“They absolutely transformed the whole mechanism of Hollywood.”
On a recent episode of Recode Media with Peter Kafka, oral historian James Andrew Miller discussed “Powerhouse,” his new chronicle of the Creative Artists Agency.
You can read some of the highlights from his interview with Peter at that link, or listen to it in the audio player above. Below, we’ve posted a lightly edited complete transcript of their conversation.
Transcript by Celia Fogel.
Peter Kafka: I’m here with Jim Miller, who is the author of several books. The one we’re going to talk about today mostly is “Powerhouse” — what’s “Powerhouse’s” full title, Jim?
James Andrew Miller: “The Untold Story of Hollywood’s Creative Artists Agency.”
That’s CAA, which is an acronym I bet a bunch of the folks listening to this podcast know, but it’s not a household name. The two previous books you did — you do these great oral histories, right? Sort of signature-style oral histories. You did one on “Saturday Night Live” and you did one on ESPN; those are big brand names that I think everyone in the U.S. and probably most of the world has heard of. CAA is really an industry term, industry name. Why spend years of your life writing about CAA?
Well, that’s a really good question. No, I’m just kidding. I think it was for that very reason. You know, SNL is a show, ESPN is a network, and CAA, even though it’s not as well-known, is this universe. It’s this content universe. And I liked the idea of kind of getting underneath the surface of this iceberg and exploring it and telling people why they should know about it. In fact, CAA is more of an impact on their lives than SNL and ESPN put together.
Just to be clear — CAA does a bunch of different things, especially now. But their main job is they attach a writer or director, or sometimes they do all the stuff together and a studio will pay them, and then they get a piece of that artist’s payday, right? That’s the core of what it is. They’re talent agents, that’s the core of the business.
2:04 Right. I mean, the interesting thing is, SNL was born the ’70s and still very much with us. ESPN was born in the ’70s, still very much with us. And so was CAA. So, in a way, it’s kind of like a trilogy, if you want to think about it in terms of content and effects on the culture. And in response to your question, CAA at its core, it started as a TV representation business. Then it moved into movies. Then it moved into music. Then it moved into marketing, and investment banking. And then it moved into sports. And I think that one of the things that people are finding interesting about the modern CAA is just how connected it is to so many parts of our life. I mean, when you walk into Chipotle for lunch, CAA’s doing the marketing.
CAA does a bunch of stuff. In Hollywood for a time, I don’t know, 10-, 20-year period, maybe, they were sort of the dominant player in Hollywood. If you were getting something done, they were touching it. I don’t think that’s the case anymore now. I think you would make that same argument. The rival WME is bigger than them, other agencies are on their heels. Beyond the effect that CAA used to be really big and touch everything, was there something about them that changed the way Hollywood or the entertainment business worked?
Yes, I think that they absolutely transformed the whole mechanism of Hollywood. And it started probably in the early ’80s, and it lasted … Well I would say the first era ended in 1995 when Michael Ovitz, Ron Meyer and Bill Haber, three of the founding partners, left. And then there was a second generation. The second generation, make no mistake about it, CAA has offices in China, India, Switzerland, various places around the country, and other parts of the world. It is still very good at what it does. But I think to your point earlier, it’s facing the most competitive landscape it’s ever faced, but it’s still is responsible for engineering the big transformation in the business.
There was an era where if you knew anything about Hollywood, you would have heard the term CAA. Maybe if you didn’t pay any attention to it at all, you might still have heard the term. If you had an idea of what a Hollywood agent looked like, it probably looked like a CAA person, a guy in a suit and a tie. And you have this huge cast of characters, you talk to almost everyone in the business. And I should take an aside here and say that normally I would do as much prep as possible for an interview like this; in this case, I couldn’t read the whole — you guys wouldn’t let me have the whole thing in advance. I had to go to your publisher and sit in a glass room and pore over it for a couple of hours. You guys are treating this like a state secret.
