Friday, July 27, 2012

The MODERN FAMILY cast holdout

This is a Friday Question I've received so often this week that I want to devote the entire post to it.

Among those asking was Rock Golf.

It sounds like the cast (at least the adults) on Modern Family are working together (well, actually NOT working together) in an effort to renegotiate their contracts (and did I use enough parentheses in this sentence?).

What are your thoughts? As a showrunner, what effect does this have on planning? Do they get support from the writers?

First off, I have no dog in this race. I feel bad for the producers and writers because of the inconvenience. Under the best of conditions, when things are going swimmingly, it’s still a bitch to knock out a good product every week, much less Emmy-winning quality. If this holdout stretches, then showrunners will have to scramble.   There's the possibility of missing air-dates.  Some scripts might have to be rewritten.  It sucks.

But in this case, that's not going to happen.  This will be settled soon, maybe even by the time you read this. 

Some backstory: When an actor signs on for a pilot he agrees to a seven-year contract. There are salary increases built in but they’re usually 4-6%. In a previous post I explained just how hard it is to even get hired in a pilot. (You can find that post here.) And if you are the lucky one, you have to sign your life away.

Two questions you might be asking:

Why seven years? So actors can’t do what the MODERN FAMILY cast is doing.

Isn’t signing a seven year contract a good thing because it means security? No because it’s not a guaranteed seven years. If the show gets cancelled that’s it. If the studio, producers, or network wants to replace you, or kill you (a favorite of TV dramas) they can. You however, can’t just say after year three you want a big raise because the show is making billions or you're tired of being a Klingon.

Not so fair, is it? And this is on top of committing seven years to producers you don’t know in most cases. They could be assholes. They could be insane. Or they could be great guys but they’re replaced in two years and the new producers are assholes.

There’s also the danger that playing one role for seven years could typecast you and ten years from now your career consists of appearing at the Nostalgia Show at the Burbank Marriott signing pictures of yourself next to the table where the robot from LOST IN SPACE is signing way more photos than you are.

So I’m torn. On the one hand, I do see their beef. On the other, there’s something to be said for the integrity of signing a contract and living up to it. Maybe I just spent too much time with John Wooden.

But here’s what the MF actors did: Sofia Vergara, Jesse Tyler Ferguson, Eric Stonestreet, Julie Bowen, Ty Burrell, and Ed O’Neill filed suit against 20th to void their contracts. That’s pretty unprecedented. Partly, they did that for protection. They didn’t show up for the first table reading of the season on Tuesday and the studio could sue them for breach of contract. “Out of good faith”, the cast did appear yesterday for the table reading.  And that olive branch re-opened the negotiations.

Hollywood fact:  Deals get done when the studios and networks feel they need them to get done.   If there's no imperative negotiations can take months or years.  If it behooves the studio or network to close the deal the negotiations can take ten minutes.   The MODERN FAMILY cast had been renegotiating for months.  Now suddenly, the studio presidents and top agents and lawyers found time in their busy schedules to meet yesterday afternoon. 

And something else you should know: Studios are making horrible deals these days. Why? Because they can. If an actor doesn’t agree with the studio's offer for the pilot, there are fifty others who will. Same for writers’ deals. The money is way less than even ten years ago. It used to be your agent could negotiate with the studio. Today the studio says “these are the terms and you have until 5:00 to agree to them, or we move on.” There are enough out-of-work writers that studios can get away with that now. And unlike the actors, writers have no leverage should the show become a smash hit. If actors don’t show up there’s no show. If writers pull that stunt there are seven new writers in the room tomorrow. The public isn’t going to know. But they sure will when they tune in MODERN FAMILY and it’s just Haley and Lilly.

The FRIENDS cast used this ploy and ultimately got a nice settlement. That’s what will happen here too. There will be some compromise. The cast won’t get what they’re asking for but they’ll receive a nice hike – way more than 6%. Everyone will kiss and hug and by the Emmys it’ll be one fucking lovefest.

