Thesps say contracts violate 7-year limit; table read hastily scrapped

Simmering tensions in the battle over the spoils from a wildly successful sitcom boiled over in public Tuesday as five “Modern Family” stars filed a lawsuit against 20th Century Fox TV amid a stalemate in their contract renegotiation talks.

The thesps are seeking a bigger payday as recognition of their contributions to the ABC hit. The studio perspective is that a generous six-figure offer is already on the table. The standoff led to 20th TV hastily canceling the table read that had been set for Tuesday morning because the show’s adult actors let it be known they would not take part. The table read would have marked the start of production on the show’s fourth season.

Julie Bowen, Ty Burrell, Jesse Tyler Ferguson, Eric Stonestreet and Sofia Vergara claim in the suit, filed in Los Angeles Superior Court, that the original contracts they signed for the show violate California’s seven-year limit on personal service contracts. That legal precedent was established in 1944 after actress Olivia de Havilland waged a long contract fight against Warner Bros.

The other adult star of the series, Ed O’Neill, was not named as one of the plaintiffs but has since joined the litigation in a show of unity with his co-stars.

The complaint maintains that 20th TV’s pacts with the five thesps should be voided because they violate the letter of the law stipulating that personal service contracts cannot extend past seven calendar years. In common industry practice, actors starting out on a series sign deals that run for seven television seasons. Depending on the time that an actor is signed up for the pilot, the term often runs longer than seven calendar years. (De Havilland fought Warner Bros. when the studio sought to make her work beyond the end of her seven-year contract, claiming she owed them for time she spent on suspension when she refused to take on certain roles assigned by the studio.)

In the case of Vergara, who was signed to a holding deal by ABC in 2007 before she was assigned by the network to the “Modern Family” pilot in October 2008, the complaint states that her contract should not run past 2014 while at present it runs through June 2016. For Bowen, Burrell, Ferguson and Stonestreet, the suit asserts the contracts should not extend past January or February of 2016 rather than June 2016.

Sources said attorney Patti Felker (who reps Stonestreet) and ICM Partners’ Chris Silbermann haven taken the lead in negotiations for the “Modern Family” actors with the exception of O’Neill. ICM reps Burrell, Ferguson, Stonestreet and O’Neill. Attorneys Craig Jacobson (who reps Vergara) and Neil Meyer (who reps Ferguson) have also been heavily involved in the talks.

As the most established actor on the show at the outset, O’Neill started out at a higher pay scale than the other adult thesps, though O’Neill is also in the midst of a renegotiation. The adult cast members on the show have been seeking to renegotiate their contracts on the ABC comedy for more than a year in light of its success on the network and the boffo syndication sale inked in 2010.

ABC is also a factor in the renegotiation because the network will be on the hook to cover all of 20th TV’s production costs once the show reaches its fifth season, per the terms of its licensing pact with 20th TV. The studio and network have been in close contact on the state of the negotiations. Although its costs will eventually be absorbed, the studio is undoubtedly wary of setting a precedent for megabucks deals on future shows.

At present the five actors are said to earn about $60,000-$65,000 per episode, with O’Neill drawing about $100,000 per seg. The studio’s most recent offer to the five thesps was said to be a bump to the $150,000-$200,000 range (included bonuses) for season four, with hikes in subsequent seasons in exchange for the thesps adding two more years to contracts that now run through season seven.

Sources confirmed that 20th TV execs on Tuesday canceled the table read skedded for 11:30 a.m. about an hour before it was set to begin when it became evident that “there would be a lot of empty chairs,” as one source close to the situation put it. Lensing on the first episode is skedded to begin on Monday.

The wrangling over contract terms began to heat up in recent weeks as the start of production on season four approached. It’s understood that when reps for the adult actors let it be known that they would not attend the table read unless there was movement on 20th TV’s offer, the studio responded with a warning that its most recent offer would be pulled if the actors did not show up.

The show’s four younger stars — Nolan Gould, Sarah Hyland, Rico Rodriguez and Ariel Winter — are on the sidelines in the renegotiation fight. The younger thesps had always expected to wait until the adult cast deals were completed before they launched into renegotiations.

Contract renegotiations are commonplace in the TV biz when a show proves a hit, particularly if it scores a major syndication windfall, as is the case for “Modern Family.” The show’s rerun rights landed big bucks ($1.5 million an episode) from USA Network, where the show will bow in fall 2013, and it will generate hundreds of millions more from sales to local TV stations and barter advertising coin in those reruns.

Reps for 20th TV and ABC declined comment. Felker referred questions to Jeffrey McFarland, the Quinn Emanuel litigator who filed Tuesday’s complaint. He did not return calls seeking comment.

The 136-page filing is full of interesting tidbits as it includes as exhibits the original contract agreements for the five thesps.

According to the complaint, Stonestreet started out earning $22,500 per episode in season one and was skedded to receive 4% pay hikes through season seven. In fact, the actors received pay bumps last year in a deal done as a precursor to a more extensive renegotiation that all sides expected to be completed this summer in advance of season four.

Ferguson started out at $30,000 per episode, while Burrell began at $42,500. Bowen, who had more series experience than the other three, commanded $50,000 in season one. Vergara appears to have also started out at $50,000, according to the terms of her holding deal with ABC. According to the complaint, ABC paid Vergara $450,000 for a one-year exclusive holding pact that began in March 2007 after the quick demise of Alphabet comedy “The Knights of Prosperity,” on which she was a regular.

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