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.


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.

Is most narrative art just a series of status games?

In The Righteous Mind Jonathan Haidt writes:

If you think that moral reasoning is something we do to figure out the truth, you’ll be constantly frustrated by how foolish, biased, and illogical people become when they disagree with you. But if you think about moral reasoning as a skill we humans evolved to further our own social agendas—to justify our own actions and to defend teams we belong to—then things will make a lot more sense. Keep your eye on the intuitions, and don’t take people’s moral arguments at face value. They’re mostly post hoc constructions made up on the fly, crafted to advance one or more strategic objectives.

And those post hoc constructions are often “crafted” subconsciously, without the speaker or listener even aware of what they’re doing. It occurs to me in light of this that most narrative art and the moral reasoning implied in it is just a set of moral status games: someone, usually the narrator, is trying to raise their own status and perhaps that of their group too. Seen in this way a lot of novels, TV shows, and movies get stripped of their explicit content and become vehicles for intuitive status games. Police shows are perhaps the worst offenders but are by no means the only ones. Most romance novels are about raising the heroine’s status through the acquisition of a high-status man.

One could apply similar logic to other genres. While realizing this may make most narrative art more boring, it may also open the possibility of writing narrative art that is explicitly not about status games, or that tries to avoid them to the extent possible. Science fiction may be the genre least prone to relentless status gaming, though “least prone” may also be faint praise.

The Shipwrecked Mind: On Political Reaction — Mark Lilla

The Shipwrecked Mind is many things, including inconsistently fascinating and incredibly useful in the contemporary political atmosphere. It has something of Albert Hirschman in it (which is a tremendous compliment). Others have discussed it, including an NYT review here and Tyler Cowen here. Here is the anti-reactionary FAQ, from 2013 and over long but relevant to The Shipwrecked Mind; the title itself tells us something of Lilla’s sympathies or perspective. The book is consistently surprising, as when we learn that philosopher Leo Strauss liked using “Dear Abby” columns as teaching devices (that he did speaks well of him: maybe he had a strong grasp on the texture of real life than most philosophers seem to).

Some sections are just wildly good, like this paragraph, which I wish I’d written:

Successful ideologies follow a certain trajectory. They are first developed in narrow sects whose adherents share obsessions and principles, and see themselves as voices in the wilderness. To have any political effect, though, these groups must learn to work together. That’s difficult for obsessive, principled people, which is why at the political fringes one always finds little factions squabbling futilely with each other. But for an ideology to really reshape politics it must cease being a set of principles and become instead a vaguer general outlook that new information and events only strengthen. You really know when an ideology has matured when every event, present and past, is taken as confirmation of it.

shipwrecked_mindThese groups must also expand their size and scope, and convince others, none of which are easy: Most people are not ideological (or they are subconsciously ideological) and just don’t care. People who really care about and attempt to implement ideology in their own life are rare. Many also espouse an ideology but live contrary to it; socialists for example rarely got past this challenge.

There are many lines of the sort that explain why it’s hard for me to take philosophy seriously, like, “We live inauthentically because of Socrates” (note that this is not Lilla’s view; he is describing another’s view, accurately I hope). The section on Eric Voegelin is probably over-long, at least in my view, and it is hard to imagine him and his writings having so much influence on later reactionary thought. Or maybe I just find some of Voegelin’s claims ridiculous, like, his argument in The New Science of Politics, as articulated by Lilla: “the entire modern age, which grew out of a rebellion against Christianity, was gnostic in nature.” What? I’d argue that the modern age has grown out of the Enlightenment and Industrial Revolution, with technical breakthroughs leading the way to social or cultural ones.

Still, Voegelin does eventually renounce his earlier thought, and until 1974 his “works were like those of other antimodern cultural pessimists who since the nineteenth century have constructed historical narratives presuming to pinpoint the moment when healthy modes of thinking and living were abandoned and the rot began.” Lilla’s list of those thinkers and their various answers is impressive, and it also points to the ridiculousness of the concept itself because of the variety of answers given and rationales behind those answers.

Later, in “From Luther to Walmart” (my favorite chapter), Lilla writes:

It is a revealing psychological fact that the most common historical myths with which early civilizations comforted themselves were stories of fated decline, which give temporal reasons for why life is so hard. We suffer because we live in the Age of Iron, far removed from our origins in the Age of Gold. If we are good perhaps one day the gods will smile down and return us to the world we have lost.

