By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
Then, like now, every bargaining quagmire is a headline. We all know that the last Sopranos negotiation for James Gandolfini went down to the wire. NBC tried to convince the Seinfeld cast to accept parent company General Electric stock options. Frasier’s renewal talks were going nowhere until NBC’s then–West Coast head Don Ohlmeyer stepped out of the Betty Ford clinic and into negotiations. Taking it to an extreme, Law & Order and its spinoffs replaces actors rather than negotiate. It’s all symptomatic of the way in which Hollywood has gone from creative to corporate.
“It boils down to credibility. The trust is gone,” said one participant. “Now it’s playing angles, getting an edge, and a handshake is useless in this business unless you’re doing business with friends.”
Today’s arid Hollywood landscape has made every studio and network and production company even more tightfisted in this ad-challenged environment. And while no negotiation with any of the suits is ever pleasant, dealing with Murdoch’s bunch in business affairs is like having a root canal without Novocain.
But this is Hollywood, and no one’s claiming to cure cancer here. Which is why these negotiations are like a game of five-card stud, all about who’s bluffing, who’s buying the pot and who’s leaving money on the table. “If you memorialize the process of playing poker, and let everybody else at the table know how you played your hand,” one participant explains, “that makes you a less effective poker player for the next game. It’s simple pragmatism.”
The New York Times PR salvo had its intended effect. A day after the story, Peter Chernin, News Corp.’s number two, told the actors’ reps that even though the article had damaged the negotiations “beyond repair,” he was nevertheless going to meet with Simpsons producer James L. Brooks to save the day. Twenty-four hours later, Fox put an offer on the table. But, before that could happen, Brooks’ ICM agents demanded the actors send Brooks a letter of apology for putting their interests ahead of the Simpsons “community,” including writers and animators. Grudgingly, a non-apology apology was sent.
Over the next two weeks, inch by inch, point by point, the negotiations began to move, culminating this past Thursday in that all-day face-to-face at Fox, followed by a one last-ditch effort by the flop-sweated reps to see if more money could be wrung from Fox. It could. By the time of the Friday night conference call, the mood was more of relief than revelry. No, despite their clamoring, the actors did not win any lucrative back end percentage. Nor did they improve their credits issues, like asking for their names to come at the start of the program (instead of the close), and to appear somewhere on the DVD box (they're not on the packaging, although the names of guest stars like Jose Conseco and -- yikes! -- Michael Jackson are). But they did double their salaries (reportedly from $135,000 to $250,000 per episode) and they did get a signing bonus. Over the weekend, an email from Nancy Cartwright, (the voice of Bart among others) sent kudos all around: "Although we didn't get everything we were going for, we certainly made HUGE strides, not only for ourselves personally, but for the entire voice-acting facet of the industry."
Just a few days later, on Tuesday, a Fox business-affairs honcho let it be known that he wanted the actors’ signatures on their contracts in two days max, before the scheduled table reading.
“They don’t trust us,” one rep said with the kind of sadness that, in Hollywood, you can take all the way to the bank.
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