If Michael S. Ovitz is something of a mystery outside Hollywood, his top lieutenants are totally unknown. But to those who depend on Creative Artists Agency Inc. for advice and consent, this small circle of executives looms large. Known as the "Ovitz staff," they give the superagent the time and flexibility to roam from Wall Street to Silicon Valley seeking deals.
Divide them into two categories: the traditional agents, who hold the hands and massage the egos of CAA's stars, and the specialists, whose expertise in areas such as investment banking and advertising allows Ovitz to sell CAA as a one-stop shop for digital media. A devotee of Japanese management theories, Ovitz is fanatical about running CAA as a team. Until recently, he even banned corporate titles. Still, a few executives have become stars in their own right.
Among the agents, CAA President Ron Meyer is unquestionably top dog. His client roster boasts some of Hollywood's brightest stars: Cher, Madonna, Michael Douglas, Warren Beatty, and Tom Cruise. With his open-neck shirts and fashion-model wife, Kelly Chapman, Meyer is a striking contrast to Ovitz' more bourgeois image. "He's the yin to my yang," says Ovitz.
BASIC INSTINCTS. But Ronnie, as he is known, is also a tough former Marine. And competitors say he is as skilled a negotiator as Ovitz. Meyer talked Douglas into starring in Wall Street, which won him an Academy Award. Then, he got Douglas $15 million for starring in Basic Instinct. The 48-year-old agent's own instincts fail him only occasionally, such as when he advised client Sylvester Stallone to try his hand at comedy with the regrettable Oscar. Meyer redeemed himself more recently by helping to package Stallone's action hit Cliffhanger.
While Meyer oversees CAA's film franchise, William Haber focuses on television. As low-key as Meyer is gregarious, the 51-year-old Haber has packaged such TV hits as The Golden Girls and Empty Nest. He helps producer Aaron Spelling choose projects in addition to overseeing the Coca-Cola Co. account. And like Meyer, he owns roughly a 20% stake in the agency.
With his aggressive style, Ovitz inevitably clashes with other factions in Hollywood. That's where Ray Kurtzman comes in. As CAA's chief lawyer, the 66-year-old Kurtzman struck a compromise with Hollywood's unions when they protested that CAA's arrangement with Credit Lyonnais was a conflict of interest. Kurtzman signs off on all of CAA's deals. He has known Ovitz since the two had adjoining offices at William Morris Agency Inc. On the few occasions Ovitz loses his cool, says one insider, it is Kurtzman who "tells him to cork it."
If Kurtzman is CAA's consummate Mr. Inside, then Sandy Climan is its Mr. Outside. A 37-year-old Harvard MBA, Climan runs Ovitz' 10-person corporate-finance unit. Functioning as an investment boutique, Climan's group gathered information for Barry Diller before he bought a stake in the QVC home-shopping network and for director Sydney Pollack when he considered seeking public funds for his film projects. Along with CAA Chief Financial Officer Bob Goldman, Climan helped engineer Matsushita's purchase of MCA and the recent MGM restructuring.
HAPPY CLIENTS. More recently, Climan has helped Ovitz branch out from brokering deals to creating new ventures. He greased talks between Ovitz and Microsoft Corp. Chairman William H. Gates III through a Harvard classmate, Steven A. Ballmer, now a Microsoft executive. Climan also pushed along talks with Nike Inc. Chairman Philip H. Knight during a basketball game in Portland, Ore.
Ovitz has stocked CAA's marketing and technology groups with a mixture of specialists and old-line agents. Len Fink, who with Shelly Hochron runs the Coke account, came from cutting-edge ad agency Chiat/Day Inc. But Stephen Carbone, who just joined CAA to head its multimedia marketing efforts, is a veter-an agent from competitor International Creative Management, where he had started up its advertising team. Another CAA agent, Dan Adler, heads Ovitz' seven-person technology group. All seven members of that team were trained as agents.
Some rivals question the wisdom of Ovitz' use of agents for other businesses. "We concentrate on representing our clients, not investment banking or making commercials," says ICM's Jeffrey Berg. As long as his clients are happy, though, there's no reason Michael Ovitz won't continue to push his agents beyond the mere care and feeding of stars.