Awful publishers. Well, the books are always embargoed, so it’s a pain in the neck.
Are people freaked out about this book? Are they worried that you got the stuff they don’t want to expose?
I think that there is a level of concern and curiosity. One of the interesting things about CAA that I was really into was the fact that they don’t like to talk about themselves. They like to talk about their clients. And in fact, one of the essential strands of DNA for an agent is you gotta put your client first.
Right, it’s this classic thing where they act as if they have no ego, and it’s all about the client, and they always make sure the client’s name is first, but of course they want their name in the press, and of course these guys have enormous egos. I mean, a lot of your book is about ego-driven stuff. right?
Oh, yeah. But the point is, though, that they’re not used to talking about. Many of the agents I spoke to had never really spoken to a journalist on the record before. And I think those people are particularly curious and a little apprehensive about that. And I think also, you know — look, once you have somebody kind of digging into a company for three years, there are things that — this happened with “Saturday Night Live” and this happened with ESPN — there are things that you stumble upon and you think, “Oh, well, it’s probably not good for business.”
It’s out. I want to talk about some of those books late, too. Let me go back to “Powerhouse.” From what I could tell, you’ve got a cast of characters. Again, hundreds of people you talked to. But it seems like, fundamentally, this book is about two people: Mike Ovitz and Ron Meyer. Two of the co-founders. And even when they’re not at the agency anymore, sort of their ghost is either hanging over the agency, or in some cases the guys who were still at the agency are fighting against — in this case, Ovitz. And they’re kind of a ying/yang character, right? Ovitz is sort of the more public figure and more brash, and Meyer’s the one that lets people know. Do you want to tell people a little bit about each of those guys?
Sure. Mike Ovitz and Ron Meyer met at William Morris in the early ’70s.
And William Morris used to be the dominant agency.
It was king of the hill. It was, you know, the standard-bearer. And it was incredibly successful, and they and three other William Morris agents at the time — Bill Haber, Rowland Perkins and Mike Rosenfeld — all left William Morris to for CAA. But very quickly in emerged that Mike Ovitz, who was the youngest and least experienced of the five, had a real drive and passion and determination, and very, very, very aggressive. And so what happened, this dynamic got created between Mike and Ron, and that’s no disrespect to Bill Haber, who’s actually a really really smart, one of the best TV agents in the history of the business. But Mike and Ron were the two central figures in CAA’s history for the first 20 years, and as you said, cast a shadow over the next 20. And I think that, you know, in many ways they’re very different people. They were very, very close. Ovitz, in the book, talks a lot about the fact that he considered Ron a brother. And yet they had very, very different styles. In some ways, and I said this at the beginning of the book, if there were two Mike Ovitz’s, we would never have had the CAA.
Because you can’t have two alpha guys.
You just can’t. And if there were two Rons, it wouldn’t have been the same CAA. So let’s stick with the positive for a second, because good news sometimes has the tendency to travel slow. The pairing of these guys, the yin and yang of it, was really effective for the company. Ovitz was externally focused, and he had unbridled enthusiasm for playing the power game in Hollywood and creating mergers between studios and advising foreign companies. Just insatiable appetite for more and more and more.
And he was really the public face of the company.
Yes. And Ron, meanwhile, taking care of a ton of clients. And when you think about Ron Meyer and his client list, it’s unbelieveable, because it was Sharon, Meryl Streep, and Madonna and Jessica Lange and Whoopi Goldberg and Jane Fonda, and I could go on and on and on. And he was also doing something else. Which was, he was mentoring younger agents about the value of an agent in a client’s life, and the way to comport yourself. And so I think that combination between the two of them was very successful, and then it wasn’t.
