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Earning CAAchet

When Richard Lovett took over the top job at Creative Artists Agency in 1995, the widespread reaction was “he’s no Ovitz.”

As it turns out, that’s been the good news for Hollywood.

Today, the agency that dominated the industry for more than a decade under the visionary but imperious rule of Michael Ovitz is in the hands of a man more comfortable working a room than orchestrating a corporate mega-merger.

At this year’s Oscar ceremonies, Lovett, 36, was the last one to take his seat before the lights went down at the Shrine Auditorium. With his trademark ever-ready smile, the skillful agent was busy playing the role he knows best: glad-handing movie star clients, schmoozing studio heads and hobnobbing with colleagues as if there’s nothing on Earth he’d rather be doing.

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It’s been 18 months since Lovett--who represents some of the biggest names in Hollywood, including Tom Hanks, Michael Douglas, Sharon Stone, Steven Spielberg and Martin Scorsese--took on a much-less-familiar role as the newly installed president of CAA.

Lovett, who’s worked at CAA his entire 14-year career, remains the quintessential Hollywood agent, flying to the sets of his star clients’ movies to run interference, even as he’s learned to manage an agency with more than 1,000 clients and a staff of about 120 agents.

Many in Hollywood were initially skeptical of the boyish-looking Lovett, whose relentless cheeriness and sometimes glib, gee-whiz manner can make him appear slick and superficial. Even some at CAA wondered how he could ever fill the power vacuum left by Ovitz, known for his breadth of experience and relationships in entertainment and Wall Street’s upper echelons.

But Lovett--who, unlike Ovitz, has no public profile outside Hollywood--has done much to win the respect of his peers and industry naysayers. Lovett, taking charge of an agency shaken to its core by the departure of its founders, has brought about fundamental changes at CAA.

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“He’s risen to the occasion,” says a top entertainment business executive who’s had a lot of dealings with Lovett, “even though he doesn’t have the clout or power base of an Ovitz.”

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Lovett’s life took a dramatic turn in the summer of 1995 when CAA founder Ovitz returned from a two-week vacation and announced he was leaving the agency to become president of Walt Disney Co. Ovitz’s co-founding partner, agency President Ron Meyer, had left six weeks earlier for a top post at MCA. Their other partner, Bill Haber, subsequently left entertainment to devote himself to charity work.

In the aftermath, dozens of key Ovitz and Meyer clients left the agency, among them Kevin Costner, Barry Levinson and Barbra Streisand. Morale plummeted, and Lovett had to assure everyone from nervous clients to the valet parking attendant “that everything was going to be OK.”

Lovett suffered a further blow when top agent Jay Moloney, 30, was forced to leave because of a battle with drugs. Lovett, Moloney and fellow agents Kevin Huvane, Bryan Lourd and David “Doc” O’Connor, were a tightknit group of aggressive, thirtysomething agents known as the Young Turks, whose ambition was to take over the agency.

Competitors salivated at the prospect of CAA unraveling.

“It was tough going, particularly the first six months,” admits Lovett. With a number of new signings and the return of such clients as Sylvester Stallone, Madonna and director Joel Schumacher, Lovett is now confident the agency has “turned the corner.”

Last week’s announcement that 17-year veteran agent Jack Rapke is leaving once again opened the agency to predators. So far, Lovett and his peers have been successful in keeping all of Rapke’s clients, including film makers’ Robert Zemeckis, Jerry Bruckheimer, Brian Grazer and Ron Howard.

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Lovett’s larger challenge is to create a solid direction for the reincarnated agency under a new generation of leaders.

“We’re a new-old company that needs to find its shape,” says Lovett, who likes to think of himself as a “mouthpiece for ideas” at an agency no longer run as a monarchy but as a democracy.

Asked whether he ever imagined he’d be in sitting in Meyer’s former office in such a pressure-cooker position, Lovett laughs nervously.

