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From Agent to Exec, Ovitz as Enigmatic as Ever : A Bumpy First Year at Disney

September 27, 1996|JAMES BATES and CLAUDIA ELLER

Michael Ovitz has been talking with Sony Corp. executives for months. That much is true.

Hollywood insiders would have you believe he's lobbying the Japanese electronics giant for the top entertainment job in the U.S. They say Ovitz is miserable since leaving his perch as Hollywood's top agent to be second in command under Walt Disney Co. Chairman Michael Eisner, rumored to be equally miserable for bringing him aboard.

But other sources say Ovitz has discussed a series of different scenarios with Sony President Nobuyuki Idei and other executives, the most intriguing of which is whether Sony would sell all or part of its lucrative music operation to Disney. Insiders are skeptical that would happen, but the companies also are talking about possible joint ventures in music, technology and other areas. The single biggest hole in the world's largest entertainment empire is its lack of a major music division.

For his part, Idei has told people at the company that Ovitz is not going to work for Sony.

One year after Ovitz gave up his post as the powerful chairman of Creative Artists Agency to become president of Disney, he is still one of Hollywood's prime obsessions. He remains as enigmatic and controversial a figure as when he seemingly ruled Hollywood, even though many of his new activities--mostly in the international, interactive and music areas--fail to register on Hollywood's radar screen.

Ovitz also encounters increasing hostility from the same industry and news media that a year ago both feared and lauded him, routinely dubbing him as "the most powerful man in Hollywood" as if it were printed on his business card. Rumors about him have ranged from nasty clashes with Eisner to whether he had a face-lift, many of them circulated by people still smarting from the often ruthless methods he displayed as an agent. As one prominent Wall Street figure close to Disney put it, "It's like there's a backlog of animosity that still is being worked through."

Yet it's also true that Ovitz's first year at Disney hasn't gone smoothly. Sources close to the Disney board of directors acknowledge that the transition from Hollywood super-agent to corporate executive has been rougher than either Eisner or Ovitz anticipated, with several Ovitz missteps making things worse. Insiders say the learning curve has been steep, exacerbated by Disney's $19-billion acquisition of Capital Cities/ABC in February.

Eisner, despite being one of Ovitz's closest friends, is also one of Hollywood's most difficult bosses, someone whose often brusque and confrontational style is new to Ovitz after two decades of being his own boss.

Ovitz declined to comment for this story. During a brief interview, Eisner four times used the word "ludicrous" to describe talk in Hollywood of tensions between the two executives, suggesting it is coming from jealous competitors.

"One thing that happens when you do well is gossip," Eisner said in the phone interview. "Gossip tends to breed in comfort. I don't want to comment on it. It's ludicrous. I've been in a lot of management in a lot of companies. I'm sitting here at quarter to 10 in the morning on a treadmill feeling extremely comfortable about the trajectory of the company going forward."

Added studio chief Joe Roth: "I've had an awful lot of contact with both men and I've never known them to be at each other. I'm not saying they don't do it in the comfort of their own homes, but in the past year I've never found them not to get along."

But others say the relationship between two of the most headstrong executives in Hollywood is strained. "Eisner is giving him orders in front of other people and he hates that," said a former close ally of Ovitz. "He's being treated in a way that he's not used to being treated."

Nor is Ovitz used to the beating his image has taken in Hollywood. An Ovitz anecdote making the rounds this week has him lobbying publicist Pat Kingsley and film producer Paula Wagner to get him a seat at the table with Tom Cruise at a Beverly Hills dinner honoring the star last Saturday night.

When rebuffed, the ex-talent agent was a no-show. That version is offered up by several people at Hollywood's highest levels. They say it shows how Ovitz's once-lofty status has so diminished that he can't even score a seat at a head table.

But as with nearly every tale about Ovitz, there's usually a maddeningly, diametrically opposed version. Wagner, Cruise's producing partner, says it's not true. So does Kingsley, who adds, "I swear to you on a Bible it didn't happen."

Compounding the swirl of talk about Ovitz have been mistakes by the executive, particularly in dealings with ABC.

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