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Poker with The Simpsons

So everyone not in showbiz is focused on the final episode of Friends Thursday. Admit it, didn’t we in the know stop watching ages ago? When Rachel was still blond? And Joey still svelte? They may have gotten older and they may have gotten fatter, but they did it together, always negotiating en masse so that no one actor could be picked off come contract time. More recently, The Grim Programmer had been threatening to pull the plug on that cooler cast of TV characters — Homer, Marge, Bart and Lisa.

The voices behind the animated Simpson extended family learned from Friends that there was strength in numbers, but their negotiations still turned into a true bloodletting because Fox at first assumed that since the characters were animated, the actors behind them were expendable.

Even though there wasn’t any yelling and screaming or Ovitz-ian “You’ll never work in this town again,” the implied threat was always hanging in the air like a guillotine, not just for the actors, but also for their reps. Bargain too hard and, to paraphrase Bart, your shorts will be eaten. Not only would the plug be pulled on the Fox series, but also on a Simpsons appearance scheduled for the 2005 Super Bowl. (Yes, these things are planned that far in advance.)

It was so tense at one point that, when the two sides broke for lunch, they sat at opposite ends of the studio commissary. (The actors’ reps plotted how to get Fox to pick up the tab, but they couldn’t even persuade the suits to do that.) There were final offers, absolutely last final offers, and positively and absolutely final, final, FINAL offers. And when it was nearly and mercifully over last Friday around 7 p.m., about a dozen different Hollywood toughs hung on the phone together for as long as 45 minutes and, to kill time, told agent and lawyer jokes.

That was the situation behind the scenes at the bargaining to renew the contracts for The Simpsons' six principal voice-over actors: Hank Azaria, Nancy Cartwright, Julia Kavner, Dan Castellaneta, Harry Shearer and Yeardley Smith. All had lawyers, most had managers, a few had agents, and some even had multiple lawyers, managers and agents - 20 or more in tow. After nine years of staggering the contracts, Fox had somehow let the actors' pacts expire simultaneously six years ago. Two previous collective bargaining episodes -- in 1998 and 2001 -- had been bumpy, sure, but nothing like what happened when the contracts expired at the end of 2003. "Before, the actors had a different resolve. But now the The Simpsons was the longest running sitcom ever, and the show was making history," explained one participant. Months of on-again/off-again talks had stalled, culminating in a March 19 letter from Fox stating, in effect, we don't think these negotiation are in our best interest and we're suspending them. Now Fox wasn't even returning the reps' calls.

A flurry of small press snippets, obviously planted, began portraying the actors as ungrateful SOBs who were striking, walking off the job and refusing to attend readings because they weren’t being paid gazillions for their so-called one-hour-a-week’s worth of work. This followed a series of threats that the actors would all be replaced. Furious and getting more furious, the thesps realized they were losing the PR war. After all, they had started on The Simpsons earning just $3,000 an episode. (One insider groused, “The guy who gets the coffee at Fox gets paid more than that.”) So they hired the crisis ghouls at Sitrick and Company and had a few of their reps sit down with The New York Times. The newspaper’s April 14 article announced to the world, and most problematically to Wall Street, that The Simpsons family had their yellow feet almost out Fox’s door.

Now the stakes were huge — not just the actors’ livelihoods, but also for what parent company News Corp. chairman Rupert Murdoch often greedily refers to as “Fox’s greatest single asset.” That was backed up by a forensic accounting report paid for by the actors, and then pooh-poohed as inaccurate by Fox, that The Simpsons represent a $2.5 billion pot of platinum. Though the name of the accountant who prepared the study was kept secret, Fox nevertheless suspected one guy and read him the riot act.

Also looming was a supposed May 1 deadline because the Writers Guild contract was ending, and even though negotiations were continuing to prevent a strike, the show felt it had to lock up writers by then if there was going to be another season. On top of that, the upfronts would start 16 days later, and before the network could present its fall schedule to advertisers in an orgy of presentations and parties, Fox had to lock in The Simpsons. Finally, and most bizarrely, the series’ voice-over actors had to record their characters’ 2005 Super Bowl bits like, yesterday, so the animators had enough time to create magic, baby.

Little wonder that the weeks of phone conferences were torturous enough to bring on irritable bowel syndrome in each participant.

Add this to the litany of horrible negotiations in Hollywood’s rich and sullied history of horrible negotiations. In the days of the studio slave system, renegade talent and their reps were blackballed. In more recent times, TV moguls have famously kicked to the curb “money-hungry” stars like Suzanne Somers, Valerie Harper and nearly Don Johnson.

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.

E-mail at deadlinehollywood@gmail.com.

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