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Michael Ovitz: It’s Hard Out There for a Super Agent

Michael Ovitz’s personal calendar boasted 30 years of lunches at the Grill on the Alley, red carpet premieres, and the kind of ruthless, corporate fighting that once made him the most powerful man in Hollywood.

Those days are long past him. The now 71-year old former super agent is semi-retired, and struck a diminutive and more muted pose during an hour-long conversation at the 92nd Street Y on Wednesday night. Ovitz left most of the zanier moments to moderator Bill Murray, his friend and former client.

But that calendar came in handy. Ovitz turned to those decades worth of appointments and calls to jog his memory. He consolidated them into a new tell-all book “Who Is Michael Ovitz?”

Ovitz may have left Hollywood two decades ago, but the esteemed talent agent and co-founder of Creative Artists Agency (CAA) remembers it clearly. He is still using the same marketing, monetization, and strategy skills, only now it’s to collaborate with the young and brilliant minds of Silicon Valley. Where once he advised Sean Connery to accept an Oscar-winning role in “The Untouchables,” now he’s helping the likes of Mark Zuckerberg navigate the scrutiny that comes with being a Young Turk of the information age.

“It’s interesting. It’s the same thing I did as an agent,” he said. “[Silicon Valley] is not much different than the world [Murray] and I occupied for some time.”

That world, of course, is the entertainment industry of the 1980s and ‘90s, a time of soaring star salaries and an era when agents were kings. Ovitz made it clear that those days are long gone. Superhero flicks are the coin of the realm, and special effects have replaced actors as the true stars in the business.

“[Hollywood today] is a different place. We had the last great period, from a business perspective, of making films and getting people’s dreams to come true,” Ovitz said. “Today, with the advent of on-demand and streaming, it’s a very different place. It’s hard to build a career the way we did.”

According to Murray, Ovitz’s success and that of CAA can be attributed to his leadership skills, high expectations, and ability to recognize a job well done.

“When Mike ran that company, it was a machine. It was really a juggernaut,” Murray said. “ When he left, it didn’t run the same way.” Murray no longer has an agent.

The comedian quipped that he wasn’t Ovitz’s first choice to serve as ringmaster at the event.

“I’m going to talk for a long time because Mike’s got no chops,” Murray said. “When he asked me to do this thing, he used a very professional technique. I think he asked like 21 people, and I’m the only one that answered the phone.”

Ovitz’s time at CAA was a controversial one, and his departure was equally rocky. After leaving the agency, he served just over a year as the second in command at Walt Disney Company, before being fired. He then tried to form a new agency, Artist Management Group, only to be forced to sell it off for pieces. Ovitz faced fierce blowback after he blamed his failures in a Vanity Fair article on a “gay mafia” that was out to get him.

But the super agent and Murray steered clear of those kinds of controversies. He was notably coy when asked what stories didn’t make it into the book.

“I wouldn’t even know where to go with that,” he said. “The stories that weren’t in the book were things that were personal. I didn’t put anything in that might be questionable or embarrassing. I refuse to do that. I didn’t want anything sensationalist in the book. The stories are as I see them. You may not agree with the facts.”

In the years since his departure, Ovitz has taken the time to reflect on his proudest moments and the ones he wished he’d handled differently in order to piece together his 384-page memoir.

“[The process of writing this book] was a cathartic experience for me,” he said. “There are two sides to every story. I put my side in.”

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