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.
BART: When you bring two older guys together to reminisce, the conversation can become tedious and self-involved – even if they’re Michael Ovitz and Ron Meyer, whose vaunted “reunion” filled the DGA Theater last Thursday night. Walking with a cane and talking very softly, Ovitz confessed that he had become “oblivious and insensitive” toward colleagues, even Meyer, in his final years running CAA. His ultimate “giant mistake,” he said, was to secretly buy an expensive Malibu property that he knew his ex-partner coveted. Meyer, in turn, lived up to his reputation for being cordial and forgiving: He said he, too, had erred as well by avoiding confrontations with his long-term partner. They were both making too much money to rock the boat, he acknowledged.
FLEMING: A number of up-and-coming dealmakers I know were excited by the prospect of this encounter. Based on the press accounts I read, I’m kind of glad I wasn’t in town to see this. It seemed pretty dull. Who cares about their fight over land in Malibu? We all heard about that battle when it was going on between them, so long ago. The danger going into this event was that it could turn into the punch line of the Springsteen song, the one where he sings, “Time slips away and leaves you with nothing mister but boring stories of glory days.”
BART: Few words of wisdom emerged from the hundred-minute discussion, which was a promotion for Powerhouse, the James Andrew Miller book about CAA.’s highly profitable past (the 700-page tome is an oral history steeped in occasionally contradictory personal testimonies). As moderator, Miller fielded extremely gentle questions until the final five minutes and elicited few, if any, fresh insights. Ovitz admitted his key stratagem in signing his first big stars: He ferociously courted their lawyers. CAA took care of its legal friends by paying very generous legal fees for itself and for superstar clients, often deducting them from commissions. That helped land Newman, Redford, Hoffman and others. Ovitz’s basic career motivation, he acknowledged, was that “I wanted to win,” irrespective of who paid the price – a Trump-like mind set. Indeed, Ovitz painted himself as an over-ambitious wonky agent who worked round the clock. “I loved strategy,” he said. “I even loved CAA’s retreats.” When he graduated into complex deals with the Japanese and French, he said he became intoxicated with corporate power at the expense of his other relationships.
FLEMING: We keep hearing about how these guys became bored with the representation business. Their successors at CAA and WME have found the energy and ambition to take the agency business far beyond what these one-time titans probably ever thought possible, with expansion into investment banking, sports and other areas. Some of this is because the agency business isn’t as well regulated as it was back in the day, which allowed agencies to become these entrepreneurial conglomerates that will inevitably go public as their hedge fund backers look to recoup on billion-dollar businesses. I would have been curious to get an assessment of how Ovitz and Meyer viewed what these guys are doing today. Back then, they signed stars and pushed the work to underlings who made their names and got their calls returned by servicing those clients, with Ovitz and Meyer getting involved only when needed. Now, the big stars are repped by the top agents, who rely on underlings to feed them. Also, the old CAA construct was generous in salaries and bonuses. There has been much attention on how the CAA hierarchy benefited from the TPG stakes. How would Ovitz and Meyer compare their game to the one being played by CAA, WME, UTA and others? That discourse might have added a contemporary take to what seemed from press reports to be… (cue the music for “Glory Days“).
BART: Neither Ovitz nor Meyer showed much perspective in assessing their moments in the sun. They were extraordinarily lucky to come along at a time when business was booming, when packaging fees were abundant and when competition was fading. Their former employer, William Morris, was badly managed; its top talent agent, Stan Kamen, was ill and under-motivated, and CMA was hurt by in-fighting. It was an open field for CAA’s sharp young signers.
BART: After lengthy ramblings, Miller asked Ovitz if he had truly wanted to become president of Universal. Ovitz claimed he’d decided not to take the job because he couldn’t figure out which member of the Bronfman dynasty really made the key decisions. Ultimately Meyer won the position and has remained there ever since. Miller did not ask Ovitz about his subsequent flameout at Disney. “Mike was offered every top job in town,” Meyer observed at one point. As the Disney disaster reflected, however, the ego-driven Ovitz was not necessarily qualified to handle the demands of corporate leadership. Miller’s final question to the two was typically about a deal: If given the choice, would you invest today in WME or CAA? Not surprisingly, both choose CAA, while Meyer somewhat hedged, since he now deals with both.
FLEMING: Ovitz made a precedent-setting deal when he left for Disney, stayed a year and walked out with $130 million in a precedent-setting severance package. That showbiz severance record still stands, but I wonder what he thought of Philippe Dauman’s $72 million Viacom exit package, or the $63 million that Tom Dooley will probably get as he exits as Dauman’s interim replacement? Is it right that the rewards of futility are so high? It seems as inexplicable to the layman as Donald Trump running for president despite probably not having paid taxes for nearly three decades. And what about Ovitz’s decision at AMG to poach Robin Williams and his agent Mike Menchel from CAA, prompting the agency to cut him off. If Mr. Ovitz really wanted to, he’s got a real book in him. That dish seemed to be missing here, like the priority of the author was repeating stories from his book. You want a great oral history? Check out the ESPN 30 for 30 documentary on the 1985 Chicago Bears, which answered every question on why the most dominant football team I ever saw could only win one Super Bowl before disintegrating.
