SNL’s Killer Contract

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From John Belushi in the 70’s to Eddie Murphy in the 80’s and Mike Myers in the 90’s, many young stars have traded the fame they gained on Saturday Night Live for big money at the box office. Now NBC is taking tough measures–in the form of a new Saturday Night Live contract for first-year cast members–to make sure it keeps its hands on those potential millions.

Anyone joining the cast of Saturday Night Live for the 1999-2000 season must sign a strict new contract with NBC that could tie them to the network for as long as 12 years. Talent agents and managers have been advising clients who are up for jobs not to sign–but the young, eager comics haven’t been able to resist the lure of the legendary show, prohibitive contract or not. The new contracts went out last month, when Saturday Night Live executive producer Lorne Michaels held auditions.

“When I got the agreement, I thought I got the wrong agreement,” said one manager with a client who tried out for the cast. This manager, like others in this story, requested anonymity, fearing the wrath of NBC and Mr. Michaels. “I was like, What is this? To me, this is about NBC not having the right to own you.”

Another agent who represents a comic said: “We were all going ‘bullshit’. It’s like SNL puts a gun to your head and says you’re auditioning. Sign this!”

The new contract for first-year Saturday Night Live players is quite different from the one offered new cast members prior to the start of last season. Saturday Night Live contracts have been traditionally long-term deals, running five or six years. But under the new contract, NBC can take a Saturday Night Live player off the show any time after his or her second year on the program and put him or her in an NBC sitcom. A cast member does have the option of saying no to the first two shows proposed by NBC, but must accept the third, sources on both sides of the contract said. And NBC dictates the length of the sitcom contract, which can run as long as six years.

In a nightmare scenario put forth by the managers and agents, NBC could sign someone to a six-year Saturday Night Live deal and then, conceivably, at the end of that six years, toss them into an NBC sitcom for another six years. Call it indentured servitude, show-biz style. For many comedians, that can represent an entire career.

The new contract would also give NBC and Mr. Michaels considerable say in the movie careers of Saturday Night Live cast members. Under its terms, SNL Films, a production company co-owned by Paramount Pictures, NBC and Mr. Michaels himself, has a three-movie option that would pay the star a set $75,000 for the first film, $150,000 for the second and $300,000 for the third. Those rates used to be negotiated at higher rates. The network can also pay a star similar rates to say no to a movie being made by another studio.

“Now you can tell them, ‘Sorry, you can’t do the Farrelly brothers’ $10 million movie,” said one manager. “‘You have to do the SNL fart movie for $75,000!'”

Mr. Michaels said he feels this is a lot of hullabaloo over nothing. First of all, he said, he’s never been a stickler for contracts when one of his stars has wanted to pursue something else. “We’ve been very, as they say in Hollywood, talent-friendly. So the idea that the whole culture of the place is changing is just idiotic,” he said. “When Mike Myers wanted to take a half-season off because he was going through something personal, he did. When John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd wanted to leave with a year left on their contracts, they did.”

As far as movie payments go, Mr. Michaels said those will, of course, be negotiable. He could not guarantee that NBC wouldn’t pillage his talent for sitcoms, but didn’t think it would happen. Either way, he said, the part of the contract that lets the network sign a star for another five- or six-year contract will probably be retooled. “There will be a different contract,” Mr. Michaels said.

NBC’s Scott Sassa–who started as the network’s West Coast president in June–was standing behind the spirit of tough new contracts.

” SNL , they are the not-ready-for-prime-time players,” he said at NBC’s summer press presentation in Pasadena, Calif. “These are people who are just starting out. I challenge you to name a network, much less a show, that has created this many stars, ever … All we’re asking is, somebody who comes in and is, basically, virtually unknown and young has an opportunity to be on a very, very powerful sketch-comedy show and to be able to launch a film career and be in sitcoms. I think that’s a pretty great opportunity.”

NBC has plenty of reasons of its own to institute the new contracts. Though it once looked invincible in prime time, last season NBC lost its No. 1 status to CBS. And its once untouchable Thursday-night lineup has eroded with the loss of Seinfeld . In short, NBC needs talent, and lots of it. So why not go after Mr. Michael’s star factory?

Meanwhile, NBC executives have apparently grown weary of watching nobodys like Mike Myers and Adam Sandler become famous on Saturday Night Live , then leave to make hundreds of millions of dollars for other studios.

“It’s a spurned-lover thing,” said a manager with a client who signed the deal. “They’ve been burned at the altar by so many people. It’s like a prenup that’s all in favor of one side of the marriage.”

