UPDATED, with details and statement from ICM Partners: A long-in-the-works exposé in the Los Angeles Times by reporter Wendy Lee is up on the paper’s website. The crux of the story is to question the agency’s commitment to diversity and whether a toxic male culture and discrimination continues, despite public pledges to the contrary.
According to the article, “more than 30 former and current ICM employees said in interviews that the company tolerated a hostile work environment, where women and people of color were subjected to harassment, bullying and other inappropriate conduct. Since 2017, nearly a dozen women reported allegations of mistreatment by male agents and managers company wide to ICM Partners’ human resources department or senior leaders, according to interviews with the women and those with direct knowledge of the incidents.”
The agency gave specific denials on most of the allegations made against numerous agents. Some of the incidents were investigated internally and action was taken.
Among the serious allegations in the article relate to film agent Steve Alexander. According to LAT, he had drinks with a film finance exec at the Peninsula Hotel in Beverly Hills in 2016 and exposed himself as the exec drove him to his car. According to the Times, the exec reported it to a senior member of the agency and it was addressed internally, with Alexander being placed on temporary leave. Alexander denied the incident to the newspaper, and the Times doesn’t note any comment from the agency; attempts by Deadline to verify have been unavailing so far.
Another agent, Kevin Hussey, was accused of attempting to kiss a client. Hussey reported the incident to superiors and apologized to the unnamed client, who is still with the agency. ICM declined to comment to the LAT on the incident, though the agency cited its anti-harassment policies throughout the article. Several others who were subject to complaints of misconduct, most of them previously reported, also were raised.
There also are allegations of bullying toward low-level assistants — the same low-paid group who bore the brunt of abuse from producer Scott Rudin, per recent reports — from agents ranging from Carter Cohn and Mitch Blackman to Craig Shapiro and Mark Gordon, the latter of whom left the agency in 2016. Even company spokesman Brad Turell is cited. Blackman and Cohn declined comment, and ICM called Shapiro “an outstanding agent and advocate for his clients.” Gordon denied the allegations of name calling and throwing things. Turell apologized but denied making one derogatory statement to an assistant.
Also scrutinized is the seriousness of the agency’s diversity pledge. Lee recounts a promotional video shoot that focused on the agent trainee program. While most of the members of that program were white, the agency’s HR department asked Black support staff to populate the video to give the false appearance that there was diversity in the program. The agency acknowledged it happened and called it a “mistake,” noting it has taken subsequent steps to improve the diversity of its staff.
Said Jabari McDonald, now a writer’s assistant but who was at ICM at the time and asked to participate in the shoot: “You wouldn’t have to use Black assistants as props if there were enough Black people here that could naturally be here in this program,” the 29-year-old said. “The situation could have been mitigated if they pay people more and if they stopped giving priority to nepotism hires.”
ICM Partners has top-tier clients like Shonda Rhimes, who certainly will be justified in asking for answers. But Lorrie Bartlett, who in 2019 became the first Black board member at a major agency, made a statement with fellow female board members that any insinuation that the company’s 50/50 by 2020 pledge “was an insincere marketing ploy is utterly irreconcilable with both the facts and our personal experience.”
Deadline reached out to ICM and was given the full statement, attributed to board members and department heads Lorrie Bartlett, Jennifer Joel and Janet Carol Norton:
“We’ve all chosen to build our careers at ICM specifically for the chance to work with some of the preeminent and most accomplished women in our field – women including Toni Howard, Binky Urban and Esther Newberg – who have over 100 years of combined tenure here, and all of whom continue to thrive in our agency: they are the gold standards the rest of us emulate. Any insinuation that our 50/50 by 2020 pledge was an insincere marketing ploy is utterly irreconcilable with the both the facts and our personal experience. We were all part of the board – along with Chris Silbermann, Ted Chervin, Kevin Crotty, Sloan Harris, Eddy Yablans, Adam Schweitzer, Steve Levine and Esther Newberg – that made that commitment in earnest; we have worked together and with our partners across the agency to ensure that we not only fulfilled but exceeded it; and doing so inspired us to further embrace the broad spirit and practice of inclusiveness it stood for. Neither we nor our company are perfect; no one is. But in a challenging, competitive, and labor-intensive industry that demands much of its participants, we feel privileged to enjoy a safe and encouraging environment, fair and abundant opportunities, and the respect and support of all colleagues of all genders. With them, we continue to be engaged in a concerted effort towards a better and more equitable culture that will have broad, deep and longstanding effects on our peers and, most importantly, our clients.”
So what does this well-researched piece by Lee mean for Hollywood, and other pieces that might follow about other businesses? We’ve all heard war stories over many years from agents about the hazing process they went through at their respective agencies, which tapped cream-of-the-crop academics, lawyers and business execs and placed them in the mailroom for low salaries and the chance to endure abusive bosses — male and female — and often perform demeaning tasks from picking up dry-cleaned Armani suits to washing their bosses’ dog or serving at their kid’s birthday party.
This sounds terrible to those outside the business like me. Maybe they were rationalizing, but bosses have told me this was a useful way to break down bright but entitled future agents and re-make them to succeed as agents. Dreams of big paydays and upward mobility in the entertainment business were enough to endure the slings and arrows. The survivors are the ones now making millions of dollars repping the biggest artists in film and television. Those unpleasant hazing days now are gone, or on the way out, and they will have to find new and more civil ways of minting agents.
Similar stories of retroactive bad behavior likely could be told at other agencies, studios and about filmmakers and stars. The way that new optics caused alleged serial underling abuser Rudin to withdraw from stage and film projects shows that a new generation simply will not accept this boorish behavior. If young assistants now can rise through the ranks without fear of being hit, yelled at or needing to duck projectiles, that would be a good thing. But real change will take time, and if every past indiscretion going back five years or more is going to be judged through today’s prism without acknowledging that attitudes were different then, who’ll be left in the entertainment industry?