Right, and they have a breakup, and this was — well, some of the juiciest stuff in your book is about this sort of slow-motion car wreck. Where at one point Ron Meyer is trying to help Ovitz get a job running Universal, right? And Ovitz sort of blows the deal in the end. And then Edgar Bronfman Jr., who has just bought Universal, ends up giving it to Ron Meyer, who insists that’s not what he was trying to engineer. Ovitz is very hurt. And then there’s these great anecdotes throughout your book — again, the parts that I’ve read — where these guys continue to sort of like fight and squabble. There’s a great story about them fighting over a piece of Malibu real estate, is that right? That Meyer thought he was going to buy … It’s great, it’s great, it’s great. I was curious when I was reading this, because I guess it depends on the attitude you bring toward the book. You can read a lot of this stuff, and the nature of what you do is you write down verbatim what they said, and usually you’re not adding any commentary there, and so you can bring to it what you want. A lot of this stuff just makes these guys look like craven assholes. But I think you like them, fundamentally. Am I taking that away correctly?
Very much so. Very much so. I mean look, I think that …
Like they’re constantly fighting over perceived slights, or, “I only got paid a million dollars instead of this amount of money.” And if you look at it as an outsider, you might think, “Boy, these guys are pretty petty and vindictive and venal.” But I think you respect them at least for the business they built.
Yeah, you know, Ron was not — that was never Ron’s game. I can’t think of one moment when Ron was thinking about money in terms of his own money, and in fact he was very very generous with colleagues in the agency and all sorts of other people outside, and never even lending his name to his efforts. You know, he just wanted to be anonymous. But I think that Michael Ovitz’s relationship with money is a function of it’s a very, very easy way to keep score, and Michael Ovitz loves to win. So he was very, very good at it.
Because very often what you hear from very wealthy, very successful, usually men, is, “I don’t really care about the money, except in the way that it allows me to keep score.”
People forget that for at least two years, Michael Ovitz was the No. 1 investment banker in the United States. I mean, you don’t think of a Hollywood agent being that. But he was engineering deals with Japanese companies taking over studios and merging, and Credit Lyonnais in France, and everything else. So his swath was wide. And I think that sometimes was very easy for people to see him as what he was considered for many years, which was the most powerful person in Hollywood. There was no doubt about that.
And after he leaves CAA, he goes to Disney for a year and change. He’s supposed to sort of be co-president or co-CEO with MIchael Eisner. That doesn’t work out. A lot of people would cheer his failure there. He goes then to run a management group that’s kind of competing with CAA, and the CAA guys are rooting against him at that point. Can you sum up what he did the engender so much enmity in Hollywood over a long period of time?
I think that when you’re as powerful as he was, I think there’s a lot of envy. You wind up on the losing end of deals because he’s able to throw his weight around and the agency’s weight around, so there were people who felt burned or taken advantage of or just humiliated, because he won a lot of battles. And he was very, very successful. So it’s one of those things where success has, in some ways, many enemies. And there were people that were after his phenomenal ride, rooting for him to fail.
And today, Ovitz is still around, but he doesn’t have anything like the clout he used to have. Ron Meyer’s still running Universal. We were talking about before, it’s a couple decades.
21 different years, six different owners, and he just signed a new contract.
So he’s essentially one of the most powerful people in the entertainment world, full stop.
Yes, but you know, it’s different. That’s what makes studying these two so interesting. Because they really have different orthodoxies, they had different value systems, they have different ways of keeping score. Ron would probably derive more psychic income from working out in a kind of Henry Kissinger-esque kind of way. You know, solving a problem between two people who used to be friends, and then they got into a business deal and it went south, and he would come in and fix it all up. Or getting an actor —- not that he would get involved in day-to-day stuff —but if there’s a big star that Universal wanted for a movie, and the star had said no to everybody, then Ron swooped in and was able to talk to them.
That’s the thing that gets him going.
That’s the thing that really matters to Ron Meyer.
