Inside the Fight for ICM's Future (Analysis)

5:00 AM PST 11/16/2011 by Kim Masters , Daniel Miller
Michael Buckner/Getty Images; Alberto E. Rodriguez/Getty Images
From L-R: Chris Silbermann, Jeff Berg

Agency heads Jeff Berg and Chris Silbermann aren't speaking as the shadow of owner Suhail Rizvi looms large and he eyes a sale.

This story first appeared in the Nov. 25 issue of The Hollywood Reporter Magazine.

When stalwart TV lit agents Josh Hornstock and Mickey Berman left ICM in October, the blow to the agency was symbolic and severe. President Chris Silbermann had fought to retain the two, whom he had groomed at Broder Webb Chervin Silbermann Agency, the boutique that ICM purchased in 2006. But he couldn't provide what UTA offered -- partnership -- and the two packed their bags.

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ICM's inability to keep agents in its top-notch TV department, home to A-list creators like Chuck Lorre and Shonda Rhimes, illustrates the growing gulf between key personnel and Suhail Rizvi, the publicity-shy businessman who acquired a controlling interest in ICM eight months before Silbermann and company joined and became the agency's profit center. Silbermann and his lieutenants Bob Broder and Ted Chervin are said to be frustrated with Rizvi, who appears to be thwarting Silbermann's plan to transform the 150-agent ICM into a partnership. Given that impasse, as well as a frosty relationship with ICM's longtime chairman, Jeff Berg, it seems likely the former BWCSA partners will leave the 36-year old ICM to form a new agency.

According to a knowledgeable source, Rizvi, a co-founder of Birmingham, Mich.-based Rizvi Traverse Management who resides in Greenwich, Conn., has grown less interested in the long-term future of ICM after concluding that the agency won't provide him the platform to make an larger impact as an investor in media. He already has wrung a profit out of the $100 million investment his company and Merrill Lynch made in ICM, this source says, and is said to be quietly shopping his interest in the agency.

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With offices in Los Angeles and New York, Rizvi Traverse has investments in Twitter, Facebook and Summit Entertainment; in March, the company teamed with Hugh Hefner to take Playboy Enterprises private.

Rizvi, 45, is so private that photographs of him are all but impossible to find. Although he turns up at the Cannes Film Festival, sources say he is the antithesis of the usual Hollywood investor who wants to attend parties and meet stars. He counts WME co-CEO Patrick Whitesell as a friend: The pair played tennis in the early 1980s in their hometown of Iowa Falls, Iowa. Rizvi was a staunch supporter of President Barack Obama. He sits on the board of the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School. One insider says ICM employees know little about Rizvi and his dealings with the agency.

Rizvi's apparent disinterest in restructuring ICM leaves Silbermann fighting a seemingly losing battle. Meanwhile, his relationship with the chilly Berg, who rarely interacts with associates and is said to be against converting ICM into a partnership, has degenerated to the point where sources say the two don't speak.

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Silbermann and others are said to bristle at a corporate structure that essentially makes them Rizvi Traverse employees. (An April report said Berg, Silbermann and some agents hold ICM stock.) Sources say Rizvi hasn't nurtured ICM, instead focusing on cost savings. A 2006 Wall Street Journal story said, for instance, that soon after Rizvi Traverse purchased its stake, it ordered that ICM's flower budget be cut. In May, Silbermann discussed with THR efforts to turn ICM into a partnership, saying, "I believe that agents should be able to reap what they sow."

If Silbermann, Broder and Chervin depart, they would likely leave behind a steady stream of TV packaging income from such hit shows as Modern Family, The Big Bang Theory and Scrubs. But without a strong film group, the departure of its TV cash cow would devastate ICM, making it a prime target for a takeover.

Paradigm, which in the past acquired such agencies as Writers & Artists, is said to have examined a deal, though a source close to the situation says Rizvi has received no credible offers. A Paradigm rep says, "We don't comment on speculation and rumored deals."

Rizvi Traverse and ICM declined comment.

Email: Kim.Masters@THR.com; Daniel.Miller@THR.com

Twitter: @KimMasters; @DanielNMiller

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