ICM’s Chris Silbermann on New Network Chiefs, Netflix’s Impact and the ‘Very Interesting’ Pilot Season
In a wide-ranging interview, he tells THR that NBC’s Bob Greenblatt “has a big job ahead of him” and that ABC’s Paul Lee “has his work cut out for him, too.”
ICM president Chris Silbermann is a fan of both boxing and yoga, which might help explain his success fighting for his clients and calmly running a talent agency. Silbermann, 43, assumed his current post in 2007, a year after ICM acquired his former firm, Broder Webb Chervin Silbermann Agency, a TV powerhouse where he was a managing partner. Since then, the New York native, who was raised in Los Angeles and attended UC Berkeley, has led ICM through a period of sometimes-bumpy change -- for the agency and the entertainment business at large. The year before he joined, ICM received a $100 million equity infusion, which mostly came from Rizvi Traverse Management, now a major shareholder. The 150-agent company is said to be interested in shaking up its ownership structure, perhaps offering equity in the company to agents. But Silbermann's duties extend beyond managing the agency, whose client roster includes such writers and producers as Mark Gordon and Vince Gilligan and talent ranging from Jodie Foster and Jon Hamm to Eminem. The married father of two young boys and a girl won't talk about Chuck Lorre's woes with Charlie Sheen on Two and a Half Men, but he recently sat down with The Hollywood Reporter in his modern Century City office to discuss how ICM has changed since it acquired his former company, the importance of young talent and his thoughts on pilot season.
It has been reported that ICM will soon offer equity in the company to agents. Can you comment on that?
I believe that agents should be able to reap what they sow. Since the time I joined ICM, the plan has been to evolve the company into the best possible structure for the clients and the agents, one that rewards success. At this point, that is all I am comfortable saying on this matter.
How has pilot season gone? You had two new executives to work with in Bob Greenblatt at NBC and Paul Lee at ABC.
Pilot season was very interesting. Certainly Greenblatt has a big job ahead of him in rebooting that brand, and we're going to help him as best as we can to do that. Paul has some points of strength: Modern Family, Dancing With the Stars, Grey's Anatomy -- some great shows -- but he has his work cut out for him, too. He needs a new wave of hits. You have these two really smart guys who are new to their respective domains, so that definitely skewed pilot season. I don't think in a negative way. Before, agents here could really have a sense of where buyers' heads were in a lot of this stuff. This season was a bit of water finding its own level with them.
Are Greenblatt and Lee drawing lines in the sand on deals?
I don't think it's any of that. I think it's these guys understanding -- you know, Paul understanding ABC. What is an ABC show? What's he buying? Where does he want to take that brand? How does he articulate that to the creative community? What kind of show is he going to respond to? What kind of cast is he going to respond to? And same with Bob -- articulating where you're taking NBC and what are you looking for. Whereas when you go into CBS, you know what kind of shows they're looking for -- in a good way. A lot of what they are doing -- and have to do -- is embrace the creative community, and so we work closely on that. Paul has spent a lot of time embracing [producer] Shonda Rhimes and other clients like [producer] Mark Gordon, and it's been a great hallmark of where I think he's going.
How would you describe your management style?
It's more productive and a more enjoyable environment to have a good team ethos. One person can't be an expert in all areas in today's world. It's too complex. We have Carol Goll, who runs our branding area. I'm really proud of the work she and I did together for Eminem -- he'd never done any ads before, and he did these two Super Bowl spots. They got lots of attention. When you look at Pepsi, they were great partners on the iced tea spot; and then that Chrysler spot -- he really was looking to do something for Detroit because he's a homeboy, in the best sense of the word.
How is the agency keeping up with technology's impact on the business?
It's every agent's job to understand new media. That's got to be another arrow in their quiver. They should be able to talk about Twitter, Facebook, Hulu, Google TV, Apple TV. They should be able to talk about all distribution mechanisms. We really look at it as a core competency of agents.
But in such an evolving media environment, it's hard to know where to allocate resources.