I was looking at this stuff and saying, if you have a certain lens you think, “Boy, these guys look pretty petty and mean-spirited.” But you’ve got so many quotes from their clients, these stories seems almost unbelievable. At one point, Ron Meyer is leaving CAA, and he’s calling up his various clients telling them he’s leaving. And they all start crying. It’s about their agent leaving. Sylvester Stallone and Ron Meyer are both sobbing on the phone together, it’s hard to believe. And then David Letterman, who is not the kind of guy you imagine would wax on about how great his agent is, is comparing Ovitz to the guys who saved his life through open-heart surgery. What are we missing from the outside when we see … You’re used to watching someone go on stage at the Oscars and thank their agents, it seems like a pro-forma thing to do. What is the thing that the agent does for an actor or a director that is so important to them, other than get them money?
I think that’s a great question, and I have to say it’s something that drove me. And as you can tell from the book, I was really interested in that. Because it’s so easy to think of it as this 35-year-old in a black suit, or a black power suit or something like that if it’s a woman, and they get 10 percent of the money, and they bang the table and they scream and they yell. I was really struck by the fact that for a lot of these stars, you can’t really trust a lot of people. Everybody has an agenda, everybody wants something from you. And so when people were talking about when Billy Murray or David Letterman talk about Ovitz, or when Jessica Lange and Whoopi Goldberg and so many others talk about Ron Meyer, they’re talking about somebody who they trusted and had, like, an intimate relationship with. This was their touchstone. This is somebody they spoke to numerous times a day. And you have to be able to trust them. And it becomes, you know, so important. The idea that Nicole Kidman didn’t want to do “The Hours.” Sarah Jessica Parker didn’t want to do “Sex and the City.” Cher talked about how Ron Meyer tricked her into doing “Moonstruck.” Nicole and Cher won Academy Awards for those roles. And if it wasn’t for their agents talking them into it … I mean, Ron literally tricked Cher into taking that role in “Moonstruck,” which is probably one of the defining roles of her career. Kevin Huvane basically forced Sarah Jessica Parker to do “Sex and the City”. So it’s kind of like understanding that larger role that an agent plays in these people’s lives. And I see it, too with —CAA represents the Derek Jeters of the world and the J.J. Watts of the world, and it manifests itself in many different ways.
So it’s different than a lawyer, different than a manger, different than a rabbi or a priest. It’s some combination of all of these things, right?
Exactly. I think that’s exactly right. And I think that there are many clients who said to me, “You know, Jim, I probably have a closer relationship with my agent than I do with my spouse.”
I think that’s a little creepy, but …
Well, you know, taking the obvious out of the equation. But I mean in terms of being able to really have a candid conversation about your strengths and your weaknesses, your vulnerabilities, whether or not you’re psychologically prepared to do something. When Whoopi Goldberg told me this amazing story about when she freaked out on the set of a movie, and she stayed in her trailer and nobody could get her out, she called Ron, and Ron came down to the trailer on the set and said, “You gotta get out, you gotta go and do this. If not, they’re going to sue you, and you’re going to be poor …” But he also talked to her because she trusted him. He was able to talk her back into work.
And they get paid for it. Let’s talk a little bit about the landscape for CAA today, and what Hollywood looks like in general. Beginning with, the core thing these guys do is package together various artists, records, etc, for a movie or TV show, very often a TV show. That thing makes a lot of money, the agents make money. As the entertainment business is starting to shift, is their business shifting, as well?
Fundamentally. Because the studios are making fewer movies, the TV equation, from a financial point of view, has changed. So what I think they’re looking at now is additional revenue streams, and really making sure that they’re part of the conversation in the content world. The agencies, in some ways, Peter, are ground zero for this whole battle of content. We spent a lot of years figuring out distribution channels and ways to incentivize and monetize creative thought, right? Like Netflix and all these other things. And at the end of the day now, what’s going to go on these channels? How are these pipes going to be filled? And so both CAA and WME IMG have taken on private equity partners. And the reason why that’s significant is … Let’s say, 10 years ago. CAA used to have a meeting with some tech startup, and they may have been talking about doing a show on the air, whatever it was going to be. CAA would walk out of their office and say, “Boy that sounds like a pretty cool idea.” Now CAA walks out of the office and says, “Hey, you know, we want to buy a piece of you.” Or, “We want to invest in you.” Or, “We want to be partners.”
