Biz buzzes over Ovitz exit

While news of Michael Ovitz’s arrival at Disney hit the town with a bang, his leave-taking Thursday was met with a whimper.

Producers on the Disney lot, television executives in New York and talent agents along Wilshire Boulevard were all in agreement that his exit would have no immediate consequences for the business of Hollywood.

With a few notable exceptions like wooing former CAA client Martin Scorsese to Disney and assisting Disney chairman Joe Roth in locking Sean Connery into an overall deal at the studio, Ovitz was not involved in the day-to-day commerce of the movie and television industries.

On the lot in Burbank, executives were busy engaging in post-mortems as word spread that Ovitz was leaving the company.

“He didn’t have a job here,” one division head said Thursday morning. “And instead of listening to the division heads and getting to know the business, he paraded Magic Johnson around.”

Succession question

The succession issue, which has bedeviled Michael Eisner since the death of Disney Co. president Frank Wells, was again a topic of discussion on the lot and on Wall Street, where security analysts have often expressed concern about Eisner skippering Disney without a tactician by his side.

“It’s so crazy over here with Eisner’s decisions. No one knows what is going to happen next,” one senior studio executive said.

In New York, Ovitz’s departure was addressed in a more lighthearted manner. After the Disney president canceled a scheduled introduction for Roone Arledge at a luncheon honoring the ABC News executive Thursday and Eisner also proved a no-show, CBS president Peter Lund joked about rumors of Ovitz going to Sony by suggesting that the absence was on account of a “Berlitz lesson.” ABC president Robert Iger said he would “skip a Mike Ovitz joke today in the interest of self-preservation.”

The news prompted a mix of emotions for agents. Many suggested that regardless of his prickly personality or where his career path led, Ovitz definitely changed the perception of talent agents in the business community. Instead of merely booking clients and packaging TV shows, he grew the business to the point where the major talent agencies now work with corporations in a way that combines elements of marketing and investment banking. This impact is evidenced by CAA’s work with Intel, International Creative Management’s work with Mercedes-Benz, and the William Morris Agency’s consulting with Anheuser-Busch.

At CAA, Ovitz’s news lent an ironic undertone to Thursday night’s grand opening of the company’s Media Lab, at which Andrew S. Grove, president and CEO of Intel Corp. was speaking.

At the opening, showbiz honchos such as Harvey Weinstein, Barry Diller and Leslie Moonves mingled with stars including Woody Harrelson and Elisabeth Shue. Although the point of the party was to unveil CAA’s new media gadgetry, most attendees were more interested in talking about Ovitz than megabytes.

“A black eye for Eisner,” said one CAA agent sympathetic to his former boss.

“Life threw him a curveball,” another CAA agent said about Ovitz, “but he’ll transcend this too.”

Agency alum stumbles

Indeed, some agents at CAA’s rivals were saddened Thursday that one of the tenpercenteries most prominent alumni had stumbled as he attempted to make the transition from the privately held, I.M. Pei-designed CAA fortress to a publicly held company. They mentioned how he had recently worked to burnish his reputation by reaching out to agents other than those at CAA.

Ovitz was scheduled to visit Endeavor next week for a meet-and-greet session with the partners of the hard-charging boutique talent agency. He had recently taken a pair of up-and-coming tenpercenters at William Morris for a sushi lunch off the Disney lot and let his hair down — gossiping about the senior brass at the agency where he got his start in the mailroom roughly 25 years before.

“It was like hanging out with your cool older brother,” one Morris agent noted.

(Gary Levin in New York and Rex Weiner contributed to this report.)

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