A television industry contract is like a pre-nup: mainly about the probability of a relationship going belly up, says Rob Long.
It’s a rare showbiz divorce when nobody loses
Entertainment industry contracts are a little like California marriages: they’re complicated legal documents that devote most of their language to what happens when the thing goes belly up. Where a typical Hollywood marriage entails a multi-chapter prenuptial contract, a typical Hollywood contract – for writing and producing services, say – is a thick, tortuously-worded road map for who gets paid what when it falls apart.
For the past 18 months, I’ve been trying to launch an ambitious, slightly demented half-hour comedy series on a US cable network. It’s a dark comedy – there’s a fair amount of unexpected violence and salty language – and it’s the kind of show that this particular network has been clamouring for. So, when the bad news came, it was a surprise.
A few million dollars spent on a pilot episode, a little bit more on a terrific cast, a considerably smaller sum on my writing and producing services – none of this mattered, ultimately. The network decided not to move forward with the project.
That happens, of course. I’m a grown up. I’ve been in the TV business for 25 years, so I’m hard to catch off guard when it comes to getting bad news. I’ve learnt over the years that the more enthusiastic you are about a project, the more likely it is to break your heart.
The explanation from the network was disarmingly simple. They liked the basic premise of the show. And they liked the main character. But they didn’t much like anything else. What they wanted was to “rethink” and “refresh” the concept, bring in a new creative team – made up, conveniently, of writers and actors they already have a multi-million-dollar production deal with – and reshoot a rewritten script.
When the prefix “re” appears that often in an email from a television network’s lawyer, it can only mean one thing: the cheques are about to stop coming.
The network had outgrown me. They were in love with another set of writers. I no longer made their heart go pitter-pat. In other words, the network was divorcing me.
So when the network lawyer called my agent a few days ago, to offer up terms of the separation, what he offered was surprising. The terms were unusual enough that my agent called up my lawyer, and the two of them talked for a long time – exactly how long I’ll find out when I get the bill – before tracking me down with the news.
Tracking me down, as it turned out, wasn’t easy. Despite my breezy and braggadocio claims to being a “grown up” and a professional of 25 years, I’ve actually spent the past week or so deep in a childish sulk. When I heard the news about my pet project, I packed up the car and the Labrador retriever and headed north along the California coast to Big Sur, where I could walk moodily along the beach, scratch out self-pitying entries in my notebook, and toss a tennis ball into the ocean for the dog to swim out and retrieve.
Big Sur is bounded by the Pacific Ocean and a high mountain range, so mobile phones are an iffy proposition. When I finally connected with my representatives, it took a few moments to hear them properly.
The network wants to pay me more than they owe me under the contract. They want to honour not just the letter of the agreement, but the spirit as well. There’s talk of royalties and percentages and fees above what was agreed to when we all assumed it was going to be a roaring success with me at the helm.
“What are they up to?” I asked my agent.
“I don’t think they’re up to anything,” he said. “I think they recognise that this is an unfortunate situation, and that they’ve treated you poorly, and they want you to be happy enough that you’ll bring your next project to them.”
“What are they up to?”I asked my lawyer.
She said roughly the same thing. Both of my representatives saw no ulterior motive in the offer, nothing sneaky, nothing to be alarmed about. The network was being nice.
“Nice? They’re being nice? Since when is a network nice?” I asked.
“Rob,” my agent said, “you may just have to accept that sometimes things aren’t total disasters, that sometimes networks try to behave honourably. You may have to stop being furious with them. It may be time to stop sulking and fuming and come home and start writing your next script.”
I thought about this.
“What are they up to?” I asked again. And when I figure it out, I’ll head back home.
Rob Long is a writer and producer in Hollywood
On Twitter: @rcbl