Recently, the ad-loving citizens of Los Angeles were treated to rows and rows of red and white "CAAN'T" posters plastered up along our boulevards and in our malls. The "campaign" is the latest and most high-profile strike in the talent agency wars and the trades are all snickering about it like high school dorks watching the popular kids go at it. But why do they care? Did someone really waste time and money on this? Can anyone doctor up a gif of Zachary Quinto saying "CAAN'T" real quick? We'll explain.
What are these "CAAN'T" ads all over town?
Talent agency WME designed and paid for them—they're a play on rival CAA's logo. (CAA, by the way, is pronounced "see-ay-ay," so the linguistic intent is unclear.) This is probably the most public bodying an agency has ever delivered to another agency; many of the ads were up at the Westfield Century City Mall, next door to CAA's Death Star headquarters. WME thought the whole thing went so well that they actually canceled phase two (there were going to be t-shirts!), telling Deadline "We’re shutting it down. It’s not worth it. The fun we had is done." Probably not for long, though; these guys love to snipe at each other. A recent internal WME video features someone flipping off the CAA building, for example.
That's stupid. Why would WME bother?
Talent agents are a war-like people. The point of their job is to hoard the best clients so they can get the best deals and make the most money, so they think acting like jealous, backbiting children is a competitive advantage. (They also eat babies.) WME and CAA are the two biggest agencies and therefore the biggest rivals for the biggest clients. To illustrate: WME poached Oprah Winfrey from CAA last December. Oprah makes something like $165 million a year. CAA just let ten percent of Oprah money slip through its fingers.
So the rivalry is purely professional?
Oh, no, it's very, very personal. In 1975, a group of William Morris agents (Mike Rosenfeld, Michael Ovitz, Ron Meyer, William Haber, and Rowland Perkins) secretly plotted to form a new agency, but they were caught out and fired before they could get things fully up and running. They then began to build CAA on the backs of clients stolen from WMA. (Incidentally, thank the CAA/WMA feud for saving us all from another Val Kilmer Batman movie—Kilmer's agent pissed off filmmaker Joel Schumacher, so Schumacher fired the agency, hopped to WMA, and hired new agency-mate George Clooney for Batman and Robin.)
Who is WMA? I though it was WME.
It is! To understand, let's go back to 1995, when a group of ICM agents (Ari Emanuel, Rick Rosen, Tom Strickler, and David Greenblatt) secretly plotted to form a new agency. They were caught out and fired before they could raise the cash to get things fully up and running. Then they began to build Endeavor on the backs of clients stolen from ICM.
Wait, I've heard this story before.
Yeah, it's on season two of Entourage. But here's where the plot takes a turn: just a few months later, Meyer and Ovitz both left CAA, and, in the resulting power vacuum, Endeavor snatched away a whole bunch of big-deal agents with big-deal clients. That move is pretty much what made Endeavor viable. Endeavor eventually became so viable that in 2009 they were able to take over ancient William Morris (which formed in the late nineteenth century to rep Vaudevillians). Everyone called it a merger, but there was a clear winner—WMA head Jim Wiatt left shortly after the deal was done and Endeavor heads Patrick Whitesell and Ari Emanuel (aka Jeremy Piven on Entourage, aka Rahm Emanuel's brother) became co-CEOs of the new William Morris Endeavor agency. William Morris had been building itself a glassy new headquarters in Beverly Hills when it all went down, but Emanuel decided he didn't care for it and the agency ended up having to pay a bundle to settle things with the landlord (MGM moved in instead).
Wait, but what happened to CAA after 1995?
That's a fun story: Meyer went on to rival MCA (now Universal Studios Inc.) and Ovitz had a brief, lousy tenure as president of Disney, then was fired and formed a management company called AMG. Ovitz had promised not to poach from CAA, but of course he did, and, as payback, CAA told its clients they'd have to choose between AMG and CAA (They ended up losing Martin Scorsese, among others). The press made it out like this big Oedipal thing—the kids at CAA lashing out against daddy Ovitz. In 1999, CAA President Richard Lovett had to actually deny this—that his agency had an Oedipal complex—to The New York Times: "This father-and-son stuff ... that we decided not to do business with A.M.G. as part of some Oedipal crisis, is a fabrication." Ovitz proved he wasn't a controlling parent at all, by allegedly hiring Anthony Pellicano to wiretap Managing Partners Kevin Huvane and Bryan Lourd. He ended up selling AMG in 2002.
Wow, Ovitz sounds like a real dick.
He's the dick. In 1989, screenwriter Joe Eszterhas (who wrote Flashdance and Showgirls) sent a famous letter to Ovitz describing the agent's reaction when Eszterhas told him he was leaving CAA for ICM:
You told me that if I left — "my foot soldiers who go up and down Wilshire Boulevard each day will blow your brains out." You said that you would sue me. "I don't care if I win or lose," you said, "but I'm going to tie you up with depositions and court dates so that you won't be able to spend any time at your typewriter." You said: "If you make me eat shit, I'm going to make you eat shit."
And here's the creepiest part: he "said all these things in a friendly, avuncular way." Eszterhas also wrote that Ovitz threatened (via proxy) to blackmail studio execs into staying away from him. It's not like the agency game was all picnics and hair-braiding before Ovitz came along, but he's the guy who really showed everyone the juiciest parts of the baby. He seriously lives in a massive evil lair he built for himself high atop Los Angeles.
Ooh, who else has he scorned?
A little shadowy cabal he likes to call the Gay Mafia, for one. In 2002, Ovitz gave an insane interview to Vanity Fair blaming AMG's downfall on the completely fabricated/homophobic conspiracy: "He calls it the Gay Mafia, though several of its 'members' aren’t gay, and much of what he says about these men is nasty and unprintable." He claimed that DreamWorks partner David Geffen was the Godfather and that his own former underlings at CAA were all foot soldiers.
Wow, so with that kind of DNA, CAA must have come up with something truly awful to retaliate for the WME ad thing, right?
It's better than "CAAN'T," though.
But so should I care about any of this?
Are you an A-Lister and are you unhappy with your representation?
Well, my manager says that at this point in my career...
Whoa, hold on, do you even have an agent?
No, not yet.
[Top image by Jim Cooke.]