I don’t think I’ve ever bought the myth of the golden age; getting specific about what prior time one would like to live tends to kill it. Today is not perfect, but few of us choose to even attempt to give it up—not for any length of time, at least. I am reminded of the very end of Philip Pullman’s anti-reaction His Dark Materials Trilogy:

“We have to be all those difficult things like cheerful and kind and curious and brave and patient, and we’ve got to study and think, and work hard, all of us, in all our different worlds, and then we’ll build…”
“And then what? […] Build what?”
“The republic of heaven.”

In Pullman’s reading, we don’t get handed heaven (or much else). We make it for ourselves or don’t get it at all. A thrilling conclusion, in my view, and too uncommon, which is part of what makes it stand out.

Few if any of the writers in The Shipwrecked Mind seem to take this sunny view. It is perhaps telling that sunny views seem common in the tech industry and uncommon in the philosophy industry. A longer essay might explain why, but for now I will post the question.

Oddly at times I find myself thinking of The Shipwrecked Mind, “Does any of this shit matter in comparison to pop culture?”

I don’t think I got enough out of it in the first pass, which is a good sign.

Briefly noted: Swimming Across — Andy Grove

Swimming Across will probably be of niche interest to most, with those most interested likely to be the World War II crowd and the high tech crowd. I don’t know how much they intersect, but Grove survived the war to become a titan of the tech industry. Most who know of him don’t know that he and his family barely survived the Holocaust; Hungary, where Grove was born, allied with the Nazis, then got rolled over by Soviets. Grove eventually got out, and we are all the beneficiaries of his departure:

Stalin died in March 1953, and a gradual relaxation of totalitarian controls took place. Over the next few years, this process accelerated until it culminated in a rebellion against the Communist government—the Hungarian revolution of October 1956.

The revolt lasted for thirteen days and was then put down by Soviet armed forces. Many young people were killed; countless others were interned. Some two hundred thousand Hungarians escaped to the West.

I was one of them.

Oddly, despite Hungary’s long experience with totalitarianism, it has now elected, more or less fairly, a would-be dictator and strongman named Viktor Orban. One can imagine Grove’s reaction to Orban and the historical amnesia that allowed him to come to power, but after Grove got out he never went back. He says he isn’t entirely sure why. I would guess that someone forced to flee by the roof is unlikely to willingly return by the front door.

Swimming Across an oddly moving book, though the story is simply told. I wonder if Grove will be mostly forgotten over time, as most of us are, despite his contributions. Still, Swimming Across is of humane and technological interest; so far most of the books about the rise of the tech industry have not been of literary interest. A book like The Intel Trinity is intelligently reported but is no Making of the Atomic Bomb. Too bad. It’s still good. But not quite there, and not quite enough to go beyond a technical history. Swimming Across is closer to there—the “there” that is hard to define but easy to know once it’s seen.

Swimming Across may also be a good book for Americans to read right now, in the midst of declinist political narratives. When Grove arrives he writes:

The skyscrapers looked just like pictures of America. All of a sudden, I was gripped by the stunning realization that I truly was in America. Nothing had symbolized America more to me than skyscrapers; now I was standing on a street, craning my neck to look up at them.

He goes far; the U.S. is the fundamental platform on which he builds.

Since Grove’s death there have been many tributes to him; this is one of my favorite.

Idea Makers: Personal Perspectives on the Lives & Ideas of Some Notable People — Stephen Wolfram

Idea Makers is charming and not for everyone. Its introduction is accurate:

in my own life I”ve seen all sorts of ideas and other things develop over the course of years—which has given me some intuition about how such things work. And one of the important lessons is that however brilliant one may be, every idea is the result of some progression or path—often hard won. If there seems to be a jump in the story—a missing link—then that’s just because one hasn’t figured it out.

idea_makersThe book is also pleasant because Wolfram does not adhere to the false art-science dichotomy. He’s “spent most of my life working hard to build the future with science and technology.” At the same time, “two of my other great interests are history and people.” Idea Makers covers all four and to some extent asks where good ideas come from. Wolfram has met numerous interesting, unusual, and special people, and his stories are close the ideal ones you’d hear in a bar after two drinks.

Some sections introduce ideas that are counterintuitive or that I wasn’t aware of, like “mathematicians—despite their reputation for abstract generality—like most scientists, tend to concentrate on questions that their methods succeed with.” From this one might think the best way forward is to concentrate on developing new methods, or applying old methods to radically different fields. The quality of someone’s work may also not be apparent immediately, which is a better-known idea but still finds itself here: “At the time… Turing’s work did not make much of a splash, probably largely because the emphasis of Cambridge mathematics was elsewhere.”

