The co-founders of the agency rarely speak on the record — much less in an open forum in front of several hundred industry members. But they agreed to do it to help promote James Andrew Miller’s new book “Powerhouse: The Untold Story of Hollywood’s Creative Artists Agency.” Miller, who moderated the discussion presented by Live Talks Los Angeles, said it was the first time Ovitz and Meyer had appeared together in more than 20 years.
The discussion lasted nearly two hours, and at times felt more like a couple’s therapy session than a discussion of the inner workings of the entertainment business. Miller walked them through their unlikely friendship at the William Morris Agency, their total mutual dependence and deep bond from the founding of CAA in 1975 through its tremendous success of the 1980s, and the ultimate crumbling of the relationship when they parted ways in the mid-90s.
Ovitz said that through much of his career, Meyer was the only person he felt he could truly confide in.
“I trusted him completely,” he said. “We talked 30 times a day.”
The pair shared tremendous ambition, though Ovitz famously was the more aggressive of the two. The pair reminisced about working long hours, seven days a week, as they went about stealing clients from other agencies.
“For better or worse, it was a more gentlemanly business before we started,” Meyer recalled, to laughter.
“Ron and I had a goal, which was to have 100 percent market share,” Ovitz said. “I was laser-focused on the win. Ron was eminently more sensitive than I was.”
CAA rocketed to success, but by the late 80’s Ovitz was spending much of his time abroad, courting corporate clients and consulting on mergers and acquisitions. The agency business was largely left to Meyer, and their bond began to fray.
“I felt that our relationship had changed,” Meyer said. “Whether it was me not feeling worthy — it sounds silly to say that. I’m not sure what it was. I felt disenfranchised from our relationship.”
Ovitz, who walked in with the aid of a cane, acknowledged that now that he’s “an old man” he can reflect on some mistakes he made during that period.
“We were on such a roll in every aspect of the business, that I was oblivious and insensitive to a lot of the people issues,” he said. While he was spending time courting Japanese executives, “I didn’t realize that I was sacrificing relationships that were more important to me.”
Meyer acknowledged that he didn’t tell Ovitz that he was growing increasingly unhappy, but he didn’t want to disrupt the business and didn’t think Ovitz would have heard him out anyway.
“If I confronted Mike, he wouldn’t have handled it well,” Meyer said. “Relationships get sour. Things go wrong. That’s what happened.”
Ovitz acknowledged that he might have been better off if he cut back his schedule by 10 or 15 percent. Ultimately he said both he and Meyer got burned out.
“I wanted to win,” he said. “When you look back on your life, [you] realize that winning at all costs is not necessarily a great thing.”
Meyer announced that he would be leaving the agency. Ovitz feeling betrayed. Miller prodded Ovitz to talk about the parcel in Malibu that he bought, knowing that Meyer wanted to buy it, in apparent retaliation. Ovitz acknowledged that the move was “incredibly stupid and short-sighted.”
“I was pissed off,” he said. “I was getting a divorce from someone I didn’t want to get a divorce from.”
He noted that Meyer subsequently bought the property and is living there now. Asked why he bought the property, Ovitz said it was rooted in their relationship. In earlier days, he would rely on Meyer to put the brakes on his bad ideas.
“It was a giant mistake on my part,” he said. “One of the reasons I made the mistake was that I didn’t have him there to tell me not to do that.”