Cannes Diaries: ICM Chief Jeff Berg

Jeff Berg at Cannes

After hearing from various directors, we were given the opportunity to hear about the business side of the festival from Jeff Berg, then-chairman and CEO of International Creative Management (ICM) Talent Agency.

ICM’s client roster included Jodie Foster, Christopher Walken, Samuel L. Jackson, Woody Allen, Sofia Coppola, Tom Hooper, Ellen DeGeneres, Jon Stewart, Muse, The Strokes, Elvis Costello, and Aretha Franklin.

Berg had personally represented clients such as Al Pacino, Roman Polanski, and the estate of Theodore Geisel (Dr. Seuss) for over 30 years at that point. He’d also signed high-profile deals including the original Star Wars trilogy and the longest running sitcom in the world, The Simpsons.

His discussion was brief but memorable because his perspective on Cannes came from having represented and brokered deals for the talent at the festival for several years:

It is an agent’s role to be constantly on the lookout for the next big thing. Film festivals such as Cannes are platforms by which international cast and crew can ascend to fame overnight, and thus fertile territory for agents and talent scouts to discover new talent.

He was optimistic about the future of the movie business. Movie consumption would remain healthy due to the rising middle classes in India, Brazil, Russia, and China, and movie production was enabled by the various sources of funding available to filmmakers. (Note: This was pre-financial meltdown of 2008.)

He expected the Internet to bring changes from a distribution standpoint, adding to the list of revenue sources for movies that already included, among others: theatrical release, TV, DVD / video, pay-per-view, and cable movie channels.

As for how the Internet would impact film festivals, he predicted that the Internet would supplement and augment, but not replace the value of the festivals. The human dimension at the festival would remain essential – networking, brokering deals, building relationships with partners and distributors was simply not the same online.

He also stressed the need for Cinema Studies classes in addition to the more ubiquitous cinema production classes that taught more technical skills like lighting, shooting, and editing. As he pointed out, film was a relatively new discipline that drew from eclectic sources like literature. Knowing how to apply creative literary judgment and read a script / film like a novel was an absolutely crucial skill for anyone in the movie business, whether agent, screenwriter, actor, director, or producer.

I thought of the Cinema Studies writing seminar, Destination Rock and Roll, that I had taken earlier in college, with a professor who had challenged us to write thesis statements (backed by visual evidence!) for REM music videos and movies such as Easy Rider, A Hard Day’s Night, The Graduate, and Almost Famous. She had definitely made very clear the parallels between “reading a movie” and “reading a book.” Here was the head of the largest talent agency in the world echoing that sentiment.

The two Cinema Studies professors who accompanied us on our trip could not have nodded more fervently.

Credits: Berg, Jeff. Cannes. May 21, 2007.

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Notes: Fast forward six years…

1) Jeff Berg has left ICM to start his own agency, Revolution, which launched in January this year. Compared to its peers WME (William Morris Endeavor) and CAA (Creative Artists Agency), ICM is now 100% owned by its agents.

The Hollywood Reporter drew parallels between Berg’s departure from ICM and the 1995 departure of four of his agents, including Ari Emmanuel (the basis for Ari Gold on the HBO show Entourage), to form Endeavor (which later merged with William Morris to form WME). You can read that article and the interview with Berg here.

2) The talent discovery marketplace at Cannes is alive and well, especially for Philippine films. Erik Matti’s On the Job, starring Piolo Pascual, was picked up for distribution by Well Go USA Entertainment at the recently concluded 66th Cannes Film Festival in May. More on the Philippines’ performance at the Cannes Film Festival here.

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About the Cannes Diaries

In the summer of 2007, I did a study abroad program with my university’s Cinema Studies department at the 60th Cannes Film Festival. (Probably my favorite elective of all time, and the least painful A that I ever attained in college…)

While we snapped photos of celebs on the red carpet at several blockbuster premieres, our professors encouraged us to diversify our viewing beyond mainstream American flicks. To ensure that we watched a variety of films, course requirements included watching and writing about: 4 documentaries, 4 films that wouldn’t open theatrically in the US, 4 films from 3 countries from which we had never seen films before, 4 films by notable non-American directors, 4 debut features by American directors, 4 films directed by women, 3 retrospectives/classic films — one of which had to be a silent film… and a par-tri-idge in a pear tree. (I joke about it, but I’m glad we had to watch such an eclectic selection. It changed my whole perspective on movie-going.)

Apart from going to screenings, we attended a series of talks with various guest speakers from the entertainment community. I recorded notes from those talks and thoughts about the festival experience as a whole in my mandatory trip journal. While some entries are better-written than others (depending on how much energy I had left in me to write that day), they reflect the artsier, indie side of the festival not captured in my (star-struck) photo albums. Bon spectacle!

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