The Michael Ovitz Interview: At Home With the Former (and Still Fierce) King of Hollywood
Diego Uchitel

The Michael Ovitz Interview: At Home With the Former (and Still Fierce) King of Hollywood

by Matthew Belloni , Carol McColgin
October 03, 2018, 6:00am PDT

He lorded over entertainment at CAA before an epic flameout at Disney. Now, on the occasion of his new memoir, Ovitz opens up about the bridges he burned, the deals he closed, the state of showbiz, Ron Meyer, David Geffen, Michael Eisner (a “monumental betrayal”) and his life now with fiancee and shoe mogul Tamara Mellon.

Michael Ovitz is giving a tour of his Beverly Hills home, a 28,000-square-foot, Michael Maltzan-designed museum that consists of three interconnected boxes wrapped in a perforated-steel skin. It's an art-lover's paradise: Lichtensteins in the stairwell, Picassos and Rothkos on the left, an Ellsworth Kelly over there. The Creative Artists Agency co-founder and former Most Feared Man in Hollywood shares the Benedict Canyon estate with his fiancee, Jimmy Choo co-founder and shoe mogul Tamara Mellon, and her teenage daughter. "Luckily, our aesthetics are very similar," says Mellon, who has been dating Ovitz since 2011 (they became engaged in 2014). "I've introduced Michael to fashion photographers like Helmut Newton, Daido Moriyama and Hiro. He's introduced me to countless artists."

Ovitz, 71, and Mellon, 51, are both in the throes of successful second acts. Since leaving CAA in 1995 for a short-lived (and famously contentious) job as Michael Eisner's deputy at Disney and a failed effort to launch a management-production company called Artists Management Group, Ovitz has become an active Silicon Valley investor; Mellon, who left Jimmy Choo after discovering she was being paid less than male colleagues, now runs an eponymous shoe line and, as of this fall, her first retail store, in the new Pacific Village center in L.A.'s Pacific Palisades. The couple has invited THR to the home on the occasion of the magazine's annual Red Carpet Designers issue and his new memoir, Who Is Michael Ovitz?, which recounts his rise from high school tour guide at Universal Studios to reinventing the agency business with partner Ron Meyer and others, lording over Hollywood with Machiavellian tactics and what might be described as a casual relationship with ethics and the truth, and crashing to Earth after a "monumental betrayal" by Eisner. As he describes in the book, Ovitz was at the center of most major star and filmmaker deals for more than two decades, helped sell two studios, got an early peek at the digital revolution now reinventing Hollywood and co-founded a company that is still a dominant player run by his proteges (though he laments, not owned by them).

Ovitz, joined by Mellon sat down with THR editorial director Matthew Belloni in their home overlooking an elevated reflecting pool (and, in the distance, among the modern sculptures, a play set for Ovitz's grandchildren). Mellon then sat for a separate interview on her business with THR fashion and beauty director Carol McColgin. The Ovitz conversation, edited and condensed below, delved into Ovitz's falling out and reconnection with Meyer and David Geffen, the "heartbreaking" sale of CAA to private equity investor TPG Global, the Murdochs' offloading of Fox to Disney, and the lessons he's learned. Says Ovitz: "I thought it was a sin to be vulnerable, and in the past 10 years, with a lot of help from Tamara and my own kids and getting older and looking back, it's not such a sin."

I don't think the book is what people would expect you to write. It's very dishy.

MICHAEL OVITZ Well, I have had an amazing life.

Why write it?

OVITZ About 10, 12 years ago, a publisher hit me with a really interesting idea: "Why don't you write a book about the 10 best deals you ever made?" I was fortunate in that I had copious notes on almost everything that I had done. Those notes stimulated some extraordinary memories. Next thing I knew, the book is what it is.

Was there a number one deal?

OVITZ I'm the number one deal. (Laughs.)

Tamara, is this book a good or bad idea for Michael?

TAMARA MELLON A great idea. There's a lot of myth about Michael, and I thought it would be great for him to write down how he built CAA and tell those fantastic stories in his own words.

Let's talk business. You claim in the book that a lot of your ideas in the '90s and early 2000s were ahead of your time. Why didn't traditional Hollywood people see the direct-to-consumer model coming? Or did they and they ignored it?

