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Creative Artists Agency: Going inside Hollywood's belly of the beast

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The Creative Artists Agency building in Hollywood, CA
CC image courtesy of Aranami on Flickr
The Creative Artists Agency headquarters in Century City.

James Andrew Miller's latest oral history book is “Powerhouse: The Untold Story of Hollywood’s Creative Artists Agency.”

Hollywood loves stories about power, betrayal and money.

The town is currently consumed with just such a tale, which also happens to be true — and it's about the industry itself.

James Andrew Miller is the author of best-selling oral histories of ESPN and “Saturday Night Live.” His new book is called “Powerhouse: The Untold Story of Hollywood’s Creative Artists Agency.”

All around town, agents, executives, and film and TV talent are scouring the book for the juiciest stories and inside dirt behind the rise and partial fall of CAA, which represents an array of A-list performers, writers, directors and sports figures. It’s not an altogether flattering book, especially in the way it depicts CAA founder Michael Ovitz and his Shakespearean relationship with former partner Ron Meyer.

James Andrew Miller visited our studio earlier this week to discuss “Powerhouse” with The Frame host, John Horn.

Interview Highlights:

A lot of people know ESPN and SNL. Hollywood talent agencies, and CAA specifically, aren't well known outside of L.A. So what attracted you to that story and what are the special challenges in telling that story?

That question really drove my desire to do the book because the initials SNL and ESPN now are worldwide brands. Everybody knows them. What I wanted to do in the next book was to almost discover a brand for people to reveal something that was a big part of their lives that they didn't really know. When you watch "Game of Thrones," when you turn on your car radio and it's Katy Perry, when you look at a Tom Cruise movie or a Meryl Streep movie. Even when you watch J.J. Watt on the football field or go into a Chipotle — all those things are part of the CAA ecosystem. In a way SNL is just a show, ESPN is a network. But CAA is this iceberg that you see a little bit of if you're in Hollywood, but it has offices all over the world. It has relationships with all different kinds of people and companies that you may not even be aware of. So that's part of what I wanted to do. I wanted to really peel back the onion and reveal it to people who didn't know. 

There’s a reason it’s hard to write about talent agencies, especially a big one like CAA, and that’s because they like to keep everything secret, as if they controlled something really important like the nuclear codes. How did you get them to talk?

I tried many different ports of entry. I tried to have people who leadership was close to talk on my behalf. I guess they were fans of the previous books. But at the end of the day, they said to me, Look, I like you — hate the idea that you're doing this book. Then, I think what happened is they realized I was going to do the book with or without their participation.

So they wanted to make sure their point of view was represented?

Yeah. I have to say that really was the tipping point. 

Within talent agencies, the amount of lying is legendary. What is your obligation as a journalist and as an oral historian to try to figure out when somebody's being truthful and when somebody is not? Or do you follow the Fox News mantra — "We Report, You Decide" — and just put it all out there?

No, I think that for an oral history that's a rather lazy approach. I do think it's a difficult line and your question is a provocative one. And I'll admit at the beginning I struggled with it all the time. One of the hallmarks of an oral history is really letting people speak for themselves and allowing the reader to hear that person's processes and the way they think and their sensibilities and their orthodoxies. All sorts of things come out when you're talking for yourself rather than through the prism of a writer.

First of all, I'm not into personal destruction. So when people really start to tee off on somebody else in a vituperative manner about things that don't affect the agency or the company in this case, I don't feel obligated to include that. I say in the preface there's a Rashomon effect. This happened in Saturday Night Live, this happened with ESPN. With Saturday Night Live it was a little more understandable because people were sometimes stoned out of their minds, so they couldn't remember correctly. But people — particularly when you're talking about things 40 years ago, 30 years ago, 10 years ago, whatever — they may process things and remember things differently. I try not to bore the reader with he said/she said, [or] two different versions of things, unless it's really instructive. If they're telling me something that's a total lie and I've been able to report that it's a total lie, then I hit the delete key.

Like a lot of authors, you have your own literary agent, so you understand the principles of agency work. What surprised you about the way in which this agency worked? What startled you?

There were a couple things: I always believed that the most important thing that an agent can do — yes, you want them to make deals and you want them to get you good money and everything — but if you have an agent who you really trust, that value proposition is really important. The sea is full of sharks and you have to be able to trust them. A lot of agents can't be trusted, but I was amazed at whether it's Cher with "Moonstruck" or Sarah Jessica Parker with "Sex and the City" or Nicole Kidman with "The Hours" — and, by the way, both Nicole and Cher won the Academy Award for those roles — they trusted their agents when the agent said, You gotta do this. They didn't want to do it. Matthew Broderick didn't want to do "Ferris Bueller." Thank god for his agent to convince him to do that. I like when you see trust manifest itself in a way like that.

But it also comes up against one of the takeaways for me: CAA stands for Creative Artist Agency. The first two words are about the clients, yet my takeaway from the book is: Let's all make a ton of money and let's define our success principally by market shares, private jets and bonuses, more so than actually helping our clients become the best artists they can become. Do you share some of that takeaway?

I share a lot of it. I put it together that way. I'm not insulted, I'm gratified because you know the business. And if that's your takeaway, it means that in my effort to capture 360 degrees of what an agency is and what the hierarchy of needs inside it is — damn right! All those things. I go pretty deep with the idea that this is a very Darwinian existence. Even if you were somehow able to survive in the '70s, the '80s and the early '90s — hide all women and children because this is the deep end of the pool. And if you can't cut it, don't even try and survive. 

Did you come to understand what the broader personality attributes are of an agent? What kinds of people can make it and what kinds of people are never cut out for this kind of work?

Here's the really cool judo move that I think successful agents make, which is that they are in part narcissistic. They do believe in themselves. That's how they survive in this competitive world. Yet, at the same time, they must thwart their narcissism in the face of serving their client. The graveyards are full of agents who have been narcissistic to the point of it overflowing with their client. Clients don't like that. So it's a really kind of weird balancing act when you're dealing with the studios or the networks or you're dealing with the competition. But then you have to all of a sudden say to your client, What do you want? How can I help you? What's best for you? It's a very interesting thing to operate with that duality.

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