How CAA's Top Players Got Played
Dozens of agents past and present talked for a new book about the agency, 'Power House.' They did nothing to help CAA.
There’s a moment in Power House, the new oral history of CAA by James Andrew Miller, that caught even this jaded reporter by surprise.
In it, former CAA chairman Michael Ovitz and one of the company’s (then) leading agents, Jack Rapke, present rather different versions of how they handled a conflict with Lew Wasserman, the legendary founder of MCA and head of Universal Studios. Wasserman, furious that Rapke had advised his client Bob Zemeckis not to show up for the Back to the Future Part II shoot until his deal was done, arranged a conference call.
Here are the agents’ accounts:
RAPKE: ”Lew gets on the phone and — this is paraphrasing — [says] ‘Michael, I understand that Bob Zemeckis is not reporting to the set tomorrow night. Is that correct?’ Michael said, ‘Jack Rapke’s on the line.’ And I said, ‘Yes, Lew. That’s correct,’ and there’s a fucking explosion on the fucking phone like Lew is in the back alley of some fucking club trying to get paid for his act. He went thermonuclear in a second. ‘Michael, I am telling you, I will take every last fucking dollar of MCA’s money and sue the fuck out of CAA until CAA fucking goes down, and I will take every fucking dollar that MCA has and sue you fucking personally. Then I will take every last fucking nickel and sue Rapke so that he never makes a fucking nickel in his fucking life, okay?’ And then [Wasserman’s deputy] Sid Sheinberg says, ‘And I will fight the motherfucker that told Zemeckis not to report to the set.’ And I say, ‘Sid, that’s me. Wherever you want to meet, we go.’ And Michael’s like, ‘What the fuck?’… Michael, I tell you, when I looked at him, was a deer in the headlights. I was the one that was fighting in the street. Michael could hardly speak because it was so violent and so intense. And that didn’t bother me, okay?”
OVITZ: “Lew did what he always does, started screaming on the phone. Jack was petrified. He was shaking. He didn’t know how to handle this thing. He was way beyond his pay grade. So I let Lew finish, and I said one of the great lines of all time, I said, ‘Are you done?’ He said, ‘Yes.’ I said, ‘Good, let’s resolve this. Because I don’t want to be the man that gave you a heart attack.’ … That was my meat. I lived for those moments, those confrontations, with a guy of Lew’s strength, for me to test my manhood against them. Are you kidding me? And I won. By the way, I won again when I sold his fucking studio.”
There you have the two versions. So what surprised me?
It certainly wasn’t their scatological speech. After 30 years of writing about this industry, I’ve heard my fair share of linguistic effluvia and would expect no less from members of a club whose bible was Sun Tzu’s The Art of War. These guys need to “test their manhood,” as Ovitz says, even if their best way of testing it was with a telephone.
Nor was I surprised by the Rashomon-like accounts. Facts float in a miasma of memory, jumbled up and blended in with bias and emotion. Who am I to say which version is right?
I wasn’t even shocked that Wasserman, the grandest of Hollywood statesmen, could stoop so low over such a minor spat. Running a studio was his job; Back to the Future was a vital franchise; and he didn’t get where he got by being a wallflower any more than Ari Emanuel, the current co-CEO of WME, did.
What surprised me, in fact, was this:
That these men agreed to talk for the book at all.
* * *
When I first heard of Power House, I assumed Ovitz and his former partner, Ron Meyer, must have struck a secret deal.
Quote approval; permission to decide which stories made it into the book and which ones didn’t; the right to read the finished draft and answer allegations — that’s the kind of deal-making I expected from Ovitz and Meyer. These two guys, after all, were the best deal-makers in town.
I imagined that the former besties (who’ve barely spoken in years) compared notes before deciding to cooperate with a 700-page tome they thought would re-define them and set their legacy in stone. From a journalist’s point of view, it seemed too good to be true that they and their colleagues would simply open up — and not just open up, but spill the beans.
