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The Aspen Blues
September 5, 1996.
Michael Ovitz has been sitting in the conference room at the Little Nell Hotel in Aspen, Colorado, for the past few hours, listening to one person after another address the crowd. He's feeling pretty good, better than he's felt for many months. Outside the air is fresh and cool, and a gentle wind is blowing in off the mountains in the distance.
For the past few days, the 100 senior executives of The Walt Disney Company have been meeting in order to hold a discussion of business ethics. No one really wants to deal with the topic. Most of the executives simply are wishing that today's meeting will end soon, so they can get out into that fresh mountain air.
Ovitz wants out too. Not just out of the conference room, but out of the whole damned company. The last few months have been a hell for him. Few outside the conference room know just how bad it has been for him. But he knows, and he can't tell from one day to the next whether he'll be able to take the abuse any longer.
He wants to tough it out. And every once in a while there are indications that Disney Chairman Michael Eisner may be willing to keep Ovitz on and to make the thing work. When Eisner is in a good mood, as he has been these past few days at Aspen, Ovitz thinks that maybe, just maybe, he'll survive in his new job. Maybe the worst really is over.
To the outside world, Ovitz's first year as president of The Walt Disney Company seemed to be going all right—the road had proved a bit bumpy, to be sure, but not one that couldn't level itself out over time. Ovitz seemedbound for success in the new job. He had rarely failed during his long career, and there was every expectation that, as one of the most powerful figures in Hollywood and someone who seemingly could do no wrong, he was destined for ever more power, more glory.
Indeed, to all those who were looking in at the Disney entertainment empire from the outside, the odds seemed to be at least even that Michael Ovitz would take over the entire company from Chairman Michael Eisner, thereby raising his illustrious career to even grander heights.
The two men had been close friends for 20 years. They and their wives often had vacationed together, and when Eisner had been hospitalized two summers earlier with serious heart problems, Ovitz had rarely left his hospital bedside.
Nearly a year earlier, Eisner had handpicked Ovitz to become the company's president, and his heir-apparent. When the appointment was announced, the entertainment industry reacted with considerable surprise, if only because Ovitz continually had insisted that he never would work for someone else. For 20 years he had run Creative Artists Agency, the talent agency he and four other talent agents had founded, and over the past decade it had become the most formidable institution in Hollywood. Undeniably, Ovitz had been Hollywood's most powerful figure of the late eighties and early nineties, and now he was going to work for the new holder of that unofficial title.
It wouldn't be easy, for either man.
When he offered the job to his friend, Michael Eisner had promised Ovitz that he himself would carry out only ceremonial functions as Disney Chairman, thereby complying with his wife Jane's urgent plea that he take it easy and not tempt fate any further after experiencing such a serious setback. Jane had pressed her husband to hire Ovitz precisely so that Eisner could step back from the day-to-day running of the entertainment giant. Thus, Eisner insisted to Ovitz that it would be Ovitz who handled the day-to-day operations of the Disney empire.
And yet, it was not to be. Rather than stand down, Michael Eisner, sensing that he was cured, worked harder than ever and remained very much the man in charge at Disney. Eisner even canceled plans to take a vacation during the month of August 1996.
By April 1996, six months after he had begun the Disney job, it was clear to Ovitz that he had made a terrible mistake. From that point on, life became a living hell for him. It was filled with an unsubtle whispering campaign against him, staged by certain Disney executives; mounting attacks in the media; and worst of all, Michael Eisner's cold indifference toward him.
And yet, two months later, In June, Ovitz and Eisner had gone on a bicycling vacation together through the Loire Valley in France, and they had talked at length about how best to work out the kinks in their relationship. All through the summer, Ovitz kept hoping that Eisner would transfer his power to him.
And now, as he sits around a table on this September afternoon in Aspen, with Eisner seated at his side and Sandy Litvack, Executive Vice President, and Joe Roth, head of the Disney film studio, sitting across from him, Ovitz is beginning to feel optimistic.
It's hard to figure where that feeling can have come from, for as Ovitz gazes around the room at the crowd of executives, he feels at best like an outsider, at worst like some unwanted intruder. The Disney executives, most of them men, are seated six or seven to a table, and clearly they're getting itchy to leave the stuffy confines of the conference room and enjoy the magnificent mountainous surroundings.
But Michael Ovitz isn't quite ready to throw in the towel just yet. No way.
Perhaps it has been the encouraging words he heard from Michael Eisner when they were bicycling through the Loire Valley in France.
Or maybe it's Ovitz's stubborn streak, a trait that has led him to keep after movie stars day in and day out, until they have collapsed under his artillery barrage and signed themselves up as clients of his vaunted talent agency.
Or his conviction that, no matter how much venom his critics spit out in their attacks upon him, he is tougher than they are, he can outlast them, he will not give them the satisfaction of bringing him down.
And so, when it is Michael Ovitz's turn to make some off-the-cuff remarks to close the session for this day, he decides to give the executives an old-fashioned pep talk. Remaining seated in his chair, he talks about how important it is for there to be a level of trust in the company; there have been press leaks of late, and those have to stop. Internal matters have to remain just that: internal.
