Jeff Berg Speaks: Plans for New Agency, What Really Happened at ICM (Exclusive)
On July 27 of last year, Jeff Berg -- the veteran agent, Hollywood power broker and defrocked chairman of International Creative Management -- headed for LAX, where he would take a stealth flight to Salt Lake City.
Berg, 65, told nearly no one about the trip, certainly none of the partners at the agency he had been with since its formation in 1975 and had headed for about three decades before being deposed in a May takeover orchestrated by 28 agents at the company. After all, he was about to discuss the type of life-altering plan that had not been successfully realized since four of his own underlings, led by Ari Emanuel, exited ICM to form Endeavor in March 1995 -- after being caught by a security guard as they smuggled out files in the middle of the night.
Now, in a remarkable reversal, Berg was the one operating undercover as he accompanied his prospective partner, music entrepreneur Jeff Franklin, to a second meeting with Jahm Najafi, the financier who would fund their new venture. An owner of the NBA's Phoenix Suns, Najafi had known Berg for nearly three years, since approaching him on another deal.
By the end of their meeting at Najafi's home outside Salt Lake City, a deal was all but in place: The businessman would commit about $200 million to back Berg, while the agent and his longtime friend Franklin also would throw in several million dollars apiece. "It's a deal we did directly," says Berg of the basic building blocks. "There was no staff; there were no intermediaries."
This was the beginning of Resolution, the talent agency that officially launched Jan. 28 but one Berg has not discussed in depth before this interview on the morning of March 4.
With 18,500 square feet of prime real estate in Century City, a long-term lease and plans to hire as many as 35 agents in the near term, the venture will test Berg as never before. If it succeeds, he will disprove one of his favorite writers, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and show there are indeed second acts in American lives. If it fails, he will go down as the Mike Ovitz of his era, a superstar who fell from grace then tried to restore his luster, only to have his legacy tarnished forever.
Adding to the stakes, he's attempting this reinvention at a time of extraordinary challenges within the agency business itself, which nobody knows better than Berg, a hyperintelligent insider who has spent his entire adult life as an agent and grew up the son of a writer-producer father. Sharp as a razor, he is sui generis, as combative as he is brilliant, as remote as he is acute.
His new deal -- put together by Berg's personal attorney, Ken Ziffren, and attorney Josh Grode -- has ruffled the feathers of his former ICM colleagues, who learned about it the hard way: when news leaked Oct. 26, while he still was working from his corner office at ICM.
Shortly after lunch that day, Berg's former deputy and the man who ousted him, Chris Silbermann, 45 -- a much-liked team player -- marched past the two offices separating his from Berg's, accompanied by colleagues Esther Newberg and Rick Levy, and confronted Berg.
The 10-minute meeting was terse, recalls Berg. There were no niceties, nor any explosions. But Silbermann made it clear: Berg, who had long had frosty relations with Silbermann and his allies, would be out by day's end.
And so he was. Other than a brief return that weekend to pick up his stuff, the man who essentially had ruled ICM since 1980 was gone.
Says Berg, "I had a sense of renewal and liberation."
Whether Berg can succeed has become the talk of the town.
"Who are his clients?" demands one high-level agent, nearly apoplectic about Berg's chutzpah. (Like the many other agents and executives interviewed for this article, he declined to be named.) "The last time I checked, if you're going to have an agency, you need clients."
By contrast, a former colleague is sanguine: "What he really should do is run a high-class boutique; that's what this town needs. People want him to do that, and they want him to pull it off because everyone loves an underdog."
It's strange to hear Berg, a pillar of the industry, described as an underdog, but that's what he became in May, when the 28 new ICM partners concluded their buyout from the agency's previous owners. These included investor Rizvi Traverse Management (with 70 percent) and Berg himself (with 10 percent). Silbermann also had 10 percent but kept his share. (The remaining ownership before the buyout was spread out among a number of individuals.)
Rizvi had bought into the agency in 2005, part of a move led by Berg to shore up the flagging company when he sold a controlling stake for about $75 million. He followed that with the 2006 acquisition of the Broder Webb Chervin Silbermann Agency following a months-long negotiation code-named "Beta."
Beta ultimately was bad news for the alpha Berg, whose notorious management style had earned him the nickname "Iceberg" even as he built up a client roster including filmmakers Roman Polanski and James L. Brooks.
He had hoped to add Broder's strength in TV to ICM's film stable. But the ICM chairman clashed with his new president, Silbermann, who ousted the late talent agent Ed Limato and refused to accept Berg's wish to merge with rival UTA.
The conflict between these highly gifted men (Silbermann, like Berg, is a UC Berkeley grad, but, unlike Berg, he also attended L.A.'s Mirman School for Gifted Children) took a toll, and in 2011 Silbermann seriously contemplated exiting with several colleagues and forming an agency of his own. Instead, a year later, he joined his colleagues to buy the newly named ICM Partners.
Its value is unclear, but two sources say the company expects future revenue of as much as $200 million from TV packages like Modern Family alone.
Berg himself received a mid-seven-figure payout whose details still are being negotiated. He kept his job but lost his title, authority and power. At Cannes in May, he says he knew it was time to go.
Sitting in his still-unfinished, 23rd-floor office on Century Park East just a few blocks from his old base, the tall, trim agent seems unfazed by all of this.
Dressed in a blue pinstripe suit, sitting near a Frank Stella painting, he calmly explains how, in the weeks and months that followed, he decided to create a full-service agency that would cover film, TV, music and books while remaining small enough to avoid the major agencies' $20 million to $40 million in overhead.
"I wanted to stay in the agency business but at a different order of scale," he says.