“I’m the luckiest man alive,” says Lovett, who grew up in a suburban middle-class Jewish family in Milwaukee, the son of a gynecologist, and landed a job in CAA’s mail room three days after moving to Los Angeles at 22. An actor-writer living in his uncle’s Beverly Hills apartment complex arranged an interview for him at “this place called CAA.”

Fortuitously, two of the four people then working in the mail room had quit that same day, “and they literally needed someone to make deliveries on Monday,” recalls Lovett, who’d been sleeping on the floor of a friend’s apartment in Glendale “with nothing doing and no prospects.”

Lovett--a yoga enthusiast who lives in Mandeville Canyon with his black Labrador puppy, Norman, and begins his daily routine with a morning hike or mountain bike ride--is much more ambitious than he lets on. After a year in the mail room, he moved up rapidly under the tutelage of veteran agent Fred Specktor. He learned how to work the studio system and lure clients by endearing himself to their close associates, loved ones and managers.

Some industry insiders are leery of Lovett’s smooth, hard sell. They say he reveals little behind the fashionable gold-rimmed glasses and designer suits.

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“He’s an enigma,” says someone who’s known him for years. “Most people can’t break through to who he is, but there’s much more depth and substance than he shows. His problem is he’s moving at a nanosecond faster than it takes to connect as a human being.”

Five-year client Hanks says he finds Lovett to be “a pretty straight shooter. . . . I’ve never caught him lying to me or being duplicitous,” whereas “there are representatives that are a million times more oily and slicker.”

Lovett’s agent skills have served him well as a manager. Specktor, who considers Lovett his “kid brother,” says his onetime charge is a natural leader, evidenced by his propensity to mentor others.

“He’s always taken on more responsibility than he had to,” Specktor recalls. “When he was on my desk, I sort of marveled at the fact that he was the leader of the trainees and when he left my desk he’d help young agents.”

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For the last five years, Lovett also has mentored young students at Venice High School, teaching a Thursday night class in self-esteem and goal-setting from a self-designed curriculum.

Lovett pushed himself to the agency’s forefront the instant Ovitz announced his leaving.

Curiously, Ovitz left no succession plan in place, an unusual step for a man who was a stickler for order and organization. His last act was to appoint a 12-person transition team of senior and younger agents, of which Lovett was one. Lovett and nine others of that group (now seven with the loss of Moloney and Rapke) would take over the management and ownership.

Unlike some of his brethren who felt personally betrayed by Ovitz for misleading them about his future at the agency, Lovett says he harbors no such resentment.

“I did not feel abandoned or betrayed,” Lovett insists. “I and the group of us inherited the best agency in the world. . . . I’m very thankful to Michael for the opportunity.”

Lovett says he remains “very friendly” with Ovitz, from whom he sometimes seeks advice, and has remained close to Meyer, from whom he learned that “kindness is the most important thing.”

Meyer says he’s not surprised that Lovett has done well.

“He has great people skills, tremendous business acumen and a great sense of humanity,” Meyer says.

Yet even some of Lovett’s closest peers were initially skeptical.

“To physically see him standing at the podium where Michael stood so many times was kind of terrifying,” recalls his best friend and fellow Turk, O’Connor. “I was terrified for all of us, thinking, ‘Is this whole thing going to work?’ But Richard plowed straight ahead. He was funny, forceful, and he took charge.”

Although he is very much a CAA creation and is even referred to by some as “L’Ovitz” because of his confident (some say arrogant) agent instincts and tactics, most find Lovett affable rather than intimidating.

“There was always this fear quotient that Mike was going to call and say, ‘You’ve got to do this,’ ” says one top studio executive. “It was a quid pro quo relationship, and now you can negotiate things.”

Industry executives perceive Lovett, a sports fanatic who’s passionate about his hometown Greenbay Packers and Milwaukee Brewers, as more of a hard-working, regular Joe in an agent’s skin, rather than an imperious figure who ruled by fear.

