When he was a premed student at UCLA in the '60s, Mike Ovitz got his start in show business working summers as a tour guide at Universal Studios. Now, roughly 30 years later, Ovitz, 48, seems primed to return to Universal, once again as a guide-sort of. At press time, Ovitz, the chairman of Creative Artists Agency (CAA), was poised to leave the talent empire he built into a Hollywood force and take control of entertainment giant MCA Inc., Universal's parent company. Sources familiar with the negotiations expected the deal would be announced by early June.
Talk of Ovitz's move sent the rumor mill into overdrive. No wonder: His departure from CAA the agency that represents such prized talent as Steven Spielberg, Demi Moore, David Letterman, Tom Cruise, and Tom Hanks would have an immeasurable impact on Hollywood's power structure. All of which raises the inevitable question: why?
''He's frustrated,'' says a rival agent. ''He can't create anything at CAA. Brokering, yes. Creating, no.'' Becoming the head of Universal would certainly give Ovitz new creative opportunities. But just as significant, with the job comes a rarefied air of prestige-more than enough to compensate for any loss of clout as a result of leaving CAA. ''In this town there are six [studio-chief] positions and they're the only ones that count,'' says a Warner Bros. production executive. ''The [studio heads] are the ones who can say yes to a movie. They're the sexiest jobs in town.''
Less clear is the fate of an Ovitz-free CAA. ''It's like the Bulls without Michael Jordan,'' says Gavin Polone of rival agency UTA, which, along with ICM and William Morris, stands to profit most from any breakdown in CAA's current hegemony. One scenario has CAA sinking after boatloads of clients abandon the rudderless ship. More likely is the theory that current second-in-command Ron Meyer will take charge of day-to-day operations while CAA's Young Turks agents Jay Maloney, Kevin Huvane, Bryan Lourd, David ''Doc'' O'Connor, and Richard Lovett-consolidate their power in order to hold on to top clients.
Whatever the resolution at CAA, Ovitz stands to gain substantially from leaving behind the kingdom he cofounded two decades ago. (Speculation is that he could receive a package of $250 million as well as 5 percent equity in MCA.) But the consensus is that financial compensation is not Ovitz's only motivation. ''I don't think it's about money,'' says Polone. ''At some point in your life, you have to do something else.''
Albert Kim, with reporting by Judy Brennan, Richard Natale, Jennifer Pendleton, Anne Thompson, and Jeffrey Wells