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ICM Reaches for the Ring : Entertainment: Overshadowed by a pushy archrival, it aims to be the Tiffany of talent agencies. After much travail, it may be poised to succeed.

July 29, 1990|MICHAEL CIEPLY and ALAN CITRON | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

Marvin Josephson, principal owner of International Creative Management, likes to tell how his company's Chase Manhattan bankers were at a business meeting when someone, yet again, brought up the phenomenal success of rival Creative Artists Agency.

The speaker carried on about the drawing power of CAA superstars Mel Gibson, Eddie Murphy and Arnold Schwarzenegger.

All three, the Chase contingent had to point out, are actually represented by ICM.

One of the world's most powerful talent agencies, ICM is bigger than CAA, with roughly twice the clients and agents, if not revenue. Big-name authors such as John Le Carre and star-quality newscasters such as Jane Pauley make ICM a giant in businesses where CAA has no formal presence. And a network of offices and affiliates in Los Angeles, New York, London, Paris, Madrid, Rome and Munich have given the company global reach, while Beverly Hills-based CAA has largely stayed home.

Yet ICM--like its pushy archrival, 15 years old--still has to insist upon its full measure of respect. New respect may soon be in order, however.

In the wake of a 1988 management buyout, ICM has exploited boom-level movie and television profits to prepay acquisition debt, while tackling problems that handcuffed the agency in the 1980s. It has used the lure of ownership stakes to attract top agents--as it couldn't do while shares of its former parent, Josephson International, languished on the stock market--and has been striving to outgrow a self-destructive internal culture that often put the company at odds with itself.

Moreover, ICM is trying not simply to outsell CAA and the William Morris Agency, its other chief competitor. Instead, it has fought to establish its identity as the "quality" shop, promising wider opportunity to artists who long to work outside the conventional limits of their disciplines, or beyond the borders of the United States.

"I'd rather be the best than the biggest," said Jeffrey Berg, ICM's 43-year-old chairman and a principal strategist for the agency since he assumed its presidency in 1980.

"We all know what we'd like to be 10 years from now . . . the Tiffany of the industry," seconds Co-Chairman Guy McElwaine, who returned to ICM last year after leaving to head film operations at Rastar Productions, Columbia Pictures and Weintraub Entertainment Group.

The march to Tiffany status has seen some reverses, of course. Just as ICM was celebrating a record $3-million script sale for Joe Eszterhas, who had been lured away from CAA Chairman Michael Ovitz, CAA struck back by luring away prize screenwriters Robert Towne ("Days of Thunder") and Bo Goldman (script consultant on "Dick Tracy").

Similarly, ICM has seen the lucrative European TV market cool just as the agency was beginning to tap that market for clients whose films or programs proved too sophisticated or expensive to be funded solely by U.S. studios and networks. "Foreign business is much more selective. In 1992, sales aren't going to be what they were in 1990," acknowledged ICM television chief Alan Berger.

Still, some close observers say ICM is poised to reach for the brass ring in the 1990s. Said independent film producer Steve Roth: "I believe the industry feels their time has come."

Freewheeling Egos

ICM was born in 1975 from an uneasy marriage between Creative Management Associates--an industry powerhouse which then included agents Freddie Fields, David Begelman, Sue Mengers and Sam Cohn--and the International Famous Agency, another strong company, much of which Josephson had purchased from what eventually became known as Warner Communications.

The new partnership almost immediately dissolved into an array of freewheeling egos and warring camps. "These people thought nothing of stealing a script from another agent's office to get ahead," says a top Hollywood producer who dealt closely with the agency.

The divisiveness left growing room for CAA, founded the same year by five defectors from then-dominant William Morris, thus forming a triangle of big agencies that would prevail in Hollywood for more than a decade.

(Triad Artists, born of a three-way merger in 1984, eventually carved out a chunk of business, while smaller companies such as InterTalent and the newly combined Leading Artists and Bauer/Benedeck Agency have shown new vigor lately.)

Josephson, meanwhile, devoted himself to an ill-starred acquisition campaign that diverted funds and attention to successive ventures in office products, radio and financial services without ever hitting a jackpot that might have turned his conglomerate into a miniature Gulf & Western. (See accompanying story.)

Several individuals close to ICM say income has been boosted lately by the agency's presumed 10% of some phenomenal star salaries, including, for instance, Arnold Schwarzenegger's $20-million-plus take from "Twins."

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