This book is so depressing I almost want to tell you not to read it.
But that would be a mistake.
I was not going to read it, because I hate oral histories and the reviews were horrid. Then I ran into Steve Barnett who told me he finished it in two days on vacation in Hawaii and I had to dive in.
It’s a tome. There’s no way you can finish it in forty eight hours unless it’s the only thing you do. But it does call out to me, I have wanted to read it. And I’m just positively stunned…
How it’s all ancient history and so many of the players are irrelevant.
Live in the belly of the beast long enough and it seems so important. But when they go back thirty years and lay it all out, you remember the movies but don’t care about them and realize they’ve got no staying power. It’s as if all this work has been done for naught. As guys, and it is mostly guys, beat their chests, take credit and play chess with each other believing they’re Gary Kasparov when the truth is they’re kids playing Chinese checkers.
The progenitors left William Morris. The Morris agency was a bastion of fiefs with no upward mobility. Ovitz, et al, wanted to start over with a teamwork ethos that truly served the client.
And in the process they got big-headed and Ovitz alienated everybody and CAA became a monolith… SO WHAT?
My favorite part of the book is when Paula Wagner, known primarily as Tom Cruise’s producing partner, says…
“I left CAA in August ’92. As an agent, you aren’t a principal. You’re the representative of the principal, and I decided I wanted to be a principal.”
Bingo! Exactly how I felt practicing law, something I never planned to do but fell into awaiting my bar results, it takes a long time to get them in California. And I passed and not long into my tenure I said…I don’t want to be a lawyer and be told what to do, I want to call my own lawyer and tell him what to do!
But actually, the truly best part of the book, the laugh out loud part, is a story told by Tom Ross, who goes to rehab for weight-loss:
“I was there a month, and one day I ran into Steven Tyler, who was there for drug rehab and sexual addiction. They arranged for us to spend an afternoon together and Steven said to me ‘Man, I don’t know if I can do this. I just can’t imagine going to a gig and not getting laid or not getting a few blow jobs.’ I looked at him and said, ‘Try being an agent for a few years. You get used to it.'”
But the execs have the last laugh, except for a few outliers like Tyler, true stars, the business people outlast the talent. The talent leaves its mark, but the business people make more money and soldier on, until they can’t.
“Mike left because he knew there are good agents and there are old agents, but there are no good old agents.”
A lot of this book is about knowing when to move on, when your time is done, when you’ve got to pass the torch to the younger generation before they gain control and fire your ass. I heard it from a famous A&R guy the other night, he says his biggest challenge is the boomers who hate their jobs who won’t retire. I mean Snapchat? That’s where oldsters draw the line. That’s when you know you’re done. When you’ve built a home on Facebook and find out time has passed you by, there’s a new sheriff in town, and you just want to move on down the road to elude his reach.
But it is old news. CAA is a juggernaut today. But it’s a different company in different businesses. Deep into sports, it’s sold equity to outsiders. Trying to figure out how to survive as movies become marginalized and the realization hits…there’s just not that much money in entertainment.
But you can own your identity.
Mick Fleetwood comes into the office just as Tom Ross has joined the agency and says:
“I can’t talk to you with that tie on. It’s not you.”
And Tom rips it off and never wears one again.
It’s who you are, not your image.
That’s the difference between the rock stars of yesterday and those of today. Before, they marched to the beat of their own drummer, today they’re trying to fit in. And they never really can. Because that’s not their skill. The business people will eat them alive.
And Ovitz screws his partners but makes them money and everybody comes out to piss on his grave, as Ovitz continues to explain away the faux pas. It’s hard not to feel sorry for these people. Who think this is oh-so-important. It’s not. Can you even name the heads of today’s movie studios?
But there are so many lessons to be learned, Bill Haber says:
“In any business on earth – I always say to people – nobody will leave you for the money, and nobody will leave you over titles. People will only leave if they have no loyalty to you.”
Hollywood is incredibly tribal. It’s all about gangs. You’ve got your people and you’d take a bullet for them.
Or you’re not in the game.
That’s one of the eye-opening elements, how Ovitz and his gang foist advantages upon their clients.
Sign with CAA and they’ll introduce you to Marty and Bob. They can not only solve problems, they can create opportunities. Who you’re with is sometimes more important than who you are. There are very few slots in Hollywood, in filmed entertainment and music too. If you think you can just waltz in and take your shot, you’ve got no idea how the game is played. It’s a controlled universe. You need your team. And this book makes that very clear.
It all seemed so important at the time. The Eszterhas affair. “Legal Eagles.” Ovitz going to Disney and getting fired.
But not only is Ovitz out of the picture, so is Eisner. Sid Sheinberg too. Take away their power base and they’re mortal. Meanwhile, the youngsters want to freeze you out, they don’t want to give you another shot, Ovitz had no chance with AMG.
So where does this leave us?
It’s about you baby. Follow your dream. You think you want to be at the center of it all, but the more you read the book the less you care. Never mind everybody working 24/7 just to stay in place, it’s just a matter of when the clients will leave you, not if.
But wisdom comes with experience and age. One can tell youngsters how it works but they never listen, they need to do it for themselves.
And I don’t think any youngsters are reading this book. Because they can’t catch the references, they have no idea who the people are, all plowed under, in the rearview mirror. Sydney Pollack is six feet under. Dustin Hoffman is a guy who had a series on HBO that got cancelled. Bob Redford is that old guy with a film festival. There’s a whole section on “Sneakers.” Do you even know that film? I saw it, I liked it, but it’s a distant memory, a faded photograph of a Little League team, if you were there it’s meaningful, if not, it’s meaningless.
Boys and their toys. Their Ferraris and their private jets. And you buy it, you want what they’ve got. Even though so many are faking it, and are unhappy inside.
To hear competitors rain on Ovitz’s parade, to say he was a bad businessman…
I mean come on, even if in some instances that’s true, it’s basically jealousy. Ovitz changed the agenting industry. And made beaucoup bucks doing it. Hell, he even changed the medium, both movies and TV. He left his mark.
But he did have blind spots.
We’ve all got blind spots.
And you conquer them via information. That’s what Hollywood runs on, information. If you’re not communicating 24/7, if you’re not hoovering up tidbits and analysis, you’ll never make it.
It’s good to be the king.
But it never lasts.
P.S. Read the damn book. Your eyes will glaze over at times as they go down the rabbit hole, jumping around in the process, but you’ll learn more about how Hollywood really works than in a lifetime of college courses.