The New York media’s front-page coverage of Michael Ovitz’s $20 million takeover of Garth Drabinsky’s Livent Inc. had to be heartening to the former head of the Creative Artists Agency. Since being pushed from the No. 2 spot at the Walt Disney Company with the help of his ex-best friend, Disney chief executive Michael Eisner, Mr. Ovitz’s cachet and profile in Hollywood power circles had withered with frightening speed.
On April 14, a front-page story in The New York Times changed all that. Much to the dismay of his enemies out west (“They’re treating it like he bought three studios,” groused one), Mr. Ovitz became a somebody again by digging a stubborn toe into Disney turf: the new, improved Broadway. And while Mr. Ovitz won’t be transplanting his family to Gotham any time soon, those who know him say that his investment in Livent–he purchased 2.5 million shares–is a first step in Mr. Ovitz’s attempt to remake himself as a New York-style mogul in the molds of his good friends, the secretive billionaires Ronald Perelman and Ted Forstmann. The new Mike Ovitz is someone who buys undervalued, troubled properties, fixes them, then either flips them for a profit or uses their stock to acquire additional companies. Said a friend, “He wants to become a turnaround artist.”
Mr. Ovitz apparently intends to accomplish this metamorphosis while keeping his roots in Los Angeles. Although he is a frequent commuter to New York and keeps a diffidently furnished apartment in Metropolitan Tower (which he bought from C.A.A.), Livent’s new chief executive, Roy Furman, told The Transom that “there has been no talk about relocation at all” for Mr. Ovitz. Yes, many of Mr. Ovitz’s post-Disney relationships–besides Messrs. Perelman and Forstmann, there’s David Letterman, investment banker Herbert Allen, real estate mogul Jerry Speyer, literary agent Mort Janklow and director Martin Scorsese–are New Yorkers. But Mr. Ovitz is very close to his parents, who live in California, and relocating would certainly disrupt the life of his oldest son, who is a junior in high school. Moreover, Mr. Ovitz’s last high-profile appearance in New York did little to enhance his reputation as a media manipulator. Surfacing as a chairman of PEN International’s annual fund-raiser, his presence drew scorn from the media and a number of the organization’s literary lions, which seemed to leave Mr. Ovitz shellshocked at the event. At least one of Mr. Ovitz’s friends also laughs at the notion of the notoriously secretive former agent loosening up enough to pass the scrutiny of the co-op board of an exclusive Manhattan building.
Mr. Ovitz’s eyes and ears in New York will be David Maisel, a loyal longtime employee of Mr. Ovitz who was first with him at C.A.A., then at Disney and most recently with the mogul in his exile. Mr. Furman said that Mr. Maisel would be the one who will be traveling east. “This is an investment for Michael,” said Mr. Furman.
“He sees this as a good way to cut his teeth and turn around a company,” said a friend of Mr. Ovitz who still does business with him. “It is, pure and simple, a financial play for him.” As for New York, the friend said: “He sees New York as a refuge. He sees it as virgin territory.”
Virgin territory such as Broadway that is being plundered by some of his old comrades, as Mr. Ovitz must have seen when he recently checked out a preview performance of the play Art , with his friend and former client Sean Connery. Of course, there’s Disney, which single-handedly resurrected the theater district with a relatively small investment. Mr. Ovitz’s former C.A.A. partner Bill Haber has also found success on Broadway, most recently as a producer of John Leguizamo’s one-man show Freak . Although Mr. Furman said that competition with Mr. Eisner, or anyone else for that matter, “never even crossed [Mr. Ovitz's] or my mind,” the appearance that Mr. Ovitz has payback on the brain certainly makes him look a lot more vital than he did six months ago.
The question remains whether Mr. Ovitz’s investment in Livent has any connection to another recent co-venture: his decision to build a number of sports- and entertainment-themed malls with Herb Glimcher, the developer brother of art dealer Arne Glimcher. Asked if Livent, with its roadshow theater productions, could figure into the mall business, Mr. Furman said, “not that I’m aware of,” adding that he didn’t know much about Mr. Ovitz’s mall development plans. “When an investor puts money into different entities, there doesn’t have to be any relationship [between those entities] other than that they’re interesting to the investor,” said Mr. Furman.
Indeed, Mr. Ovitz’s decisions to invest in the seemingly incongruous businesses of shopping malls and entertainment production is not that different from Mr. Perelman’s holding company, MacAndrews & Forbes Inc., owning a cosmetics company, a cigar manufacturer and a camping equipment business.
One of the things that the control-obsessed Mr. Ovitz apparently likes about Mr. Perelman’s way of doing business is the billionaire’s penchant for secrecy. Mr. Perelman’s control is a factor of his net worth. Even with his platinum parachute from Disney (worth $190 million) and the more than $10 million that C.A.A. sources estimate Mr. Ovitz has taken in over the last few years from his sale of the agency he co-founded, next to Mr. Perelman’s billionaire status, Mr. Ovitz looks like a relative pisher .