And they can do that with their private equity money.
When these private equity guys put money into CAA and William Morris — a lot of head-scratching. Because the thing about the agency business — traditionally, it’s a service business. All your employees and their money walk away from the office every day, and traditionally it’s hard to make money selling those companies. When a private equity guy invests in you, the idea is after three, four, five years, he’s either going to turn around and sell it to someone else, or sell it to the public. So both these guys are sort of headed toward an IPO, it looks like. How do you convince sophisticated investors in the public markets that these things are more than just talent agencies? You have to buy other stuff, right? It seems like what they’re doing now.
I got kind of fascinated by that, and I was able to justify my two years of business school, because that’s kind of some stuff that we talked about back then. But the truth is, first of all, there’s a stickiness to the agency business which is worth noting. CAA right now, they’re getting checks from the Blake Edwards estate from when he directed “10” with Bo Derek.
Which is a movie from the 1970s, for some of our younger listeners. But there’s less of that going on, right? There’s less of … In your book, you say “ER” is going to make them tens of millions of dollars a year for years.
But there’s less of those going on, and fundamentally you either get those deals or you don’t, and CAA was the giant agency and now they’re less so. And it seems like, if you’re from the outside you’re saying like, “All right, you have an income stream that’s going to go on for a long time, but it’s not the same as a business where you’re making new products that I can own a piece of.”
I guess so. I think when you have a piece, as an agency, in a franchise like “Jurassic Park” — I mean, J.J. Abrams their client, “Star Wars.” That is the gift that keeps on giving, and if you look at some of the numbers, it’s enough to make you go Bolshevik, because it will continue for literally decades.
But these guys do. I mean, you make a deal with J.J. Abrams when he does “Star Wars,” and you own a piece of that business in perpetuity. But if J.J. Abrams leaves your agency and goes to a rival, now you’re done working with him. You’ll have the old deals, but you won’t have the new ones.
I understand, but you’re still …
So it seems like what these guys are trying to do is say, “All right, in addition to being in the J.J. Abrams business and the Tom Cruise business and the Blake Edwards business, we’re going to start buying assets that we’re going to actually own. Or we’re going to finance stuff.” William Morris just spent $4 billion for the UFC Ultimate Fighting Championship. They’re going to actually own their own sports franchise. Do you see CAA making deals of that size and ambition?
CAA has a majority ownership, owned by TPG in San Francisco. TPG has about $75 billion under asset. It’s a phenomenally successful private equity firm. I think that they have a slightly different approach than WME IMG and Silverlake, who is the controlling partner for that agency. I think that the TPG approach is a bit more measured. They are looking for big headlines. They’re a little bit more concerned about debt, and when WE brought IMG at $2.35 billion or $2.4 billion, there was a lot of debt that came on. They were eight times leveraged at the time. I don’t know if I’d be able to go to sleep at night.
Same model, though, right, that you’re saying. That William Morris is doing more deals, doing bigger deals, taking bigger swings, and there’s a bigger downside, as well. Fundamentally they’re both sort of saying, “We’re going to be more than just talent agents, we’re going to do other stuff, we’re going to own other things.”
Right, but I think it’s just as important to note, even if parenthetically, that they’re not following the same playbook.
So, does the fact that we’re moving toward a world that Netflix is now a channel, and Netflix is a movie studio, and Amazon is a movie studio, does that fundamentally change the business these guys are in? Or they still get paid to put together a show for Amazon or put together a show for Netflix the same way they would have for Warner Brothers or NBC?
