Powerhouse: The Untold Story of Hollywood’s Creative Artists Agency — James Andrew Miller

There is a really excellent book lurking inside Powerhouse: The Untold Story of Hollywood’s Creative Artists Agency, but it is condemned to be of niche interest because it’s told as an “oral history,” which means interviews with the various participants are stitched together, often banally. One hopes for something like The Making of the Atomic Bomb or The Power Broker and instead gets interviews mostly devoid of context and insights. The strengths and weaknesses of the format shine through, but one mostly sees weaknesses: there isn’t enough context for many of the decisions; the narrative continuity authors impose is lose; the damn thing is just too long; too many people don’t say the right thing, exactly, so what they say must be used anyway.

powerhouseSo why write about it at all? The book is going to be of great interest to anyone involved in startups, law firms, consulting practices, or changing industries. CAA rode a number of waves and mastered a number of key and unusual businesses practices, and it perceived how to adapt to a changing media and business landscape in a way that most of its competitors did not. In another world this could be a Harvard Business Review case study.

The movie business continually changes, and CAA is founded and then evolves based on those changes. For example, the book’s hero is probably Michael Ovitz, or the pairing between Ovitz and fellow agent Ron Meyer. Ovitz says, “The thesis for CAA that we developed was to be able to play roulette with a chip on every number, odd and even, red and black.” That worked. CAA emerged from the William Morris agency, which “was an incredibly rigid, compartmentalized business. Pay scales were incredibly unfair. There was little entrepreneurialism.”

At CAA, the opposite occurred: Agents were incentivized to cooperate; clients were (relatively) shared; initiative was rewarded. When the first five agents left William Morris, Ovitz says this about their departure:

Sam Weisbord loved Judy and he loved me, but he looked at me and said, ‘You’ve really screwed yourself this time.’ That’s what he said to me. I learned an amazing lesson from that moment. If he’d started that meeting differently, attempted to check his ego at the door, told me he didn’t want to lose me, and then offered me an insane amount of money, there was at least one chance in a thousand I would have stayed. Instead, he did me a favor, because instead of being compassionate or even making me feel guilty, he pissed me off. He attacked me and tried to belittle me. There was no way I was going to stay.

Oops.

CAA remained cooperative within the organization and competitive outside it—a difficult balancing act, because wildly competitive people often want to compete everywhere, all the time, even in ways that are inefficient.

CAA comes up with clever branding strategies. For example, when the agency started most scripts were sent from studios to agencies, and agencies then further distributed the scripts. CAA stripped the existing covers and replaced those covers with their own. So every script started to look like it came from CAA, rather than the studio. A small point but a clever one, and one that is a synecdoche for the agency as a whole.

They also do one simple thing right: pay:

We always made it a point to take really good care of the agents who worked for us. They were all overpaid. We wanted to reward them and also make sure no one else in town could afford them. We would literally ask each other, ‘How much could this person get somewhere else?’ and we’d give them 30 percent more. There were a good chunk of our agent making over a million dollars in the late ’80s.

We’ve seen the same problem among nonprofit and public agencies: They frequently underpay grant writers, and that’s part of the reason Seliger + Associates exists. You’ve also probably seen the articles going around about how manufacturers can’t find the skilled workers they need (here and here are examples from one second of search).

So the strong material is present in Powerhouse, but there is too much Hollywood gossip and status raising (or, less commonly, lowering). Too many passages like Ridley Scott saying, “Goldie Hawn brought me breakfast, and she was hysterically funny. She made it clear how much she wanted the part.” And, on the same page, “Geena Davis had gotten ahold of the script and I met her for tea at the Four Seasons where she made her case” (shouldn’t there also be a comma?). Passages like these help explain why a book that does a little too little to explain the movies and shows themselves can still be 700 pages. 700 fluffy pages, but in the long middle it’s hard to get excited about long-dead deals that don’t delve deeply into something important beyond the deal itself. There is good detail and excess and too often we get excess.

EDIT: Here is a longer treatment, in the London Review of Books.

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