(Note to the cast of WHITNEY: Don’t you be getting any ideas now.)

Meanwhile, 20th will go to ABC to try to get them to offset the salary increases.  Everyone will cry poor, and everyone will make gazillions.

So what do I ultimately think?  Like I said, this will be resolved soon if not already. I wish the actors well.     Hey, it’s not my money.

I'll be discussing this topic along with several others and plugging my book on the John Phillips Show on 790 KABC in Los Angeles and KABC.COM from 11-noon PDT. 

24 comments:

Charles H. Bryan said...

I never have a problem when the people with the talent insist on sharing in the rewards. We don't tune in because of executives and studios; we tune in for the stories and the performers and the skilled efforts of all of the crew. Some amount has to go to the studios as a reward for taking the risk, but more often, if the studio had come forward and said "Y'know, this has been great, and we want to give you all big fat raises," this could have been avoided (and have actually cost the studio less money).

THR might not get everything right but here's a hint of how much money Modern Family is set to generate: http://www.hollywoodreporter.com/news/modern-family-cast-still-new-352773

Anonymous said...

This was like reading the play-by-play of an intense baseball game. Clear, concise, and entertaining. It's interesting how, as a storyteller, one set of skills can meld into the other.

Good show, Ken!

Birdie said...

I always thought that a standard series contract was for 5 years ( Shelley Long, for example, did not break her contract when she left Cheers; she simply didn't renew it). Has that changed in recent years? confused.

Anyway, good, insightful post - thanks!

The Milner Coupe said...

I think there has always been a line of writers and actors outside the door ready to replace any upstart. What may be different now-a-days is the executive mentality. Sure, we've always complained about the suits, but I can't remember a time when studios cared less about quality or what the public thinks. It's the same Wall Street, business school attitude that permeates everything today. Cars with planned obsolescence, smaller amounts of food in familiar shaped containers, clothes that wear out before the receipt fades, shorter television seasons (schedules) with so many unannounced gaps and repeats that fan loyalty is impossible, semi-retarded politicians that openly lie constantly, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera...

The public? Fuck 'em! They've discovered the great secret, we'll eat shit and thank them. Why? I dunno, we're either stupid, pathetic or both. But until the public demands better treatment (product) and is willing to do without if it's not offered (turn off the tube), the bean counters will gain more and more power and quality is out the window.

Kendall said...

Was reuniting Frasier and Lilith ever a possibility at some point? (on Frasier's show)

Based on Lilith's chronological appearances ("I'm Okay, You're Defective") does that mean that they DO get back together?

gottacook said...

Birdie: Hill Street Blues, another NBC series that started not long before Cheers, was reputed to have had a seven-year contract with its main stars, whose decision not to renew was a large part of the reason for the series ending in 1987 (after 6.5 seasons) - or so I recall it being reported at the time.

T. M. Coupe: I can't agree about planned obsolescence for cars. A new car lasts much longer today than a new car of 15 years ago or earlier did.

David Baruffi's Entertainment Views and Reviews said...

You mentioned directing an episode of "Stark Raving Mad," in one of your reviews. I remember that show, and in fact I remember the pilot episode being incredibly funny and thinking that it could really become a quality hit. Then the show, never worked that well again, and it was soon cancelled. I thought Neil Patrick Harris and Tony Shaloub had great chemistry, and Shaloub's character was especially creative for a sitcom, and then the rest of the series seemed to focus on NPH's issues with his annoying girlfriend, who had a weird name, that was the subject of a mistaken identity episode, where I thought "Really, two people with that name?". Anyway, I guess I'm wondering if you had similar/any thoughts on "Stark Raving Mad," and if you know why that show that, to me anyway, seemed really promising, suddenly didn't work at all?

David Baruffi's Entertainment Views and Reviews said...

