Hard times breed rich deals

Despite poormouthing, webs have cash for A-list star shows

It’s a classic Hollywood paradox: The tougher the times, the dumber the deals.

Even as the networks and studios cry poverty in the face of a drastically depressed ad economy, their purse strings seem to mysteriously loosen the moment a hot writer or thesp comes on the market.

Holiday parties and messenger service are luxuries; spending $2 million to hold on to an A-list star who may or may not end up in a show is a fact of life. As in so many other showbiz sectors, TV’s top tier talent keeps getting richer, those at the bottom just get by — and the middle class gets squeezed out of the mix.

Consider some recent examples of TV’s welfare for the rich:

  • NBC gave Rupert Everett (“My Best Friend’s Wedding”) a guaranteed 13-episode payday — worth well over $1.5 million — to star in a comedy that hasn’t even been written yet. ABC made an even richer deal with Jimmy Smits, even though the net’s last pact with the former “NYPD Blue” star netted nary an inch of film.

  • Warner Bros. TV shelled out more than $1 million to secure the services of Anne Heche in a TV series to be created later (maybe). Heche, who’s never starred in her own show or proven an ability to open a feature pic, gets the money even if her project fails to get on the air.

  • ABC and Fox are engaged in a high-stakes bidding war to land the rights to a new version of Irwin Allen sci-fi skein “The Time Tunnel.” When it’s all over, one network will likely commit more than $4 million to the project before a single word is written.

  • Studios USA agreed to pay nearly $8 million to sign scribe Paul Attanasio (“Quiz Show”) to a three-year overall deal.

Network and studio execs insist they’re doing all they can to control costs, particularly since Sept. 11.

Mid-level writers who recently fetched a million dollars for a script now have to “settle” for $250,000. Execs say there are far fewer “insane-o” deals to be had, and that even those pacts are less rich than they would have been a year or two ago.

Nonetheless, execs argue they have no choice but to step up in order to remain in the game.

“In a business where a sucker seems to be born every minute, it’s very difficult to remain fiscally disciplined at all times — even if your better judgment tells you to be,” says one top-level network exec.

“There’s always someone out there willing to pay the high prices, and it forces the rest of the marketplace to go where they’d rather not go.”

With a failure rate hovering close to 90%, network TV is inherently bad business. But never does the old maxim “you’ve got to spend money to make money” apply more than in primetime.

After all, despite the need to tighten belts, much time and money are required to come up with that elusive hit. For every “Friends” there are 20 shows like “Bob Patterson.”

“This is not a day-to-day business of generating a certain margin,” says Alliance Atlantis Entertainment prexy Peter Sussman. “It’s almost a day-to-day business of losing a certain amount, waiting for a hit show to come along and then pay for some of the bad stuff (via syndication). In that kind of environment, of course it’s going to be a business that will experience extremes.”

And although most shows are destined to lose money, networks and studios are still afraid of imposing too many limits on costs — especially because the 500-channel universe has made the competition for eyeballs more fierce.

After all, spending less on critical elements such as casting may be what keeps a project from turning into a hit.

“It’s a very difficult line we all walk, trying to balance the risk and reward with right level of commitment,” Sussman says.

“You have take your shots,” adds one network exec. “I don’t think you can run your business by saying, ‘We’re not going to play.’ You’ve just got to be really discriminating.”

Not everyone is buying the webheads’ calculated Chicken Little-like pronouncements that the economic sky is falling.

“Their ad revenue, what they sold at the upfronts, has not rolled back all that far,” one studio exec says. “I know the spot market must be terrible, I’ll accept that. But they didn’t do all that badly; you could make a case that the last year or two were aberrations.”

That’s the minority opinion. Most TV industry insiders believe economic pressures post-Sept. 11 are only going to get worse, resulting in further budget-tightening.

Congloms are already starting to shift money back into the film side of their business, leaving even less coin available for the TV end of their empires. Several networks have already said they’ll develop far fewer comedies and dramas for 2002-03 than they did this season, saving tens of millions.

And, webheads insist, they will be cutting back on even the big deals. Unless, of course, it’s for a writer or star they really, really need to sign.

“The name of the game is still to put points on the board,” one TV insider says. “And the worse times get, the deeper people seem willing to dig to ensure that happens.”

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