TV pacts are back — with strings attached

Scribes tackle more responsibilities for lower paydays

TV pacts are making a comeback — but with plenty of caveats.

Starting two years ago, the double whammy of the writers strike and economic meltdown put studio dealmaking at a standstill for TV scribes. Now, the studios are once again expanding their exclusive producing deal rosters.

But the pacts are not back in a form that veteran scribes and producers would remember them.

These days, there are megasized eight-figure deals for top-tier talent like J.J. Abrams, Jerry Bruckheimer, Chuck Lorre and Ryan Murphy … and then there are the down-to-earth deals that are still harder for seasoned scribes to command than they were five years ago. And unlike the go-go days of the 1990s, writers under exclusive contract to studios are typically being drafted to work on existing shows while they develop their own pilot ideas.

As evidenced by Variety’s survey of TV pacts, the major studios still have about 300 writers, producers and multi-hyphenates under exclusive long-term contract — even after the force majeure bloodbath that saw the majors eliminate at least 80 such deals from their rosters during the nadir of the WGA strike in January 2008.

And while predictions that overall deals would become a thing of the past didn’t come true, everyone on the management and labor side of the equation will tell you that the dynamics of dealmaking are very different today.

“The rumors of the demise of the overall deal market are greatly exaggerated,” says William Morris Endeavor senior agent Ari Greenburg. “That said, the rules and marketplace have changed — pure development deals are harder to come by. But talented writers and producers with good relationships are always able to find a home. That home may require some series services.”

ICM’s co-head of TV lit, Chris von Goetz, calls the uptick in the number of deals made over the past two years “promising.”

“The good news is deals are getting done,” says von Goetz. “But it’s not quite the old days, where people could make a deal and sit around and get paid.”

The majority of writer deals these days are what industry players like to call “showverall” deals. In those cases, writers are given a certain amount of money to write on a show for a year.

For a writer with experience, a typical deal might command fees of around $40,000 per episode, or $880,000 a season, plus WGA scale for episodes they have teleplay or story credit on, which can bring their take-home pay to $1 million or more. Then they’re also given a script fee (maybe around $250,000) on top of that to develop outside of the writers’ room. That gets them up to a dollar figure (in this scenario, around $1.25 million a year) that could be described loosely as an “overall.”

“It’s shocking how low some of these deals are,” says one agent. “Some of these deals are just 13 episodes with a little premium on top. They’re being called ‘overalls,’ but they might be just half a million dollars. They’re almost like (series) staffing deals.”

But for the average writer with a deal, the pact usually comes out to between $800,000 (on the low end) and $1.5 million (at the high end) a year for two years — with the agreement that they’ll work on one of the studio’s shows while also developing a pilot or two. That’s significantly down from the $3 million-a-year benchmark of a decade ago.

“The biggest difference from years past is the studios won’t pay that big exclusivity premium for just being in business with people,” one tenpercenter says. “Most midlevel deals are going to have some component of trying to make sure they make sense.”

That exclusivity “is a good thing and valuable,” says 20th Century Fox TV chairman Gary Newman. “But it just became too expensive in this marketplace.”

Newman says leaner times forced a rethink on the studio side.

“I think what the studios recognize is that in the overall deal craze of the 1990s and early 2000s was an extremely inefficient way to manage your development budget,” he says. “A lot of money was being spent in exclusivity when you were getting nothing more than show services. Or you were getting a pilot script, but paying two, three, four times the market value of the pilot script because you were holding them exclusively.”

In handing out overall deals these days, Newman says he’s looking for writers who are servicing a show “that we have a fair amount of confidence in (in) both its longevity and value.” The studio also is looking for “someone who has inspiration, and someone who has their own story to tell.”

The current state of pacts is also market-driven, and the studios as a whole are being more deliberate in their deals. Midlevel writers have been hit the hardest, as scribes who paid their dues for several years on a hit show have discovered that’s no longer enough to be automatically handed an overall deal.

“What’s hard is if you’re, say, the third guy on ‘Fringe,’?” says one agent, before offering up another example: “Warner Bros. doesn’t have ‘Two and a Half Men’ deals. At the same point in the life of ‘Will and Grace,’ season eight, (virtually everyone) on that staff had overall deals.”

There also remain fewer comedies out there, which has led to fewer sitcom writer deals. And that’s fed a vicious cycle: Fewer sitcoms mean fewer writing jobs; that means fewer writers moving up the ranks to where they might be ready for an overall pact.

“The marketplace was diminished by a lack of successful comedies,” says Newman. “People were grateful to be on a show considered to be successful and knowing that they’d have employment.”

Meanwhile, every studio also has its own philosophy when it comes to striking deals with producers and writers.

