Big Bang Theory and Negotiating TV Star Salaries

Nellie Andreeva, writing at Deadline: Hollywood (Coming This Summer To CBS And WBTV: ‘The Big Bang Theory’ Cast Renegotiations), provides some insight into the negotiation strategies used by agents and lawyers when a sitcom becomes a sizable hit:

One of the signature moves of the Friends cast was that they negotiated their deals together in an all-for-one, one-for-all fashion, getting to $100,000 per episode each in their first go-around with producer Warner Bros. TV after two seasons and eventually to $1 million per episode. Now, the cast of Big Bang is facing their first salary renegotiation with WBTV following a record-breaking syndication deal for the show, that netted the studio $2+M per episode. But I hear one of the three leads, Jim Parsons, is considering negotiating separately from co-stars Johnny Galecki and Kaley Cuoco.

… Parsons has already gotten recognition on the show with larger salary bumps early on. Since the trio’s initial salaries were based on their quotes, Galecki and Cuoco, both sitcom veterans, started off with bigger paychecks than Parsons who was less known. Going into season 4, all three have reached parity, each making around $60,000 per episode. … And, whether the three renegotiate in coordination or not, I hear WBTV is looking to give them “favorite nations” deals, meaning all would get the best terms any of them was able to negotiate. “The studio has to do it that way,” one insider said. “They will have an unhappy set otherwise.”

The dynamic highlighted by the article is a challenging one when dealing with an ensemble of actors: while it may be prudent for “less valuable” members to try and yoke themselves to stars perceived to have more bargaining power, it is also difficult to avoid the conclusion that the bigger star may be better served by negotiating on their own and avoiding the dilution of their leverage.  That being said, financial considerations aren’t the entire story: wide differentials in cast payments and perquisites can result in on-set tension (which can lead to a distinct lack of on-screen chemistry).

The dynamics at play are further complicated by the way in which actors on TV series are usually contracted: their first contract for the show will include a number of consecutive options which the producers can exercise to bring the actor back on subsequent seasons with pre-determined increases in salary (so, for example, the actor signs a contract to appear in the first season, and the agreement allows the producers to obligate the actor (assuming the show is renewed) to appear in a second, third, fourth, fifth or even sixth season, with the salary increasing by, say, 10% each season).  When a show, such as The Big Bang Theory, is a sizable hit, actors can get their salaries increased above the pre-determined bumps in at least two ways: first, savvy agents and lawyers can argue for increased salaries based on merit and in an effort to develop a congenial relationship with breakout stars; second, if producers need to engage the actor for seasons beyond the sixth, and wish to secure that agreement prior to, say, season four, then, as is expected to be the case with Big Bang, the producers will sweeten the deal by increasing the salary bumps on pending seasons.

Bob Tarantino

About Bob Tarantino

Bob Tarantino is Counsel at Dentons Canada LLP and focuses his practice on the interface between the entertainment industries and intellectual property law, with an emphasis on film and television production, financing, licensing, distribution, and IP acquisition and protection. His clients range from artists and independent producers to Canadian distributors and foreign studios and financiers at every stage of the creative process, from development to delivery and exploitation.

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