H’wood’s all shook up

Having been jolted by a series of seismic shocks in recent days, the showbiz community is beginning to understand how Northridge felt 19 months ago.

Old-timers are scratching their heads, trying to recall a previous time when so much changed so quickly. And most agree the action is just starting.

The next round of moves, it’s understood, may involve Terry Semel of Warners and Bill Haber, who is the last of the “Big Three” remaining at CAA, plus another CAA partner, Jack Rapke. “By the time the musical chairs is over, the only major companies to escape the whiplash will be Fox and Paramount,” said one senior industry figure.

“The playing field is changing rapidly,” a clearly ebullient Michael Eisner observed Monday. “I have brought a new partner into this company who understands change and who also actually understands the entertainment business. I am absolutely thrilled.”

Seated at his side in a matching dark blue suit, Michael Ovitz smiled a wan smile, looking a bit like a man who just climbed off Disneyland’s “Indiana Jones” thrill ride.

If Ovitz is a bit dazed, so are a lot of other people. In the past few weeks, two networks have changed hands. One CAA partner, Ron Meyer, has assumed the presidency of MCA and another, Ovitz, of Disney. Their movements have completely destabilized the agency business, and thrown a potential crimp into the budding alliances between Hollywood and the telcos.

Sign of things to come

The headline-making management changes, it is felt, reflect a vast structural transformation that will seize the worldwide entertainment industry.

Three months ago I was having a cup of coffee with Ovitz in his office when the CAA chieftain got a faraway look in his eyes. “Sweeping changes are going to overtake Hollywood in the next few months,” he declared portentously. “It’s as though we were all sitting on this quiet beach and we’re not aware of the huge breakers that are about to come down upon us.”

Though Ovitz professed at the time that he couldn’t supply the specifics, I noticed that he seemed to be rubbing his hands together, as though in anticipation.

His instincts were, as usual, correct. In a matter of weeks the waves started hitting the beach.

Many thought Ovitz had missed his wave when his longtime partner Ron Meyer was recruited by MCA after Ovitz’s negotiations for the post broke down. Now that perception has changed.

“Mike Ovitz has one-upped Ron Meyer,” said one top Disney executive. “He’s come away with a better job at a bigger company.”

Figuring the fallout

The onrush of events has raised a series of intriguing questions: Will CAA, having just celebrated its 20th anniversary, be able to retain a substantial portion of its blue-ribbon client list? Will other agencies be able to capitalize on the opportunity, as they did when MCA dissolved its agency activities to move into production two generations ago? How will “Team Disney” adjust to the sudden changes? Joe Roth, who reported to Eisner, suddenly finds himself reporting to his former agent. Will other companies capitalize on the pervasive instability and capture important manpower that would not normally be available to them?

Answers to these questions will start emerging in the coming weeks. Meanwhile , the Hollywood power players are trying to assimilate the changes that already have taken place, and are tossing kudos at Eisner for engineering the Capital Cities/ABC merger and now the Ovitz deal.

‘A master stroke’

“This is a master stroke on Eisner’s part,” said Skip Brittenham, a top industry attorney who has negotiated possibly more company deals than anyone. “Eisner has resoundingly answered the one looming question about Disney — the issue of succession. He is now the king. All the rest are suddenly mere princes.”

As for Ovitz himself, he still seems understandably shaken by the events. CAA colleagues noticed that, in speaking to the troops Monday morning, he did not discard his jacket as he always has done when making announcements.

“There was Mike talking to us in his suit,” said one senior agent. “It was as though he had already made the unconscious transition to his new corporate life.”

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