Tuesday, June 16, 2009

"Story of a Writer - Part Twenty-Five"

I had spent eight-plus years at Universal. It was there I enjoyed my greatest commercial success (Major Dad) and the biggest office I would ever inhabit. Universal was also the location of the longest contract of my career – four years.

My eight-plus year stay at Universal was comprised of three consecutive deals: the first one lasted two years and four months, the second one, two years, and my final contract – a reward for having a hit show on television – lasted a, for me, record-breaking four. I mention this to give you a measuring stick for show business job security. A two-year contract was forever. Earlier in my career, my jobs lasted four weeks.

It’s funny about these, what they call, “overall” deals. “Overall” or “Development” deals are agreements between a major studio or production entity and a writer considered to be a “desirable talent.” You became a “desirable talent” because of your association with hit show. I was considered a “desirable talent” because of my connection with the MTM shows, Taxi and, particularly, The Cosby Show.

(Someone looking for a topic for a “media” dissertation might want to chart precisely how many “overall” deals actually paid off with successful new series. Scarily few, by my casual calculation. It turns out, writing for Seinfeld doesn’t make you Larry David.)

During an “overall” deal, the studio or production entity pays the “desirable talent” a negotiated sum (generally a substantial sum), delivered in the form of a weekly paycheck, in exchange for the “desirable talent’s” developing new television series exclusively for them, meaning the “desirable talent’s” not permitted to work anywhere else. (In a way, the payment also serves to take the “desirable talent” off the market.)

“Overall” deals are really attractive. To agents. It’s an easy payday. You sign your client to an extended contract, and you don’t have to worry about getting them work, or where your next commission is coming from, or even speak to that client for a couple of years.

It’s as if when a client’s signed to an “overall” deal, the agent’s signed to one too. The agent makes a handful of these deals, and they can leave town for a couple of years. Nobody’d know the difference.

For the writer, however, it’s a little trickier. I imagine not all writers feel this way, but for me, agreeing to an “overall” deal was like signing away my independence. Throughout my whole career, which, to that point, had spanned almost fifteen years, I’d been a total free agent. I could work anywhere I wanted, offering my services to any project that interested me. I was entirely my own man. I felt like a “Paladin.”

“Have Pen, Will Travel.”

“Overall” deals made me uneasy. As a free agent, I would pitch the idea first. If they liked it, they’d pay me for it. To me, that was tangible. It was clean. A script for a check. With an “overall” deal, they were paying me from “Day One”, with the understanding that I’ll come up with an idea later.

What happens if I don’t?

I’ll tell you what happens if you don’t. They put you on Bosom Buddies. Or some other show you’re not interested in. That’s how it worked. You come up empty, and they “assign” you to one of their currently running shows.

They could do that. They owned you. True, some “overall” deals had “no assigning” clauses in them, but come on. Can you really say “no” while you’re taking their money?

“I’d prefer not work on Bosom Buddies.”

“We’d prefer that you do.”

What can you say to that, except…

“So it’s…what? Guys dressed as women?”

The situation played in my brain as a single, nightmarish image. Me, in a picture printed in Variety, “beaming” beside the President of Television, while holding in front of me a “team jersey” with the studio’s name on the front. Guaranteeing "The best season ever!

Dignity. Thy name is not show business.

I agonized over my decision. But with my agent’s encouragement – I believe he was packed for an extended cruise – I finally agreed.

Eight-plus years later…

When my last Universal contract ran out, the executive who used to be at Universal invited me to join him where he was now, which was Paramount. I happily “inked”a two-year pact.

That’s how it works, I guess. You sell out the first time, and the next time is a breeze.


growingupartists said...

Interesting look inside.

growingupartists said...

Hi Earl. Just about to take my kids to camp, and wanted to let you know that my life is better for all the experience you share with us. I'd leave the same comment on Ken's site, but you know how he is with the delete button.

Have a great day!!!

Brian Phillips said...

Thank you for all of your posts! I would also like to say that I just watch your Taxi episode, "Louie and the Nice Girl" was just as wonderful as I remember it. I am glad that I can thank you personally for such a great show.