By Turner, Richard; Brown, Corie
Newsweek , Vol. 128, No. 26
Michael Ovitz was Hollywood's most high-voltage dealmaker. Then he went to Disney ... and short-circuited. Here's the inside story.
LAST THURSDAY DOZENS OF MOVIE and TV agents mingled for an industry fete in the soaring, austere atrium of Creative Artists Agency on Wilshire just off Santa Monica Boulevard, the figurative crossroads of Hollywood. This was the house that Ovitz built. And word had just broken that Michael Ovitz, who had founded and ruled the agency until last year, was leaving his job as president of the Walt Disney Co. Dominating the lobby was the enormous Roy Lichtenstein pop-art painting Ovitz had commissioned when he was already "the most powerful man in Hollywood." Some of the agents joked that they should take the painting, chop it up and sell it like so many pieces of the Berlin wall. It felt like the end of an era.
If a talent agent's job is to guide the careers of creative people, it is an irony of the Ovitz episode that the pre-eminent agent of his generation appears to have taken his career and crash-landed it. And that Ovitz's ultimate client, Disney chairman Michael Eisner, was the one creative person he couldn't handle. "This is the greatest fan, from the greatest height, that I can remember in Hollywood," says one veteran top executive. Well, that's Ms spin, and this saga is awash in it. On the other side of the stage, another Greek chorus intones that Ovitz, just 50 and a man of immense drive, resourcefulness and connections, will rise again. And surely they're right, too.
In one sense, none of this matters much: Disney's culture rejected Ovitz so swiftly, like foreign tissue, that his 14-month tenure will leave few scars. Disney was well aware that expunging this particular piece of bad news would be less painful now, just after reporting a record year fin, just as a hit movie puts spots in front of people's eyes. True, some major management questions remain unresolved--such as who will succeed Eisner, and who dares temper his autocracy--but the stock market duly accounted for these by docking the stock a mere $1.88, then leveling off.
Ovitz's failure is certainly a lesson in the exercise of power in Hollywood, and the perils of image-making. But it also touches on universal questions, like: Should you work for your best friend? Wait--do these people have best friends? Part of the current fascination with the media moguls is that they begin to seem less like grasping greedheads than something extraworldly and larger than life. Somewhat ridiculously, they enact elemental story lines about greed, ego, death, betrayal and humiliation.
Especially at Disney, which always seems to make observers reach for their Shakespeare. It was thus in 1984, when father figure Frank Wells performed an amazing act of self-abnegation and turned down the job of running Disney for its new controlling owners and instead suggested that the job go to the then 42-year-old Eisner, who had been president of Paramount. There he had been No. 2 to an overbearing Barry Diner. Wells receded to the background as president, while Eisner fashioned himself as the second coming of Walt himself. Along with the even younger Jeffrey Katzenberg, they engineered one of the business miracles of recent history. It was the heady days of the "three amigos," with a corporate image as sanitized as the products they peddled around the world.
Of course, they weren't the three amigos. Although the company continued to prosper, the cheerful facade crumbled after Wells died suddenly in a helicopter crash in mid-1995. The role of the much beloved Wells has been somewhat romanticized. Executives say be was often on the receiving end of Eisner's abruptness and impatience. Many tolerated this: they saw Eisner as a genius. They were getting rich. But Ovitz wasn't to see this side of his friend until he actually went inside the company.
Katzenberg, too, had lived with Eisner's criticism and remoteness. …