“No one quakes when they’re told Richard Lovett is on the phone like they did when Ovitz was on the other end of the phone,” one studio executive says.

Nor is Lovett, in contrast with Ovitz, obsessed with his public image.

“I’m not a public figure,” says Lovett. “We’re in a small company town, and I want to stay under the radar.”

Just as the media spotlight means little to him, so do the usual trappings that could go along with his position--he doesn’t have a personal driver and doesn’t insist on the best table at Mortons or the Grill.

“He’s not a self-aggrandizer,” says Specktor, who was surprised when he and Lovett lunched at a Hollywood hot spot one day and the newly installed president didn’t ask to sit at the favorite tables.

Colleagues say that despite his management duties, Lovett doesn’t eschew the down-and-dirty drudge work of an agent--not unlike Ovitz in the early years at CAA--and is generous with giving credit to fellow workers, a practice less common in the former regime.

Recent hire Risa Gertner says she was impressed when she and Lovett attended a client meeting and “his notes were much more comprehensive than mine.” On another occasion, Gertner said she was pleasantly surprised to receive flowers with a note from Lovett complimenting her on what a great job she had done leading a client meeting.

Within the agency, Lovett’s also known to share rather than covet information.

“The company has changed,” says Tory Metzger, who’s been at CAA five years. “Michael was pretty inaccessible. You couldn’t just walk into his office and discuss something. Richard’s door is always open, and he has relationships with every agent in the company.”

O’Connor, who, like Lovett, is a 14-year vet of the agency, says: “So much of what Michael was doing was not shared with the company. There was a lot going on behind closed doors, and it gave an atmosphere of secrecy, which doesn’t exist anymore.”

In effect, Lovett has refocused CAA on being a traditional talent agency, servicing and packaging its mega-stars in movie, television and music ventures that make clients and their representatives multimillions of dollars a year.

Gone are Ovitz’s flashy corporate clients such as Coca-Cola and the Baby Bells and the role he played in brokering such nontraditional deals as the sale of Columbia Pictures and MCA/Universal Pictures--all of which transcend the conventional role of an agent.

Today, CAA’s nontraditional activities include helping such clients as the Smithsonian Institute and Children’s Television Workshop and housing an on-site multimedia facility--the CAA-Itel Media Lab--to expose clients to new media technologies.

It also was personally important to Lovett, who, friends say, realized five years ago that his own life was too one-dimensional, that CAA commit more to community service and start a foundation dedicated to educational initiatives.

His first hire was Michelle Kydd, who coordinates a monthly charity drive at the agency and involves the company in community outreach projects. Ovitz was known for his personal support of various charitable causes, but not for the agency’s commitment.

“I want to redefine how a company defines its success,” says Lovett. “If that stamps a generational change of what leaders in their 30s think a company is about, that it’s not just about making money . . . then that’s certainly a change from the past and absolutely a priority for me.”

The jury is still out whether Lovett, as one prominent Hollywood producer puts it, “can create his own legacy” and reinvent the agency out of the shadow of the man who left an indelible mark on an entire industry.

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

Labor of Lovett

Richard Lovett, 36, has spent his entire 14-year career at Creative Artists Agency, ascending from the mail room to represent some of Hollywood’s biggest names and now running the most successful Hollywood agency. Lovett has been able to keep the agency at the top of its game in the wake of the departures of founders Michael Ovitz, Ron Meyer and Bill Haber.

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Changes at CAA Under Lovett

* A return to its roots as a traditional agency focused on booking and packaging movie star, writer, director and producer clients in motion picture, television and music ventures. Ovitz took the agency in several directions, including marketing for companies such as Coca-Cola and brokering mega-mergers of such entertainment companies as Columbia Pictures and MCA.

*In contrast with Ovitz’s autocratic rule, Lovett has improved working conditions, running the agency more collegially and encouraging a free flow of ideas.

* Lovett wants to redefine the success of a company by not only its annual billings but also its social conscious-ness. CAA now is routinely involved in charity work.


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