Talent flux follows Limato exit

Agency shuffle starts as strike stresses loom

It’s fairly common for agents to change agencies, but it’s rare when one defection completely alters the dealmaking landscape.

Such was the case last week when Ed Limato jumped from ICM to WMA following a contentious arbitration. William Morris Agency CEO Jim Wiatt calls Limato’s signing a “a transformative event” for his agency.

But for ICM, it marked the third landscape-changing defection in a dozen years — all of them at ICM’s expense.

The first and perhaps most significant came in 1995, when Ari Emanuel, Tom Strickler, Rick Rosen and David Greenblatt left ICM under cover of darkness with their files and clients to form Endeavor. That agency grew quickly from boutique to major, and many feel its film business is now second only to that of CAA. While it wasn’t debilitated by their exit, ICM lost a new generation of leadership.

The second was in 1999, when Wiatt and Dave Wirtschafter left to take over as CEO and prexy of WMA, respectively. The duo reinvigorated a sluggish WMA film department, bringing agents from ICM like Todd Feldman (now at CAA) and George Freeman. ICM lost clients Eddie Murphy, Russell Crowe and Bryan Singer — a major hit to its talent stocks.

Remarking on those dramatic shifts and last week’s exit of Limato, one former ICM agent says, “In all three of those cases, the people who left ICM left angry and determined to cause as much pain as possible — pain they felt was inflicted upon them. There was a residual loss that followed. In the next 12-24 months of each of those cases, the hit on the client list was always severe. Ed will play it charming in public, but he took it personally when they dismissed three of the agents he trained. He’ll try to make them pay.”

Limato’s exit leaves ICM with a shortfall of the kinds of top talent who generate easy greenlights — and comes as the studios scramble to lock in stars and film projects before March 1, the presumed last day to start production to avoid potential strike complications.

It’s expected that Limato will take Denzel Washington and Mel Gibson with him to WMA, as well as Richard Gere, Steve Martin, Thomas Jane, Derek Luke and Sam Neill. Limato’s sole director client, Adrian Lyne, is also expected to defect. It remained to be seen whether clients Jim Caviezel, Billy Crystal, Liam Neeson and Doris Roberts would join him or stay at ICM.

Of course, ICM isn’t the only agency to see key agents leave with talent that bolstered a rival’s stable. Endeavor had a shortage of film actors until Patrick Whitesell and Adam Venit defected from CAA, bringing young stars Matt Damon, Ben Affleck, Hugh Jackman and Adam Sandler. And CAA established itself as a comedy force by poaching UTA partners Dan Aloni, who brought directors like Tom Shadyac and David Dobkin, and Jason Heyman, who brought over Will Ferrell.

The results are still out on the landscape-changing move that ICM itself made when it acquired the TV boutique Broder Webb Chervin Silbermann in July 2006. ICM’s CEO Jeff Berg and president Chris Silbermann have been overhauling departments ever since that acquisition, which led to the exits of Limato, director’s agent Robert Newman and Nancy Josephson, who was fired from her co-prexy post shortly after the BWCS deal was consummated.

In the wake of Limato’s exit, ICM is hunting for another rainmaker or even a whole agency to bring in clients and fill the gap.

In the long term, Berg and Silbermann are betting that their campaign to instill BWCS’ collegial culture will be better for the agency’s film department . They’re banking on young leaders like Nick Reed and Doug MacLaren, while leaning on vets like Toni Howard and John Burnham.

Their challenge: to hang onto ICM’s remaining clients and agents, while creating a post-Limato profile for its film business.

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