As he speaks, emotion begins to fill his voice.
And then it becomes clear to the others that he is referring to leaks that have been aimed at hurting him personally. Though he speaks only for five minutes, it seems as if he's rambling, going on for too long. Especially since Michael Eisner's comments, earlier on, lasted just a few minutes.
Wrapping up his thoughts, Ovitz urges the executives to support one another and, when they do talk to the media, to make sure they talk positively: The enemy, he says, should be outside, not inside. He hopes to nurture some sense of unity, if that is at all possible, and when he has concluded his remarks a number of executives approach Ovitz to say that they have appreciated what he has had to say.
Things are looking up. Ovitz breathes a little easier.
That evening, he and Eisner host a dinner. The mood is light, and the two men are back to their old habit of bantering with one another. For the first time in months, Ovitz feels that the troubled relationship just may find a way to resolve itself, and he will be able to stay on.
The next morning a fax arrives for him at his home in Aspen, and it contains a startling message. It's as if someone has thrown cold water on his face. The fax has come from a friend of his in New York, and it notes that one of the New York tabloids has carried an article saying that Ovitz has lambasted the Disney staff for talking to the media. He quickly recollects the hour at which yesterday's meeting ended, then calculates the time difference between Aspen and New York. He immediately realizes that someone at that meeting had enough time, an hour and a half before the newspaper's deadline, to run to the telephone and call someone at the newspaper.
Michael Ovitz feels betrayed.
For years he ran retreats at Creative Artists, and never once was there a leak. His staff at CAA knew better. Anyone foolhardy enough to talk to the media would have been fired on the spot. But the Disney executives feel no such fear of Ovitz, and he realizes that his pep talk has had no impact at all.
His words have been twisted out of shape and leaked to the media—precisely what he was asking the executives not to do. His hopes of remaining at Disney vanish the moment that fax arrives at his home. He keeps gazing at the fax, trying to decide whether he is more angry at Eisner or at himself. Somehow, it doesn't seem to matter.
Then he tries to analyze what has gone wrong.
This is stupid. I have made the biggest mistake of my business career. It was stupid to think I could come in and change the culture at Disney.
He thinks of his years of friendship with Michael Eisner.
He can't figure out why Eisner brought him Into the company if he knew he was going to treat him with such disdain, promising him the world but delivering nothing. Ovitz goes to his desk and looks for some paper. He writes a six-page letter to Michael Eisner, the nub of it being the following few words: This isn't going to work for me. We should talk about it.
Four months later, on December 13, 1996, The Walt Disney Company announces that Michael Ovitz is leaving his position as president "by mutual consent." The phrase is a piece of diplomatic fiction. Ovitz never wanted to leave, he simply felt that he had no choice.
The Ovitz-Eisner breakup was big news everywhere, especially when it became clear that Michael Ovitz would receive millions of dollars in severance pay. One report in the Los Angeles Times suggested that Ovitz would get $50 million in cash and three million shares of stock options worth another $40 million—for a total of $90 million. Other reports put the figure as high as $120 million. As it turned out, the actual figure was even higher: a staggering $128 million!
The severance-pay controversy began to overshadow all other aspects of the story, including the issue of what Ovitz would do next. The columnists had a field day, berating Michael Eisner for rewarding someone so generously for essentially failing at a job. One columnist even went so far as to suggest that Eisner pay Ovitz the severance pay out of his own pocket, to save shareholders the burden of underwriting it.
Ovitz's departure from Disney began to loom very large for average Americans who previously had never heard of Michael Ovitz, as they expressed strong, decidedly negative opinions about his being rewarded so massively for failing at a job that had lasted only fourteen months. Once the most powerful figure in Hollywood, Michael Ovitz now had become "the guy Disney paid all that money to just to get rid of him." It was a low moment in his career, to put it mildly. Probably the lowest, and certainly the most controversial. The man who had ruled Hollywood had become an object of scorn. All sorts of questions were asked: How had he let this happen? How could he have risen so far and yet plummeted so dramatically? What would become of him? Was the curtain coming down for good on the career of Hollywood's most intriguing personality, or would it rise again?
|The Search for Ovitz||1|
|1 The Aspen Blues||9|
|2 King Ovitz||15|
|3 A Deal a Second||27|
|4 Now, Perkins, This Is Treason!||43|
|5 Master Illusionist||65|
|6 Pretzels, Tennis Balls, and Soapsuds||77|
|7 Hollywood's New Rainmakers||93|
|8 A Shroud of Secrecy||111|
|9 I Am a Control Freak||129|
|10 Renaissance Man||147|
|11 Stepping Out of the Shadows||165|
|12 No Photos, Please||185|
|13 Foot Soldiers||205|
|14 The Uber-Agent||217|
|15 I've Been to See the Godfather!||237|
|16 I Have a '95 Ovitz||259|
|17 Hollywood Obsession||273|
|18 Disney Demons||295|
|19 I Made a Smart Deal||313|
|Author's Chapter Notes||335|