The smell of greed was palpable in the air.
It mixed with the aroma of eucalyptus trees freshly watered, and golf-course greens newly mowed, and exhaust fumes invisibly emitted from the expensive idling autos. One by one that balmy evening, December 12, 1990, the cars turned in at 10000 Pico Boulevard in Century City and approached the stone guardhouse at the bottom of the smooth asphalt driveway that served as the discreet entrance to Hillcrest Country Club. The Creative Artists Agency annual Christmas party was called for 6:45 p.m., and a long line of Porsches, Ferraris, Jaguars had formed.
But it was only the arrival of the sleek silver BMW 750iL driven by Michael Ovitz that signaled to agents and support staff alike the real start of the CAA Christmas party.
Attendance was mandatory. For the celebration was sacrosanct in the eyes of Ovitz and the other CAA founders. At the fete the year before, the Eszterhas scandal had cast a pall by giving succor to Ovitz’s critics and their accusations about his dirty tricks and enemy lists. But now Ovitz was the poster boy for the Greed Decade just ended, dominating competitors and studios as the most powerful man in town.
Just that week, Time magazine had dubbed him an “economic samurai” for his starring role in selling MCA to Matsushita. A few days earlier, Ovitz’s New Age–ish spiel had helped sign director Francis Ford Coppola, who hadn’t had an agent in years, and Geena Davis, fresh off a Supporting Actress Oscar for The Accidental Tourist. And Ovitz’s premier CAA movie package for the holidays, Havana, was opening in theaters that weekend. Soon, Ovitz would stretch his reach beyond show business and mega-mergers into advertising and sports and high tech for clients like Coca-Cola and Nike and the telcos. No longer would he be lumped in with the other agents of yore and lore. His name and reputation would be known around the world.
All that was left to determine was: for how long?
Back then, no one could predict that, just five years later, MCA would hand him what at that point was the biggest humiliation of his career when he over-negotiated himself out of the top job at the entertainment giant — thus beginning a downward spiral of disgrace that would drive him out of Hollywood to the point where today Ovitz is but a bad memory.
But, on this night in 1990, the CAA Christmas party was the embodiment of everything Ovitz, good and bad. So it was with an obvious show of smugness that his handpicked agents tossed their car keys to the valet parkers who were old enough to be their fathers. Founded in 1920 by Los Angeles Jewish big shots who had been denied entry to the gentile preserves, Hillcrest didn’t welcome the Jews who ran Hollywood until a decade later. How ironic that the CAA party splurged on heavy-handed Christmas decorations and that the 1990 festivity was being held on the first day of Hanukkah.
During the cocktail hour, two fully stocked bars proffered drinks to the crowd of about 500. The most popular refreshment was champagne, which maroon-jacketed waiters were pouring from $70 Domain Chandon Brut magnum bottles. Sprawled along a 10-foot-long table, heaped onto mounds of crushed ice, were huge portions of jumbo-size crab legs, giant shrimp and oversized green-lipped mussels. Only the oysters remained untouched, apparently because a milky appearance hinted their freshness might have been off. A salad bar served up every ingredient imaginable (and some unimaginable, like chocolate chips). Silver chafing dishes held lamb chops, herbed chicken, breaded scallops and creamy fettuccine. Two rooms were devoted to desserts, including trees of cream puffs.
All the time circling the party and circulating among the diners was Ovitz. Compact-looking in his Ermenegildo Zegna double-breasted navy suit, his broad Slavic features breaking into a laugh at times that exposed his gap-toothed grin, Ovitz was aware that all eyes were upon him. For, without any of CAA’s celebrity clients around, he was the undisputed star of his own party. But he was also working it. When the man who liked to say that “God is in the details” saw the offending pile of oysters, he called over a waiter to whisk them away, pronto. Finally, Ovitz took his place at the center table in the room. Status at CAA could be measured that evening by how close people were to Ovitz’s seat of power.
After dinner came the entertainment. A troupe of black gospel singers paraded in. Dressed in flowing scarlet choir gowns embroidered with huge white crosses, the chorale sang Christmas music with themes about baby Jesus in the manger to the overwhelmingly Jewish audience. A young agent read a parody of “’Twas the Night Before Christmas” that singled out agents by name but clumped together the rest of the employees as the “reception,” the “message center,” the “library” and the “mailroom.” The poem lauded the way in which everyone at CAA helped one another. The reading took five minutes and provoked not just uproarious laughter but also a standing ovation.
Next was a skit. One of CAA’s top financial officers dressed up as Santa Claus and read aloud purported “Dear Santa” letters while various agents took turns sitting on his lap. One supposedly from Ovitz started out, “Dear Santa, I really like art. Would you give me some paintings?” Then Ovitz, who had just managed to finagle a trusteeship at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, was handed his gift: a framed painting of a panther set off by black velvet. “You sure know your art,” Ovitz chuckled, placing the work off to the side where it remained forgotten for the rest of the evening.
The time had come for Ovitz to address the gathering. Like a TV evangelist, Ovitz held a wireless microphone and walked around the room radiating sincerity and showing sentiment. He exulted over the agency’s first full year in its new I.M. Pei–designed headquarters. “It’s been a tough year, exciting but also tragic. But a tough year all in all,” Ovitz declared. Exciting was a reference to the MCA-Matsushita deal. Tragic to the loss of CAA music agent Bobby Brooks in a helicopter crash. “And now we have a few prizes we want to give out.”
With that, the CAA chieftain handed the microphone to four young agents who pulled on red-and-green “Santa’s Elves” costumes. They distributed bingo cards to CAA employees who proceeded to play for big-ticket Japanese electronic goods. Each table played as a team for the prizes. Number after number being called was punctuated by the choruses of “Yesssss! . . . Yesssss! . . . Yesssss!” and displays of raised fists. Agents who might receive hundreds of thousands of dollars in end-of-the-year bonuses competed just as feverishly against support staff whose holiday envelopes would contain $100 for every year of service. At stake were Panasonic VCRs, Panasonic portable phones with built-in answering machines, Panasonic portable CD players and Panasonic boom boxes. But everyone salivated for the then-state-of-the-art Panasonic color stereo TVs.
Then the game changed. Each of the 50 tables had a numbered placard with the name of a U.S. state. Santa’s Elves brought out a large map of the United States and threw darts; depending on where they landed, the table with that state’s name won still more Panasonic prizes. Even by the end of the darts, some employees were still empty-handed.
Standing on the sidelines was Ovitz, his arms crossed over his chest, his fingers drumming against his biceps, leaning against a wall and watching all this animation on the part of his employees with a mixture of paternalistic pride and detached amusement. He did not play along. At exactly 11 p.m., the gift-giving ended and the band struck up and Ovitz was out the door. Close on his heels were the other CAA partners, then the rest of the CAA higher-ups. From that moment on, the room began to rock. By midnight, a crowd clamoring for their cars descended on the valet parkers.
Yet one vital detail of the carefully choreographed event had been overlooked. The last sight revelers remembered was of a young Ovitz disciple trying, again and again, to shoehorn his newly won Panasonic television into the tiny jump seat of his Porsche.