Ari Emanuel has fashioned himself as the most powerful agent in Hollywood since Mike Ovitz's terrible reign. And as Conan O'Brien's prime defender against NBC, he's found himself in the exact same position as the zen warrior of Beverly Hills.
Only, he's not doing as good of a job as he could have, had he just remembered his history a little bit better.
See, there's a blueprint for how to do a late night shuffle in Bill Carter's The Late Shift, an account of the Letterman/Leno Wars of the early '90s. Heck, Ari didn't even need to read the damn book! All he had to do was talk to people in his own industry about what his predecessor in superagentdom, the late (career-wise, he's alive) great Michael Ovitz, did for old Dave Letterman back in those heady days.
Ovitz and Emanuel are natural counterparts — both were agents who led a band of insurgents (Ovitz from William Morris in the '70s, Emanuel from ICM in the '90s) to start their own upstart agencies bent on achieving domination of Tinselville. Ovitz watched his Creative Artists Agency rise in the 1980s from small start-up to the Death Star of Hollywood: feared and omnipotent. Meanwhile Emanuel's Endeavor just last year devoured old-guard William Morris. Ovitz has been out of the game for nearly a decade now, leaving a reputation so tattered that his name is a nearly a bad word, but the Hollywood narrative of the younger agent as Ovitz Redux has long dogged Emanuel.
But Ari — brother of Rahm and model for Entourage's Ari Gold — finds himself in the exact same situation with his client Conan O'Brien as Ovitz did when he tried to secure the best deal for the well-loved shat-upon NBC late night host Dave Letterman. You remember (or maybe you don't, child) what went down between Jay Leno and Letterman back when Johnny Carson retired from The Tonight Show in 1992, right? Basically Dave had been waiting patiently in the backseat for years, steadily doing his winning grumpy-guy shtick at 12:30, waiting patiently (and with reverent silence) for Carson to exit gracefully with the tacit understanding that he would transition in once Carson ceded the throne. But! There was another creature lurking, schmoozing and kissing ass on the periphery. Of course that was Mr. Leno, Carson's frequent fill-in host — an affable company man who stood in stark contrast to Letterman's acidic loner.
When Leno actually pulled off the coup de grace and stole the Burbank chair out from under Letterman, Dave was understandably furious. As any angry performer worth his salt would do, Letterman went out and got the biggest, most fearsome agent he could find to champion his cause. That fellow was Ovitz. As related in The Late Shift, Letterman was so excited after meeting with Ovitz that he declared "I've been to see the Godfather!" He knew Ovitz would go hard to bat for him, and indeed he did.
In dealing with NBC, the two most important things that Ovitz did for Letterman:
1) He advised him that the Peacock would come back with a counter offer and that it would be crap. NBC did just that, and it was. Though Leno was signed for a year, they told Dave, "Hey, you can have The Tonight Show after that, we promise!" Ovitz said no go, because all NBC had to do was give Letterman TTS and then slip Jay in, under a different title, ahead of him. They wanted broad-appeal Jay at 11:30 and more cerebral cultist Letterman at 12:30. And they were willing to fuck with the long-held format to get that. Sound familiar?
2) Though Dave was locked in by non-compete clauses, it didn't mean that he couldn't innocently sit as other offers were pitched to him. Which is just what he did. Set up by Ovitz, Letterman entertained several lucrative offers from other networks and syndicators, finally settling on the CBS deal which made him a very rich man over the past two decades.
Now that Ovitz has faded — lured away from his agency by Disney, he was quickly thrown out of the Mouse House by its bellicose king, Michael Eisner — and Ragin' Rahm's equally raging brother is in charge, he's been crowned Ovitz 2.0, a belligerent and ruthless business advocate for some of the boldest names in entertainment. Names like Conan O'Brien! But sadly, it seems that Ari has failed his comedian friend where Ovitz long ago (in Hollywood years) protected his.
Emanuel didn't see, as Ovitz did, that there needed to be a guarantee of an pre-midnight time slot every night or else it was no deal. That little detail could cost Conan a mint. As for dealing with other networks, CoCo is equally thwarted by a non-compete. Whether Emmanuel has organized any Ovitzian sitdowns with other networks (Fox would really be the only likely one) remains to be seen.
All this is to say that a similar version of what's happening now has happened before, and it would have perhaps behooved the god-like Emanuel to make sure his client's contract with the nefarious NBC was meticulously tailored. Unfortunately he wasn't that diligent, and now everyone's in this will-they-won't-they, statement-issuing, public mess.
Sometimes The Graveyard Shift seems a more apt title.