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Nasty, Nasty, Nasty

AFTER 32 YEARS OF WORKING together, it’s all over between ICM and iconic motion-picture talent agent Ed Limato, who was also the tenpercentery’s co-president. Long, successful and, even more to the point, profitable relationships like this one come along infrequently in Hollywood — where institutional memories are short and personal loyalties shorter still. The brief version of what happened is that Limato’s employment contract expired in June and negotiations for a new pact hit a dead end. The long version is a running drama fraught with emotion, ranging from sadness to bitterness to nastiness, that has the town transfixed and taking sides.

Feasting on the bones of the relationship’s carcass are attorneys for the tenpercentery and for Limato who are right now acrimoniously negotiating his exit. Technically, Limato is still under contract with ICM, until all issues — especially current and future commissions for his superstar clients like Denzel Washington, Mel Gibson, Steve Martin, Richard Gere, Liam Neeson and Billy Crystal — are worked out. Limato’s attorneys served ICM with legal papers, but don’t expect any lawsuits, because Ed’s contract calls for arbitration, which is slated to begin August 1.

I reported this story on my DeadlineHollywoodDaily.com Web site from beginning to end over recent weeks. But because of my bombshell posting last Friday that ICM and Limato had called it quits, the agency decided to take the low road. Though chairman Jeff Berg and co-president Chris Silbermann were out of the office rubbing elbows with corporate plutocrats at Camp Allen in Sun Valley, the agency nevertheless chose that moment to issue a statement stripping Limato of his co-presidency “as part of a restructuring of ICM’s motion-picture department to deliver long-term growth.”

But here’s the real kick in the ass: Limato didn’t even know ICM’s announcement was coming down that day. Instead, he learned about it when his assistant received the interoffice e-mail and read it to him over the phone. “ICM has systematically done everything to humiliate me,” Limato told pals. This week, ICM let go three motion-picture agents who’d all been former Limato assistants, and promoted one former Limato aide.

Yeah, what a mess.

For its part, ICM says hurt feelings are inevitable when an agency undergoes first a giant merger (in 2006, with the TV powerhouse Broder Webb Chervin Silbermann Agency), then some necessary bloodletting (key agents jumped, or were pushed, from the combined company), and now a “generational transformation,” which is what the tenpercentery is calling its current streamlining to ensure younger agents play a bigger role and have a bigger stake in the running of ICM. (William Morris went through a similarly nasty generational upheaval back in 2004, when many partners left in a snit.) “The agency is making fundamental changes throughout the business to support the next generation of leadership,” Berg said in a statement.

Even before things came to a bad end last Friday, tension existed between the 71-year-old Limato and the 39-year-old Silbermann, who came to ICM as a Broder partner. Some said their squabble was All About Eve brought to life. Others said it more resembled Sunset Boulevard. Though it was decided early on that Silbermann was Berg’s heir apparent and would run ICM, Chris told everyone he agreed to be co-president “out of respect” for Ed. But it’s also been Silbermann’s role to be the leader ICM always needed who’d bang heads together and inject some discipline over Hollywood’s most independently minded agents — alpha males and females now expected to transform miraculously into team players.

BECAUSE ICM DOESN’T HAVE enough movie stars right now, some felt Limato had leverage because, without him, the tenpercentery would be seen as even more out of the movie-star business than it already is. Motion-picture talent, although not the most profitable department in an agency (except perhaps for CAA), is certainly the most important division of an agency as far as public image goes — and in Hollywood, public image is everything. Limato set his own hours and didn’t show up in the office much, so Silbermann decided it was time for Ed to step down as co-president. But Limato didn’t want ICM’s motion-pic department controlled by “a TV guy” out “for a power play.” This big screen–vs.–small screen schism exists within every Hollywood agency. Again, the town took sides: Was this Chris managing smartly or overreaching prematurely?

As one of its biggest shareholders, Limato was always very financially tied to ICM, so no one ever dreamed he would leave. Until he recently cashed out. But Limato still makes a lot of moola (supposedly, $5 million annually for salary and bonuses) and gets a lot of perks (supposedly, another mil at least to pay for his famed Oscar party, two script readers, three assistants and his own business-affairs person). Plus, Ed insists that all of his aides eventually be promoted to agent status. Limato wanted no more and no less than he’s made over the past couple of years. ICM wanted him to downsize. Berg tried hard to negotiate an emeritus status for Limato that would give him less money and fewer perks and no management role — but also a job for life. The agent wouldn’t go for it. That’s when ICM decided to bear the PR hit and cut Ed loose. The phrase “those lousy scum buckets” is now being used in the Limato camp. “For 32 years, Ed brought them millions and millions of dollars,” an insider told me.

Limato’s legal pit bulls are claiming that ICM lied to him and violated his deal when the tenpercentery made a reputedly “secret pact” during the Broder merger to give Silbermann the ICM presidency, and thus force out Limato. “ICM made a deal with the devil when they took over Broder,” a source told me. “Think about it: Everyone wanted to buy Broder Kurland, and CAA wanted them desperately. But Broder goes with ICM. Why? Because Chris knew he’d be in charge.” But ICM says the notion of a secret pact is “inflammatory and bullshit legal rhetoric.” As one agency insider told me: “Silbermann came into ICM as co-president with the understanding that he could learn from Ed and be a partner with him and Jeff. Chris met with Ed before anyone ever did the deal. There was never any secrecy about Chris’ position. We didn’t seek to harm Ed.”

Limato also is challenging the three-year non-compete clause in his ICM contract that may not be legal in California. “That’s slavery,” a source close to the agent told me. “He can’t go to work anywhere else, even as a manager or agent. They believe they can force him into retirement and keep all his clients. That was their big plan. But that’s not going to happen.” ICM believes Limato should live up to the tenets of his contract.

Still, it’s the end of an era, since Limato has been at ICM for most of his 40 years in show biz. “I love the company. But, sometimes, love sours,” he’s told friends. He won’t even consider retiring. “I want to work for many years, and I want to work as an agent. I just simply can’t work at ICM anymore.”

ICM agrees. “Ed needs to move on,” an insider there said.

My educated guess is that Limato will decide to become a manager as the easiest way to get around that non-compete clause. Mel Gibson, for instance, wants to get back to work as an actor, so that means major bucks for Limato. The disadvantage of going to another agency for Ed is that it would mean less money, fewer perks and no management role, which is exactly what ICM was offering him. As one ex-colleague of his e-mailed me, “I’d take the devil I do know rather than the devil I don’t.” Problem is, all concerned are currently ensconced in hell.

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