As one of the most powerful behind-the-scenes figures in Hollywood during the latter quarter of the 20th Century, Universal Studios President Ron Meyer rose from a lowly messenger job to form the powerful Creative Artists Agency (CAA) with four other agents, including Michael Ovitz, in 1975. Starting with only a few chairs and a table inside an inexpensive rented office, Meyer helped grow CAA into a powerhouse agency in the 1980s that pioneered the practice of packaging material with its roster of A-list talent. After serving as president, Meyer was tapped by Seagram Co.'s to head MCA/Universal in 1995, where he made multi-million dollar deals while substantially growing the entertainment division. Universal enjoyed a number of successful film franchises like "Jurassic Park" and "American Pie," while seeing its amusement park empire expand the world over. Though Seagram's sold its interest in Universal to Vivendi, Meyer managed to not only survive, but he thrived in the transition - a testament to his standing as one of the good guys of the business. Vivendi gave way to General Electric and later Comcast, but through all the changes, Meyer remained not only one of the more well-liked executives in town but a constant presence as the longest tenured head of a major film studio in Hollywood history.
Born on Sept. 25, 1944 in Los Angeles, Meyer was the son of German Jews who fled the Nazis in 1939 and came to America; his father became a travelling salesman who sold ladies' ready-to-wear clothing and his mother, Edith, stayed at home. A troublemaker and poor student who went through three different junior high schools, Meyer dropped out of high school at 15 years old. He occasionally hit the road with his father, but often preferred to hang around pool halls. When he was 17, Meyer joined the U.S. Marines and managed to straighten himself out, setting his sights on becoming a talent agent after reading the pulp novel The Flesh Peddlers (1963). After a two-year stint with the Marines, Meyer pounded the pavement of Los Angeles in search of employment at one of the talent agencies and his persistence paid off when he landed a messenger job at the Paul Kohner Agency in 1964.
Having learned German from his parents, Meyer was able to listen and understand many of the key business conversations, since they were conducted in the language. Over a five-year span, Meyer gradually moved up the ladder from messenger to file clerk to mailroom attendant to Kohner's driver. When he decided to leave the Kohner agency, Meyer was able to land a spot as an agent in the TV department at the William Morris Agency (WMA), an almost unheard of accomplishment as WMA had a policy of promoting from within. Ensconced in the television department, he met and began to work closely with another agent, Michael Ovitz. When the duo's mentor, Phil Weltman, was forced into early retirement, they had a dinner meeting with three other agents - Bill Haber, Rowland Perkins and Mike Rosenfeld - and floated the idea of starting their own agency. Setting up a six-month plan, they proceeded without problems until management at William Morris got wind of their defection and let them go before they were able to secure financing.
Undaunted, Meyer and his fellow agents forged ahead with a $35,000 line of credit and a $21,000 bank loan to form Creative Artists Agency (CAA). From a small rented office in Century City furnished with only card tables and folding chairs, the five agents worked hard - along with their wives, who rotated turns as the firm's receptionist - to build what became the powerhouse agency of the 1980s. With Ovitz assuming a de facto leadership role, CAA redefined agenting in Hollywood by selling packages - projects with talent attached - and attracted the biggest names in the business to its vast client list. Meanwhile, Meyer and Ovitz wielded considerable clout, and represented a mix of writers, directors, actors and producers, as well as production companies, motion picture studios and television networks. As the stature of the agency increased, the company gained leverage that enabled the agents to demand larger salaries for their clients, which in turn made representation by CAA even more appealing to clients from other agencies. Meyer served as president of the firm, but kept his hand in by overseeing packages involving clients as diverse as Cher, Goldie Hawn and Michael Douglas.
By the mid-1990s, however, there was widespread speculation that Ovitz, CAA's notorious chairman, was looking to move into management at a film studio. Although there was tons of ink spilled that he would join MCA/Universal as president following the sale of the company to Seagram Co., that failed to materialize and Ovitz instead accepted an ill-fated position at Disney. Edgar Bronfman, the head of Seagram's, surprised many when he instead tapped Meyer for the position at MCA in August 1995. As one of his first completed deals at MCA, which owned Universal, Meyer signed former client Sylvester Stallone to a three-picture deal estimated to be worth $60 million dollars, though ultimately nothing became of it. Meanwhile, he went on to make deals with other filmmakers including Penny Marshall, Demi Moore, John Singleton and Danny DeVito. In his favor, Meyer built a strong management team that included Universal Chairman Stacey Snider and implemented an aggressive, long-term strategy to maximize the potential of each of the company's divisions.
Under Meyer, the film division enjoyed strong market shares with such franchise hits as "The Lost World: Jurassic Park" (1997) and "Jurassic Park III" (2001), "The Mummy" (1999) and "The Mummy Returns" (2001), "American Pie" (1999) and "American Pie 2" (2001). With every misfire like the shot-for-shot color remake of "Psycho" (1998) and "Isn't She Great" (2000), there were critical success like "Out of Sight" (1998) and commercial ones like "The Fast and the Furious" (2001) and "K-PAX" (2001). After the resignation of the company's previous chairman and CEO, Casey Silver, in 1998, Meyer assumed full control of Universal Pictures, while its recreation group enjoyed growth in its theme parks and luxury hotels worldwide. Even the sale of Universal to French media conglomerate Vivendi in 2001 failed to dampen Meyer's tenure. Well-liked in the industry as a tough but fair negotiator, he was invited to remain on with the new owners, a tribute to his popularity and his skills. He managed to hold onto his post as President and Chief Operating Officer when General Electric purchased 80 percent of Universal from Vivendi in 2004. In 2011, Comcast took control with a 51 percent stake in the company to GE's percent, as Meyer again stayed put.
By Shawn Dwyer