If Mr. Ovitz is indeed modeling himself after someone like Mr. Perelman (his incredible self-consciousness would never permit him to admit it), the question that looms for him is what will be his Revlon Inc. In other words, what will be the company that pushes him to the next status level of moguldom? While Mr. Perelman, after his brief but profitable fling with the media company New World Group, has shied away from the glitzy components of the entertainment business, the shuck-and-jive of the show business is exactly what floats Mr. Ovitz’s boat.
“We are not bean counters,” said Mr. Furman, who is well respected in the entertainment industry. (One theater producer called him a “genius.”) “We are sensitive to the creative juices.” And rumors persist that if Japan’s Sony Corporation finally spins off Sony Entertainment Pictures into a public company, Mr. Ovitz, whose friend John Calley runs the place, could attempt a takeover and finally end up with a Revlon of his own. If Livent or his mall business doesn’t turn out to be a Marvel Comics.
Nike Plants Dim Bulb in Holland?
Right before Nike Inc.’s chief executive, Phil Knight, makes an on-camera ass of himself in Michael Moore’s new documentary The Big One , Mr. Moore receives a phone call from a guy named Keith Peters. At the time, Mr. Peters headed up Nike’s public relations department at its Beaverton, Ore., headquarters, and he is heard (and appears briefly) in the documentary inviting Mr. Moore to come interview Mr. Knight.
Given that chief executives tend to punish anyone but themselves for their on-the-job gaffes, The Transom couldn’t help but wonder what happened to Mr. Peters following Mr. Knight’s squirm-inducing performance. (At one point, the Nike chief corrects Mr. Moore’s assertion that 12-year-olds in Indonesia are making his company’s athletic shoes for minimal wages. In reality, he says with a straight face, the laborers are all at least 14 years old.) At the New York premiere for The Big One , which took place at the Screening Room in TriBeCa on March 31, Mr. Moore told The Transom that he’d heard that Mr. Peters had been transferred to the Netherlands.
Indeed, Mr. Peters now works out of Hilversum, Holland (about a half-hour from Amsterdam), where he toils as the director of communications for Nike Europe. Reached by The Transom, he said he had been in Hilversum for approximately 16 months, which would have meant he departed not long after Mr. Knight’s interview with Mr. Moore, which took place in the fall of 1996. Mr. Peters denied, however, that his transfer was some kind of punishment for not keeping his boss from being gummed to death by Mr. Moore’s sweetly insidious style of confrontation. While Mr. Peters conceded that he was “involved” in the decision to put Mr. Knight in front of Mr. Moore’s cameras, he said that “it’s not unusual for people from Beaverton to kind of come over here and contribute to” Nike’s European push. Mr. Peters was reluctant to make any additional comments about the documentary, saying: “I’m probably not the best person to be talking about it.” As he pointed out, “I live in Europe now,” far away from the U.S. media machine.
Vada Manager, a Nike spokesman based at the company’s Oregon headquarters, said that, in many ways, Mr. Peters’ transfer was actually a promotion. “As we get more involved in European issues, it’s a natural evolution to have a seasoned person in a market where the brand is not as well known,” he said.
The Transom Also Hears
… Despite the buzz generated by the February 1997 cancellation of his high-profile “Birthday Bash” fund-raiser, septuagenarian Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan intends go ahead with a $1,000-a-head cocktail party on April 21 to replenish his re-election coffers for a run in the year 2000.
When Mr. Moynihan canceled the birthday event, he stated that he was doing so out of deference to the campaign finance reform movement. Still, his bagging of the Rainbow Room shindig, which had secured a guest list of 4,000, served only to fuel speculation that he might not run for re-election. And now, knowledgeable sources, who believe the 71-year-old senior Senator would like to retire, are wondering what he might do with the contributions garnered from the April 21 fund-raiser at the St. Regis hotel if he chooses not to run.
According to Federal Election Commission regulations, he can donate the money to charity, another political campaign or his alma mater, Tufts University. He cannot pocket it–though up until four years ago, he could have.
In 1989, Congress passed a law that repealed legislation allowing its members to keep excess campaign funds. It did leave one loophole: If a member had begun serving before 1980 and stopped serving before the 103rd Congress convened in January 1993, he could keep the money. Though Mr. Moynihan has held office since 1977, he did serve in the 103rd Congress. Thus, he won’t be keeping the money.
Tony Bullock, Mr. Moynihan’s chief of staff, acknowledged that the Senator has been equivocal on the subject of campaigning for re-election. “He’s been a little coy, to be honest,” said Mr. Bullock, “[but] the most recent word is that he will decide after the 1998 elections, and that he will decide after consulting his wife, Liz [Moynihan].” He added that “we are certainly operating as if he were running,” and that in any event, the Senator “would comply with the law.”
… Cavorting in the nostalgia-heavy space of the old Studio 54 made at least one invitee to New York magazine’s 30th-
anniversary party on April 2 behave as if it were 2 A.M. and 1978 once more. “Sodomize me!” cried über-publicist Bobby Zarem as a video cameraman zoomed in on him standing in front of a couple of drag queens. Because it was 10 P.M. and 1998, however, the remark prompted performance artist Reno to ask him: “How do you mean that?”