At Warner Bros. TV, the studio has centered its efforts — quite successfully — on pod deals, most recently adding the Josh Schwartz/Stephanie Savage label Fake Empire to its mix.

“They have so many shows to service, that’s their strategy,” one agent says. “Every one of their giant shows are these big, premium license-fee deals with the networks. Those big premium license fees come from the likes of J.J. Abrams, Jerry Bruckheimer and McG. There are few writers that command those premium fees.”

Pods, another exec adds, still give studios the equivalent of a subsidiary team of development execs and talent scouts, allowing studios to divert some of their resources elsewhere.

Twentieth Century Fox TV has made a handful of major deals with Imagine TV and big names like Shawn Ryan, Murphy, Seth MacFarlane and Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci. But its other pacts are assignable, working deals.

Sony Pictures TV recently trimmed its roster of some pods — including Eric and Kim Tannenbaum’s Tantamount (which moved to CBS TV Studios) and Denis Leary’s Apostle — while keeping a handful such as Jamie Tarses’ Fanfare. Otherwise, Sony is looking to spend more on writers.

Ditto Universal Media Studios, which appears to have spent more on writers than anyone else this past year — thanks to the new mandate at the Peacock to actually spend more money on development.

The other network-aligned studios, ABC Studios and CBS TV Studios, mostly are sticking to the business at hand, signing decent-sized deals with their star showrunners and producers to keep them in the fold.

“Warner or Sony or 20th can say, ‘I can sell your show anywhere,’ ” one producer says. “CBS, NBC and ABC can’t.”

On the boutique side, there’s more movement, as the success of cable dramas is fueling more deals than there used to be. Fox TV Studios, for example, just added “White Collar” creator Jeff Eastin to its roster. And Lionsgate’s success with cable has fueled overall deals with Matt Weiner (“Mad Men”), Jenji Kohan (“Weeds”) and Clyde Phillips (formerly of “Dexter”).

“What we’re trying to do is maximize our resources,” says Fox TV Studios exec veep David Madden. “I don’t have the ability to participate in an auction for a J.J. Abrams or Jerry Bruckheimer overall deal. So we instead target our money toward people who we know are not only talented but (whom) we have
a creative rapport with.”

Not only is the success of cable dramas fueling optimism that there’s still plenty of demand for scribes, but the recent one-two-three sales punch of “The Big Bang Theory,” “Modern Family” and “Glee” into syndication also bolstered the contention that there are still hits to be made.

To cultivate those hits, of course, you need seasoned writers.

“Everybody wants players, and the business is still healthy and vibrant,” one agent says. “(And while) it feels like they’re not making as much now … well, people want to watch TV, and people will pay for it.”

Overall deals are a strange part of studio culture: Execs proudly tout their stable of talent, at times, and seek splashy headlines when they secure a big signing. But in other instances, execs try to keep their dealmaking scope low-key, lest the corporate bean-counters get nervous or other scribes on the roster grow jealous.

Part of that reasoning is simple: Dealmaking is cyclical. No one wants to be pegged saying one thing when the marketplace suddenly heads in the other direction.

One longtime studio and network exec says it’s helpful to take a historical look at the ups and downs of the overall deal business. Big pacts were a regular occurrence until 1988, when that year’s writers strike put a stop to them.

It wasn’t until the mid-1990s that such deals came back into vogue — spurred by a frenzy at the studios and networks for anyone who ever set foot in the writers rooms of “Friends” or “Seinfeld.”

To this day, whenever anyone cites the excess that comes with out-of-control, big-bucks deals that yield little payoff, they mention “Friends.”

“Twelve, 13 years ago, anyone who came off ‘Friends’ was making these ridiculous deals,” one agent says. “That was the heyday. If you didn’t get a couple million bucks a year, you were a loser.”

Back then, those deals also didn’t come attached to any show services, which meant Starbucks and Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf shops all over town were populated by writers being paid … to sit and write all day at a Starbucks or Coffee Bean. The vast majority of those deals ran their course without delivering a new “Seinfeld” or a new “Friends.” And by the 2000s, the sitcom genre itself was at a low ebb.

“People really looked at the crazy money being spent,” one rep says. “And it didn’t make any sense. The economics of the business changed.”

Even before the 2007-08 writers strike, deals had been reined in. But there was usually at least one studio, desperate for hits, willing to open its wallet and drive up the marketplace. Recall Michael Ovitz’s Artists Television Group, which broke the bank on overall deals during its brief existence — which is at least partially why its existence was so brief.

Eventually, the writers strike and the economy’s plunge put the brakes on any but the most sensible deals.

“You don’t have today the luxury of excess,” one exec says. “That doesn’t mean that it won’t happen. And it ebbs and flows. I don’t see it coming back immediately, the way the economy looks. In some ways now, studio dealmaking is much more of a meritocracy.”

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