Book of the week: a Hollywood agent comes clean

Cover of Who Is  Michael Ovitz?  A MemoirWho Is Michael Ovitz? A Memoir
Michael Ovitz
WH Allen (£20)

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No one in Hollywood is more despised than agents. Movie fans and studios blame them for rising prices; clients resent them for taking too high a percentage of their hard-earned money. The power of agents has declined in recent years, thanks to the fragmentation of the film and television industry, but during the 1980s and 1990s, “super agents”, such as Michael Ovitz, were the kings of Hollywood.

In this memoir, Ovitz recounts his own rise and fall. Like Ovitz’s career, it comprises four acts. In the first, he works his way up from the corporate mailroom to a senior role at the William Morris Agency. Frustrated at his lack of progress, he then strikes out with a group of fellow agents and forms Creative Artists Agency (CAA), which he turns into the top agency in Hollywood by providing a “full-service” model that involves giving clients detailed career advice and building “packages” involving several clients.

The packaging leads Ovitz into a role as a dealmaker, advising companies who want to invest in Hollywood, and mediating between them and studio owners. CAA also uses its connections with film stars and directors to get involved in advertising. The experience of rubbing shoulders with CEOs gives Ovitz the idea that he would be suited to running a studio and he convinces Michael Eisner to appoint him to the dream job of president of Disney Studios – Eisner’s second in command.

However, on arrival at the “Magic Kingdom”, Ovitz discovers Eisner has had second thoughts about his new hire. His various plans are all blocked and Ovitz leaves shortly afterwards. A subsequent attempt to set up a company producing online television turns out to be ahead of its time. Sensing that his true calling is as an entrepreneur, Ovitz leaves entertainment and becomes a successful venture capitalist.

Although the first part of the memoir provides a taste of 1960s Hollywood and there are some interesting anecdotes, Ovitz’s clean-living lifestyle means those hoping for a repeat of Robert Evans’ The Kid Stays in the Pictures are likely to be disappointed. More gripping is the view from the ringside seat he provides for both Sony’s takeover of Columbia Pictures and Matsushita (now Panasonic)’s acquisition of Universal, which turned out to be less successful.

Ovitz is brutally honest about his failings, including his propensity to hold grudges, and this makes for a gripping read.  , although the latter will probably enjoy it more. The book certainly makes an entertaining change from the usual fare we get in business memoirs.