Just Call Him Teflon Mike
It looked like the good old days. Former superagent Michael Ovitz was working the room at a fund-raiser for the University of California at Los Angeles Medical Center, a longtime pet project of his, and the crowd was huge. Air Force One producer Armyan Bernstein came by to say hello, as did Brad Pitt. Seated at the table with Ovitz were actress Cameron Diaz and country singer Garth Brooks, who would later bring many to tears when he stopped midsong to thank Ovitz for making sure Brooks's mother was admitted to the UCLA Cancer Center.
No one loves a comeback more than Hollywood. And these days, Ovitz is making one as flashy as any in recent Tinseltown history. Forgotten, it seems, are those 14 disastrous months as Walt Disney Co. president and Ovitz' multimillion-dollar investment in now-bankrupt Broadway production company Livent. Today, Ovitz is a hot player: He runs a company that is one of Hollywood's leading TV studios, represents sports superstars Pete Sampras and Jason Kidd, and is putting together projects for Diaz, Leonardo DiCaprio, Robin Williams, and novelist Michael Crichton.
SITES AND SOUNDS. The operation is being run from a two-floor mahogany-lined office in Beverly Hills. Here, Ovitz' new Artist Management group has more than 200 employees. Dozens of twentysomethings scurry from cubicle to cubicle, determined looks on their fresh-scrubbed faces. Ovitz is cutting deals in everything from television and movies to the Internet and sports, frequently doing so over lunch on the top floor of the nearby Barneys department store, where he has a private table in an alcove by the kitchen.
So far, those deals are impressive. Last year, Ovitz lured two top TV production executives from Sony Pictures Entertainment's Columbia/TriStar unit to work for him. Earlier this year, he linked up with rap music-management company Violator, bringing him urban stars Busta Rhymes, Mobb Deep, and Q-Tip. A deal with former sports agents at International Management Group brought in Sampras and Kidd. More recently, Ovitz has added Los Angeles Clippers star Lamar Odom. Along with billionaire Ron W. Burkle, he also has made a big jump into the Internet, buying stakes in a dozen companies, including music portal Dimension Music, higher-education Web site Campus Pipeline, and entertainment site CheckOut.com.
What's also impressive is that Ovitz is doing any of this, let alone all of it. After his disastrous experience at Disney, he seemed to have sworn off entertainment. Ovitz got involved with a real estate development company and even tried to bring professional football back to Los Angeles. But for all of his troubles at Disney, Ovitz remains Hollywood's consummate dealmaker. With his soothing speech and seemingly limitless ability to make others feel at ease, he has managed to lure a younger generation of stars with a simple spiel: He'll see that they get ownership of their material, be it movies or TV shows they star in or content on the Internet.
As a manager--as opposed to the talent agent he was previously--Ovitz doesn't just skim 10% off the take. He becomes a partner with his stars, and both sides take hefty revenues from their efforts, cutting into the amounts that studios traditionally earn. If it works, it could make Ovitz an even wealthier man than the guy who left Disney with an estimated $140 million severance agreement (on top of the millions in fees he collected from his previous company, Creative Artists Agency).
Some signs indicate that it could work. When the networks recently released the roster of television pilots that they have ordered for September, Ovitz' company had a dozen on the list--putting him on par with the biggest studios.
HARD FEELINGS. Ovitz still is getting some less-than-wonderful press. He invested $300,000 with money manager Dana Giacchetto, who has been charged with pilfering $6 million from a celebrity client list that includes such Ovitz clients as DiCaprio and Diaz. And there still are those in Hollywood who would dearly like to see Ovitz fail.
But right now, Ovitz is once again riding high. The guy who many feared in years past for his ability to stop a movie dead in its tracks has found himself in the middle of the action once more. Buzz is surging through those mahogany-paneled corridors, and Garth, Cameron, Leonardo, and plenty of others are once more flocking to his table.
Read Grover's weekly Power Lunch column at www.businessweek.com/today.htm