OVITZ In the early '90s, I went up to see Bill Gates. I met a man named Nathan Myhrvold, who was employee number three at Microsoft and was CTO. Graduated UCLA at 15. One of the smartest men I've met. And he said to me, "Michael, whatever comes out of a speaker is going to end up in the ether someplace and be able to be pulled down by people for free." I was an apostle of his point of view. Not that I understood it. I told it to the head of every music company that I was an adviser to. And like anything else in life, they focused on what was immediate, which was quarterly sales of CDs and DVDs.

And Steve Jobs used that miscalculation to launch the iPod.

OVITZ I don't think anyone knows how really brilliant Steve was. I knew him well. I was the consultant to Pixar. If you're [Sony co-founder] Akio Morita, who I also was the consultant for, and you have 75 million Walkmans in circulation, and a guy comes out from Palo Alto and takes your Walkman and sticks a chip in it and creates the iPod, you've got to say to yourself, "Huh?"

What is the company to beat in the next five years in the media and entertainment space?

OVITZ I'm old school, so to me it's having seamless digital distribution and extraordinary creative production capacity. Clearly Netflix. And I'm impressed with what Bob Iger is doing.

You think Disney's upcoming streaming service will work?

OVITZ Absolutely. I'm their biggest fan. I think Bob [Iger] has taken that company from what could've been a disaster to a preeminent place in the industry, and he's going to leave the company solid as a rock. I commend Rupert [Murdoch]. I couldn't have done what Rupert did [selling most of 21st Century Fox to Disney], but he had to do it.

You couldn't have sold your baby?

OVITZ Yeah. I had enough trouble leaving CAA. It's hard when you start something from scratch and it's yours. But Rupert built this business from scratch, and then Lachlan and James come in to help run it, so he's got heirs that can do it well. They could've taken the company to another level, but at a $35 billion to $40 billion market cap company — how stupid does this sound — they're too small. (Laughs.) They're too small.

In the book, you get into how CAA tried to own content in the '90s and ultimately abandoned the push rather than fight the guilds. Now Endeavor and CAA are both trying to own programming. What do you think about that strategy?

OVITZ As long as it's done with full transparency and everybody gets what they would've gotten anyway.

No conflict, no interest.

OVITZ Yeah. The best advocate for any creative person is their representative. Most, not all, representatives are going to play it really right with their clients. You can't afford not to. You just can't. If I could've gotten into production in the '90s, I would've done it in a heartbeat. But I couldn't risk it. We would have had to have tried to shut the guilds down.

People who once worked with you might be surprised to learn that in the book, you actually admit you were wrong sometimes.

OVITZ I thought it was a sin to be vulnerable, and in the past 10 years, with a lot of help from Tamara and my own kids and getting older and looking back, it's not such a sin. Everybody is vulnerable. [But] I felt for us as a service business that vulnerability was an incredibly weak link. Look, this is going to sound awful: We were competing with studios and networks and publishers and record companies — we weren't competing with the agencies. We had no competition, frankly. So we had to have the kind of infrastructure that could fight that, and we couldn't show weakness or lack of knowledge, lack of depth. Any weak link in the chain, I felt, could destroy us. I really felt that. So the person who had to be the strongest was me. Does that mean that it was right? In retrospect, probably not. I could have backed off a bit.

How much do you keep tabs on CAA these days?

OVITZ None. Zero.

Zero?

OVITZ I made a decision that when I left, it's their business and they had to do what they had to do with it. There's a lot of things they've done that are really smart and a lot of things they've done I wouldn't do.

Would you have sold the majority stake to TPG?

OVITZ No, I wouldn't have done what they did for any amount of money.

Do you think it was just money?

I have no idea why they did it. You have to ask them. I was heartbroken. I was up in Palo Alto, and I was at a lunch, and one of the guys from TPG was talking and didn't really know who I was, and he said, "I own CAA." And my stomach just … I remember I called Ron Meyer after the meeting. I said, "I just have to share this with somebody." I called Tamara. I called both of them separately and said, "I just heard something that was just like a knife through my heart." No one owned us. We didn't have a dollar of debt.

MELLON You ran CAA with no debt against it.

