Buried in the blizzard of coverage of Michael Ovitz’s career shift last week was a rather intriguing assumption: Namely, that his and Ron Meyer’s defections from Creative Artists Agency would signal the beginnings of a power shift from the agencies back to the studios and networks or, perish the thought, back to the clients.
Clearly, the talent agencies have been calling the shots over the past decade. They’ve been demanding and getting stratospheric salaries for their top clients. They’ve also all but preempted the packaging function once performed by the studios and networks.
Arguably, Michael Ovitz, who will switch his address to Disney shortly, and Ron Meyer, who’s already ensconced at MCA, were the principal architects of this transfer of power. It’s not surprising, therefore, that members of the showbiz community are speculating that the proverbial playing field may now level out.
Or will it?
There are those contrarians who believe that things change slowly in Hollywood, and that the power of the agents (and managers) is so entrenched as to resist erosion. Ovitz and Meyer may be gone, they argue, but they’ve set the pattern; surely other wannabe power players will be quick to pick up the cudgels.
This may well be true. If a shift does emerge, however, it may be useful to list some of the early warning signs. In short, we’ll know that the modus operandi is changing when:
* An agent and his client arrive separately but at the same time at an “in” restaurant, and the client actually gets the better table.
* A producer, upon being told by an agent that he won’t read a script unless a firm offer is on the table, tells the agent to tuck that screenplay into his nether orifice. Shaken, the agent promises to break with precedent and read the coverage.
* A studio chief declines to show up with his staff for a dog-and-pony show at a talent agency to discuss new projects, insisting it would be more appropriate if several of the agents left their offices to go over to the studio. Though shocked by the notion that the sellers have to visit the buyers, the agency nonetheless agrees.
* A network exec informs an agent that, while he indeed wants to acquire a TV package involving a major writer-producer, he will under no circumstances agree to hire several story editors, relatives and other functionaries sandwiched into the deal. Stung, the agent says he respects the network exec’s show of character and will not only ask for less money for the writer-producer but will also buy one-way tickets back to Kansas for his relatives.
* An agent tells a director client he will sneak him a “hot” book provided he can commission not only the book but also the director, the director’s wife, secretary and household pet. The director replies he’s not into “hot” books any more and to get back to him when it cools off.
* A star who is on location tries to call his agent because his Winnebago is too small, only to be informed by his assistant that the agent is too busy recruiting the executive staff of a new telco to bother with such trivia. Sensing he’s about to be fired, the agent turns up on location with a $15 million offer for the star’s next picture.
Will any of these scenes actually occur? Most of the players in town doubt it. As one well-established director confessed to me last week, “To be completely honest with you, I’m a bit afraid of my agent. Perhaps I’ve been conditioned to think that way, but I’m grateful when he takes my calls.”
The bottom line: If and when the balance of power truly shifts in Hollywood, it will be triggered by that moment when Ron Meyer throws an agent out of his office for demanding too much money, and screams, “Who the hell do you think you are, Mike Ovitz?”