Wednesday, October 24, 2018

The Ovitz Book | Lefsetz Letter

Who Is Michael Ovitz?

I couldn’t put it down.

But you may be able to. Unless you lived through it, unless you were addicted to the movies, unless you followed the twists and turns of the entertainment business in the last century you’ll be confused, you’ll understand the lessons but won’t know the names, and you’ll end up wondering if the lessons are worth it, if it’s all right to be this person, first and foremost one with almost no insight into himself.

Have you ever been to therapy? I don’t mean a course of six weeks, in the midst of a crisis, with someone on the plan. That’s crisis counseling, done by someone far from qualified. The truth is the best therapists don’t take insurance, they’re uber-expensive, and you’ve got to go for years to truly benefit, and if you do, you’ll gain insight into yourself, not only who you are but how you come across, how people see you.

Michael Ovitz needs more therapy. With someone he respects, who he can’t agent into subordination. The perks of power are legendary, they can make almost anyone cave. The parties, the planes… If you’re lucky you’ll get a shrink who’s unimpressed by all that, but that is hard to do in Los Angeles. But Ovitz desperately needs it, because he’s got no sense of self. He keeps apologizing for the past, but with a lack of understanding of how he comes across, both now and then. I mean why write this book? It’s too late to be fascinating to most of America, Ovitz is only writing to cement his legacy, to give his viewpoint, to take a victory lap and soften the image a bit. At least Mike took a fall, unlike Clive Davis, who is still spreading the myth that he’s Mr. Music, Clive’s book was unreadable. Then again, Clive impacted the culture a lot less than Ovitz, despite his belief to the contrary. One hit single can move mountains, assuming said single is straight from the heart, with meaning, but Clive specialized in cobbling together hits, putting the pieces together, excising the excitement, trying to inject himself into an arena where he did not belong, one of musical talent and creativity. At least Ovitz knows he has no talent. But he still thinks he deserves a lasting legacy. But only artists get that. Hell, even Steve Jobs’s memory is fading away.

So we venerate the rich, mostly for their money, but we make up a story how they got that cash. We believe they’re brilliant, sometimes true, and deserving, oftentimes untrue. We eliminate the elements of luck and timing, but still, we want what they have, or at least we think we do. Read this book and you’d never want to be Ovitz and you wouldn’t want to work at CAA either. All of these execs believe they’re the talent, have contempt for the talent, but the truth is those mercurial people who bend your ear and can’t seem to show up on time are the true innovators, the true stars. And the smart ones are aware they’ve only got one chance, which is why choices are pondered endlessly, why they oftentimes say no, you see they realize it’s their only chance, whereas the agent, the executive, can always sign another performer.

The stories seem so small now. The desire to get into movies when now the action is all in television. Packaging films. Sure, there were some great ones, but I bet most millennials don’t know most of them.

And the move into M&A, “mergers and acquisitions” for the uninitiated. Entertainment deals seem miniscule in comparison to Silicon Valley, where everybody is a billionaire, which you cannot achieve in Hollywood unless you hook your star to some product that goes nuclear, far outside the wheelhouse you became famous for. These people are like Ovitz, they keep score with cash. A great artist keeps score with influence. And they’re not always the same. Bob Dylan sold a fraction of the number of albums of the Beatles, but he was equally influential, or close.

And what’s it worth?

You wince when Ovitz says how much he enjoys his relationship with the teenage daughter of his honey, Tamara Mellon. You don’t need to have taken a psychology course to know that he missed the teenage years of his own children.

But this is a guy with all the answers, who only believes in going forward. He self-reflects for a minute and then plunges ahead. When he starts dropping Silicon Valley names at the end of the book you start to laugh, you know a couple, like Marc Andreessen and Peter Thiel, but he goes on and on as if any of us care. We don’t. Tech is now in the rearview mirror just like entertainment. Both have now been superseded by politics, by societal problems. And speaking of those, Ovitz has the hubris to say his plan was always to give back, in the government, for the last third of his career. No, people like him should stay home and enjoy their creature comforts, Mike may be a good negotiator, but someone who knows so little about himself can never get in touch with the problems of everyday people. Hell, Sylvester Stewart demonstrated more compassion in a single song!

So the book just ends up being sad. You neither feel compassion nor disdain for Ovitz at the end, you just hope he stays out of the public eye and you never have to hear about him again. I don’t want to minimize his achievements, he definitely pushed the envelope, but then he burned out, he didn’t know how to create a second act, despite believing he has. Just more delusion to add to the fire.

But if you read this book, you’ll end up contemplating your own choices. And you’ll feel good about being honest, avoiding duplicity, being straight up. And if you’re none of these things you’ll lionize Ovitz and try to be like him, and the joke will be on you.


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