Other thinkers were different: John von Neumann, for example, “was not particularly one to buck the system: he liked the social milieu of science and always seemed to take both intellectual and other authority seriously.”


Despite his successes, [George] Boole seems to have always thought of himself as a self-taught schoolteacher, rather than a member of the academic elite. And perhaps that helped in his ability to take intellectual risks. Whether it was playing fast and loose with differential operators in calculus, or finding ways to bend the laws of algebra so they could apply to logic, Boole seems to have always taken the attitude of just moving forward and seeing where he could go, trusting his own sense of what was correct and true.

Measuring the extent to which a person admires or respects received authorities / hierarchies against the extent to which a person disregards them could be an interesting project.

Each section of Idea Makers covers someone in science, math, or technology. This is not amenable to quotation, but each section feels the appropriate length and like it has the appropriate focus.

Some facts are simply tragic. Ada Lovelave died from what was likely cervical cancer; today the HPV vaccine largely protects its recipients from that disease. Most deaths are tragic on a local level; Ada Lovelace’s death is tragic on a global level, given how much she contributed and how much more she might have contributed.

Refreshingly, the quality of the physical book—its paper and binding—is unusually high, maybe because it’s put out by Wolfram Press: The company cares about longevity and quality in a way that most commercial publishers would do well to emulate. Stephen Wolfram himself often consults centuries-old pages, and in one illustration we see him using an iPhone to photograph an artifact. It is not a stretch to imagine him imagining someone photographing (or using some other advanced technology) to photograph the work he publishes today.

Candace Bushnell’s “Sex and the City” is distinctly contemporary

A reader suggested that in light of Date-onomics I get a copy of the original Sex and the City book. I see why. Though published in 1996, it feels shockingly contemporary, like something you’d read in New York Magazine, or Slutever, or 1,001 other places. If Sex and the City were a little more explicit (Bushnell prefers “unmentionable” to “penis” or “cock,” for example) and added in references to smartphones, Instagram, texting etiquette, and online dating, it would still have the basic set of issues and problems and challenges and behaviors of 2016. The tone of the stories feels bloggy and podcast-y (which is a descriptive observation, not a slur).

sex_and_the_cityOn the Internet you really can say whatever the fuck you want, including “fuck,” and becoming accustomed to that makes Sex and the City feel a little linguistically reticent. To be sure, it goes a lot of places in terms of description but it doesn’t get to all the explicit places the online-only writers do; Sex and the City generally stops at the bedroom door and resumes at the restaurant recap the next day.

Being originally part of a newspaper also means that the lows aren’t quite as low as the online writers, many of whom don’t have anyone to edit their material or tell them that piece x is filler and ought to be cut. But they also don’t have editors to tell them that piece x is in “bad taste,” which means that bad taste as a concept barely exists (here I am tempted to list some examples, but if you keep your eye around the Internet you’ll find some on your own). I hate the word “heteronormative,” but Sex and the City is more heteronormative than online writers are.

What else? Some modern books about love, sex, and dating often have a harder data edge: that’s the point of Dataclysm and Date-onomics. The big way our knowledge has collectively grown in the last twenty years in this domain comes from the revealed preferences of online dating. That lets us know things less through gossip and more through how people behave, at least in online interactions.

It is common to read claims about how the Internet has changed everything, and while data tells us a lot, the basic challenges that emerge in Sex and the City remain. Still, I prefer a Straussian reading of Sex and the City in which guys read the books in order to discover how they should present themselves, market themselves, and be.

Perhaps the book’s most important theme is the need for novelty and stimulation, maybe because novelty-seekers are drawn to New York, despite the city’s costs and many inconveniences. Boredom is a great sin: “You get tired of being around anyone after a while” (63). Or: “Miranda checked the labels: Savile Row—boring” (90). Or: “While many women would have killed to have a date with Scotty, the TV producer, Camilla told me she had been bored” (105). Or: “I already have too many Chanel bags. They bore me” (109; what do you do for the person who has everything, which is a larger number of people than is commonly assumed?). Or: “Where’s the new place to go? I want to make sure my ward here has a good time this evening. I think she’s bored” (141). Or: “The truth is, he bored me” (198).

