Jeff Berg Speaks: Plans for New Agency, What Really Happened at ICM (Exclusive)
The superagent's "Iceberg" nickname suddenly seems outdated -- with $200 million in funds, a palpable exuberance and a new agency, Resolution, whose moves have rivals riveted.
In the 21 days since he has moved into his headquarters, with its glass-walled offices devoid of furniture ("It's still being shipped," notes Berg), he has hired about 17 agents including former ICM colleagues including David Unger and CAA defectors like Martin Spencer as well as executives Randy Greenberg and Jon Gumpert. Some are veterans; others, notably Steve Alexander, are returning to agenting after a long absence, raising the question of how effective they can be in putting together a portfolio of clients.
Berg says the agency already has more than 100 clients, including filmmakers Polanski, Bernardo Bertolucci, Jean-Jacques Annaud, Nick Cassavetes, Mitch Glazer, Ronald Harwood, Jean-Pierre Jeunet, Roland Joffe, Julie Taymor, Marshall Brickman and James Toback. (Brooks left Berg well before he exited ICM.)
Berg has named his partner and co-owner Franklin as COO but says there will be no other No. 2 -- a bit of a surprise for Berg observers, who note that he always has relied on a strong "people person" to back him up. The current staff, says Berg, will fill any void.
He has yet to land the type of superstar agent who would bring in heavyweight clients. Rivals criticize him for overpaying, noting most are getting well above the $200,000 to $300,000 they might expect elsewhere and some as much as seven figures.
"He is making deals just because they are possible to make," one rival grouses.
Most important, another agent notes, Berg still has to recruit a TV head, which could prove especially challenging. "TV people are tougher to move [than film agents] because their clients tend to be locked up in long-term arrangements," says the agent. "You can't have an agency unless you have TV revenues. It doesn't work."
Berg -- a sophisticated man who sits on the board of Oracle and can quote poets Wallace Stevens and William Wordsworth as easily as others cite South Park -- notes that he did the original deal for The Simpsons.
Money from that, along with another lucrative revenue source that he oversaw, the estate of Theodor Geisel, aka Dr. Seuss, will feed ICM's coffers rather than Berg's.
For his own empire, creating new revenue streams is the challenge. Efficiency, strong international links and a much closer liaison with clients -- meaning that agents will not take on the vast rosters of some of their peers -- will be the hallmarks of this new agency, says Berg. So will its ability to operate in foreign territories, and the Resolution chairman adds that Asia is ripe for expansion.
He is convinced his new agency can work by being leaner, meaner and more imaginative than its bigger rivals -- and by giving his agents an ownership share. "There will be a participation scheme," he says. "We are working with our lawyers on that right now."
While he is reluctant to use the term "boutique," he insists Resolution never will grow to the size of WME or CAA. Berg sees his strategy as the antithesis of theirs.
His backer, Najafi, agrees. The 49-year-old who made his money on Wall Street and spent time at Salomon Brothers says he is in Resolution for the long term and has no plans to sell. He views this as an entree to other entertainment investments. "We look to Resolution to advise us," he says.
Berg is careful not to repeat the mistake Ovitz made when the former CAA chieftain returned to representation after a stint at Disney with the formation of Artists Management Group. "It feels like he expanded very quickly," says Berg. "It may have been too much, too soon."
Listening to Berg speak as he sits in his office, it is hard not to feel how different he is from the Iceberg.
"That appellation may have been bestowed on me by Jeffrey Katzenberg," laughs Berg.
He admits he has changed following a near-tragedy involving his elder daughter. In January 2012, Kate Berg, now 28, collapsed with a brain hemorrhage. She was lucky to be visiting Berg and her mother, Denny, a clinical psychologist, and was rushed to the hospital.
"She had a real dark moment that she was able to recover from," says Berg. "She was in brain surgery for 10 hours and in recovery for quite a while. Fortunately, she had no cognitive damage. That changed me as significantly as anything I have been through in my life."
Born in 1947, Berg grew up in Connecticut, the son of writer-producer Dick Berg (The Martian Chronicles) and the eldest of four brothers, including A. Scott Berg, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Lindbergh. To say the household was engaged in a constant cut-and-thrust of debate is an understatement. "We are not career-competitive, but we are competitive in terms of outthinking each other," he acknowledges of his relationship with Scott.
At one point, Berg considered joining the CIA: "I was interested in the world, in intelligence, in different cultures." But his father persuaded him to go into the agency business, and during his breaks from Berkeley, Jeff was a script reader for Ashley Famous (later International Famous Agency), where he got his first job.
The young agent rose meteorically. After Marvin Josephson's IFA bought Creative Management Associates to form International Creative Management in 1975, Berg and another agent, Guy McElwaine, were perceived as heirs apparent; when Josephson expanded his empire, he named Berg president.
At 33, this brilliant player was running ICM.
Now it's Silbermann's turn. While Silbermann has the challenge of revitalizing the older agency (where insiders say morale is running high following the buyout), Berg has the far greater task of building an entirely new company.
He says he soon will hire a TV head but does not name one: "We will have that shortly. But this is day 21."
His vagueness about that can't overshadow the sheer sense of vitality at Resolution. As he shows me around his headquarters (chosen after Berg inspected 10 buildings), introducing me to staffers and assistants and pointing out the newly constructed offices and conference rooms, he visibly brims over with passion.
"I love the agency business," he says. "But it's an industry in transition. And I know there are a lot of elements you have to put together to make a new company succeed."