The most remarkable thing about Chris Silbermann is just how unremarkable he is. In his corporate uniform of a suit, light-colored shirt and inoffensive tie, sitting at a blond-wood table in a bland conference room, he talks about the trouble of balancing work with a wife and two young kids (plus one on the way) as if he were, say, a middle manager at a paper plant rather than one of Hollywood’s most innovative young agents. He doesn’t, like so many power players in the industry, seem to think of his kids as interesting little objects he gets to enjoy for a few minutes now and then; he talks about playing with them each day and the challenge of switching out of agent mode and into dad mode. “Yoga has made a big difference in my life,” says Silbermann, who, at age 40, was recently appointed president of talent agency ICM. “You have to learn how to focus. I used to box, but you can’t be 35 and put on the headgear. Meditating keeps your mind sharp. “But go easy on the yogi stuff,” he adds. “It’s a little embarrassing. In my business it works much better to say, ‘I’ll punch you!’”
Silbermann’s shift in athletic interests is an apt metaphor for his changing industry. Once filled with tough guys who ruled with iron fists and outsize egos from booths at the Polo Lounge, agencies have replaced their colorful, ruthless characters with a new breed of dealmaker. Ask one of these up-and-comers out for drinks at 7 p.m. and you’ll be greeted by a serious expression and an expensive but not too flashy suit. After 45 minutes of sipping soda water and constantly checking the BlackBerry, he’ll be off—to his 8 p.m. drink appointment. The days of the four-martini meeting are long gone.
When Jeff Berg, the venerable chairman of ICM, tapped Silbermann to lead it into the future, it was a generational changing of the guard. ICM had been a powerhouse throughout much of the Nineties, representing film heavyweights like Julia Roberts and Mel Gibson. But, as with most talent agencies, it was the television department that brought in the dependable business. Since ICM had “packaged” long-running hits like Friends and Frasier, it could count on a steady stream of tens of millions of dollars every season that those shows were on the air. But when it failed to construct new hits to replace them, it became the sick man of the agency world.
In 2005 Berg raised $100 million from new investors and bought a smaller agency, Broder Webb Chervin Silbermann (Silbermann, who had been at the firm since starting as an assistant 17 years earlier, was the youngest partner), which focused almost exclusively on representing television executive producers—known as showrunners—and selling their programs to the networks. Silbermann’s client list was overflowing with people whose names might be unfamiliar but whose creations are prime-time powerhouses: Grey’s Anatomy, My Name Is Earl and Two and a Half Men.