You mentioned directing an episode of "Stark Raving Mad," in one of your posts. I remember that show, and in fact I remember the pilot episode being incredibly funny and thinking that it could really become a quality hit. Then the show, never worked that well again, and it was soon cancelled. I thought Neil Patrick Harris and Tony Shaloub had great chemistry, and Shaloub's character was especially creative for a sitcom, and then the rest of the series seemed to focus on NPH's issues with his annoying girlfriend, who had a weird name, that was the subject of a mistaken identity episode, where I thought "Really, two people with that name?". Anyway, I guess I'm wondering if you had similar/any thoughts on "Stark Raving Mad," and if you know why that show that, to me anyway, seemed really promising, suddenly didn't work at all?

Rock Golf said...

Thanks, Ken. And I'm getting help with my parentheses addiction.

Max Clarke said...

Those contracts are exploitive. To honor a contract that gives you maybe a 6-percent yearly raise for a hit show is to tell them, "Keep exploiting me and keep the stack of cash I make for you."

They're right to renegotiate for a new deal. A contract is a contract, true, but so is a new one.

David Schwartz said...

Ken Levine said: "So I’m torn. On the one hand, I do see their beef. On the other, there’s something to be said for the integrity of signing a contract and living up to it. Maybe I just spent too much time with John Wooden."

David Schwartz says: I understand the concept of integrity, but is this type of situation not akin to a starving person signing anything for something to eat? As you said, getting signed on to a pilot is almost impossible. As a result, it seems to me that the actor really doesn't have a choice but to sign a draconian contract no matter what it says. Now, you could argue that the actor can walk away from the table, but when the division of power within the relationship is so lopsided it's tough to do anything but sign the deal and hope you have some renegotiating room later if the project becomes a big hit.

From the 1940's through the 1980's a similar situation existed within the comic book industry where the creators of some of the biggest blockbuster characters ever created got bupkis, or next to bupkis for their creations simply because the publishers would not negotiate. I've heard if a lawyer walked into the room to negotiate with one of these creators the publishers would throw the creator and their lawyer out. As a result, many elderly men got to watch their creations make millions, even billions of dollars for the studios without any compensation (or barely any compensation) at all.

I guess my point is, when you sign an initial contract like this, it is so stacked in the favor of management that if you have a breakout hit I don't think there's any shame or loss of integrity in trying to get a fairer share of the pie. Certainly the studios won't give up anything that isn't compensated many, many times over by the hit program they have on the air.

Mike said...

Thanks Ken -- I was looking forward to your opinion on this almost as soon as I read about it. And as is often the case, I agree with you, so you've proven your wisdom (or more accurately made me feel more confident in my opinion)

And thanks to those who asked the question since I didn't even though I wanted to know what Ken had to say.

Emmett Flatus said...

Trying to break contracts and reneging on commitments is exactly what the modern family would do. Why should these actors be any different?

John said...

The situation sounds like a cross between your average National Football League contract (the owners can sign you for X years, cut you 2-3 years before the contract expires and you get nothing) and the current situation with newspapers and magazines, where the growth of alternate forms of information via the internet has meant declining audiences and revenues, and corresponding cuts in personnel and salaries.

The more entertainment options people have, the less power the people behind any one piece of entertainment have to set their own price, whether it's the New York Times or the shows on ABC's prime time lineup.

And as a side issue, here's a question -- has there ever been an actor/actress on a sitcom who's been just so annoying/awful to work with you came up with script ideas that might have borrowed a little from real life (i.e., writing the character as at least annoying, if now awful, in some particular situation)?

Ane said...

Thanks for your thoughts. I rembember heading about the Friends thing back then, and thinking that it was very Friend-like of them.

cshel said...

I say more power to those actors. They are a huge part of the fact that this show is such a hit. I think it's expected by everyone that this sort of thing will happen down the road, if the show is that successful. The actors are back at work, the negotiations will be settled, and nobody will be the poorer. I wish it were that easy for the writers.

And, by the way, good idea, Ken. They should do one show with just the kids sometime. I can think of about ten good pitches for the stories right now. : )

pumpkinhead said...

The studios sign the actors to draconian contracts... because they CAN. When the balance of power shifts a bit, the actors renegotiate those contracts... because they CAN.