One manager advised a client not to sign the deal. But, the manager said, the client wouldn’t hear it–just like almost everyone else who was called in for an audition.

“You are waving their dream in their face,” said the manager. “Once you say to your client, ‘You’re testing for SNL ,’ they go deaf after that. They don’t care, they will take the risk. I kept saying, ‘It’s a precedent–you cannot let them do this to you.’ But they’re nothing now. They’re not getting paid a dime now.”

While this manager and others interviewed by NYTV said they hoped the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists, or Aftra, would get involved, a representative there said the union probably won’t. The Aftra contract requires that sketch comedy players be paid $950 per episode, far less than Saturday Night Live ‘s starting salary of $5,000 per episode.

According to Mr. Michaels, the new contracts came about during a network reevaluation by Mr. Sassa and his new entertainment chief, Garth Ancier. Both men have worked at networks–Fox and the WB–that were closely connected to movie studios.

“I think both Scott and Garth come from backgrounds where the studio and network coexisted … so I think they’re less fearful or don’t really see it as a problem,” Mr. Michaels said. “Most of these agents are packagers and they saw the network taking stronger stands on packaging. I wish I could say this was all about their clients.” Still, in general, he said, the new contracts were “just handled very badly.” Mr. Michaels said he’s about to audition 25 more comedians. Tonight, on the Saturday Night Live rerun on Comedy Central: Eddie Murphy and Robert Plant. [Comedy Central, 45, midnight.]

Thursday, August 12

The long-running war between CNN president Rick Kaplan and CNN-FN president Lou Dobbs ended in June, with Mr. Dobbs losing and resigning to launch a Web site called Now, CNN-FN sources at 5 Penn Plaza said, Mr. Kaplan is moving in to take the spoils of war–enlisting old Dobbs warriors to produce new stock market programs for CNN, which will launch this fall.

There will be an expanded morning financial show, a closing bell show and a couple of extra, shorter market reports that will run as simulcasts on both networks, under the direction of Mr. Kaplan in Atlanta. In short, Mr. Kaplan himself and his Atlanta-based team will have control over a good portion of the empire Mr. Dobbs spent 18 years building at Ted Turner’s Cable News Network.

And that’s leaving an uneasy feeling on the 20th floor of the CNN building in New York, which is loyal to Mr. Dobbs.

“People here feel like they’re living in occupied France in 1941,” said one CNN-FN staff member. “It seems like there’s a bit of revenge against Lou. They’re trying to take over his future.” Meanwhile, CNN chief operating officer Steve Korn has been spending many of his days in New York, going through the CNN-FN financial records, looking for any improprieties on the part of Mr. Dobbs, a company source said. “They’re looking for a smoking gun so they can lead Lou out with handcuffs with a raincoat over his head,” said the source.

Tonight, watch the revamped Moneyline News Hour with Stuart Varney and Willow Bay! [CNN, 10, 6:30 P.M.]

Friday, August 13

Providence is kind of a girlie show, about a female plastic surgeon who flees Los Angeles for her hometown of Providence, R.I., and has to put her family back together in the wake of her mother’s death. But for some reason, NBC research shows, it did O.K. with men last year. Are they girlie-men? Not necessarily. They just like to watch the show’s star, Melina Kanakaredes. [WNBC, 4, 8 P.M.]

Saturday, August 14

Rob Nelson will soon start hosting his own Saturday-night talk show on the Fox News Channel, and that means a good number of the leaders of the old attempted Generation X political movement have now cashed in whatever celebrity they had for TV jobs. (Think CNN correspondent Jonathan Karl and Fox News Channel correspondent Douglas Kennedy.)

Mr. Nelson founded the group Lead or Leave with a guy named Jon Cowan. His show will be called The Full Nelson and will air Saturdays between 11 P.M. and midnight starting Aug. 21. It will have taped segments followed by Phil Donahue-type discussions with a live audience.

“This TV show’s goal is to wake people up, to inspire people,” said Mr. Nelson.

Tonight on the other Fox channel in Mr. Nelson’s future time slot, it’s Mad TV . [WNYW, 5, 11 P.M.]

Sunday, August 15

Kind of unbelievable, but ABC is rerunning that ludicrous Stephen King mini-series, The Langoliers . [WABC, 7, 9 P.M.]

Monday, August 16

On Monday, Aug. 2, the New York chapter of the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences’ board of governors convened in the West 33rd Street offices of its chairman, WNET president Bill Baker, for a routine business meeting.

These are often quiet, staid affairs, where the board members sip coffee, eat cookies and talk membership and awards show issues.

