December 14, 1946
Chicago, Illinois, United States
Agent, Executive, Tour guide
Sometimes referred to as the "most powerful man in Hollywood," Ovitz began his career as a tour guide at Universal Studios in the 1960s, trained as an agent (literally working his way up from the mailroom) at the William Morris Agency and left briefly to study law before returning to William Morris. He then co-founded the phenomenally successful and powerful Creative Artists Agency (CAA) in 1975, and shortly after became chairman of the board. (Ovitz owned just over half the company.)By the late 1980s, CAA had acquired a client list of some 150 directors, 130 actors and 250 writers--all the top of their fields--enabling Ovitz and his company to exert a dominant influence on major Hollywood productions. CAA clients have included Michael Apted, Alec Baldwin, Warren Beatty, Jane Campion, Mariah Carey, Cher, Glenn Close, Sean Connery, Kevin Costner, Michael Crichton, Tom Cruise, Robert De Niro, Jonathan Demme, Herbie Hancock, Ron Howard, Lauren Hutton, Michael and Janet Jackson, Stephen King, David Letterman, Madonna, Paul Newman, Al Pacino, Martin Scorsese, Neil Simon, Wesley Snipes and Steven Spielberg.The power began to accrue in the late 70s when, having solidified its place in TV, CAA launched an effective campaign on film by breaking the (unwritten) law of the "package deal." Acceptable, even conventional, for TV production, agency package deals were more or less uncharted territory for film since, from the late teens through the early 60s, the studios (through their contracted producers) handled the assembling of projects. But the collapse of the studio system left this crucial aspect of movies in a vulnerable (and, thus, exploitable) state.CAA, by providing directors, actors and screenwriters--all in one shot--essentially fulfilled this function. (Though similar to the traditional "package deal," CAA's service is different because the agency does not receive a fee for the actual "packaging"--just the usual agents' percentage of the clients' salaries.) The company built its impressive clientele in two ways: first on a particularly firm base of leading screenwriters who create the material product (the actual screenplay) which in turn attracts the top echelon of actors and directors to the project, and secondly by virtually assuring steady work for its own clients through these "unofficial" package deals.Thus, because they represented so many major talents, CAA and Ovitz commanded large salaries for their stars and, through insisting (or not) on packages, set a film into production. Ovitz sat atop Hollywood, with the power to grant or deny any number of major talents to producers as small as New York independents and as big as entire studios. And as his deal-making propensities moved increasingly into technology and advertising in the 1990s, Ovitz found increasingly broad-based opportunities for corporate deal-making.After much speculation that he would assume the presidency of MCA when Edgar Bronfman Jr. bought that company, Ovitz surprised many in Hollywood by accepting Michael Eisner's offer to become president of the Walt Disney Company effective October 1, 1995. After spending a tumultuous year as he number two man at Disney, he announced his resignation effective January 31, 1997. His stint at the studio had been subjected to extremely close scrutiny by the media and Hollywood insiders. Reportedly, Ovitz, who had gone from being his own boss to reporting to Eisner, felt frustrated by his role with the company, particularly as the exact definition of his duties remained vague. He often clashed with industry figures, particularly other Disney executives. Rumors of his departure swirled for months before Ovitz announced his resignation, although he will serve as a consultant for an undefined period of time. His severance package was valued somewhere between $90 million and $130 million.