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James Andrew Miller

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eBook - ePub


James Andrew Miller

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About This Book

"Magisterial.... A must read for anyone who wants to work in Hollywood or just know how Hollywood works."
—The Hollywood Reporter

A New York Times bestseller, now updated with an afterword and exclusive new material

From the #1 bestselling author behind acclaimed oral histories of Saturday Night Live and ESPN comes "the most hotly anticipated book [in decades]" ( Variety ): James Andrew Miller's irresistible insider chronicle of the modern entertainment industry, told through the epic story of Creative Artists Agency (CAA)—the ultimate power player that has represented the world's biggest stars and shaped the landscape of film, television, comedy, music, and sports.

Started in 1975, when five bright and brash upstarts left creaky William Morris to form their own innovative talent agency, CAA would come to revolutionize Hollywood, representing everyone from Tom Cruise, Meryl Streep, Robert De Niro, and Steven Spielberg to Jennifer Lawrence, J.J. Abrams, Will Smith, and Brad Pitt. Over the next decades its tentacles would spread aggressively into sports, advertising, and digital media. Powerhouse is the fascinating, no-holds-barred saga of that ascent. Drawing on unprecedented and exclusive access to the men and women who built and battled with CAA—including co-founders Michael Ovitz and Ron Meyer and rivals like Ari Emanuel of William Morris Endeavor—as well as the stars themselves, Miller spins a unique and unforgettable tale of brilliance, ambition, betrayal, and outrageous success.

