EXCLUSIVE: On Wednesday of last week, ICM President and heir apparent Chris Silbermann confided to senior staff that he was leaving with several key ICM execs including Ted Chervin and Rick Levy and starting his own Hollywood TV agency. In no time the buzz was all over the tenpercentery. That also meant it reached the ears of the founder of private equity investment firm Rizvi Traverse Management which since 2005 has owned a sizeable stake in the full-service ICM. On Thursday morning, Suhail Rizvi personally confronted Silbermann and asked if the ICM No. 2 exec was leaving or not. Silbermann denied everything, claiming that he’d never said it, that it was just a rumor, and that he was going nowhere — for now. But the fact is that, for months, my insiders say Chris Silbermann, the former Broder Webb Chervin Silbermann Agency partner, has been loudly and regularly threatening to leave ICM unless he gets what he wants. And what he wants is the removal of his boss, ICM Chairman and CEO Jeff Berg. And Berg, in turn, has been fighting back. Both agency chiefs have been seeking their own financing to buy out the other and take over the agency and reduce Rizvi’s stake. The infighting has torn apart ICM internally to the point where Silbermann regularly calls secret meetings and pointedly doesn’t invite Berg. While Berg calls secret meetings with Rizvi and pointedly doesn’t invite Silbermann. At one point, Silbermann became enveloped in a paranoid panic, convinced that his ouster from ICM was imminent and orchestrated by Berg and Rizvi when it wasn’t. In fact Berg has tried repeatedly to find a way for them all to continue to work together and appealed to Rizvi to calm the situation. As for Rizvi, I’m told he’s unwilling to take sides in the endless series of disputes, preferring that both men stay at the agency and keep focused on their business which continues to enrich Rizvi more than many think possible. (Don’t forget that ICM’s publishing and music touring business makes a mint, even if both its movie and TV business is under pressure by formidable rivals.) And so the situation remains at a standstill, albeit an exceedingly uneasy one. I don’t think it’s an exaggeration for me to state that ICM is on the verge of implosion. Unless a truce is reached. Sure, there have been on and off ceasefires. But the problem is that none stick.
I’ve known about this warring for months (as far back as April) but hesitated to make it public because a) I hoped the two guys would work things out, and b) it’s so damaging to a Hollywood agency — and an article about it even more so. Clients especially hate hearing about discord inside their tenpercenteries. And no doubt rival agencies will use the news of ICM’s internal strife to try to poach the most profitable talent. I only posted this now because other showbiz media are finally sniffing around this story. So I have no choice but to run with what I know.
There’s a reason Jeff Berg is known as Iceberg: he’s a strategic thinker but not a congenial leader. Many find him a pain in the ass, frankly, which is why he remains so isolated within the agency. Silbermann is his polar opposite, all hot and bothered and preferring the company of his so-called “homeys” consisting of an endless entourage of Broder cronies and impressionable young agents and club-hopping assistants. While Berg has kept the battling with Silbermann behind closed doors (no wonder he considered a CIA career early on), Silbermann has refused to keep his own frustration and unhappiness with Berg to himself. Instead he’s voiced it — and not just to other ICM senior agents but also at investment banks and even in barrooms from Beverly Hills to Telluride to Toronto. “But no one will take Chris Silbermann seriously. Like when he says he’s the kind of leader who should be running a Fortune 500 company. He’s a delusional television agent gone rogue,” a source close to the Berg camp tells me. Inside the Silbermann camp sources tell me even more succinctly: “Fuck Jeff Berg. It’s time for him to go and for Chris to take over. This should be a TV agency because the movie side is losing money.”
While ICM’s movie department has struggled publicly for some time, ICM’s TV department placed last behind WME, CAA, and UTA in the numbers of major agency packages on new series ordered by the broadcast networks for the 2011/2012 season. Interestingly, Silbermann at one point threatened to eliminate ICM’s movie lit department altogether to hurt Berg and those Berg allies whom Silbermann wants to exit. (ICM’s film and TV talent divisions already are merged.) Which helps to explain the recent steady stream of ICM motion picture lit agents exiting to UTA.
