Peter Bart: Michael Ovitz’s New Book A Tangle Of Conflicted Hollywood History

Michael Ovitz Who Is Michael Ovitz

Book titles posing a question are considered risky in the publishing business, especially if they’re widely hyped. A case in point: Who Is Michael Ovitz? published this week by Portfolio/Penguin. The book was, in fact, written by Ovitz, prompting some of his former colleagues and clients to propose an alternate title: Why Does Michael Ovitz Keep Re-inventing History?

The heavily promoted book reflects its author’s urgent desire to redefine his legacy as an agent, star-maker and, briefly, as president of Disney. As such, Ovitz dutifully devotes several of his 372 pages to apologizing for his take-no-prisoners business style — yes, he did assign his employees to read Sun Tsu’s The Art of War — but most of the book all but wallows in his successes, real or exaggerated. His agency, CAA, did in fact make a great deal of money for himself and his clients, and the book’s pages are steeped in photos (many signed) of appreciative movie stars and corporate titans. Interspersed are anecdotes suggesting Ovitz’s responsibility for mobilizing Steven Spielberg hits, restoring the careers of Paul Newman and Bobby De Niro and engineering massive corporate takeovers. His book even cites the various media lists anointing him as “most fascinating,” “most powerful,” etc.

While Ovitz and his agency clearly helped re-align the thrones of power in Hollywood, his book ultimately delves into the circumstances of his decline. For a man who staked his fame on his negotiating skills, he nonetheless ended up obliterating his relationships — first at his own agency, then Universal and Disney, and finally failing dismally to invent a sort of new-age management company.

The Disney adventure was a case in point. The way the book tells it, then-Disney CEO Michael Eisner handpicked Ovitz as his successor, then double-crossed him by undercutting his authority and shooting down game-changing deals that he put forward for Eisner’s approval: a merger of Sony and Hollywood Records, acquisition of a controlling stake in Yahoo, exclusive arrangements with top writers including Tom Clancy and Michael Crichton, exclusive production deals with the late Brad Grey, etc.

Studying Ovitz’s account of these events, however, might pose a dilemma for some readers, myself included. At the time, I was in close touch with the top players involved in the Disney melee, but in reading his book, I found Ovitz’s accounts in many cases inconsistent with events as I remembered them — conflicts shared this week with other eyewitnesses who opted to remain unnamed.

Michael Ovitz Michael Eisner
Michael Ovitz, left, and Michael Eisner in 1996 Chris Pizzello/Shutterstock

The ebb and flow of Ovitz’s dealings went roughly like this: His personal relationship with his key partner, Ron Meyer, had deteriorated beyond repair, and Ovitz also had delivered signals to his colleagues, and to the media, that he wanted out of agenting. Negotiations for a new corporate position elsewhere, however, were proving to be accident-prone. Ovitz at one point seemed close to an initial deal to succeed Eisner at Disney (Eisner had suffered a heart attack), but, reverting to his agent instincts, his pattern of constant re-negotiation prompted Eisner and his board to slam the door. Ovitz next seemed ready to close a deal with Edgar Bronfman Jr. to become CEO of Universal, only to find that his mounting demands again met with growing resistance. Suddenly Meyer, who was negotiating Ovitz’s deal, was selected instead for the Universal job (he is still at Universal).

Finding himself out on a limb, Ovitz turned again to Disney, but this time Eisner candidly laid out new ground rules: Sid Bass, the controlling Disney shareholder, had declined to approve Ovitz as a co-CEO or allow him to report directly to the board.

Having all but announced his new position, however, Ovitz nonetheless accepted the Disney job, only to encounter several other obstacles. But here, again, accounts differ. Ovitz wanted to dismiss Bob Iger, insiders recall, but according to Ovitz’s book, it was Eisner who wanted to ax the top TV executive. Iger, of course, ultimately succeeded Eisner.

In his book, Ovitz describes his warm relationship with his clients. He even recites a rare faux pas — when Barbra Streisand complained to him about unequal pay for women in Hollywood, he replied that, to his 15-year-old son, Streisand “was no longer on his list of stars.” The outspoken star was not happy with this response.

Over the years, my personal encounters with Ovitz reflected both his and my own changing circumstances. I knew him first as the ambitious, and ingratiating, William Morris agent — an earnest young man with a big ambition. Meanwhile, I was a “buyer” of his product — talent — on behalf of three important studios. Later, as Ovitz’s mythology kept growing, I became editor in chief of Variety, and hence a potentially helpful cog in his relations with the media.

As the years passed, however, I found Ovitz’s presence increasingly off-putting for this reason: While our meetings always were about important projects and their stars, I always found that it was Ovitz himself who had to be the star of every encounter — hence an audience with him, and his trappings. He had become the main event whether it was at his office or mine or even his house. A visit to his home had to include an appreciation of his art collection. He was the celebrity in the room, irrespective of who else was present.

So my answer to the question posed in the title is this: Michael Ovitz is the star of his book and of his career. I admire his smarts and his achievements but am still daunted by his ego.

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