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Mariner Books
I had an agent years and years ago when I was new to New York City and was having trouble finding a place to live because I had two dogs. This person had come to visit me in New York at NBC, and as they were getting into a car on Sixth Avenue, they said to me, “I’m going to get you an apartment if it’s the last thing I do.” And that was the last I ever heard from them. That’s show business right there.
Rebels: 1974–1979
Nothing mattered except states of mind, chiefly our own.
Where I grew up, in those days, there were three categories: you were a jock, a nerd, or a bad boy. I was neither of the first two, and being a bad boy was kind of the cool thing to be. So I created a character for myself. It was an identity.
I hung out with a bunch of guys who did the same thing, and we got into fights. In West L.A., there was a police department—it’s still there—on Perdue Avenue, and they were aware of us. Both my parents escaped Nazi Germany in 1939, and though I was born in America, they weren’t savvy about American youth culture. My father knew only a little of what was going on with me then, because he was a traveling salesman and was on the road four out of every five weeks. But my mother knew all of it. I got arrested a lot. A number of my friends went to jail. Once I beat up a guy in front of his son. Of all the things in my life, I think about that all the time. I wish I could find these people and beg for their forgiveness; it really shamed me.
I was a kid who grew up in the San Fernando Valley, just four blocks from the old RKO Studios, and after my paper route, a bunch of us would go sneak into the studios under a fence. I was mesmerized by what I saw, and that went on for years and years and years.
My dad didn’t make a lot of money. He was a liquor salesman. We had a fabulous family life, but my brother and I always had to earn our spending money for whatever we wanted. So from the time I was nine, I worked constantly.
I’m old enough to remember when there were no freeways in Los Angeles. My father was thirty years old when he decided to go to medical school after the Second World War, and we would drive to downtown Los Angeles up to the big, giant general hospital. I was very young. Sometimes we’d go up Pico Boulevard because that’s where El Rancho golf course was, and at five in the morning we would pick up golf balls so we could sell them for a dollar each. That money was really important to us at the time. Across the street was 20th Century Fox, and when I was nine years old, I said to my father, “One day, I’m going to go in there.”
I was student body president for a high school of four thousand students. I was also president of my fraternity at UCLA and dedicated myself to being very well organized. I had a huge appetite for getting deeply involved in everything that interested me. In college, I went to work as a tour guide at Universal. There were ten of us—five guys and five women. I soon got hired away by a guy who went to work at Fox helping design their tours, so while I was going to school at UCLA, I was also working full-time at Fox. I didn’t go to most classes in the beginning of the semester, but I’d always go to the final exams. I did that for three years, and in my senior year, I decided I wanted to start looking for a job after school. I interviewed at William Morris and CMA, an advertising agency. William Morris responded the quickest.
During the interview, the personnel director at William Morris asked me, “Why do you think you should get this job? There are twenty people in the mailroom, and lots more who want to get in there.” And I said, “I can learn everything there is to know about being an agent in ninety days, or I’ll give you back all the money you pay me.” I knew it was an outrageous and stupid statement, but he couldn’t stop laughing. Then he said, “I’m going to hire you.”
I legally dropped out of school when I was sixteen. I had gone one day a week to what they called continuation school, which you had to be enrolled in until you were sixteen or you would be a truant—whatever that meant.
The army had an active draft at the time, but because I thought I was a tough guy, I didn’t want to just go in the army, I wanted to enlist in the Marine Corps, which I did when I was seventeen. It was the best decision I ever made.
When I was in the Marine Corps, I got the measles, and I got put into quarantine. I was in a room with eight other empty beds. Alone. I had literally never read a book in my life. I’m serious, I had never read a book. But my mother sent me two books because I was sitting in a hospital with nothing to do. One was called The Amboy Dukes, which was about troubled kids in New York’s street gangs. The other was called The Flesh Peddlers, by a man named Steven Longstreet. It was a novel about a young guy who worked at a fictitious agency, who drove fast cars and went out with beautiful women. I read these two books, and I thought, Wait a minute . . . why would I be this schmuck when I could be this schmuck?
So after the Marine Corps, I couldn’t stop thinking about being at an agency. I already knew there was show business—I had lived in West L.A., not far from Fox Studios—and I took my one suit that fit me like Abraham Lincoln’s suits fit him, because of short legs, you know, and I literally went door-to-door to every agency in town. I didn’t know if they were good or bad or who they represented. Some would let me fill out an application. Some would say, “We’re not hiring.” I’d give out my phone number, but I had no answering machine. I was as unsophisticated as could possibly be. I thought the military background would help me, but I was a high school dropout, and high school dropout worked more against me than the military worked for me.
Truth is, I really didn’t know what representation was, but I knew that I needed to learn the business of artistic people. I’m a frustrated artist—I’m not a writer and I’m not a painter, but I love artists, and I am blown away by how creative people come up with ideas and then turn them into reality. I wanted to get close to them, to understand how they work, and at the same time couple the creative process with the business process.
I didn’t want to be a buyer. I wanted to learn it from the sell side, because if I was a buyer and worked at a studio, then I was working at only one place. But if I was an agent, then as a seller, I was able to go anywhere.