We wanted to be focused and team-oriented and really decide on the business lines or the areas where we're going to represent clients. I respect my competitors a lot, but we chose not to go into sports representation because we didn't feel like it balanced as much with the other areas. We decided not to go into investment banking for similar reasons. We spent a lot of time talking and figuring out what those core lines are. We looked at features, television, live -- which would encompass comedians touring, music touring and theater. We looked at publishing, and we looked at that bucket of branding, corporate consulting, company representation and IP company representation. Every single one of those areas has gone through sea changes.
Are there realms you'd like ICM to grow into?
One of the areas I'm really proud of is our broadcasting business. We've really looked at building that organically. That has had tremendous growth over the last couple years, kind of keystoned by Keith Olbermann, who is a more recent client of ours. We are very excited and very bullish on his move to Current TV. That was a real challenge for us to figure out with Keith and get it done right.
Young talent is a strength for the agency. With such emerging talents as Hailee Steinfeld and Josh Hutcherson, how important is it?
I don't want to disrespect the generation that's working because we have some great clients like Robert Duvall and Al Pacino, who are some of the greatest actors in the history of the medium, but you have to bet somewhere, and you have to be on that cresting wave. And that's a challenge: to figure out who that next wave of filmmakers is going to be, the next wave of actors, next wave of writers, next wave of all that stuff.
What are some of your biggest challenges?
Changing cultures at a company -- and certainly a company with this storied history and the amazing legacy that this company has -- is always a challenge. If you can articulate it well to people and take the time to really talk things through and really hash it out, I find most people want to be forward-thinking.
What's your position on premium VOD?
Whether it is a shift to premium VOD, a shift to Netflix or Apple TV or Google TV or HBO Go -- it is really up for grabs right now. It is creating ubiquitous distribution. It makes content, and particularly premium content, more valuable. I'm excited about a lot of changes. But I think we need to continue to support the moviegoing experience.
How much has Netflix's House of Cards deal changed the notion of who is a buyer for a television series?
The history of these subscription services -- take HBO, Showtime -- is they start typically as a re-use service, and they evolve and grow into a place for real original premium content. Netflix is following along that path and realizing that they need to be in the original-content space. I get the sense that there will be more of these deals. I would hope a lot more because it creates more avenues for our clients' work.
What's your typical day like?
My day can be very diverse. I really push myself, and my agents, to be proactive. It can be a reactive job. Part of my job is to really push agents to be proactive.
What are your own entertainment habits?
I consume a lot of media. I wish I had time to consume more. I'm a little old-school at times because I do like newspapers, but then I'll have it all on my iPad and I'll have it all on TiVo. I flip between being a Luddite and the new technology.
How do you balance your work and family life?
I'm still trying to figure that out. My wife's amazing. The one thing I've found -- maybe this is just wishful thinking -- but it's not quantity but quality time with your kids. I feel like it's about the moments, and there are those really special moments that have resonance, and it is not spending eight hours with them, it's spending that hour of real connection and real time.
A DEALMAKER'S DOWNTIME: When Silbermann wants to get away for a long weekend, his favorite spot is Telluride, Colo. The avid skier, who vacations in the picturesque ski town year-round with his family, shares his typical winter weekend.
- A diverted flight isn't necessarily a bad thing
"You can fly into the Telluride Regional Airport, and you are lucky 30 percent of the time, and the rest of the time you are diverted to Montrose." But that means a stop at Rays Good Stuff Jerky, a cabin on the side of the road on the outskirts of neighboring Montrose "that has the best beef jerky west of the Mississippi."
- Celebratory dinner to start the trip
"We will usually go into downtown for dinner at Honga's. It's Asian -- great sushi that they fly in fresh all the time."
- Hitting the slopes
The next day, Silbermann and his children will ski Telluride's mountain together. Their favorite runs include Enchanted Forest and Galloping Goose. "After a good day of skiing, we'll go up to the Peaks Resort and have apres-ski sodas and drinks."
- Comfort food
For dinner, they'll head to Allred's restaurant -- accessible by gondola -- for old-fashioned American mountain food. "It's classic: steaks, elk and trout. We will sit around, and my son will pack two steaks in. And my kids love riding the gondola."
- Pleasure and pain
The last day of the trip will include more skiing and "lots of hot tub for the soreness." The family caps off the weekend with a BBQ: Silbermann grills up hot dogs from his beloved Top Dog, a famed Berkeley, Calif., hole in the wall. "We always get a shipment before I leave to go up there."