A Legal Minute: One Big Happy “Modern Family”
If you’re a television fan, you could not help but notice that over the past week one of the big stories was the tense contract negotiations between the six adult cast members of Modern Family with the producer, 20th Century Fox Television. According to reports 5 of the Modern Family cast members will get raises from $65,000 per episode, and one (Ed O’Neill) will get a raise from $105,000, to slightly more than $150,000 per episode. Their raises will also include significant bonuses that means their compensation will be about $170,000-$175,000 per episode. They will also get a significant cut of the show’s back end.
The deal in itself is significant, but not groundbreaking. Nowadays, as shows get bigger, it’s not uncommon for actors to band together to get raises. Most notably the cast of Friends, years ago, decided to band together to make a then record $1,000,000 per episode in the show’s final season. The thing that makes this story so interesting is how well it highlighted the particular leverage the actors used to get their deals done.
The six adult actors of Modern Family filed a lawsuit in California Superior Court to have their current (before the renegotiation) acting contracts voided, due to how they were written. The contracts they entered bound the actors to the show from February 2009 to June 2016. These contracts violate the California “7 Year Rule.” The Rule prohibits personal service contracts that run longer than 7 years and here they fell just outside that range.
Breaking it down to a simpler level, most shows, in order to maintain stability, like to sign actors to a long term deal, and most actors, because they want to be attached to a series for the stability, often sign long term deals. The problem is, the 7 Year Rule has been used effectively for years to limit the ability of studios to enforce these deals (as well as to void other entertainment related contracts).
What puzzles me most is the willingness of production companies to still sign actors to these long term deals that violate the California law. Normally they are structured as shorter term deals that have some language that automatically extends the deals (as was the case here), and this is what the actors’ lawyers use to add leverage to renegotiations. But while the strategies used by TV studio attorneys may be called in to question, at least one thing is certain. Modern Family is still with us and thank goodness too, because otherwise ABC comedy would take a huge hit.
Oh, and by the way, did I mention that the child actors are now attempting to renegotiate their deals as well? We’ll see how that goes and keep you informed.
Roberto “R.C.” Rondero de Mosier is an attorney licensed to practice law in Texas, California, New York and Illinois. He is a partner at Gonzalez & Mosier Law PLLC. His practice specializes in Entertainment Law and Intellectual Property rights. In his spare time he enjoys watching television and films, and writing about it. Follow him on Twitter @showbizattorney, or e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org
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