I was working at a men’s clothing store called Zeidler and Zeidler making about $35 a week, sharing an apartment with four other guys at some fleabag place in Hollywood. Now follow this: My mother had a girlfriend whose husband’s sister was married to Walter Kohner, who was Paul Kohner’s brother. And Walter Kohner was an agent at his brother’s company. I had interviewed there, and they said, “We already have a messenger, there’s no job.” But then, out of the blue, the messenger at Kohner quit, and they called me. They said, “Do you still want the job? We pay $75 a week, will give you a gas credit card, pay your lunches, and you can start Monday.” I quit my job, bought a car, and got my own apartment. “Changed my life” is such a complete understatement, I can’t even tell you.
It was 1965. It was pure providence. I was in law school, sitting in the lunchroom of Loyola Law School, and I happened to glance at the only ad William Morris had ever run in its entire hundred-year history. It was also the only time in my life I had ever looked at a classified ad. And it said “talent agent trainee.” So I called them up. Even though I had two children, I left law school—which displeased my parents greatly—and took the job, working for $50 per week in the mailroom, delivering packages.
The Kohner Agency was at 9169 Sunset. It was at the beginning of the Sunset Strip, and it was the greatest experience for me. Paul Kohner was an incredible agent. It was a small agency. I knew everyone. I was a kid surrounded by mostly older people.
I cleaned up my act. I hid from everybody I used to know; they dropped out of my life. Once again I was pretending I was something I wasn’t—wearing a suit every day, being this hotshot guy, delivering packages, picking up scripts, and driving clients like John Huston, Chevalier, Charles Bronson, Lana Turner, and Ingmar Bergman when they would come to town. I spent six years as Paul Kohner’s driver and messenger. It was fabulous.
When I went to William Morris, I decided that I had to do something that was disruptive. I was in the mailroom with about twenty guys. They’d come in at nine, so I came in at seven. They’d leave at six, I’d leave at ten o’clock at night. Some days I left earlier because at that time I was also going to school at night to get my master’s in business. I worked my butt off—reading everything there was to read. I was a scavenger. Those guys were waiting to be fed things; I went looking for things. I viewed the mailroom as an education course, period, and was going to move over everyone very quickly. I volunteered for every job and was very aggressive.
Three months into the training program, I had begun to notice that the president of the company would often come back to the office after dinner when everyone else had left, so I made sure to be there and became the only guy sitting at a desk on the first floor. As I figured he would, he asked if I could do a favor for him. I did the favor so well that he asked me to work for him some more. I kept doing it each night until he finally made me his assistant.
So at the ripe age of twenty-two, I was the assistant to the president of the company. I did anything I could do to show him that I could save him time. If he was opening up a door, I would close it. He gave me a ton of work and let me go until I made a mistake. But I didn’t.
I saw this young man floating around. His immediate boss didn’t come in until ten but Michael Ovitz was already in gear hours before. I would come in very early every day to read my Wall Street Journal and started talking to him. He seemed alert, ripe, and aggressive, but in a pleasant way. I said to myself, He’s me.
As a young guy I immediately dreamed of running the company. It may have been a fantasy, but it drove me to work extra hard and do things no one else did.
“Thirsty for knowledge” would be an inadequate terminology for him. I had a lot of teacher and tutor in me, so I didn’t mind that he’d ask question after question about all different parts of the business. One day he asked me, “How do you get these important people to return your calls?”
Howard was my guy there. He spent an unbelievable amount of time with me and was patient when I asked him to explain certain things to me.
I went to UCLA and then stayed there for law school, but dropped out after two years and went into the William Morris mailroom. I got promoted pretty quickly to be the head of the mailroom, then worked on the desk of the legendary Stan Kamen, who was one of the most important talent agents in entertainment. After that, I joined the TV packaging department. It was then that I met Mike Rosenfeld, who was working in motion pictures. Mike and I soon realized we were born just twelve days apart.
I had a little bit of career advantage early on at William Morris. In the middle of my training period, Vietnam heated up. My wife was pregnant, so I was exempted, but a big chunk of the place was drafted. So there I was, twenty-five years old, running the William Morris talent department.
One of my jobs that I’ll never forget was to deliver checks to Elvis Presley on the MGM lot. Once I hand-delivered a check to him on the Blue Hawaii set. He opened the envelope and it was the first time I ever saw a check for a million dollars. Elvis looked at me and said, “Why, thank you, Bill.” It was the kind of thing you remember for the rest of your life.
After almost six years, I knew that there would be no future for me at Kohner, so wherever I could make a contact to get an interview at another agency, I did, very secretly. I met a fellow named Paul Flaherty, who was an agent at William Morris, and he got me an interview with Phil Weltman. At that time, William Morris rarely hired agents from the outside, and I’ve always been grateful to Paul for getting me in there for an interview. After a series of eight or more interviews over six months with Phil Weltman, Bill Haber, and Rowland Perkins, they hired me as an agent in the talent department. William Morris was the dream job for me.
Nobody thought there would ever not be a William Morris Agency. William Morris, we would say, would outlive all of us. In the ’70s, they controlled almost everything, and they were the foundation of a business that generally exists on sand. They were a rock; their clients were rocks; and their business was a rock. They were leaders in everything they did.
The corporate culture at William Morris was, by many accounts, largely governed by the rigidly hierarchic boys’ club of old-school agents. Seniority dictated power, and the only way to rise through the ranks was a combination of working, waiting, and ass-kissing. Loyalty was king. Cronyism and infighting ran rampant. The television and movie departments often refused to collaborate on projects, and even when they did, any partnership was begrudging, as older Morris executives often refused to break routine in favor of progress. Compensation was based on how much money an individual brought in but also how long the person had been there. Many of the younger generation of agents at William Morris longed for flexibility and were horrified by the deeply embedded culture of ob...

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