He's baaack. After flaming out in 1996 following a stormy 14 months as president at Walt Disney Co., Michael Ovitz--the man who made agent a four-letter word in Hollywood--is back doing deals, working the phones, and taking lots of power lunches.
Hollywood executives can shake their heads in disbelief. But the man who once ruled Tinseltown from his perch as head of the powerful Creative Artists Agency, now finds himself at the helm of a hot new company that's producing seven prime-time series for the next network TV season and has a flashy deal with France's Canal+ to make nearly $900 million worth of movies over the next three years.
From wood-paneled offices in Beverly Hills crammed with original art and his collection of old photos, Ovitz is retaking his turf by quietly building a hybrid shop--part management firm and part studio. His two-year-old Artists Management Group handles some of the most marketable talent--Cameron Diaz, Robin Williams, and Michael Crichton. "He's back doing what he always did, and no one does it better," says Jon Feltheimer, chairman of film company Lions Gate Entertainment Group.
The Ovitz formula is deceptively simple--and somewhat familiar. Control the most sought-after scripts, directors, and actors, and you control what is made. His clients often work for other studios, but he makes sure that most production projects he is involved in boast several AMG management clients. Take The Street, a drama AMG is making this fall for Fox Entertainment Group Inc. Creator Darren Star, also the mastermind behind the Home Box Office smash series Sex and the City, is a client, and AMG intends to give some of its recording stars exposure by putting them on the show's soundtrack. AMG will do the same thing with Sidewalks of New York, a just-finished film directed by Ovitz client Martin Scorsese and starring three other AMG clients.
With Canal+, Ovitz plans to make 15 films--some costing upwards of $80 million--over the next 3 years. Canal+ will put in $200 million. For the other hundreds of millions, Ovitz plans to partner with major studios--a neat trick for a guy who used to terrorize them with multimillion-dollar salary demands for his clients. But business is business. Even Disney is working with him on Scorsese's film and a TV show called Madigan Men.
Still, controversy likes Ovitz. Rival Hollywood talent agencies carp that his dual-function firm takes liberties with rules prohibiting agents from also producing films and TV shows. Companies such as AMG finesse such restrictions by having their clients hire lawyers to seal the deals.
Many in Hollywood also don't believe Ovitz can come up with the cash to fulfill the deal with Canal+. So far, he has funded much of his startup operations with his own money, including an estimated $30 million on the TV unit alone. But even his enemies concede that Ovitz is a hard guy to ignore when he is able to corral good clients. And he's on a roll. Two days after announcing his Canal+ deal, Ovitz watched Pete Sampras win his seventh Wimbledon title. Sampras, of course, is an Ovitz client.