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The big deal that wasn’t

There was a lot of risky business going on last week. Edgar Bronfman Jr., in his first official act as proprietor of MCA, was engaged in a singularly “public” negotiation with the man he hoped would head his company, with deal points splashed across the business pages each day.

The man with whom he was negotiating, Michael Ovitz, was enmeshed in these discussions despite the fact that, according to some associates, he had ambivalent feelings not only toward the job but also about departing the talent agency he and his colleagues had invented.

Meanwhile, the press was regularly assuring its readers that this was a “done deal,” even as the principals were, in fact, agreeing to disagree. The culmination of this exercise was what will be remembered as one of the most curious cover stories in the history of a newsmagazine. This was the June 12 Newsweek piece on Ovitz, which began as a portrait of an icon and then, midway, zigzagged into an analysis of “the deal that wasn’t.”

If Newsweek was caught off guard, so were the Wall Street Journal, which, on June 1, informed readers that a “preliminary agreement” had been reached; and the New York Times, which, as late as June 5, reassured us that the finished deal would be “announced this week.”

One might rightly ask: What was everyone doing on the high wire last week? And where was the net?

There will doubtless be lugubrious postmortems in the press this week analyzing why the deal went south – and thus justifying why the consumer press was left hanging. Since everyone talks essentially to the same pool of sources, I can assure readers that not much light will be shed by the “fresh information.” No, I don’t believe the deal fell apart because Mike Ovitz suddenly decided he wanted a Mercedes Benz limousine. Or because Ron Meyer at the 11th hour demanded a loftier title.

It would be more valuable, perhaps, to consider some lessons that might be learned from this exercise by all parties concerned.

To wit:

*Except under highly unusual conditions, it’s at best optimistic to think that negotiations involving high-profile individuals can be held behind a veil of secrecy, even if, as in this case, the talks were of short duration. This is especially true if the companies are large and if teams of attorneys, bankers and crunchers are involved. Whatever happened to the idea of two men sitting alone in a room and hammering out a deal?

* Given this reality, the press, in its feverish effort to make the competition look bad, cannot afford to get ahead of the story. There have been a number of instances lately where the media, in prematurely reporting on deals, actually prevented them from happening. In point of fact, Variety refrained from reporting this particular “done deal” because it never struck us as being “done,” or, for that matter, even “do-able.” While Variety welcomes the fact that entertainment news has become a “hot item,” we’d nonetheless like to remind our colleagues in the consumer press that this is showbiz, folks. Nothing is what it seems.

* It’s time for the major players in the agency business to surrender the homily of the Abe Lastfogel era that an agent is an invisible functionary who never talks to the press. Welcome to the ’90s, guys. Deals are news and so are the dealmakers.

Among all the agencies, CAA most vividly seems to be suspended between past and present. Its senior agents, all graduates of the William Morris school, were raised on the notion that they are there only to serve the talent.

That’s fine, except that CAA doesn’t just represent talent anymore. It participates in corporate acquisitions, advises public institutions like Credit Lyonnais, helps create new companies and hires new managements, and also fosters major marketing campaigns. Goodbye invisibility.

The final irony of all this: It may be the existing management of MCA that gets the last laugh. A quick look at the summer lineup shows “Casper” doing banner business. “Apollo 13,” a riveting, superbly made film, opens June 30. And who knows what alchemy is taking place within the “Waterworld” editing rooms.

Indeed, if MCA “owned” the summer, all the agonies of the past few weeks would be magically morphed into unmitigated joy, not to mention new contracts.

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