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12 Things We Learned From Michael Ovitz’s New Book

Michael Ovitz still has nothing good to say about Michael Eisner. He and Ron Meyer started to patch things up over dinner a few years ago at Hamasaku, the sushi restaurant that Ovitz owns in West Los Angeles. And the famous threat Ovitz delivered to Joe Eszterhas about having “foot soldiers” marching up and down Wilshire Boulevard? Totally exaggerated in Eszterhas’ retelling via the press.

Those are among the anecdotes and tidbits shared by Ovitz in his new book “Who Is Michael Ovitz?,” due out Tuesday from Random House’s Portfolio imprint. The book isn’t so much a tell-all as it is a take-credit-for-(nearly)-all that went down during Ovitz’s 20-year run as the monarch of CAA.

The 384-page tome offers exhausting detail on how CAA reshaped the movie business in the 1980s and ’90s with its approach to packaging, and how Ovitz engineered the dealmaking behind such notable films as “Rain Man,” “The Last Temptation of Christ,” “Stripes,” “The Color of Money” and “Schindler’s List.”

The book offers a good primer on the backstories of the high-level corporate dealmaking that Ovitz pursued in his last decade at CAA, from advising Japan’s Matsushita on its purchase of CAA to Sony Corp.’s acquisition of Columbia Pictures to the sale of MGM to France’s Credit Lyonnais.

But overall the book doesn’t offer too much in the way of fresh dish, even as Ovitz goes into detail on his friendships and ruptures with one-time friends such as Eisner, the former Disney chief, and Meyer, his former CAA partner who is now vice chairman of NBCUniversal.

Here are 12 things we learned from a speed-read of “Who Is Michael Ovitz?”

In the late 1980s, Meyer twice came to Ovitz to ask for CAA’s help in paying off gambling debts — one for $5 million and one for $6.5 million. Ovitz put Meyer on a tight budget and temporarily took away his credit cards, or what Ovitz describes as putting Meyer “in handcuffs.” (A source close to Meyer disputes those dollar figures as highly inflated and stressed that Ovitz never made a personal loan to Meyer. The source also noted that Ovitz never contacted Meyer for fact-checking.)

Ovitz’s describes a complicated relationship with Meyer, one of four William Morris Agency reps who left that agency in 1975 with Ovitz to launch CAA. The idea to hang out their own shingle was Meyer’s, Ovitz says. The two had a good-cop/bad-cop relationship when it came to building CAA. “Ron was the soul of CAA and I was the ass-soul,” Ovitz writes. Moreover, “Ron was the Warren Beatty of agents, able to cut a wide swath and never get called out.”

Just call them the original Avengers. “One of the strongest bonds Ron and I shared was a belief that any betrayal must be avenged,” Ovitz writes. The book is full of stories about Ovitz using his fearsome industry muscle to maximum effect. 

To wit, when Bernie Brillstein took the job as head of motion pictures for Lorimar in 1986 without telling Ovitz in advance, CAA froze Lorimar out when it came to shopping material and stars. That contributed to Brillstein’s short two-year tenure at the company, in Ovitz’s view.

As for the Eszterhas affair, Ovitz maintains that he gave the screenwriter the famous line: “My foot soldiers who go up and down Wilshire Boulevard each day will blow your brains out” as a suggestion for Eszterhas to use in explaining to his former agent, Guy McElwaine, why he wasn’t prepared to rejoin him at ICM. Eszterhas, in Ovitz’s interpretation, ratcheted the tension for dramatic effect when he shot off a letter to his lawyer that happened to make its way to the trades.

The most heartfelt thank-you Ovitz ever received from a client came from David Letterman after Ovitz steered his relocation to CBS following “The Tonight Show” imbroglio at NBC in 1993.

What was it like to work at CAA during Peak Ovitz years? “Our corporate culture was American team sports boosterism mixed with Spartan military tactics mixed with asian philosophy all overlaid by the communitarian spirt of the Three Musketeers.”

When Ovitz started in the mailroom at William Morris Agency, he made $55 a week. By 1985, he owned 55% of CAA.

Ovitz’s misery during his 13-month tenure as president of Disney began the day he went to Eisner’s home to review the press release to be issued about his appointment. On that day, Disney’s Sandy Litvack and Stephen Bollenbach “ambushed” Ovitz by informing him that they would not report to him. Barely a year later, Ovitz was incredulous when Eisner fired him but still offered to host Ovitz’s 50th birthday party.

Artists Management Group, Ovitz’s post-Disney management-production venture that flamed out quickly, was ahead of its time in trying to produce short-form content for online platforms.

After the AMG flame-out, Ovitz writes that he regrets using the term “Gay mafia” in a Vanity Fair interview to describe the forces in the industry that conspired against AMG.

Ovitz declares Endeavor’s Ari Emanuel and Patrick Whitesell to be the rightful heirs to his throne as the titans who are achieving the diversification that Ovitz yearned for with CAA. He also described his sadness when he realized that private equity giant TPG now controls CAA.

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