which Ovitz said, “I love Bill. Ronnie didn’t.” Meyer noted he and Haber have become close friends in the years since they left CAA. Said Meyer: “I don’t remember that you loved Bill as much as you said you did, and I don’t think I didn’t love him as much as you said I didn’t. We all had similar affection for each other. Bill was temperamental. He wanted things his way, and he would sometimes operate outside of the rhythm of the rest of us. Mike and Bill would have real confrontations a few times a year. Bill would send notes saying, ‘I don’t want to do this anymore,’ and I would say to Mike, ‘Let him not do this anymore. If he’s that unhappy, and wants to be out of this, we should let him go.’ Mike always said, ‘Let’s not do anything to rock this boat. Let Bill get through his crap.’ And he did. Each time, Bill would get through it.”
Addressing an audience question about whether clients ever paid less than 10% commission, Ovitz said no, before Meyer clarified that they would work things out sometimes where they would help clients out on legal fees in a deal.
Did they leave money on the table when they left CAA? “Revisionist history is really interesting,” Ovitz noted. “At the time we wanted the company to continue, and if it didn’t continue all of the receivables would have gone and evaporated.”
Said Meyer: “You can’t go to a studio and still take agency commissions. I don’t think any of us look back on that and think, Oh we could have done that differently.”