Back when Michael Ovitz ran the Creative Artist’s Agency, hailed as the most powerful talent agency in the world, he would hand out copies of Sun Tzu’s “The Art of War” to his staff. In 1995, Ovitz parted amiably with the company he had founded two decades earlier and the industry he had revitalized, and ascended the throne of the Disney empire as president. It was a career move he hoped would catapult him to the top of an even older and larger entertainment kingdom than the one he built himself. But instead, 14 months after unsuccessfully casting himself as Disney’s president, Ovitz clashed irrevocably with Chairman of the Walt Disney Company Michael Eisner, collected an estimated $128 million in compensation, and boomeranged back to Hollywood. Last winter he formed AMG, the Artists Management Group, and is now testing his ex-employees on their knowledge of Chinese philosophy.
Same job different company: Sometimes it’s best to Boomerang back an alternate route
Ovitz could have waltzed back into CAA like nothing happened, but he really had nothing to gain from returning to his old stomping ground. He left as founding father and king of the hill. By returning after his failed stint at Disney, he might have marred his reputation as a brilliant and brutal businessman. For Ovitz and for a war-gamed Hollywood, a return to CAA would not be a return to grandeur; instead, it would appear a whimpering retreat.
Ever the forward thinker, Ovitz chose the braver route. He realized that he should return to the business he knew best, but he conceded that he had learned all he could from his 20-year career at the I.M. Pei building on Wilshire Boulevard. Ovitz decided to move on to a new big, and perhaps even better, project.
During his tenure at CAA, Ovitz had reinvented the talent agent world by charging the lowest commission in the industry and beating out all the competition. He had shaken up the studios by demanding previously unheard of salaries for his actors. When word got around about the new game in town, everyone followed suit, and Ovitz succeeded in effectively changing the center of power in Hollywood from studios to agents.
After bidding farewell to Mickey and Friends, Ovitz was ready to move back to the industry he had helped to create, and subsequently formed a monolith one-stop talent management shop: AMG. Whereas CAA agents are legally prohibited from producing projects with their clients, AMG talent “managers” are largely unregulated and have a much more flexible role. They can be financial partners with their clients and usually earn hefty commissions for providing more one-on-one hand-holding services. In his comeback company, Ovitz aims to create a powerhouse that not only manages the careers of stars but also produces and distributes movies — he reportedly wants all agents and managers to work for him.
If you can’t join ’em, fight ’em
Ovitz has the distinct advantage of having done right by his clients, and he therefore has talent that trusts him. This trust has enabled him to go head-to-head with his old company — and emerge victorious. Already many big CAA names have crossed the line in the sand to join AMG. Claire Danes, Laren Holly, Minnie Driver, Marisa Tomei, Mimi Rogers, Syndney Pollack, Martin Scorsese, and Robin Williams all have been plucked from the CAA waters.
Ovitz is now poised to hoist his newest big project even higher than CAA. The opportunity requires a huge amount of industry expertise, a fantastic reputation, and some hefty nerve. But if the past is any predictor of the future, Hollywood had better take shelter: Ovitz is back in town.
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