The economics are slightly different. They are different. The kinds of fees that you get, and the kind of back ends. But at the end of the day, I think what CAA and WME and a lot the agencies in Hollywood have decided is that they’ll take as many swings as they can. The job is to get your clients working. And if you have a client and he hasn’t sold — you know, 10 years ago, 20 years ago they haven’t sold a show to the network — that project maybe dies. Or you go to HBO. Now there’s just so many more options. And they’re dedicated to doing that.
Near the end of your book, you assemble a bunch of quotes from rival agents saying, “People used to be really afraid of CAA, now they’re not.” Now you can go ahead and poach their clients, you can bring their agents over, you’re not afraid to leave CAA anymore. What is the long story of CAA’s rise and really long run and now decline, to some degree, tell you about Hollywood, if anything?
I did some of that toward the end of the book because I thought it was important for readers who are outside Hollywood in the day-to-day to understand just what the competitive landscape looks like there. And it’s tough. It is the deep end of a pool. It’s very very competitive, it’s a lot of alpha personalities and, by the way, it gets personal. So I think that even people in Hollywood were kind of stunned in terms of the excerpt that ran in the Hollywood Reporter, because they maybe hadn’t seen it all put together like that in one narrative about just how competitive things are now.
Stuff people talk privately about. They just don’t say it publicly.
Right. But the point is, now they’re not afraid to say it. Ovitz was feared. And I think CAA was feared a lot during those times. I don’t think that exists now.
Speaking of fear, tell me about the process of assembling a book like this. This is now the third one of these oral histories you’ve done. Do you go in from the beginning and go to CAA, go to ESPN, go to Lorne Michaels at SNL and say, “I’m creating this book, can I have access to everyone?” Or do you just start reporting it out, and at some point say, “Oh by the way, I’m midway through this book, do you want to participate?”
No, not midway. What I don’t do, though, is … CAA said, “Why didn’t you ask us before you signed the contract?” Because they really didn’t want to cooperate at the beginning. That I wasn’t going to do. “I’m thinking about doing a book about you guys, so will you cooperate, so then I can …”
Go sell it.
No, in fact ESPN didn’t allow me on campus for the first year. The beginning of this process with CAA was pretty tough.
The oral history itself. People had done it prior to you, but you’re now well-known for this format, and this format in general seems to have really sprouted up. There was a couple of years, and I think it’s still going on online, where GQ Magazine and also sites like Uproxx were doing the oral history of whatever. BuzzFeed did one about a day on the internet, when traffic was really high. What do you think it is about the oral history that people enjoy as a format?
Well, the reason why I’m attracted to it is because — and no hubris on my part — I love to write, but I don’t think there’s any way to really capture the singular voices, the distinct personalities of these people, just by writing narrative. Just by writing prose. In the case of “Saturday Night Live,” to hear Danny Aykroyd or Bill Murray, or you know Tina Fey or anybody talk in their own words, it’s a Rorschach test, it’s an x-ray, it reveals their sensibilities, their orthodoxies, even the rhythm of their speech and the way that they frame things. I love to listen. And I think that one of the great pleasures of doing a book like this, is to hear directly from these people. It’s much harder than just sitting down and writing a book. This book took three and a half years.
What makes it harder? Because in some ways, it seems like it’s easier, right? You run your tape recorder, you get someone to transcribe it, you pull out the good quotes, maybe you do something smart, like you take one person’s quote that says, “X” and then you get the opposite from the other guy, and it’s a cool little juxtaposition …. It seems relatively easy.
Try it sometime. No, I think that there’s a lot of complexities to it, including … Well, first of all, let’s not even talk about the fact of access, getting to these people. And then getting to these people and telling them they’re going to be quoted. Then getting to these people, telling them they’re going to be quoted, and telling them that it’s not even going to be like one line.
Right, “We’re going to use this whole thing.”
So I have literally serenaded and begged and pleaded many many times. A lot of people will say something off the record, which does me no good. They’ll say something on background, which does me even — perhaps it’s not as bad as off the record, but it’s not helpful.
I can’t use this, it doesn’t do me any good, it’s an oral history. You gotta talk into the microphone on the record.
