Abate v. ICM, Day Two: ICM Strikes Back

By Carmen Comment

Richard Abate was understandably relieved to finally leave the stand around 2 PM or so, having been grilled at great extent by both his own counsel as well as ICM‘s. Not only do we know know a hell of a lot about what happened leading up to his departure, but also about some of his pending deals, such as YA superstar Lisi Harrison‘s new deal, “the biggest in ICM history”, Chuck Hogan‘s probable collaboration with PAN’S LABYRINTH director Guillermo Del Toro, and of course, a whole lot of financial information. But the fun really began when Esther Newberg took the stand and related her side of events.

“I did view him as my friend,” Newberg said pointedly, making it extremely clear she now thought otherwise. “He never mentioned any interest in Endeavor,” even while he talked off and on about not being ready to make a decision with regards to the contract renewal, that he needed to talk to his wife or maybe go off on his own. Newberg claimed Abate’s reticence stemmed from being unhappy, jealous even, about Sloan Harris‘s elevation to co-president of ICM when he was only four years older than Abate. And that is where the betrayal – which Newberg stated she “felt then and now” – stemmed from: “[Abate] told me it didn’t bother him that Harris, only four years older with a stunning client list, was elevated.” Even though Newberg thought highly of Abate – “we wanted him to renew, and made it clear he could do whatever he wanted, even fly back and forth between New York and Los Angeles because he had an interest in doing more Hollywood work” – she never viewed him as a possible co-president as ICM didn’t think “he had enough judgment” for the position.

Newberg then related her version of February 9, calling Abate’s account “extremely harsh and aggressive.” She admitted her recall was vague because she was under stress from caring for her mother (who died 4 days later.) She recalled crying when Abate walked into her office and gave her the news, but stated he said he was “leaving and going to Endeavor.” The conversation lasted 10 minutes at best, and Newberg was unhappy at the news: “he had an employment contract. This was the first time in 31 years at ICM that an agent left in the middle of a contract. Other people were either asked to leave or waited to do so close to the contract being up.” She then emailed Levy and possibly Sloan Harris about what to do from a legal standpoint because of the perceived breach. And as for the baseball? “It may not have been my father’s. In fact, I think I gave him the wrong baseball.” And Newberg asserted for the record that Abate was not terminated, and that he left of his own accord.

Such discord for a former friend and colleague, and Newberg’s dagger looks seemed to bore into Abate as she testified. But emnity only flared when she completed her account when, prior to exiting the courtroom, she exchanged tense words with Abate’s wife, Melissa Moore. “You said something first,” Moore said. “No I didn’t,” Newberg shot back. Then Abate chimed in, having witnessed the exchange. “I saw that little thing you did up there,” he said. “That was disgraceful.” He then seemed grateful that members of the media were present to witness the exchange.

The day ended with the testimony of Sloan Harris, who revealed to the court that his first name is actually Frank (Sloan being his middle name.) A 17 year ICM veteran, his promotion to co-president was known internally “for up to nine months” before the February 2007 announcement. He drew up the renegotiation offer for Abate and “made it clear how important [Abate] was as an employee.” Harris also asserted that his promotion “had no effect on ICM’s opinion on Abate’s potential for growth within the company.”

Like Newberg, Harris never heard Abate mention Endeavor, but did hear complaints about conditions at ICM’s offices in the wake of of the company’s merger with Broder in the fall of 2006. But Harris saw things differently, saying he thought things were “looking up” and the company’s finances were improving. Harris also tried to feel out specifics from Abate with regards to a decision on the contract renewal but got nowhere.

On February 9, Harris got the news in a closed-door meeting with Abate around 9:45. He muttered an expletive and then congratulated Abate, informing him that while he “couldn’t stay in the offices any longer, he could leave in a graceful way and had the respect of ICM,” a statement Abate was grateful for. Harris was upset to lose a trusted colleague but worked hard to show him respect, both on February 9 and in the correspondence thereafter about collaboration contracts, submission issues and other concerns. Harris said he called Abate’s clients only after the news leaked to the internet. And when Kaplan tried to bring up Harris’s talks with other agencies, he made a clear distinction: “I don’t believe speaking with another agency is inappropriate, but formal talks and violating contracts is another matter.”

Finally, A. Michael Weber and Brian Kaplan delivered their closing arguments, making clear that they have vastly differing views of what happened, whether Abate’s contract was violated or ICM is an anticompetitive company. The near continuous stream of objections and verbal patter will only produce a preliminary result, but rest assured, if this goes to a full trial, we’re in for a seriously long haul here – the kind of long haul promised to Abate by Endeavor if it should bear fruit. And even though it could not have been the court’s intention, the public airing of ICM business dealings could have ramifications in the publishing world for a very long time as it illustrates the pros and cons of a corporate approach to agenting and perhaps more importantly, what happens when personal friendships and business mix in Molotov cocktail-style fashion.