Bestselling authors Cormac McCarthy, Walter Isaacson, the late Nora Ephron, and Jennifer Egan are among the many authors represented by ICM Partners, whose book sales are boosted by the adaptation of their work to film and television, all under the watchful eyes of agents Ron Bernstein, Josie Freedman, and Todd Hoffman, who helm ICM’s Media Rights group in Los Angeles.ICM was formed in 1975, and this year the agency underwent a management buyout and formed a partnership structured to bring control of the firm to its agents and executives. Renamed ICM Partners, it is one of the most significant talent and literary agencies in the world. ICM Partners had 99 books on the New York Times bestseller list last year.
Not only does it represent hundreds of book authors, but the New York Times, New York magazine, and the Atlantic magazine as well. Among ICM’s most successful film releases have been Cormac McCarthy’s The Road and No Country for Old Men; Daniel Handler’s Lemony Snicket’s Series of Unfortunate Events; and Candace Bushnell’s Sex and the City. Two of its most anticipated book to film releases are Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Lincoln, directed by Stephen Spielberg for DreamWorks and releasing in November; and Walter Isaacson’s Steve Jobs, currently in pre-production with Sony Pictures Entertainment.
“That was an extremely complicated deal,” said Bernstein, who has been with ICM for 12 years and previously worked in New York publishing. “The fear was that the book would wind up on the Internet before it got into the marketplace. Chapters were sent to my apartment, and I was told not to bring them into my office.” The book was cloaked in so much secrecy that when ICM showed it to producer Mark Gordon and Michael Lynton at Sony, they had to read the manuscript in the ICM office. “They were not even allowed to make notes,” Bernstein recalled. “We made this deal very quietly, but that kind of secrecy is rare.”
With hundreds of authors in its literary stable it’s hard to define what ICM’s Media Rights team looks for in a story. For Hoffman, who worked in independent film producing before joining ICM 12 years ago, there are two things. “We look to see what current trends are in the marketplace, and if we read something we represent that meets those trends, we’ll figure out the best way to get it sold and get it made,” he said. “We’re also looking to fall in love with pieces even if they might not be the most commercial. If it’s something that’s just extraordinary we’ll find a way to get it made even if it’s slightly out of the box.” Hoffman is in charge of the magazine and newspaper division of the Media Rights group. “We sold the New York Times article ‘For Kodachrome Fans, Road Ends at Photo Lab in Kansas,’ by journalist A. G. Sulzberger, to Twentieth Century Fox.” Another Times article Hoffman sold, to Summit Entertainment, is “Deepwater Horizon’s Final Hours,” by Matthew Sand.
Books land in the Media Rights office from ICM’s Publications division in New York, where Esther Newberg, Sloan Harris, and Amanda Urban are among the agents selling authors’ work to publishers. The books then transition to ICM’s Los Angeles office and are read by the Media Rights trio, who scoff at the idea that they might utilize freelance readers to help lighten their load—they don’t. “Believe me,” Freedman said, laughing, “we read.” ICM handles many children’s book authors, from Dr. Seuss and E.B. White to Orson Scott Card, whose Ender’s Game is now in production at Summit.
The agency seems to have an eye for trailblazers. Patricia Cornwell was the first to write about forensic science in mysteries, and several authors have followed her lead since Postmortem came out in 1990. “And when Jennifer Egan wrote that last chapter [of Welcome To the Goon Squad] with the PowerPoint presentation, that too has changed the way literature is approached,” says Bernstein. “Our authors often change the road writers go down. We represent people who influence culture.”—Wendy Werris