Right, and then there’s the whole thing too about … I was trying to interview this actress, and she wrote me a very nice note, she said, “I love your books, and I don’t know what you do to get people to say what they say, but I’m not going to talk to you, I know I’ll regret it.” I don’t think people regret what they say, but it’s very raw. And the oral history format is very raw.
So, when you spend all this time on a book, not only do you get to write the book, but afterward you’re plugged into this community of people. I’ve noticed, in particular in the last year or so, you’ve been writing a lot about ESPN — they’ve been going through a lot of turmoil, I’ve written about it, as well. But I think you’re really probably the best-sourced person on ESPN right now.
Oh, thank you.
I’m curious where you think they are today in terms of, like … The narrative for them has gone from, “TV is having problems, but ESPN remains dominant, they’re unchallenged, people love sports, they must have sports.” And last year, that narrative really turned, and now it’s, “Oh, they’re not going to make enough money. Sportswriters are going to get more expensive, but they’re losing subscribers, they have real problems, talent’s leaving …” What’s your take?
We can’t ignore the fact that close to seven million households disappeared, and at $6 a head, pretty soon that adds up to real money. And I think that Disney was very transparent with Wall Street about their concerns.
This is a year ago. Freaked everyone out.
Yep. Their concerns about the diminishing revenue. And all of a sudden the Big Ten conference comes up, and lo and behold there’s ESPN with deep pockets. So, they’re fearless, they believe in their model, they are exploring other kinds of ways. They do very well in digital, but at the end of the day, the dual revenue stream that has existed for ESPN since the early …
Subscriber fees and advertising.
Right. Since 1983, basically, when they kind of engineered this reversal on the whole cable ecosystem. This has been in place, has been incredibly profitable, and while the margins are not what it used to be, I still think that they have a pretty big mote in terms of versus their competition. And the beauty of the sports rights is this: You and I have no idea — what’s your favorite TV show right now?
That’s a good question. Probably something on Netflix. Let’s say “Love” on Netflix.
Okay, so three years from now, I don’t know, who knows if “Love” will be on. I’ll tell you one thing, though, the Rose Bowl’s going to be on, and we’re going to be watching, and it’s live sports, and you don’t know.
Right, and that’s the ESPN argument. And then the counter is, “Yeah, but less people are going to watch it and less people are going to pay for it.” And it turns out once people have the ability to watch Netflix or Amazon or HBO Now, that audience is going to get even more smaller, because there’s many more choices.
My son just graduated from college. I can’t believe I’m old enough to have a son graduate from college. And we’re moving him into his apartment, and I said, naively, “What time is the cable guy coming?” And he looked at me like I was … you know. And he says, “We’re not doing cable.” He bought an Apple TV and he’s streaming everything, and that’s it. I mean, that’s a fundamental paradigm shift within a generation.
Right, and for a while the cable guy said, “Yeah, but you know what, all right. So he’s not getting cable today, but in five years he will.” And then five years came and their numbers didn’t increase. And then, specifically within ESPN, you were also one of the guys with the best handles on what happened there when Bill Simmons left. Basically he was fired publicly in The New York TImes by John Skipper. Do you think you know what actually happened? Why Skipper pushed him out, and whether it was Skipper doing it?
I wrote a series of columns for Vanity Fair, and I was really pleased to get Skipper to the one time he wanted to talk on the record about it. Look, Bill Simmons was an outlier in many ways for ESPN, both geographically, financially, but also in a way creatively, because he required and wanted a sense of autonomy that they’re not used to giving. One of the operating principles of ESPN has always been that those four initials are more important than any one individual.
The anchors come and go.
The anchors can come and go. Chris Berman, maybe an exception to the rule. But you know, BIll had engineered a lot of success in digital. He was part of the brain trust that gave birth to the “30 for 30” documentary series. And of course with Grantland. So I think that technically Skipper didn’t fire him, he announced that they weren’t going to be resigning, redoing the new contract.
