December 19, 2018

ICM Partners’ Chris Silbermann: The good kind of double agent

When it comes to entertainment industry archetypes, none is more disdained or suspect than the talent agent.

Aaron Sorkin once described his agent, Ari Emanuel, to me as “a shark” – and meant it as a compliment.

In a 2005 New Yorker profile of William Morris Agency’s then-president Dave Wirtschafter, writer Tad Friend observed, “Many of the best agents radiate energy and charm, yet they often exemplify the worst aspects of capitalism.”

Peruse trade archives for news coverage of the last decade’s major agency mergers and a portrait emerges of a dog-eat-dog world that looks a lot like an episode of “Game of Thrones in which wealth and power are the ultimate measures of value, and the methods by which they are obtained are irrelevant.

Chris Silbermann, a partner at ICM Partners, complicates that picture. Last week, the Venice Family Clinic presented him with a humanitarian award for his support in helping the organization provide healthcare to an estimated 24,000 poor Angelenos annually; Silbermann personally raised $250,000. Understated, affable and generally very well liked, he seems the antithesis of the crass and cunning agent prototype popularized by actor Jeremy Piven on the HBO series “Entourage.” Silbermann is a warm, devoted family man but with high-powered industry credentials – a major financial stake in ICM Partners, one of the top four tenpercenteries in town, which he personally helped restructure and rehabilitate; a glitzy client list that includes TV titans Vince Gilligan, creator of “Breaking Bad,” Shonda Rhimes of “Grey’s Anatomy” and “Scandal”, and David Shore, creator of “House.” Not that his TV-focused world has precluded an invitation to Vanity Fair’s movie-drenched Oscar party.

“I had to leave early last night, around 1:30am,” he told me at the Venice Family Clinic’s Gala, which took place the night after the Academy Awards. “Usually it’s 3 or 4” – usually, he rolls up to the hills for Madonna’s after-party – “but I knew I had this, and I had to be up before 7 a.m. for my kids.”

Silbermann’s sweet side was the running joke of the evening – “It’s always interesting when an agent becomes a humanitarian,” the gala emcee said wryly. Later, when Gilligan and Shore presented Silbermann with his award, Gilligan quipped, “Every year, Chris Silbermann helps hundreds of rich people – get richer.”

But it was obvious that whatever tough talking Silbermann employs to make money for his clients, he also had no trouble using to take money from them: “We all gave generously,” Shore said, turning to Silbermann, “because you’re one scary SOB.”

During an interview at Silbermann’s office the week before, he was anything but. Perched in his floating corner office facing the Hollywood Hills, his in-house PR-handler in tow, Silbermann spoke casually and generously, easily letting a 15-minute interview become an hour.

“People are just loving the agency and where it’s going,” he said leaning back into his loveseat. The utterly relaxed atmosphere was somewhat surprising, considering it’s been only two years since Silbermann and some colleagues wrested control of the nearly 40-year-old agency from its former chief, Jeff Berg.

The plot was to create a “horizontal” business model in which agents could share ownership of the agency and profit accordingly.  To that end, Silbermann even gave up his title as president. Now, he’s “just partner,” he said, “which I like.”

The transition wasn’t the smoothest and was nastily chronicled in the trades – Berg, the agency’s longtime chief and Silbermann’s onetime superior, was eventually pushed out – but, while some saw it as a power grab, Silbermann saw it as an opportunity to lead a culture shift.

“I think the key to success in the modern world is empowering your people,” he said. “It used to be that everything was so controlled, so you had to have these vertical chains. But now, because of technology, people work 24 hours a day, seven days a week — whether they’re in the office or not. So you’re constantly having to decentralize everything, because that’s the way the world works.”

Today, ICM Partners functions more like a law firm than a traditional agency, which has stabilized a once-precarious work environment (it had been common in the agency biz to hear of agents being fired or jumping to rival agencies with unpredictable turns in leadership). Out of respect for the agency’s history, though, Silbermann said he continues its tradition to “give back in a meaningful way” through the agency’s foundation. He personally serves on the boards of The Nature Conservancy, an environmental preservation non-profit, the Entertainment Industry Foundation and is a trustee for UC Berkeley, his alma mater.

He doesn’t neglect his Jewish duties, either. He contributed to the refurbishment of Wilshire Boulevard Temple and remains both professionally and politically invested in Israel.

But his soft spot is for children: His contributions to Harvard-Westlake, the posh prep school from which he is a graduate, are earmarked for student scholarships. “It’s very important to open up such an amazing school to people who might not otherwise be able to afford it,” he said.

Fatherhood, though, is the role he seems most contented to play. He has three children – ages 10, 8 and 5 – and takes great pride in being his eldest son’s basketball coach, which requires him to act like a kind of double agent: “There’s a point where you’re a coach, and you gotta be like, ‘Dude that pass was awful! What were you thinking?’ But then you gotta shift, and say, ‘You know what? I’m your dad, I love watching you play and it makes me happy just to see you out there.’”

The duality is defining: tough for his clients, tender at home.

The private/public binary explains his intellectual interest in American presidents – whom he described, in true Hollywood lingo, as “complex characters.”

“Everybody hates you in that job,” he observed, ironically.

He is most intrigued by Lyndon B. Johnson – in his view, “a real tragic figure” – and incidentally, the subject of the Broadway show “All the Way” starring “Breaking Bad’s” Bryan Cranston as the 36th president. 

Whether Johnson’s appeal is rooted in projection or fantasy is hard to tell. Silbermann himself lives such a satisfied life; one wonders if he harbors any…. deeper concerns?

“That’s such a Jewish way to end an interview,” he said.

“Would you rather talk about what you sold this morning?” I asked.

Predictably, the agent answered: “Yes.”