Speaking of UTA, there was even an idea at one point taking shape within the Berg camp for ICM to merge with United Talent and bring in that agency’s managers to stop the warring with Silbermann. If that happened, the thought was to make UTA co-owner Jeremy Zimmer vice-chairman of ICM. But UTA has talked and talked to a litany of potential agency suitors yet refuses to get married to anyone for now. Meanwhile, I heard that Silbermann was so infuriated with this attempt to dilute his power at ICM that he vowed to stop any merger from ever becoming a reality. And, to shore up what he worried was a weakening position, Silbermann managed to bring into his camp longtime Berg confidant Rick Levy, ICM’s Chief Business Development Officer & General Counsel.
Now a little history is in order. ICM has had an up and down trajectory since it was formed in 1975 when Marvin Josephson’s IFA bought out Freddie Fields’ and David Begelman’s CMA. It’s also been a notoriously impossible place to manage. Back around Christmas 2005, I was tipped that Berg wanted to close a big merger to stop the bleeding at the agency which had hit tough times yet again. Movie agents and clients were being poached, and the TV division was not keeping up with the formidable competition. He needed to combine with a boutique TV or movie agency or both. So, flush with his month-old $100M Rizvi infusion, Berg was looking closely at Broder Webb Chervin Silbermann Agency as well as Endeavor Agency. But, like everything in Hollywood that involves ego and money, deals like these aren’t made overnight. They’re complicated because they combine different agency cultures as well as partners and personnel. The merger with Endeavor never happened. (Ari Emanuel later took over the huge William Morris Agency.) ICM’s engulf of Broder took four intensive months to get done: it was code-named, it was stealthy, and it was clinched at Camp Allen.
For 10 years off and on, Berg and Broder had danced that slow minuet that accompanies any agency talk of merging. Broder had been king of the small tube representation for seemingly eons; it was the Tiffany of TV agencies, a true cash cow. In 2005, Berg began zeroing in on Broder’s Chris Silbermann. They were both Berkeley grads, both English majors, and both active alums. Silbermann was very involved with the College of Letters and Sciences board which Berg had founded and ran in the late 1980s. The connections made the deal “easier. It cut through volumes,” Berg told me at the time. “We didn’t have to go through any posturing.” The final negotiations over operational issues took place between Berg and Silbermann by the Duck Pond during the mid-July Camp Allen investment confab in Sun Valley, Idaho. Host Allen & Co brokered the deal, while CAA president Richard Lovett and William Morris CEO Jim Wiatt passed by the pair’s confabs and wondered what was going on…
For a long while, Berg and Silbermann couldn’t have been closer. Each spoke very well of the other — and meant it. True, Berg out of loyalty to his longtime senior talent agent Ed Limato voiced reluctance to exit him when Silbermann insisted it had to be done to improve ICM’s corporate culture and effect generational change inside the agency. But Berg supported Silbermann through the ensuing legal unpleasantness with Limato. Silbermann clearly was eager to flex his new muscle as president of the combined agency not just inside but also outside ICM. Suddenly rumors began to circulate that Berg was retiring when he wasn’t. Was it Silbermann’s doing?
My insiders date the start of the two men’s friction to when Silbermann sought after the merger to help rebuild ICM’s dissolving motion picture business, especially by having regular contact with its higher profile movie actors and actresses and trying to sign more. Berg’s camp says that’s when Silbermann began to think of himself as a movie bigwig. And Chris didn’t have the bonafides for that the way Jeff does. Meanwhile, Silbermann’s camp says TV is ICM’s financial future and movies are just a glamorous loss leader. But a big full-service agency needs both.
Berg has always maintained a low profile in Hollywood even though he is the eminence grise of Hollywood agency CEOs. But Silbermann wanted fame and he wanted it quickly. In addition to the agency’s in-house publicity, he hired an outside flackery which ostensibly promotes ICM but really was tasked with giving Chris a higher profile. Rumors ramped up that ICM was at war with Rizvi, so Silbermann and Berg claimed to be “in early talks” to restructure the agency’s ownership so that it becomes more of a partnership. They said that what was being explored is for Rizvi to stay in, but the executive management team would accelerate giving more equity to ICM’s agents as a “motivating” tool. The suggestion was that ICM could go to the capital markets for a buyout transaction as part of a bigger overall restructuring plan. In fact, the two fighting ICM toppers have sought and still are looking for financial backers to KO the other. Oy vey. Guys, can’t you just get along already?
So the war continues unabated. And I’ll have even more detail in coming days.