Ovitz Comeback Tour Plays New York, Leaves Power Brokers Unconvinced

The invitation was unremarkable, perhaps a bit too much so.

“Artists Management Group cordially invites you to a cocktail party for our friends in publishing.” The reception was slated for March 9 at the Museum of Modern Art, of which, the invitation noted in very small print, “A.M.G. is a Corporate Member.”

Although Michael Ovitz’s name was nowhere on the invitation, those who knew that the generic-sounding company was the vehicle by which the former superagent and Disney executive had returned to show business inevitably R.S.V.P.’d with great curiosity. Since reinventing himself last year as a talent manager, Mr. Ovitz had brought Leonardo DiCaprio and Cameron Diaz into the A.M.G. fold, and he started a jihad with the Creative Artists Agency, which he’d co-founded in 1975, by poaching its bankable client, Robin Williams, and his agent, Mike Menchel. How, these invitees wondered, would Mr. Ovitz announce himself and his new company to the New York publishing establishment?

Those who arrived on the second floor of MoMA expecting a demonstration of glitz, glamour and media power (and many did) found instead a crowd that one receptiongoer described as “a real working crowd” consisting largely of agents, book and magazine editors and movie-book scouts. (Working press were not invited.) The celebrity contingent consisted largely of actors and A.M.G. clients Matt Dillon, Adrien Brody and John Shea, as well as artist Julian Schnabel. Art dealer-film director (and friend of Mr. Ovitz) Arne Glimcher was present as was money manager Dana Giacchetto. Mr. Ovitz was supported by a large contingent of A.M.G. executives, including Rick Yorn, who brought clients Mr. DiCaprio and Ms. Diaz with him when he joined forces with Mr. Ovitz; and Mike Menchel, who defected from C.A.A. to join his old boss. (C.A.A. has since issued an edict that C.A.A. clients cannot also have A.M.G. management representation.)

Others spotted in the crowd were literary agents: Mort Janklow and Lynn Nesbit; Esther Newberg and Amanda (Binky) Urban from International Creative Management; Owen Laster, Johnnie Planco and George Lane from William Morris, as well as David Gernert, Richard Pine and Aaron Priest. Walt Disney Company’s development executive Susan Lyne was also there, as was Vanity Fair editor Graydon Carter and Brill’s Content editor Steven Brill.

Yet, for every boldface notable who did attend, another seemed to be missing. Where was Talk magazine editor Tina Brown, who has often been identified as an ally of Mr. Ovitz? (Ms. Brown did not return a call for comment.) Where were publishing heavies such as Penguin Putnam chief executive Michael Lynton or Little, Brown & Company’s vice president and publisher, Sarah Crichton, or Alfred A. Knopf’s Sonny Mehta?

Ruth Pomerance, who was hired in February to head up A.M.G.’s New York office, had a simple answer. A veteran book scout who previously had worked with such producers as Scott Rudin, Arnold Kopelson and Fred Zollo, Ms. Pomerance told The Transom that she put together the guest list herself. “New York is sort of my town,” she said. “Publishing is not a glitzy industry and this was a publishing party. It was a New York event, not a Hollywood event. We invited the people that I know who I do business with. It was very straightforward. Many are obviously agents. There were also quite a few book editors there whose books I’ve optioned in the past.” Ms. Pomerance added that it has long been “standard operating procedure” for her, upon landing at a new job, to throw a party for her contacts as a way of announcing what she’s doing. This time, she conceded, however, “It’s just more visible because it’s Michael Ovitz.”

And the last few times Mr. Ovitz came to town in a public way, unpleasantness seemed to follow. His chairing of the 1997 PEN Literary Gala practically turned into a slow, public roast of the executive, leaving Mr. Ovitz angry that PEN’s leadership did not do a better job of defending him. Then last year, Mr. Ovitz sunk $20 million of his own money into the theater production company, Livent, only to see his investment endangered when the company filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy and its creative director Garth Drabinksy was charged by Federal prosecutors with 16 criminal counts of fraud and conspiracy. (Several companies, including Cablevision, are said to be mulling purchasing Livent, which could mean good news for Mr. Ovitz and the other Livent investors.)

While approximately 400 people were invited to the party, many who attended said that the room never seemed to contain more than 200 people at once, many of them congregating in the center of the room, leaving plenty of room around the edges and precious little audience for the string quartets that played on the outer reaches. (Despite the intimate nature of the event, there was still some bemused grumbling over the minimalist hors ‘d’oeuvres.) One agent who attended said he got “the instinctual sense that [the turnout] should be a disappointment to them.” Still, he noted that Mr. Ovitz did not seem fazed at all by crowd or lack thereof. The agent said that Mr. Ovitz exhibited the same energy of the old C.A.A. days. “He was very accessible. He was trying to meet everybody.”

For the rest of the week, Mr. Ovitz, Ms. Pomerance and the A.M.G. force met with a number of literary agencies, including Sterling Lord and Aaron Priest. While none of the agency sources would comment on the record about the individual pitches they received, there does seem to be one common incentive: Those literary agents who give A.M.G. first crack at packaging or placing a client’s project will get to keep any commission that is forthcoming if the project is optioned. Usually, the literary agent splits that commission, usually 10 to 15 percent of the option price, with the film agent who handles the project. Ms. Pomerance said that although “we are not looking to package and place every book coming out of New York,” when “it’s appropriate” A.M.G. would “do it at no commission.” Presumably, A.M.G. would make money as a producer of the project (something that agents are legally prevented from doing), but Ms. Pomerance was reluctant to discuss just where A.M.G. would make its money. “As managers, the company gets fees, and as producers, the company gets fees,” Ms. Pomerance said. “It’s hard for me to describe” and referred us to Mr. Ovitz, who could not be reached for comment.

