ON A COOL EVENING LAST WINTER, director Tim Burton pulled up to a colonial-style house in West Los Angeles for one of the most important meetings of his career. Waiting for him behind the wrought-iron security gate and up the long drive was Michael S. Ovitz, the charismatic but secretive chairman of Hollywood's Creative Artists Agency. * The agenda was Burton's future. The iconoclastic director was on every talent agency's most-wanted list, thanks to his record of mining gold from "Batman," "Beetlejuice" and other twisted fantasies, but he had refused to consider competing offers out of loyalty to the William Morris Agency. It took Ovitz one carefully arranged meeting to change that. * The seduction began when Burton, who had studied art, walked through the door and came upon Ovitz's vast collection of Picassos, Dubuffets, Schnabels, Lichtensteins, sculptures and African antiquities. It was their shared passion for art that led Ovitz to schedule the meeting at his house, where he rarely conducts business. * The tour eased into a world-class sales pitch. Burton saw his future unfolding through Ovitz's eyes that night, and it looked pretty promising. Under CAA's management, he would branch into everything from new video technologies to the art world--opportunities that Ovitz was uniquely qualified to offer as the only Hollywood agent engaged in those arenas himself, with a seat on the board of New York's Museum of Modern Art and consulting deals with major technology companies. * "Ovitz lived up to his mythology," says Denise Di Novi, Burton's former business partner. "The most impressive thing is that, just by observing Tim's work and career, he was very tuned in to his potential and what dreams he might have." * The Burton signing was a classic Ovitz move--incisive and inflammatory. Depending on who was talking, it was grand persuasion or grand larceny. William Morris' film division was already on the ropes when Ovitz made the play for Burton, and to some at the agency, the signing was a vindictive move calculated to kill. "He can't be a good winner, in that he can't let anyone else have anything," says one Morris executive who declines to be named. "Their goal is to put us out of business." * Reactions to Ovitz, like his ambitions, have always been exaggerated. At 45, he is awesomely respected and feared in Hollywood. He has assembled an all-star talent roster that includes Kevin Costner, Tom Cruise and Steven Spielberg; in the past year, he has signed a series of consulting deals with Coca-Cola and other companies, joined Peter V. Ueberroth's Rebuild L.A. committee and won the news-making appointment to the board of New York's Museum of Modern Art--the culmination of a long-running bid to gain acceptance from the East Coast elite. But as he ventures into investment banking, merchandising and computer technology, Ovitz is discovering that the farther he steps from the Hollywood turf he so carefully controls, the more difficult it becomes to find the next "visionary" deal. * And he has returned from such expansive forays to find increasing resistance to his way of doing business at home, especially from a fluid anti-Ovitz cabal consisting, at various times, of some of the top names in the industry--Walt Disney Studios Chairman Jeffrey Katzenberg, entertainment mogul David Geffen, producer Ray Stark and others. * The battleground is the Hollywood economy. Profits fell as much as 20% last year in the face of fast-rising production costs, which many studio executives blame on the bare-knuckled bargaining tactics of Ovitz and other agents. The business shows signs of improvement this year--"Batman Returns" being one example--but Hollywood remains in a foul mood. Some critics see the success of CAA--as symbolized by its spectacular I.M. Pei-designed headquarters in Beverly Hills--as salt in the wound of a bleeding industry. "If you're a winner and everyone you deal with is a loser, that's bad business," says one top film executive. * Though Ovitz welcomes neither the criticism nor the scrutiny that he attracts, he continues doing business his own way: making talent raids and big-money deals, building an empire that takes him far beyond his supposed role as "the most powerful guy in Hollywood."