CAA: The H’w’d talent agency as think tank

AT FIRST GLANCE, IT DOESN’T STRIKE you as a world-class collectors’ item: On one side of the silver coin is the number 20; on the other side, the outlines of the Creative Artists Agency headquarters, designed by I.M. Pei.

The coin carries a certain historic interest, however, in that it marks the only recognition of CAA’s recent milestone — its 20th anniversary. Other than this modest coin distributed only to employees, there have been no dinners, no parties and no trade ads. Indeed, far from publicizing their anniversary, the CAA partners have done everything to discourage mention of the event, nor would they even agree to talk about it for this column.

Why the diffidence? The official explanation is that CAA, as a talent agency, wants to draw attention to its clients, not to itself.

The subtext is more interesting. For CAA, as an institution, has come to represent a success story that threatens to overshadow the achievements of its clients or customers. And the men who run CAA are keenly aware of Alexander Hamilton’s precept that if you’re smart enough to obtain power, you should also be smart enough not to flaunt it.

The undeniable truth is that CAA, in its short life span, has essentially redefined the nature of talent agencies and has left an indelible impact on the way business is conducted in the entertainment industry. In the pre-Ovitzian epoch, agents focused on such simple-minded tasks as getting gigs for clients. If you wanted to explore the complexities of gross participations or independent financing, you went to see your attorney.

WANDER THE HALLS OF CAA TODAY, however, and you come away with the feeling that you’re in a think tank rather than a talent agency. You find clusters of people piecing together new corporate structures for telcos or arguing about stratagems for Credit Lyonnais or for Microsoft or other techie clients. Others are hammering out ads for Coca-Cola’s next marketing effort.

Mind you, you also overhear agents pleading for bigger Winnebagos for clients , but they do so quietly, as though aware that these are anachronistic deliberations. Everyone at CAA, young and old, seems intent on being on the cutting edge, even if they’re only trying to write a cutting-edge synopsis.

CAA has helped change a lot of things in Hollywood. Talk to the men who run the major companies in town and you hear the following:

  • CAA has been a prime force in shifting the balance of power from the studios to superstar actors and directors. By representing such a formidable block of creative talent, and by mobilizing them so forcefully, CAA has also arguably contributed to the inflation in star salaries that has hammered profit margins throughout the industry.

    To be sure, Michael Ovitz and his top lieutenants have been known to present a deal and say, “This is what the deal will cost you — our advice is that you not make it.” And the studios often go ahead anyway.

  • CAA also has triggered a shift in the balance of compensation. A generation ago, most bright and ambitious young people entering the business wanted to become studio executives — that’s where the money and power were. Today, they are lining up for jobs at the talent agencies and management companies for the same reason, and studios find it increasingly difficult to recruit executive talent.

  • By pursuing an intensely disciplined, team-orientated approach, CAA has changed the nature of TV packaging and, once again, shifted power toward the agencies rather than the networks.

  • Because rival agents are intensely paranoid about CAA breathing down their necks, CAA has changed the entire rhythm of the agency business, intensifying the competitive atmosphere and the fervid search for new clients.

MENTION ANY OF THIS TO OVITZ or his partners, Ron Meyer and Bill Haber, and they’ll shrug it off. “We just do our job,” they’ll tell you. “All those things would have happened even if we hadn’t come along.”

But the point is that CAA did come along, and the men who run it are well aware of the changes theyhave wrought. Indeed, that is the key reason why instead of talking about their anniversary, they are working with heightened intensity to try to keep alive those qualities that have spurred CAA’s growth over the past 20 years. Despite the diversification of his company, for example, Ovitz still schedules 120 annual face-to-face meetings with his agents to assess their work and negotiate compensation and bonuses. These meetings stretch over evenings and weekends, but they get done nonetheless.

“The partners want everyone to think big and also to think small,” says one CAA agent. “They want us to think as a small family operating over a big landscape.”

No one will deny CAA’s pressure-cooker atmosphere, however. Competition within the agency is ferocious. Those who meet regularly with Ovitz find him far more intense and driven than in previous years — a man trying to operate simultaneously in several entirely separate worlds and, to a remarkable degree, bringing it off.

DESPITE THIS DEALMAKING FRENZY, CAA’s long-term clients tend to describe the company in terms of vivid images rather than in terms of its megadeals.

First there is the most obvious image — weary-faced men and women plugging away late into the night, almost every night and weekend, as though trying to justify their stratospheric wages.

Then there are other images: The illustrious soirees at Bill Haber’s French chateau, for example, featuring the finest food and most exotic wines, all of it capped by the ceremonial arrival of a phalanx of hot air balloons that take guests on a tour of the countryside. “This is CAA as Versailles,” says one client. “We float over the countryside, looking down on the peasants and thinking, ‘Let them eat cake.’ ”

Then there is the image of Ovitz himself, as a neophyte member of the prestigious Bel Air Country Club, who refuses to play golf with any of the other members. “I see him, trudging along with his son Chris, or hacking away all by himself,” says one client. “Someday, when he feels he has really mastered the game and can defeat any potential rival, he will start playing with the rest of us. That epitomizes Michael, you know — the loneliness of the long-distance golfer.”

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