He preemptively announced that he was no longer going to be working there.
But I think hitting the delete key on Grantland was a pretty big matzoh ball, as Jerry Seinfeld would say. You know, it sent shock waves through not only Bristol and ESPN but, I think, other companies that said, “Okay, hold on a second, where’s our ROI here?” What is the value proposition of having something like Grantland? Because, for a while there, Skipper was not really looking at it as a money maker — even in its best kind of way, it was never going to be a huge money maker. But then I think, when it starts to be disruptive to the culture, which is what Skipper thought, and it was — it became toxic for the ESPN cultures — then I think that’s when push came to shove.
You write about big institutions that are made up of colorful characters. And then for a while, when Bill was going off on his own, there was a series of these people doing things on their on and digitally. There was a lot of discussion about, you know, “Oh, we’re in an era now where people can create their own brand and go off on their own, and they can move their brand or their Twitter following off on their own … and this is what the internet allows.” But it seems like a lot of your interests, and I think most of the money, still comes from very big either networks, platforms, big institutions. Do you see that changing anytime?
I think it all depends on your popularity, right? Because we would be crazy to think that what Bill SImmons has done since he left ESPN is possible, or you know, even a winning strategy for 99 percent of the people that do what he does. I mean, he was able to engineer, with his podcast, more advertising, or more revenue for himself, than ESPN was even making on it when he was at ESPN. So I think that it sounds simplistic in a way, Peter, but at the end of the day, if you have an incredibly successful personal brand and your content is prized and envied and desired by a lot of people, then, yes, you can get downright entrepreneurial.
But the flip, right, was that he achieved that success with ESPN. It’s like musicians who become huge and then want to create their own label. They got huge generally because they were signed to Warner Music or Sony Music, or Universal Music, or that was part of it. You generally don’t see yet people who come up solely on their own, create success solely on their own, and sort of plot their own destiny.
Right, I think that it’s like one of those Mike Meyers/Linda Richman “Coffee Talk,” you know segments on SNL. It’s like, “Bill SImmons would have been just as big as he would have without ESPN. Discuss.” So if we’re really going to trace the pedigree of Bill’s popularity and success, did his ESPN years contribute to that? I mean, were they much more of the proverbial wind at his back than it would have been on his own? I think there’s no question about it. I think it was really important to Bill’s growth, financially and brand-wise, for him to be at ESPN. Would he have been Bill SImmons without it? I still think yes, it just may not have been at these numbers.
SNL, ESPN, CAA — you’ve got a trend going on here. What’s book No. 4? It’s gotta be an acronym, right?
Well, why not. I’m not sure. I’m in a kind of a deep thought about three different candidates, and … I hope to decide soon. I get kind of antsy.
Is it the same idea, like, “I want to have a big thing that has a large cast of characters”? Or do you say, “N,o no I want a different kind of book entirely”?
Well I think, CAA was a departure in the sense that it wasn’t well-known. I mean, people in Kansas — I don’t mean to be geocentric here, but I think a lot of people outside Hollywood say …
I just came from Minnesota, a few people know what CAA is.
Yeah, but not as many as would know. So I think I kind of made a little slight adjustment in the strategy in terms of, “Let’s discover something together. Let’s discover what these three initials are.” Rather than, “You know these three initials, now let’s take you behind the scenes.” So, you know, there’s a couple different ways to go with the next one.
All right, so you’re going to let us know what the next book is … soon.
In the meantime, give yourself one plug. Where should we buy “Powerhouse”?
Not through Amazon? You don’t care where they buy?
Or through Amazon. There’s a lot of independent booksellers, so that website gives you the choice of whether you want to contribute to the Bezos fund, or whether or not there’s independent bookstores that you’d like to do.
You get paid either way.
On behalf of my three children, yes.
Excellent. Jim Miller, thanks for your time. I appreciate it.
Thanks for having me.