Tuesday, June 19, 2012

"Why Don't We Have You Under Contract?"

For a very short time, I worked on a situation comedy’s writing staff, finding myself falling victim to the vagaries of a star who showed up hours late and insulted the writing.  I relinquished that magnificent opportunity to instead write scripts for various comedy series, and go home before dark. 

Where my driving could do less damage on Los Angeles thoroughfares.

I was free, and I was happy.  I got paid considerably less than the writers on staff, but that considerably lesser amount was greater than any salary I had previously received.  So it seemed pretty good to me. 

I was also single, and bought very little.  Not due to financial hardship, or because I was cheap.  I didn’t want anything.  I had a job I enjoyed, I had escaped the Canadian winters, and my employers seemed happy to have me around. 

What else did I need?

After three years of rewarding employment, my bosses relocated to a different studio.  When they created a new show, Taxi, and later, a less successful series, The Associates, I wrote multiple scripts for both of them.  (Nine Taxis, and two The Associates.) 

I was in a really good place.  I had an adequate amount of work, creative satisfaction, a manageable level of stress (more than I currently remember, but less than I subsequently endured), and was acceptably compensated for my efforts. 

So far, so great.

By that time, I had also, among other industry acknowledgments, won one Emmy Award (for a Lily Tomlin special) and had been nominated for two others (for a second Lily Tomlin special and an episode of The Mary Tyler Moore Show (“Ted’s Change of Heart.”) 

Inevitably, my achievements gave me the opportunity to create a show of my own, which I did.  It was called Best of the West, and, at least at first, it looked like a hit.  The Best of the West pilot ranked seventh in that week’s ratings.  (It was ultimately cancelled after one season.)

I had done quality work for seven years.  I had a respected reputation.  And a series on the air.  

It is not unexpected that I attracted some attention.

The president of the studio’s television division’s name was Gary – cinder block stocky, closely cropped hair, and an Italian last name.  Put them all together, they spell “Tough Guy.”

I had never met Gary before, but we did have some history, he and I.  When we finished the pilot, I ordered a bunch of Best of the West-engraved lawman’s badges to be struck, which I distributed to the cast and crew as mementoes.  When Gary heard about it, he sent word that he wanted four of them for himself.

I reflexively balked at this demand, and sent him one.  The word came back that Gary was not pleased, having felt shorted to the tune of three badges.  I was immediately summoned to my bosses office – though it was my show, the ownership credit belonged to my supervisors – and instructed that reparative amends needed to be initiated.

I ordered extra badges to be struck, and sent three additional ones to Gary, along with an obligatory letter of apology. 

Power had prevailed.  I felt physically ill.  Welcome to show business.

Weeks later, Gary sent word – the big guys always “send word” – that he wanted to see me.  Since he was not feeling well, I was required to drive to his house for the meeting.  I hate driving to new places.  I can never find them.  This situation was compounded by the fact that I didn’t want to go.

There were half a dozen people at the meeting, Gary and his minions, and me. 

“Why haven’t we got you under contract?” he inquired, after some uncomfortable moments of obligatory chitchat.

What Gary was referring to was what the studios call an “overall deal”, which works like this.  The studio negotiates, typically, a two-year contract, for which a writer is paid a lump sum of money distributed weekly, guaranteeing that writer’s services exclusively to that studio.  In practical terms, this meant, if you had an idea for a television series, you were contractually obligated to bring it to them.

The “overall deal” was a way of tying up highly regarded writing talent, and to most writers, it would be considered a vote of confidence, an upgrade, a financial acknowledgement of your significance in the marketplace.  The amount of the contract was substantial (the going rate being considerably higher than I was currently being paid.)  Most significantly, the money was guaranteed.  In contrast to – your series gets cancelled, and you’re out on the street.  

It all sounds good, right? 

And yet…

When I heard “Why don’t we have you under contract?”, I detected an acquisitive gleam in Gary’s eye, and I interpreted his question to be, “Why isn’t our studio’s brand on you?”

Despite its obvious advantages, Gary’s offer was not entirely appealing.  It felt too “possessory”, Gary seeming less interested in insuring my exclusivity as a writer than in counting me among his string of highly prized polo ponies, or – going shorter and faster – making me a freedom-deprived member of his pack of team-logoed greyhounds.

I neglected to mention one other requirement in the “overall deal.”  If you were not pulling your weight, you could be unilaterally “assigned” to one of the studio’s current series, to defray the cost of your guaranteed contract.  Sometimes, you could negotiate a “no assignment” exception clause, but I was not then in a position to do so.

The studio in question produced good shows – that I was already working on – and shows I did not care for, one of which involved Tom Hanks dressed up as a woman.  My concern was being “assigned” there.  Which I was certain Gary the “Badge Grabber” would not hesitate to do.

Here’s how I responded to his proposal.  Consider it comparable to coming to school in the morning and immediately handing the bully your lunch money.

I told Gary that what was considered the most essential part of the “overall deal”, he already had. 

I explained that if I came up with a series idea, though I had no contractual obligation to do so, I would inevitably bring it to them anyway.  I had no relationship with any other studio.  It would be the natural place to go.  

In effect, I was offering a better deal than he had suggested – the same arrangement, but at no extra cost.

Gary was not entirely satisfied – because he was not getting his way – but since there was no incentive to induce me to do otherwise, he reluctantly agreed that the current arrangement would continue. 

I certainly showed him, don’t you think? 

“Quadruple my salary?  Guarantee my contract?  Proclaim to the entertainment community that I am a writer worthy of contractual exclusivity?  No, thank you.”

And so it was, and so it remained. 

Until years later, when another studio offered me an “overall deal”, and I took it.  By then, I was older.  I had ridden the show business rollercoaster.  I was married with a family.  They were offering me a pot-load of money.  And most importantly, the studio was just breaking into the comedy business, and there were no Tom-Hanks-in-a-dress series to “assign” me to.

I had ultimately sold out.  But it wasn’t to Gary. 

He may have gotten his badges. 

But he never got me.

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