Home > Books, Corporations > Book Review: Powerhouse: The Untold Story of Hollywood’s Creative Artists Agency

Book Review: Powerhouse: The Untold Story of Hollywood’s Creative Artists Agency

IMG_20170530_2354373Along with Tom Shales, James Andrew Miller previously published two book-length oral histories of large American entertainment institutions that originated in the 1970s, ascended to the peaks of their respective spheres of influence, and persist as significant players in the entertainment landscape today. The subjects of those two books, ESPN and Saturday Night Live, also retail their content directly to their public audiences. For the third book in this series of sorts, Miller, now on his own, turns his focus to Creative Artists Agency, an entity that matches all of the same characteristics of ESPN and SNL sketched above save one: it is an insider, a talent agency that works (sometimes barely) behind the scenes to conduct the business of the entertainment industry and, thereby, indirectly influence the entertainment we all consume.

Miller’s Powerhouse: The Untold Story of Hollywood’s Creative Artists Agency follows the same structure he and Shales used in the ESPN and SNL books, which generally track a chronological arc and tell their tales through the words of those involved, directly or tangentially, with the subject, with only brief editorial interludes to organize and move the story along. As an example, a page from the ESPN book illustrates the approach:

espnbook

For whatever reason, or set of reasons, the CAA book does not work as well as the previous Miller-Shales collaborations. Miller promises to reveal the most powerful man in Hollywood, Michael Ovitz, his philosophically balancing counterpart, Ron Meyer, and the revolutionary agency they built together, CAA, that, at its mid-1990s peak, had the entertainment industry in the palm of its hand and made gobs of money for its owners and employees. That is Miller’s headline, and the sub-lede would explain that Ovitz drew power to himself with a combination of a politician’s natural networking skills and near-unbridled ambition; Meyer countered Ovitz’s cold, calculating approach with heart, emotion, and honesty; and CAA succeeded by developing a “packaging” model that allowed them, for example, to sell a cast of actors they represented to a director they also represented to make a movie written by a screenwriter they also represented– at its best, vertical and horizontal integration– such that CAA could be on all sides of a deal it created and even financed.

It may be because I am not a movie buff and do not track celebrity gossip magazines, but I did not take much from this book beyond the basic summary outlined above and in the interviews I heard with Miller prior to reading it. At a minimum, the book needed at least one more editorial pass before publication to correct what I interpreted as organization problems, including quotations appearing multiple times in the book and editorial interludes that introduced topics unaddressed by the subsequent quotations or merely summarized the ensuing quotations and borrowing the subjects’ same descriptive words.

More broadly, the contents did not do a great job of developing the depth of the main characters. Ovitz understandably is the primary focus, but we learn little of his backroom dealings, for example. There are surprisingly few stories about Meyer, the supposed counterweight to Ovitz, and Bill Haber, the other CAA founder who spent a significant number of years with the company, is left twisting in the wind, hanging onto little more than an adjective card that has the word “eccentric” written on it. Also due for more attention, one would have expected, is the late-arriving Sports (capitalized, for some reason) division of the agency, which now appears to be floating the company financially. Finally, Ovitz’s replacement, current CAA president Richard Lovett, has very little to offer about the present state and trajectory of the company beyond reliably optimistic soundbites.

Again, I likely am not in the target audience for this book, and I would not be surprised if those closer to Hollywood and with a longer-running experience in or familiarity with the entertainment business enjoyed and learned from it. It is possible that Miller did not probe his subjects forcefully enough; independently, it is possible that the subjects simply refused to speak more openly (Sylvester Stallone, whose comments appear throughout the book, apparently had few such qualms). At a minimum, however, the book would benefit from a greater attention to organizational detail. It just came out in an updated paperback edition, though, so that may address some of these concerns.

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Categories: Books, Corporations
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