Agents, Talent Still Caught in TV ‘Recession’

Jun 6, 2005  •  Post A Comment

While a handful of surprise network successes during the 2004-05 season have renewed industry enthusiasm for scripted series on broadcast television, prime time’s recent good fortune has yet to trickle down to TV’s creatives or their representatives.

In fact, one talent agent even suggested the market for comedy writers in particular remains in a “recession.”

With help from newcomers such as ABC’s “Grey’s Anatomy,” NBC’s “Medium” and Fox’s “House,” the broadcast networks are coming off their strongest season in years in terms of ratings and critical acclaim for new shows. While this shift has been welcomed by Hollywood talent agents who represent the writers, directors and producers who craft shows, a return to the days of prime-time’s hitmakers being rewarded with lucrative overall deals is not on the horizon, insiders agreed.

“The days of the straight-off development deal where the writer wins the lottery to basically develop two pilots over two years for millions of dollars is not back yet,” said Lee Dinstman, executive VP and head of the television literary department for the talent agency APA, which shares a half-package on the upcoming ABC drama series “Commander-in-Chief.” “You never want to say anything is gone forever, since everything is cyclical in our business, but I don’t see it [changing] in the near future.”

Just a few years ago, writers who demonstrated even a modicum of success commonly scored huge deals from a studio or network to develop pilots, with little else expected of them over the course of their multiyear contracts. Thanks to a soft ad market and economic worries stemming from the September 11 attacks, plus the rise of reality series and the lack of comedy hits, the overall deal market virtually dried up.

The market is starting to move again, but not at the same hectic and profitable pace.

“It’s nice to see some broadcast shows catching on,” said Chris Silbermann, a partner at the Broder-Webb-Chervin-Silbermann Agency. “You’re not seeing a return of the supervising producer on ‘Friends’ getting a high-seven-figure, pure development deal, but you are seeing low- to mid-seven-figure deals for writers as long as they are working on a show full time. It’s healthy, but I wouldn’t call it a robust deal market.”

Studios and networks are being much more choosy when it comes to making deals, said Scott Schwartz, owner of Vision Art Management.

“It is a very select group of people that are believed to be bankable,” he said.

To get into that select group, writers have to prove they can make a return on the studio or network investment immediately, Mr. Dinstman said.

“Some senior writers are able to leverage an overall deal in exchange for providing services on a show,” he said.

In addition, the network rebound hasn’t meant an increase in the size of writing staffs, which have also been curtailed over the past few years, said Bob Gumer, a partner at the Kaplan Stahler Gumer Braun Agency.

“Staffs are still very slim,” he said. “It’s focused on the upper level, it’s harder for the middle level, and at entry level it’s been mostly writers’ assistants and minority writers.”

For Mr. Schwartz, whose company packaged the fall comedy “Twins” for The WB as well as midseason sitcoms “Old Christine” for CBS and “Four Kings” for NBC, the issue hasn’t been the squeezing out of a certain level of writer, but showrunners having to make choices when they assemble staffs based on their writers budget, which means they can afford either a few top-level writers, or many lower-level writers, but not both.

“They have to constantly make prudential determinations about what is going to work for them,” he said.

Mr. Silbermann took a slightly different view, noting that with the proliferation of shows on cable and the renewed interest from the networks in scripted series, there are more gigs than ever. But that doesn’t mean there is more money to be made, he said.

“The talent pool is being stretched,” he said. “There’s a lot of work for clients, but financially not as much money on the shows.”

The Laugh Track

In the past, comedy writing hopefuls looking for work wrote spec scripts, or sample scripts of successful comedies on the air. But in a marketplace where so few sitcoms are working, Mr. Gumer said, he tells his comedy writers to write original material.

“That’s true at every level,” he said. “And at the entry levels it’s become almost impossible to break a talented young writer unless they have original material.”

Calling the current climate a “recession” for comedy writers, Mr. Silbermann said the industry is still in dire need of breakout sitcom.

“We need something that pops and captures the American audience to really rejuvenate the comedy business,” he said.

But that desperation for a new comedy hit has helped create a market for new writers, despite corporate consolidation, Mr. Dinstman said.

“[Networks and studios] are open to ideas coming from different voices,” he said.

Lipstone Moves to ICM

Greg Lipstone, a longtime agent at the William Morris Agency who was ousted as part of a power shuffle last month, is expected to start a new job this week at International Creative Management.

Mr. Lipstone, who previously ran the William Morris television department, is joining ICM as a senior VP in the TV series packaging department, an ICM source confirmed. He will report to Bob Levinson, executive VP and head of worldwide television for ICM.

While at William Morris, Mr. Lipstone packaged series including Fox reality shows “Nanny 911” and “Hell’s Kitchen.” He is expected to work closely with ICM’s Steve Wohl, who runs the agency’s reality division.