Not this time. A new member, Shelly Palmer, who runs a West Side production house called Shelly Palmer Productions, asked what the academy was doing to address the likelihood that television and the Internet could soon merge.

Mr. Palmer suggested that the group consider creating an Emmy for Internet programming. Though there isn’t much of it yet–there’s Showtime’s Whirlgirl and the Web site–there certainly will be soon enough, he argued.

Sitting in on the New York chapter meeting was John Cannon, who heads up the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences. Those who were there said he didn’t sound thrilled with the idea.

NYTV called Mr. Cannon up to see what he thought.

He got angry. “There’s no such debate!” he yelled. “I categorically … No, no, no! It’s not the beginning of anything–of anything!” He called back later to give a more measured response: “There’s no academy stand on anything. The academy at this particular time is examining everything. It is not taking positions.”

Tonight, prepare for the future by watching QVC’s Hi-Tech Toys and Electronics show. [QVC, 69, 9 P.M.]

Tuesday, August 17

The executives at CBS decided that Martial Law was getting too wrapped up in the whole detective thing. So this fall, they’re retooling it: more stunts and explosions, less plot and dialogue and more martial arts. Tonight on Martial Law , the star Sammo Hung (no relation to Irish porn star Sam O’Hung) goes to L.A. to find a missing pal. [WCBS, 2, 8 P.M.]

Peter Bogdanovich’s Movie of the Week

The film with the shortest title in movie history is also among the most powerful ever seen: Fritz Lang’s devastating 1931 German-made thriller about a psychopathic child-murderer played with extraordinarily feverish intensity by Peter Lorre, M [Monday, Aug. 16, Turner Classic Movies, 82, 8 P.M.; also on videocassette] , the single letter standing for “murderer.” Released during only the third year of full sound, the picture has in common with certain others of this early talking period (1929-1933) a profoundly exciting use of silent-picture technique at its best combined with innovative and remarkably imaginative use of sound. Such masters of visual storytelling as Lang, Ernst Lubitsch, René Clair and Howard Hawks made the transition with a flair and abandon not really to be seen quite so vividly again. In very different ways, pictures like The Smiling Lieutenant , À Nous La Liberté , the original Scarface , and M share an unconventional spirit of daring experimentation.

Based on the real case of a serial child-killer in Düsseldorf, and written by Lang with his wife at the time, Thea von Harbou, M works brilliantly on a number of levels at once: as a kind of documentary, as a crime melodrama and as a somewhat stylized investigation of urban terror and violence. On the highest plane, Lang intended the film as a plea against capital punishment. There is a distinctly mordant wit behind it all, too, in the way the killer’s terrible deeds plague the underworld and its nefarious activities; the increased vigilance of the city’s authorities make life so difficult for the professional criminals that they finally band together to catch the murderer themselves so that crime can flourish again.

Although M is memorably horrifying, there is almost no violence shown at all; everything that’s most frightening is done through Lang’s superb use of suggestion. The murderer whistles a theme from Grieg and buys his little-girl victim a helium balloon, though she already is playing with a rubber ball. Eventually, he takes her behind some bushes. Silence. After a few moments, the ball rolls out from the bushes and comes to rest at the curb. Then the balloon rises toward the sky, catches briefly against some high electrical wires before continuing off toward the clouds.

I once asked Lang why he had chosen to represent the killing of the child in this way; in our age of constant graphic movie and TV violence, his answer is all the more instructive: “Suppose … that I could show this horrible sexual crime,” he told me. “First of all, it’s a question of taste–and tact … If I could show what is most horrible for me, it may not be horrible for somebody else. Everybody in the audience–even the one who doesn’t dare allow himself to understand what really happened to that poor child–has a horrible feeling that runs cold over his back. But everybody has a different feeling, because everybody imagines the most horrible thing that could happen to her. And that is something I could not have achieved by showing only one possibility–say, that he tears open the child, cuts her open. Now, in this way, I force the audience to become a collaborator of mine–by suggesting something I achieve a greater impression, a greater involvement than by showing it.” (Certainly this concept has well served The Blair Witch Project .)

Equally responsible for the enduringly modern effectiveness of M is the amazing suspension of disbelief achieved by Peter Lorre’s performance–his first large role in films. Both hypnotic and repulsive, he reaches tragic heights in his final scene, spewing forth about the compulsive, inexorable demons that drive him: “I must! I must!” he cries in one of the screen’s unforgettably naked moments. It is Lorre’s greatest performance in the film that Lang himself, to the end of his life, considered his best work. He was right.

SNL’s Killer Contract