OVITZ We did what we wanted to do. How do you herd and shepherd the lambs if they don't think you have the stick? If they think you're weak, they walk all over you. We had one agent leave in the entire time we were there. One. We had very few clients leave. And the reality is that the guys there now, they have sold 60, 70 percent of their business to people that are in the business of making money. We went into business to make money, but we had a bigger vision.

Do you think Endeavor or CAA will eventually get to an IPO?

OVITZ I think they will probably both get there. I don't see any other way when you're carrying the kind of debt both of those companies are carrying. Ari [Emanuel]'s approach [at Endeavor] is interesting and different because he's got businesses with real cash flow. They still have service businesses at CAA. Now they probably have some production, but not like Ari does. Ari's got huge sports production and he's got UFC and he's got businesses that generate real cash.

Has Ron read what's in the book?

OVITZ I gave it to him yesterday.

Are you nervous about his reaction?

OVITZ Nope. I told him he wouldn't like some of it and he'd like a lot of it.

I don't think he's going to like the stuff about his gambling.

OVITZ But it was in the other book [2015's Powerhouse: The Untold Story of Hollywood's Creative Artists Agency].

MELLON And they both talked about it when you did the Q&A onstage [in 2015].

OVITZ I put it in because it would be disingenuous to avoid it. If you put it in, you run the risk of offending. If you don't put it in, you run the risk of being criticized because it's not a secret. [The gambling] was the beginning of the end of my relationship with him, and that was an important part of the book. How do you not put that in?

What is the status of your relationship with Ron?

OVITZ We had lunch yesterday. We are rebuilding what was a 30-year friendship that disappeared for 20 years.

What was the impetus to get it restarted?

OVITZ I called him up and said, "We're both going to die." I said, "I heard from someone that you went off on me on a plane ride the other day like it was yesterday." And he skipped a beat and he said, "You're right." I said, "We should meet and talk about it." And we started meeting. This is about a year ago.

Does it surprise you that he has stayed in his role at Universal for as long as he has?

OVITZ No. He's the best guy in the world at that job. There is no one better. He's the mayor of Universal. He's great with people, he's not interested in details and he's fabulous at 41,000 feet.

In the book, you call your infamous comment about the "gay mafia" — including David Geffen, whom you blamed for bringing down your agency Artists Management Group — "regrettable."

OVITZ I don't know anybody that hasn't made mistakes. So you either own up to them or you just sweep them under the carpet. I was telling Tamara the other night at dinner. "This [book] has been cathartic for me."

You portray a level of detachment from the behavior you were surrounded by in that era. Given the lens of 2018 and the #MeToo movement, do you look back on those times differently?

OVITZ We talk about this all the time. Tamara is a staunch feminist. I talked about this with Ronnie at lunch yesterday. What has happened is good. And it's long overdue. Did we know things were going on? We never got a complaint. First of all, we would never send an actress into a hotel room unescorted. We escorted our clients to their meetings. Do we know what happened in the personal dressing rooms of every client? No. We couldn't live their lives. Did we hear things once in a while? Yeah. Were we in a position to act on them? Only if they were overt or something was brought to our attention or if someone asked us, and that happened almost never.

How is your relationship with Eisner these days?

OVITZ There is no relationship with Eisner. I consider what he and I went through to be one of my monumental career mistakes and one of the monumental betrayals in my life.

Are you still hurt by it?

OVITZ Yeah. I'm wounded by it because I really considered him like a brother. I really did.

How about Geffen?

OVITZ Getting along fine. Tamara is good friends with him. He and I have had lunch, we've buried the hatchet — and fortunately not in my back. (Laughter.) David and I are different people. We sat down at lunch, we looked at each other and we started to laugh. Couldn't even remember some of the shit that went down.

Do you still think Geffen sabotaged AMG?

OVITZ I don't think he sabotaged it. I don't think he helped it. He's an influential guy. I think AMG was sabotaged by the idea. The idea was to create content for the internet and mobile telephony. In '99, that was a great idea. But in '99, we didn't have bandwidth. I think that our basic business model was sound — it's surely being done now. I mean, we were doing Netflix, basically.

This story first appeared in the Oct. 3 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.