“Powerhouse: The Untold History of Hollywood’s Creative Artists Agency,” is to be published on May 10 by Custom House, an imprint of HarperCollins’ William Morrow unit.
The industry’s appetite for the deep-dive into the backstory of the storied agency was whetted Wednesday with the publication in Vanity Fair of a lengthy excerpt detailing the tumultuous period in 1995 when agency co-founder Ron Meyer left to run Universal Studios and its powerful leader/co-founder Michael Ovitz departed for the Walt Disney Co. With lengthy direct quotes, the principal players discuss the trajectory of events that began with Ovitz negotiating to bring Meyer and other CAA alums with him to run Universal, after the studio was acquired by Seagram Co., to the withdrawal of that offer and Meyer’s decision to go solo as Universal’s president.
RON MEYER: I went back to the hotel and called my wife to tell her. Then I had to call Mike. You can only imagine that conversation. I remember it like yesterday. Mike said, “So how did it go?,” and I said, “Not the way you would expect. Edgar said under no circumstances would they offer you the job again, but that they wanted me to do it.” Mike asked me, “So what did you tell them?” I said, “Mike, I told them yes.” So immediately Mike said to me, “You stole this job from me.” I told him, “No, Mike, you left it in the trash can and I retrieved it,” and then the conversation ended.
Another intriguing tidbit from the excerpt is detail on how Meyer tried to facilitate Ovitz’s move to Disney to work alongside CEO Michael Eisner in late 1994, after the death of Disney president Frank Wells in a helicopter crash.
RON MEYER: After [Walt Disney president] Frank Wells died and [studio chief] Jeffrey [Katzenberg] left the company—this was late ’94—Mike told me [Disney chairman and CEO Michael] Eisner had offered him a job at Disney, but that he didn’t want to accept it because of certain conditions. I said, “Why don’t I take a shot at Eisner, and see if I can make this work?” The truth is, at that time, I was more than ready for Mike to leave. So I called Eisner and we went to a restaurant on Melrose and we sat there for five hours. Eisner told me, “I want Mike to spend a year learning about Disney. I want him to go all around the world. I want him to spend two months in China and two months in France.” He also said he would be open to being co-CEO or co-chairman. I don’t remember the entire list of things Mike gave me, but Eisner agreed to everything Mike had wanted except for one situation: If there was a decision where they disagreed, Eisner would privately have the final say. I went back to Mike, who mulled it over for a day or two and then decided to pass.
Miller said he sees the CAA tome as completing a trilogy that he started with the oral histories of “Saturday Night Live” and ESPN that he co-authored with Tom Shales. Like ESPN and “SNL,” CAA was a product of the 1970s, Miller said. ” ‘SNL’ and ESPN are more iconic brands. If you go to Topeka, Kansas, more people on the street are going to know ‘SNL’ or ESPN, but CAA’s tentacles and reach are still probably wider and deeper than the other two.”
Miller (who is repped by ICM for books and WME for film and TV) said he has had good participation from the key players for the book, including Ovitz. Sorting through the memories of dozens of people about events that are now 20 to 40 years old has been like “chipping away at a block of granite to get closer and closer to the real story.” His office bulletin board is full of “Venn diagrams and concentric circles” in his effort to keep the chronology of people and events straight. His fact-checking and cross-checking was rigorous because fiction can easily become fact over time.
“Hollywood is the land of storytelling. These narratives get launched, and all of a sudden, by the time everybody’s going to the Palm for lunch, they’ve taken on a degree of authenticity,” he said.