Tenacious tenpercenters

Rivals plotted raids on CAA when its three founders defected, but almost a decade later the resilient agency retains its remarkable power base.

Whenever I write about a talent agency, I hear about it from every rival agent in town. Agents these days are not merely competitive, they’re homicidal.

Having said this, I’m writing about CAA, and here’s why: I was throwing away some old papers the other day when I came upon an intriguing note that I’d written to myself 10 years ago this month. I’d had a meeting with Michael Ovitz that day, during which he acknowledged his restlessness with being an agent. In Ovitz’s mind, he’d outgrown the business; he wanted to be a CEO, not a purveyor of talent. I made a note on my calendar to follow up six months later.

As it turned out, it wasn’t until two years later that Ovitz jumped ship, landing uncomfortably at Disney. By the end of 1995, Ovitz’ two founding partners at CAA, Ron Meyer and Bill Haber, also left their posts. And every rival agency in town was licking its chops, eager to raid talent-rich CAA, now run by Ovitz’ green lieutenants.

Well, the great CAA break-up never happened. CAA today arguably is just as strong as it was a decade ago.

As such, it represents an anomaly in the business world: How many companies have lost an entire top tier of founder-managers within a four-month period and kept humming?

This week I found myself thinking about all this as I reviewed the latest developments at CAA. Having vowed never to open a New York office, CAA hired an accomplished theatrical agent, George Lane, away from William Morris, proclaiming its intention to become a force on Broadway. At the same time, it signed a few other top players in music and TV and was enmeshed in a series of high-profile movie deals.

It also acquired a market research company and was expanding its relationships with major advertisers who were eager to forge links with CAA’s roster of celebrities.

What does all this mean? For one thing, it means you have to give the devil his due. Mike Ovitz misjudged a lot of things in his career, but he understood how to put together a talent agency and how to pick the right people to run it. Along with Meyer and Haber, he also instilled CAA with a certain steely discipline and paramilitary zeal that has endured long beyond his exit.

Clients of the agency gladly volunteer their analyses of the CAA work ethic. “You feel the whole place is behind you,” says one director who asked not to be quoted. “You don’t feel you’re represented by a lone agent, while the guy in the next office is trying to get your job for someone else.”

CAA even has its own idiosyncratic way of firing those agents who don’t perform by orchestrating new jobs. One agent was in limbo for nine months, mindful that his bosses intended to turn him loose, but knowing also that this wouldn’t happen until they found him another gig.

CAA’s work ethic also has its critics. “I always cringe when I’m at an industry event and the CAA pack makes its entrance,” says one former CAA client. “I’m not comfortable with a pack mentality.”

Some also accuse CAA of resorting occasionally to neo-Ovitzian bullying tactics. Its agents are not inhibited about using the muscle provided by the CAA client list to advance the interests of their individual players.

At a time when many of the town’s “buyers” complain of a profits crunch, CAA continues to make a lot of money (as a private company, it is not required to reveal its numbers). Some studio chiefs charge that CAA’s power has steadily inflated talent costs — one key factor behind the 23% rise on the average cost of production during the past year alone.

CAA declines to comment on any of this. Indeed, its top agents won’t discuss any aspect of their business. They’re convinced that, during the Ovitz years, too much was written about the agency, and that some agents became more celebrated than their clients.

They have a point.

“Even if someone writes something nice about us, that will only motivate someone else to find something to criticize,” says Bryan Lourd.

Besides which, the most dramatic fact about CAA is simply its remarkable resiliency. And that’s not too sexy a story, is it?

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