So let me see if I have this straight. A month ago, the nation’s actors told us in a referendum that they wanted to be represented by agents — old-fashioned agents, if you will — not by conglomerates or talent agents cum ad agents.Yet now we see the emergence of a whole spectrum of talent management companies that would seem to be just what the actors don’t want — namely conglomerates. Even their names carry a certain corporate impersonality — The Firm, Mosaic, Immortal. The man who absorbed Michael Ovitz’s AMG himself sounds like some sort of banking ploy; Ovitz wasn’t annexed, he was Kwatinetzed. Ironically, it was Ovitz who saw all this coming. After his Disney debacle, he set out to build the ultimate talent conglom. Its downfall provided better drama than that served up by Hollywood’s current movie slate — a neo-Faustian opera about a master dealmaker brought down by his own runaway ego. Watching the evisceration of AMG last week, it was hard to remember Ovitz as the force of nature who created CAA. Suddenly there he was, huddled in the shadows, acknowledging his own instant irrelevance. And the town did not exactly mourn his passing. “Over the last several years, Ovitz, in his own mind, was no longer one of us,” observed the man who runs a major studio. “He felt he was Bill Gates. Or Jack Welch.” It was in the early ’90s that Ovitz first showed signs of resenting the demands of talent representation. Suddenly he was enmeshed, not merely in deals for Redford or Spielberg, but also in the Matsushita takeover of MCA. He saw himself as a power broker, not merely a talent broker. He had wielded power earlier, but it was indirect power — power achieved through the manipulation of careers he guided. Now, he realized, he could transform talent power into economic power. And the entertainment industry, he felt, seemed anachronistic in terms of structure and reach. It was resisting technology rather than capitalizing on it, just as it did at the time of the birth of television. Ovitz felt he had unique insight into the future, and his misadventures at Disney only underscored his messianic determination. He would re-invent the business he best understood — talent representation. And his vision was expansive. He would be more than a talent conduit. He would help finance clients’ projects and even distribute them. He would integrate the talents of Hollywood’s young lions with the burgeoning resources of the giant technology companies. Ovitz’ rhetoric was impressive, but in actual practice his business models seemed self-defeating. His TV forays, for example, were essentially victims of their own success: Getting a half-dozen series picked up the first year was impressive, but carrying the deficits of these same shows proved financially devastating. More important, there seemed to be no tenable exit strategy for any of his ventures — a flaw that was magnified by the collapse of the techie stocks. When I questioned him directly about this only a few weeks ago, he seemed genuinely affronted. “I’m spending my own money on these ventures,” he protested. “So why are people so interested in how I might get out?” The reason for his exasperation, I suppose, was that there was essentially no way to get out. Not gracefully, at any rate. In negotiating his curious deal with the Firm, it was unclear what Ovitz accomplished other than granting exit visas to his talented young associates, Rick Yorn and Julie Silverman-Yorn. Sure they were grateful. And perhaps Ovitz was grateful, too, to get out from under what had clearly become a nightmare scheme. But has his scheme now become contagious? Will other management companies now try to build complex corporate edifices on what are basically volatile foundations — namely talent? And will the talent consent to becoming grist in the hands of the power brokers? Clearly there are more than a few neo-Ovitzian dreamers out there, but history would suggest that they’d better keep one thing in mind. They are not the superstars. They merely represent the superstars. That is, for the moment.
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