Terminated deals/scribes shake up industry

While most writers headed back to work Wednesday, scribes who took a force majeure hit last month are still figuring out what comes next.

At least 100 writers were cut from studio rosters in January as the congloms took advantage of the writers strike to trim overhead.

Some of those writers were working on primetime series currently on the air; as per the WGA deal, they’ll be invited to return to the writing staff of the show on which they were working — although their overall deals are still kaput.

Recently terminated scribes who weren’t working, or whose shows aren’t coming back, won’t see their deals reinstated.

“It all stands as is,” said one studio chief. “We’re not even talking about going back and putting those deals back together. We’re obligated to offer show deals to people who were working on series, and we’ll abide by that. But I can’t imagine anyone being brought back otherwise.”

Terminated scribes who will continue on shows through at least the balance of this season were negotiating their fees this week.

Meanwhile, in certain cases, even scribes with jobs still face uncertain weeks ahead. The nets and studios have decided to push back some series to fall, which could mean several more months sans paychecks for some writers.

As for the other suddenly pact-free scribes who are now back on the street, many are wondering what comes next.

“Many of those force majeured are very viable writers and had made real money for the studios but, for whatever reason, were cut,” said one agent who saw a handful of his clients’ deals terminated. “I see a lot of those people landing elsewhere. The next couple of weeks are going to blow by.”

Agents are already starting to aggressively shop many of those force majeured scribes to other studios; scripts that were sacked from development sheets may also be pitched elsewhere.

Whether the studios are interested in jumping into a whole new litany of overall deals — particularly with scribes who have just been laid off by competitors — is another question.

“People tended to get rid of the writers they felt were least promising, having worked with them for a while,” one exec said. “Look over that list, the pickings were relatively slim. But we’re certainly open to script development with writers. And we’re never going to say we’re never going to make overall deals. But we’re going to be extraordinarily more judicious about it.”

The list of force majeured writers includes well-known names. ABC Studios axed Rod Lurie, Barbara Hall, Larry Charles, Peter Horton and several comedy teams (Gabe Sachs & Jeff Judah, Bill Martin & Mike Schiff and Joshua Sternin & Jeffrey Ventimilia). CBS Paramount let go Barry Schindel, John McNamara, Mark Johnson and Rene Echevarria; 20th removed Kevin Falls, Jonathan Lisco and Gretchen Berg & Aaron Harberts.

Nonetheless, one agent said he’s not holding his breath waiting for studios to suddenly reverse course and try to rehire scribes whose deals were cut.

“They’re going to be free agents now, and they’ll try to get on shows,” he said.

On the flip side, spec scripts may continue to grow in importance at the studios and nets — so much so that one studio exec believes the price for prewritten projects may actually increase. What’s more, agents looking to stoke interest in clients may increasingly take those writers directly to the networks, hoping to create a bidding war at the studios.

A big question mark is whether studios will remain stingy when it comes to signing new overall pacts. One agent thinks they will — to a point.

“That guy who was on ‘CSI’ for three years who never developed a show but got a $1.2 million, two-year deal because the studio thought he was a good bet — those deals are going to go away in the short term,” he said. “But people who’ve shown they have a strong voice, they’ll get deals. People who’ve proven they can really run a show, they’ll get deals.”

A studio chief said he can’t justify paying any more “stupid” premiums for talent. If it didn’t make a lot of sense before, it definitely doesn’t make sense now that the networks are pledging to develop fewer projects, he said.

“We just don’t need the same number of writers,” he said. “As the volume of scripts and pilots and even scripted series goes down, we’ve got to be more careful. I don’t think we need a roster the same size to service what will be less development.”

One question on everyone’s mind: Is this newfound financial restraint at the studios permanent, or will one studio break ranks and start opening its wallet, prompting the rest of the industry to do so as well?

“Like sports teams that are on the bottom, a studio that feels more desperate may choose to do it,” one exec said. “That will be hard for all of us, because we’re used to competing so hard. My goal is to try and think more simply about what our needs are and not worry about other people and what they’re doing.

“Ultimately, studios are run for profit, and they’re going to have to make decisions in their own self-interest,” he added. “I hope that doesn’t cause us all to act like idiots again.”

(Josef Adalian contributed to this report.)

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