BART: The audience, which included the likes of Jeffrey Katzenberg, Irwin Winkler, Tobey Maguire and a range of CAA veterans, listened politely as the conversation droned on. They even laughed on cue as Ovitz, struggling for levity, told a few lame William Morris jokes – “once a month they lined up all the agents and fired the tallest.” Presumably, the evening sold some books.
Next topic. If audiences like the work of Marty Scorsese, Woody Allen, Tim Burton or Quentin Tarantino, why must they wait around for their next pictures to come out? An intriguing answer is supplied by a brash new show titled FTR Scorsese, an immersive concert mash-up that opened this week at the smart new Wallis Theater in Beverly Hills (hub of the Annenberg Center). Now Mike, I can already hear you saying, “This isn’t a theater column,” but I like the idea of a new show like this bridging the gap between movies, cabaret and theater. It’s eccentric, but it’s also a blast, with top singers, a big band and a cast of 20-plus. The show isn’t a bio of Scorsese (who hasn’t seen it) but a string of scenes and songs emanating from Scorsese movies. Co-created by Shane Scheel and Anderson Davis, the performances are excellent and the f-bombs keep flying.
FLEMING: I was glad I missed the Ovitz-Meyer get together, and I’d rather watch Goodfellas for the 1,000th time than sit through something like this.
BART: I was skeptical when I first heard about FTR Scorsese, but it’s very big, very loud — and I felt like I’d spent an evening hanging with Marty after I saw it.
Next topic. No company understands how to toss a glitzy party better than HBO – especially when it feels like it has a new hit. It likely does, and it can use one; there have been some bumps lately and Game Of Thrones has become an old game. In Westworld, HBO believes it has a major winner, which it celebrated lavishly at the Chinese Theatre and Roosevelt Hotel. In keeping with the futuristic “theme park” setting of its show, the giant afterparty offered a casino, a brothel, myriad games and, of course, an abundance of food and drink. A genial CEO Richard Plepler and assorted Time Warner apparatchiks were drinking it all in.
FLEMING: HBO always throws the best parties, and based on the pilot episode I saw Sunday, they’ve got something here worth celebrating.
BART: Based on a 1973 movie (and novel) by Michael Crichton, Westworld as a TV miniseries reflects the brilliance, and cool, of its creator. It is superbly shot and acted. But as James Poniewozik of The New York Times pointed out, it’s also a chilly show. Is dark the mandated color code of cable TV success? Westworld offers its frontier fantasies and its robot “hosts,” and this time the body count is largely audio-animatronic. The script scrutinizes the shadow line between actual and simulated consciousness – heavy duty for a show set in the frontier West. I knew Crichton and once asked him why his characters, particular the women, tended to be distanced and aloof. His answer: “It’s probably because I’m still a doctor, not a writer.” He would have loved Westworld, both the TV show and the party.
FLEMING: You could see how the show’s main creative voice, Jonathan Nolan, worked in a bit of the suppressed memory gamesmanship he exploited in Memento, which he thought up and which launched the superstar directing career of his brother, Christopher Nolan. And then he melded Crichton’s Westworld with the same author’s later dive into the theme park business with Jurassic Park. Switching the original Westworld‘s viewpoint away from the tourists who suddenly found themselves hunted by Yul Brynner’s defective gunslinger, and instead focusing on the designers of the cowboy robots (Anthony Hopkins in the Sir Richard Attenborough role), is fascinating. The attendees of this Westworld seemed innocuous and disposable in the pilot. More compelling are the behind-the-scenes designers that try to make their robots — from the ornery cowboys to the prostitutes — seem as real as possible, just short of giving them sentient feelings and free will. You can see where that might go awry. Evan Rachel Wood’s character — who wakes each morning determined to see beauty in the world, only to end each day being traumatized by murder or rape — is heartbreaking and dark but clearly leading someplace. And Ed Harris’s Man in Black character? He is terrifying, on course to be one of the great TV villains we’ve seen in a long time. Harris’ lean face gets more interesting every time you see him. I am reminded of the heroic intensity he showed in movies like Apollo 13 or as the cowboy in the Robert B. Parker novel adaptation Appaloosa. He has played bad guys too, like the Whitey Bulger composite in State of Grace, but it whets the appetite for what he will bring with a completely unredeemable villain.