Michael Ovitz's Former Underlings Reflect on a "Supernova That Exploded All Over the Business"
Cara Robbins

Michael Ovitz's Former Underlings Reflect on a "Supernova That Exploded All Over the Business"

Fifteen years ago, the CAA co-founder's company imploded, creating a tight-knit club of future Next Gen execs, who gathered to share their experiences.

For the young men and women who began their careers at Michael Ovitz's high-flying but short-lived Artists Management Group, their indoctrination into Hollywood was a baptism by fire. "It was like being on a supernova that exploded all over the business," says Fox executive vp drama Terence Carter, who worked at talent co-head Aleen Keshishian's desk. Fifteen years ago, AMG flamed out, sending a generation of hungry young execs to populate some of the most influential companies of the past decade. Carter would be named to THR's Next Gen Class of 2009, one of more than a handful of former AMG trainees and assistants who would receive the honor over the years.

Back in December 1998, three years after Ovitz's ignominious 14-month stint as president of Disney, the CAA co-founder and former most powerful man in Hollywood unveiled his third act, a management company that was going to redefine the business, one that would represent film and television's hottest stars but also have arms in production, animation, music and sports. At the time, such a configuration was cutting-edge in the world of talent representation.

"The company was a cross-section of absolutely everything in entertainment," says Principato Young manager Kevin Parker, who got his start in the AMG mailroom 10 months into its existence. "Everybody would be in the office. You had DiCaprio and Scorsese, but you also had Serena Williams and [NBA star] Paul Pierce."

Working for Ovitz was a crash course in showbiz. "Everybody would gather in the conference room for all-company meetings, and it was Ovitz with [co-founders Rick and Julie Yorn] at his side, and he'd deliver these powerful messages," says WME partner Tom Wellington (Next Gen 2008), who was an assistant to AMG co-head of TV Paul Haas. "He'd say, 'I'm talking to trainees, too.' And you're like, 'Oh, my God, he knows about us?' "

Now those acolytes continue to practice the indelible directives issued by their first boss: Rove in packs. Second position is best. It's your job to know everyone. Call someone the day they lose a job and the day they get a job.

"They made sure we had mentorship," says Parker. "We had lunch every Friday, where you're either pitching ideas to Ted Demme, or Kevin Yorn [the entertainment attorney and Rick Yorn's brother who was Julie Yorn's then-husband] is coming in and showing you how contracts work."

Multiple former assistants and trainees called Ovitz "meticulous" — the Beverly Hills office's signature marble reception counter had to remain clutter-free at all times, ties were required, and managers could receive allowances for their personal cars only if they were black or silver. Nothing escaped the boss' attention. Ovitz would spot even the smallest bit of detritus on the office's impossibly plush carpet and pick it up, recalls Paradigm agent Stephanie Ramsey, then an assistant to Julie Yorn.

AMG's offices were designed such that three long corridors all converged on Ovitz's office so that "when he was coming or going, everyone knew," says Carter. "People were either running the opposite way to avoid him or running to try to intercept him and get a moment of his time."

As rigid and fearsome as Ovitz was about some aspects of presentation, he was progressive when it came to gender issues in the workplace, recall the women who got their start at AMG. Manager Mary Putnam Greene says of her trainee days, "I remember holding [talent co-head] JoAnne Colonna's baby in my lap, wearing a headset and typing with my free hand when Ovitz showed up looking for her." He didn't bat an eye.

That, coupled with the installment of multiple women in leadership roles, including Cathy Schulman as head of film production, left a deep impression. "At 22, as a female getting started in the business, I saw almost every single department run by a woman," says Jennifer Davisson, now president of production at Leonardo DiCaprio's Appian Way. "And they got pregnant at the same time. I watched all of them juggle work and family pretty seamlessly."

As with his previous ventures, Ovitz spared no expense. When asked to describe life at AMG, its rookie employees offer a collection of synonyms: Opulent. Extravagant. Decadent. Perks included free meals at swank sushi spot Hamasaku, where Ovitz was a partner; Gucci presents for Christmas; and business cards for assistants. Ovitz's personal art collection — including photos by Eadweard Muybridge, Diane Arbus and Richard Avedon — adorned the walls and even the garage, with curators regularly conducting tours during office hours. And there was a fully-stocked kitchen that served breakfast, lunch and dinner — as well as tuna salad on demand and blended coffee beverages each afternoon."We got iced-blended [drinks] before they were a thing," says Davisson. "We had BlackBerries before they were a thing."

Ovitz was often more of a futurist than his youngest employees. He urged his staff to venture out of their lanes and "free-swim in film, TV and digital," says Gotham Group manager-producer Peter McHugh (Next Gen 2005), who was an assistant in the animation division. Adds Shooter writer-producer Will Staples, then an assistant in the production unit: "We had meetings where he was talking about watching TV on your phones. We'd look at our flip phones going, 'What is he talking about?' "

But AMG would not survive to realize Ovitz's predictions. Lavish spending coupled with the failure to bring on additional financing caused divisions to shrink and eventually shutter. "It was like Studio 54," says Staples of the zeitgeist-defining company. It didn't help that CAA, which lost agent Mike Menchel and star Robin Williams to AMG, had issued an ultimatum to clients, declaring that they could not be represented by both firms. By May 2002, it was all over. Ovitz, who reportedly lost at least $100 million on AMG, sold it for $12 million to Jeff Kwatinetz's management company The Firm. (Today, Ovitz still collects art and makes private investments.)

AMG's lowest men and women on the totem pole were not informed, walking into the office one morning to find the art off the walls and desks emptying out. Still, perhaps because they had little to lose, they took the transition in stride. "Because it was a new company, we knew we'd either be kings and queens of the world or looking for new jobs in a couple of years," says McHugh.

"It's great to start at a company that goes out of business because then you know people all over town. When I got to Endeavor, I was like, 'Who makes my smoothie around here?' " says Wellington. "I was a little in shock, but then I [realized], 'Oh, people are getting promoted here, and we seem to be expanding, and there's a business model.'"

This story first appeared in the Nov. 8 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

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