Ms. Pomerance defined her role at A.M.G. as “looking for good material–magazine articles, books, screenplays, theater pieces–and trying to find good material to make into movies.”

What the city’s literary agents are waiting to see is whether A.M.G. will also eventually want to manage literary clients, most notably theirs.

The Son King

It’s never hard to locate Don King–especially at a Don King-promoted boxing match. So members of the New York City sheriff’s office thought they’d seized on a great idea when they decided to send some of their officers to make an arrest at Madison Square Garden on March 13, the night of the now-controversial heavyweight championship bout between Evander Holyfield and Lennox Lewis. The target was Eric King, Don King’s 45-year-old son, who often sits at his father’s side at the big fights.

Three years ago, Mayor Rudolph Giuliani crowned Eric King the king of the city’s deadbeat dads. It seems Mr. King had failed to pay his ex-girlfriend Ana Carril, the mother of his daughter, $2,500 a month in child support since 1990. Now, according to the arrest warrant, Mr. King, who lives in Texas, owes Ms. Carril, and a second woman, a total of $312,279.50.

So the sheriff’s people–who operate under the auspices of the city’s Department of Finance–began scheming ways to make the arrest: outside the Garden? On the way in? How about … ringside! But they wanted to get him “without causing a disturbance,” said a source in the sheriff’s office. “We wanted to detour the individual and the entourage to where we could discuss it privately.”

But then they let the New York City Police Department in on the plan, and the fun came to an abrupt halt. “The borough chief said No,” the sheriff source said. The cops had vivid memories of a July night in 1996 in the Garden, when, after a heavyweight bout between Riddick Bowe and Andrew Golota, a melee broke out inside the ring, a scuffle that escalated into a near-riot. “After the last debacle, they did not want any arrest done at or even around the Garden,” said the source. The police were also likely wary of the thousands of tipsy British lads who were in town to cheer on Lennox Lewis, their hometown champ.

That left Plan B. The sheriff’s officers found out that Don King was taping a segment at CNN on the day before the fight, so they waited outside CNN studios on West 34th Street, then tailed his Lincoln Town Car back to the Helmsley Carlton Hotel on Madison Avenue and 61st Street. “Our thinking was that his son Eric would be there with him,” the source said. “We kept Don King under surveillance until he left the hotel. Then we consulted with the N.Y.P.D., and they gave us some of their men to go with us.” The officers went inside the hotel, but they were told that the only person staying with Don King was his chauffeur.

They went back to their unmarked car. When Mr. King returned after 11 P.M., he got out of his Lincoln and walked up to their car. Yes, the old numbers-runner was on to them. “He was in a good humor,” the sheriff’s source said. “He asked if we were the ones who had been tailing him.” The sheriff’s officers told him that they were after his son, and asked if the fellow was in town. Mr. King said No. “And that was basically it,” the source said. “Now that Don knew, it was unlikely that Eric would be available or, uh, around, quite frankly.”

Indeed, on fight night, as Don King paraded toward the ring and greeted David Dinkins and Charles Rangel, he did so without Eric, much to the disappointment of the sheriff’s men, who had decided to show up, anyway. When asked by The Transom, Mr. King said his son was not in the Garden, but was uncharacteristically mute when asked why.

–Nick Paumgarten

Jack’s Split Decision

Somewhere inside Madison Square Garden, Jack Nicholson stood in a janitor’s closet and sucked on a cigarette. In his dark gray suit and brown-lensed sunglasses, Mr. Nicholson looked like the anti-Mr. Clean as he stood next to a jumble of cruddy mops and brooms. Outside the closet, the actor Michael Douglas stood talking nonchalantly with his teenage son, Cameron. Minutes earlier, the three men had fled the post-fight ringside crush of the Holyfield-Lewis bout, but Mr. Nicholson’s nicotine break had put the kibosh on a clean getaway. Fight fans straggling down the stairs inevitably noticed Mr. Douglas, and then Mr. Nicholson.

A British man approached the closet to ask Mr. Nicholson for his autograph.

“Get the fuck away from me,” replied the actor.

“Hey, man, it’s for my son,” the man implored.

Mr. Nicholson inched further back into the closet. His eyebrows arched. “How does it feel to be a Brit right now?” Mr. Nicholson said, referring to the British fighter’s controversial loss by decision.

Suddenly, a fresh influx of Brits surrounded the closet, and Mr. Nicholson’s attitude changed. He began furiously signing autographs for the newcomers, as the man he’d rebuffed skulked in the background. A chant rose up: “Jack is cool, Jack is cool …”

Mr. Douglas, who’d been virtually ignored by the crowd, decided to leave. He motioned to Mr. Nicholson, who followed him out the exit and onto a platform 20 feet above street level. Mr. Douglas and his son descended the stairs to look for their limousine. Mr. Nicholson walked to the edge of the platform, arms crossed, cigarette dangling from his mouth, and scowled at the crowd below. Someone screamed, “Jack, acknowledge The Shining ! You must acknowledge The Shining !”

Jack smiled.

–Julie Lipper

The Transom Also Hears

… Alex Garland, the 28 year-old British writer whose first novel, The Beach , is currently being filmed in Thailand, read from his latest book, The Tesseract , on March 11 at Barnes & Noble at Broadway and 82nd Street. Naturally, the crowd wanted to know about Leonardo DiCaprio, who is starring in The Beach . Mr. Garland said the film’s producer, Andrew Macdonald, recently told him, “DiCaprio has more talent in his pinky finger than the entire cast put together.” Then Mr. Garland buried his head in his hands. “Oh, no, I shouldn’t have said that,” he said. “Well, maybe it’s not so bad. No, I definitely shouldn’t have said that.”