The titanium briefcase
I don’t have a lot of time to read for my own pleasure these days, but over the last week, I found myself plowing through all seven hundred pages of Powerhouse: The Untold Story of Hollywood’s Creative Artists Agency by James Andrew Miller. Admittedly, I didn’t read the whole thing with equal attention: it’s an oral history, and like many products of that genre, it’s uneven. It skips over entire years in a few paragraphs and devotes three pages to an anecdote about product placement in the Entourage movie. More disturbingly, it leaves out what feels like necessary material. If you remember anything about the superagent Michael Ovitz, who was once described as the most powerful man in Hollywood, it’s the spectacular fall from grace that ensued after he blamed his public implosion on the “gay mafia” in an interview in Vanity Fair. There’s no mention of it here—an omission that I suspect has something to do with Ovitz’s extensive participation in the project. Instead, we get a lot of inside baseball about the career paths of agents who names will mean nothing to most readers. Toward the end, I found myself skimming, and the book left me with a lot of raw data but no real sense of how CAA accomplished what it did. Yet I did finish it, and there were points in the middle where I was devouring hundreds of pages at a sitting, which speaks both to Miller’s abilities as an interviewer and to the fascination of the agency itself.
And I have the feeling that this book will become something of a bible, or a user’s manual, for a certain kind of hungry young person in Hollywood. Creative Artists Agency was the most significant force in the industry for decades on end: at one time or another, its clients included Tom Cruise, Steven Spielberg, Tom Hanks, Martin Scorsese, Meryl Streep, Robert Redford, and Michael Crichton, all at the peaks of their careers. It mastered the art of packaging, in which a director and star were bundled internally with a screenplay and presented as a unit to a studio. CAA and its clients seem to have been involved in some capacity with every big movie of the last thirty years, and Miller’s book, not surprisingly, is crammed with good stories. There’s the saga behind Rain Man, for instance, which kicked around town for years—at one point with Dustin Hoffman attached to the Tom Cruise part and Jack Nicholson or Bill Murray under consideration for the title role—before the unworkable script was finally saved when Barry Levinson had the idea to turn it into a road movie. We hear of how Sean Connery, much to his chagrin, found himself committed to star in Just Cause without knowing it. Best of all, there’s the unbelievable saga of how Ovitz was offered the chance to run Universal, negotiated the richest pay package in studio history, and then walked away, opening the door for CAA cofounder Ron Meyer to take the job instead. As Peter Gruber puts it: “When you have yourself as an agent and you’re the client, you have a fool for the client.”
There are plenty of other juicy tidbits like this, although they can be hard to find. (The book, unforgivably, lacks an index.) But it’s all shot through with a kind of nostalgia for a brand of influence that no longer exists. I don’t think there’s any doubt that power in Hollywood has been simultaneously consolidated and leveled in ways that aren’t favorable to the agencies: the real value is concentrated in a handful of franchises controlled by the studios, especially Disney, and the talent above the line, while not exactly irrelevant, is more fungible. The practice of packaging a star and a director with a hot script isn’t entirely gone, but it’s not as relevant to the bottom line when billions are riding on Marvel and Star Wars sequels. If anything, the older model is a greater force in television, which I’ve elsewhere argued is the last place where traditional star power has any meaning. A recognizable name in a lead role still carries weight, as do original ideas, which allows the agency to remain a viable player. In fact, when we look back at the golden age of television, I have a hunch that we’ll find that it was driven in large part by a migration of talent on the agency side, as agents and their clients shifted their resources to a medium that was better equipped to exploit what they did best. CAA itself has been a major player in television for years: it famously turned a moldering spec script into ER, earning a huge payout for Crichton for doing basically nothing. And I suspect that it played a considerable role in television’s recent renaissance, although you won’t hear about it here.
But Powerhouse is still worth reading as a sort of dream book, or cautionary tale, of what Hollywood used to be, and could be again. My favorite story is told by the agent David Styne, who describes flying to a farm in Illinois in an attempt to sign John Hughes:
At a certain point John Hughes leaves and comes back with this titanium briefcase. And he opens it up, and he says, “There are fifteen completed screenplays that I’ve written in this briefcase that nobody has ever seen…What I’d like to do if it’s okay for you guys, let me tell you about some of these and I want you to be honest and tell me what you think.” So he starts pitching these movies, and he’s like the greatest pitcher of all time. He was pitching us these whole movies. So the first one—yeah, we like that. Second one—yeah, we like that…So after that, he says, “So, this next one is about a woman, she’s in a hospital in Chicago, she has an abortion, but the abortion is dumped out in the alley at night, and it’s like a partial abortion, and it lives. And this little baby boy kind of grows up in the alley, and he’s like this street urchin. And I call this one Partial Sid.”
The agents glance at each other and finally say: “No, we don’t think that’s a good idea at all.” And Hughes replies: “I am so glad that you guys said that, because Jim Wiatt put me with one of his agents at ICM, and I pitched him Partial Sid, and he said ‘John! That is genius! Johnny Depp is Partial Sid.’” The story tells you a lot about agents, of course, but what I love the most about it is the image of that briefcase full of ideas: it’s like the unattainable object in an agent’s dream. And I’d like to think that most agents still fantasize about finding it—and the writer to whom it belongs—and bringing glory once again to an industry of Partial Sids.