"Because they CAN" is the American way.

Unlike us mere mortals, however, dealing with, e.g., medical establishments and political establishments, that fuck us because they CAN, the actors are lucky enough to experience a shift in the balance of power that we mere mortals rarely do, so, good for them that they're able to renegotiate to balance things out a little.

I may have naively signed some shit that fucked me royally so that I could afford to go to college, but you can bet if I ever experience a shift in the balance of power against the student loan fuckers (no chance, I know), I'll renegotiate the hell out of them.

Jeff said...

Why seven years? Because California law (unlike most other states) limits personal services contracts to seven years. This is one reason why otherwise successful shows wrap after seven years (cf. ST:TNG).

The Mutt said...

Wait, I don't get it. If I sign a seven year contract and they redshirt me in season one, do they still have to pay me for six more years? Am I under a no-compete clause?

Ane said...

I wonder how contracts for child actors are built up. I read that Sarah Polley had a terrible time the last few years she starred in "Avonlea" and was very bitter because she was under contract even though she was only a small child when the series began.

Barry Traylor said...

Never having watched this show I really don't care if the get their $$'s or not. Of course I don't watch any situation comedies any more as none seem all that funny to me. I did enjoy All In The Family, Cheers, MTM show, Bob Newhart, MASH, etc. I saw "Saps At Sea" with Laurel and Hardy on TCM last week for the first time and laughed more than any tv comedy of recent years that I have attemped to watch.

Brian Phillips said...

Ken Levine really blew this one. In this economy, the purse strings are tighter than ever. Modern Family is at risk of...hold on:

http://www.staradvertiser.com/news/breaking/164132916.html

Oh, never mind.

Chip said...

What really bugs me is when the studios attempt (with complicit news orgs like the LA TIMES and KCRW) to paint the actors as money grubbing and rich folk.
This was a ploy I remember as far back as Northern Exposure when that show suddenly hit the top ten and the networks et al were making a fortune.
They always point to the current salary (in this case $65,000) and refer to it as "not that that's chump change".
But no one ever evaluates what that $65K actually represents. It looks HUGE. It LOOKS like 1.3 million a year. More!
But, everyone forgets that the government is going to get their cut. About 30% with a good accountant. Less with a great one. And the agent is going to get 10%. And, it's 21st century Hollywood. No one doesn't have a manager. That's another 10-15%.
Want to stay out of the tab rags? Need a publicist and a lawyer. Let's just put 5% aside for them.
Where are we?
the actor pays out 60%.
So, that 65K is really $26K.
Sure. That's a lot.
But, it's about 1/2 a million a year.
For their likeness. For their work. While the studios rake in gazillions.
No one cries for the studio. But everyone seems to want to hate the money-grubbing actor.
As though they had nothing to do with the success.
They want 200K per episode.
What they are asking for is 80K a year. They want to be rich.
They want to buy houses.
They want to not have to worry about typecasting when the show ends (and it will end).
I know it's more than the average joe makes. But it doesn't happen to every actor. It's like hitting the lottery.
When some schlub hits 100M on the lottery, we don't castigate that person by saying they didn't deserve it and they shouldn't get all that money.
I hope they get every penny.
Plus 10.

Ben said...

Looking forward to reading this post, but let me quickly send in a Friday question before it leaves my addled brain!

At a taping of The New Adventures of Old Christine a few years ago, I noticed it was shot digitally, which meant the crowd had monitors showing the footage as it was shot, and somebody in a booth somewhere was live switching so we had a rough idea of what it would look like edited together. This also meant that we could see the timing of certain camera gags, e.g. the long pan down several character's faces to reveal the final actor doing something silly. We could also see scenes that, due to set construction, were difficult to see from our seats.

In the days of Cheers (and 35mm), was there some sort of vid-tap that fed the crowd what was being shot to monitors, or was it viewed much more like a stage play, and you saw everything at once, and only got the additional camera jokes when you saw it on TV?