In fact, no deal was made, no promises given.
The book’s a monument to dogged reporting and to a journalist who just kept on pushing and pushing until (almost) everyone gave in.
Here’s what happened, according to a half-dozen publishing, agency and studio sources, none of whom agreed to go on the record.
Four years ago, just as Miller was completing Live From New York: The Complete, Uncensored History of Saturday Night Live as Told By Its Stars, Writers, and Guests, the second of two oral histories he had written with critic Tom Shales (the other was Those Guys Have All the Fun: Inside the World of ESPN), he decided to tackle a book whose three-letter subject would mean little to anyone outside the media world.
Before approaching the players, he signed a contract with his publisher, which pretty much forced him to move ahead. Then he did what any good journalist does: He reached out, and kept reaching and reaching.
At some point in 2012 or 2013, he made contact with Ovitz. No intermediary was involved; he simply called and began the first of numerous conversations with the former super-agent (now an investor and art collector), who hesitated before agreeing to take part.
The men arranged to meet at New York City’s Harvard Club — a place where Ovitz likely wouldn’t be recognized. There, he was the one who asked the questions, probing the reporter about his intentions and integrity.
More meetings ensued, including one at Ovitz’s Benedict Canyon home, before he finally gave Miller — who had already gotten under way with dozens of other interviews — his consent.
Similar conversations were taking place concurrently with Meyer.
Throughout, amazingly, sources say Meyer and Ovitz never conferred. Neither man picked up the phone and asked the other, “What do you think?” or “How much should we say?”
These two ex-colleagues — who together had played such a pivotal role in reshaping the entertainment business — couldn’t bring themselves to talk. That shows how deep a rift there is between them, and it certainly indicates CAA’s golden past wasn’t quite as gilded as one might have thought.
The current CAA leadership also took its time before jumping on the bandwagon — understandably: any book that seemed likely to glorify CAA version 1.0 inevitably would cast a shadow over CAA version 2.0.
Agency chairman Richard Lovett spoke. So did managing partner Kevin Huvane. But what about the third big guy in the equation, Bryan Lourd?
Despite talking to Miller on background, sources say, he chose not to be quoted in the book. That astonished this reader (and apparently some of the executives at CAA investor TPG Capital, too).
You’d think the company would present a united front, with all of its leaders taking part or none. Instead, they failed to adopt a cohesive approach in their most important public relations exercise in years.
* * *
Now they might have to pay the price.
The book gives the lie to the notion that the agency is too powerful to criticize; its enemies, as well as its stalwarts, do so with impunity.
It also makes clear that CAA’s seemingly united front was riddled with dissent, at least after its initial burst of glory. The agents’ stories serve as a counterpoint to all the declarations of teamwork. What we read about isn’t one-for-all-and-all-for-one; it’s more often just like Survivor.
That’s what the Ovitz-Rapke spat makes clear. Even two of the brightest men in the business can’t help slinging mud. And they’re just two of the former colleagues who’ve done so. Which shows just how much fear and loathing there must have been back in the past.
God knows what CAA has accomplished. In its heyday, it made things happen beyond any of its rivals — movies, television, careers. It created packages, linking its clients, that allowed hundreds of projects to get off the ground.
It put the agency business at the center of the industry, bumping aside the networks and studios that hitherto had dominated it. Its captains, Ovitz and Meyer, were arguably two of the three most influential men in the business of film, along with Harvey Weinstein.
CAA's mystique was always part of its image. The company was too big and too important to talk about what went on behind its walls, giving Hollywood (and clients) the feeling of a well-oiled machine not reliant on the press — or anyone else. But after reading this book, it’s hard to see the company quite the same way.
Sure, there are those beautiful buildings — the I.M. Pei-designed fortress on Wilshire and the Death Star in Century City, both monuments to the agency’s glory.
Only, now they seem to have a whole lot of cracks.
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