The point is not that salespeople are not capable of transitioning to business operators or investors. It is that the skills required to overachieve in those disciplines are markedly different. So some profound level of self-awareness is necessary to make such a switch. It requires at a minimum a respect for different capabilities and a willingness to do the hard work to acquire new expertise. And therein lies the problem. Self-awareness is not Mr. Ovitz’s strong suit.
Mr. Ovitz tells the story of making his former martial arts trainer, Steven Seagal, into a movie star only to be fired once his client becomes certain he should be an Academy-Award-winning director rather than an increasingly fleshy action hero. “He had fallen prey,” writes Mr. Ovitz without any suggestion that the criticism could be applied to his own situation, “to the entirely human delusion that if you succeed in one arena you can do anything.”
Mr. Ovitz’s own delusions are on painful display during his failed negotiations to lead MCA/Universal and most strikingly during his brief, frenetic tenure at Disney. Mr. Ovitz is certainly correct that Mr. Eisner had set him up for failure and never really wanted a successor, but even Mr. Ovitz’s highly sanitized version of his time at Disney makes it clear how ill-suited he was for corporate leadership.
His efforts to justify the various deals he negotiated that Mr. Eisner subsequently vetoed only confirms how unmoored to reality Mr. Ovitz was and is. For instance, he complains that Mr. Eisner scuttled his “handshake agreement” to buy the book publisher Putnam for $350 million. He points out that the company, owned at the time by MCA/Universal, was quickly “snapped up” by Penguin and claims that today the asset would be worth “over ten times” what he could have had it for. In fact, Penguin, even with significant cost savings not available to Disney, paid less than Mr. Ovitz offered and, although the combined Penguin Random House with almost $4 billion in revenue was recently valued at around $3.5 billion, Putnam (which at the time had less than $300 million in revenues) would have been lucky to hold its value.
Mr. Ovitz is not so shortsighted as to deal exclusively with the past. He also tries to endear himself to those who might be helpful in the future. Ignoring that the current Disney leadership has been as ruthless as the previous in dispatching potential successors, Mr. Ovitz argues that Robert Iger “has led Disney to new heights as CEO” by empowering the people around him and “erasing Eisner’s imprint.” He even claims to have ignored his boss’s directive to fire Mr. Iger while at Disney. Unable to restrain himself, Mr. Ovitz concludes that the real key to Mr. Iger’s success, however, was doing “more or less what I’d tried a decade earlier.”
The contrast between “The Kid Stays in the Picture” and “Who Is Michael Ovitz?” is best seen in the two books’ final sentences. The irreverent and unrepentant Mr. Evans signs off with a profoundly felt, profanity-laced version of “screw ‘em, screw ‘em all.” Mr. Ovitz, having acknowledged just enough mistakes to qualify as a repentant sinner, wants a second chance. “I miss the people,” he assures us.