Boredom is part of a simple paradox at the heart of many of the stories—a paradox prevents some of the characters from getting off the party carousel: “this was the kind of life she’d grown up believing she could have, simply because she wanted it. But the men you wanted didn’t want it, or you; and the men who did want it were too boring” (85). And there is no way in Bushnell’s world to avoid that paradox. Men might want to think about it too, and how it affects their own choices. The characters in Sex and the City are experiencing the problems and fruits of freedom: “[Edith] Wharton thought no one could have freedom, but [Henry] James knew no one wanted it,” and “Freedom’s unpalatable qualities are hard to accept.” So too is accepting the choices one makes. In first three quarters of the book, Samantha Jones makes occasional appearances to disparage her dates and men in general. By page 181, “Lately, Sam had been complaining about not having a boyfriend.” Er. She spends most of book engaging in boyfriend-incompatible thoughts and behaviors.

The women in Sex and the City are chronically outraged by male behavior while chronically and simultaneously rewarding it with sex. The phrase “revealed preferences” is relevant.

Snobbery is ever-present (“She’s like an auto mechanic from nowhere’sville”), almost a sport, in a way that would be hard to take, at least for me, in real life. The brand-name snobbery is much more irksome than much of the bedroom material.

Used copies on Amazon are cheap and plentiful, for good reason. It’s a fun, historically interesting read, but once is enough. Re-selling it is too time consuming for me, but I’m donating it to a thrift shop which will probably recycle it back onto Amazon.

Thoughts on Tolkien’s Letters and ossification by age

I’ve read Tolkien’s letters before, but as with most reading, each reading is different because I know, think, and believe different things. Tolkien’s occasional crankiness stands out in this reading. He doesn’t like cars (or “motor-cars” in his words) or most industrial / mechanical processes. To him the future often seems grimly industrial, and passages like this speak to his view of what would become modern culture:

Music will give place to jiving: which as far as I can make out means holding a ‘jam session’ round a piano (an instrument properly intended to produce the sounds devised by, say, Chopin) and hitting it so hard that it breaks. This delicately cultured amusement is said to be a ‘fever’ in the U.S.A.

letters_tolkienOne wonders what he’d think of computerized music, if such a term has any meaning anymore: Distinction between digital and analogue music is so blurred as to be useless today. And at least the “jam session” Tolkien does not much like demands more skill than a record, CD, or now mp3.

To my mind too a piano is not “properly intended” to do anything: It’s an instrument or tool that people will apply to all sorts of uses, many unforeseen or unintended. Chopin is one but there are many others, not necessarily worse. I imagine Tolkien did not “get” the Beatles.

I wonder if most people are just most comfortable with the technological world that spans from their childhoods to age 30 or 40, and what comes after often seems unnecessary, gratuitous, or even obscene. When I see the apartments many old people live in, I’m often struck by the lack of prominent computers and by the clutter and (to my eyes) ugly bric-a-brac (even T.G.I.F. is shedding clutter in favor of minimalism). What do they do all day? Old people are often in turn surprised by how much I use computers. I, in another turn, find Snapchat to be of little use, although its popularity is undeniable. When students and my cousins have tried to explain it to me the conversation is often comical.

The usual explanation goes something like, Snapchat lets you tell people what you’re doing; for example you might take a video of yourself on the way to the store, or to the beach, or a concert. I usually then ask, “Why would anyone care?” The conversation breaks down towards mutual incomprehension: They cannot explain the role of this very important tool in their lives, anymore than I could explain video games when I played them as a teenager; I’m too old or set in my ways to understand on a sub-verbal level Snapchat’s uses.

There is an interesting parallel between technology ossification and the way many people seem to lose friends and stop making new friends around age 30. Maybe some common root lies at the bottom of both phenomena.

To return to Tolkien and his dislike of motor-cars, though, Tolkien also got to experience the worst of mechanization in WWI, so his dislike has strong roots, given that virtually everyone he knew was killed using mechanized weapons and the generals who fought WWI had no idea how technology had changed warfare. If virtually everyone I know had died in mechanized warfare I might not love mechanization or machines either.

Like all leter collections the best parts of the letters are scattered amid a lot of material that’s unlikely to be of interest to most people. Unlike most letter collections this one is uncommonly deep and contains uncommonly deep analysis of the author’s own works. To most people who are uninterested in The Lord of the Rings or the Edwardian era the letters will be of no interest. To those who find either fascinating the letters may fascinate.

%d bloggers like this: