Tag Archives: Negotiations

Money For Nuthin’ or Nick’s For Free

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AFTRA accused Nickelodeon of improperly negotiating talent revenue participation for the cable outlet outside of Nick’s shows. A copy of AFTRA’s purported letter to Nick (I couldn’t verify its authenticity) is here.

More specifically, AFTRA’s letter asserts that Nick requires “that the performer grant to the employer a right to a ‘profit participation’ interest in the talent’s third-party income as a condition of employment” in violation of AFTRA’s collective bargaining agreement and possibly California law.

I don’t think that AFTRA has a leg to stand on or they would have cited the applicable provisions of their agreement and the law chapter and verse. I suspect that Nick’s lawyers came to the same conclusion.

What is clear is that the major studios, networks and cable outlets are looking for the next Martha Stewart or, in Nick’s case, their answer to the Disney Channel’s “Hannah Montana”; building brands on the backs of the talent they break with the goal of cashing in on their success essentially forever.

While it’s difficult to empathize with the big entertainment companies, production costs are rising and viewership is more fragmented. As a result, they’re on a desperate search for new revenue streams.

I posted about this emerging deal point several months ago when the Food Network started asking for similar language in their talent agreements. With Nick now taking up the cause, a trend has developed and it won’t be long before the rest follow suit.

What was once an unreasonable “ask,” will become – if it isn’t already – business affairs policy unless talent reps develop the leverage to collectively reject it. However, with the potential millions to be made by breaking the next Miley Cyrus and a surplus of talented kids (and their parents) hoping to make it big, I doubt that’s possible.

Talking The Talk

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As in any business, there are terms of art that are commonly used in negotiations in the entertainment business. I’ve added a glossary that defines some of the words and phrases used, devised or overheard during these discussions.

I encourage my colleagues to email me any additions or corrections. You can click “Lingua Franca” on the gray strip above or here to get to the page.

This is a work in progress, so please check often for updates.

Chorus Line Dancers Make A New Deal

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Although “A Chorus Line” opened on Broadway over thirty years ago, the dancers who signed away their life story rights as the basis for the musical back in 1974 recently renegotiated the terms of their deal. The dancers originally signed away these rights for $1 each during “workshop” sessions for the musical.

In 1975, Michael Bennnett, the producer, choreographer and co-writer of the book for the show, renegotiated these terms after “A Chorus Line” moved to Broadway; dividing about one-tenth of his own royalties and about one-third of his rights income derived from the show and its subsidiary rights with the dancers. “This kind of arrangement has now become standard, though with less generous terms, for people involved in workshops that lead to Broadway productions,” wrote Campbell Robertson for The New York Times.

Apparently, many of the dancers remained unsatisfied with these terms. For a more complete chronology, read here.

The Bennett Estate’s recent revival of the show on Broadway triggered the renegotiations. The previous agreement only applied to the original Broadway production not to first class productions like Broadway revivals and related road shows. The revival presented the dancers with a unique opportunity to renegotiate. After 16 months, the dancers successfully negotiated an additional (undisclosed) share of revenues in the current production as well as in all past and future first-class productions of the show.

The “Chorus Line” renegotiation provides broader implications to deal making for two reasons:

1. Leverage only comes from immediately recognizing the other party’s needs and fears in a particular deal and then effectively using that leverage in negotiations. Accurately assessing your leverage can be tricky since your own needs and fears are always in play (this is so even if you have representation – e.g., the writers strike negotiations).

Here, the Estate wanted to mount a new production of “A Chorus Line” which required additional permission from the dancers. The original show and subsidiary rights grossed over $280 million. Clearly, the Estate was a motivated negotiator with that much money at stake. Each of the 37 dancers however, was unorganized and had differing agendas. I suspect the 16-month lag in closing this deal was due in part to those detracting elements on the dancers’ side of the equation.

2. We now live in an era of franchised content – “everything old is new again” as the show tune goes. Even early-stage deals (aka deal memos) should be negotiated accordingly with an eye towards future revenues from media not even conceived at the time the deal is struck. If the deal is worth papering, it is worth papering thoroughly. Opportunities to renegotiate may later prove to be few and far between. In this case, it took the dancers over 30 years to get a taste of these revenues. Most people aren’t prepared to wait that long.

The Negotiation Culture: The Approach That (Might Have) Resolved The Strike

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As of this writing, news outlets are cautiously optimistic that striking writers will be able to close a deal with the AMPTP within the next few days
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But what broke the impasse? Writers’ dwindling bank accounts? The studios’ mounting revenue losses? The Oscar telecast? While all of these elements were contributing factors, there’s no doubt that the addition of studio principals to the negotiations made all the difference.

Several weeks ago, Alfredo Barrios, a former corporate lawyer turned writer and WGA strike captain, posted a missive on a pro-WGA blog, unitedhollywood.com urging that studio principals become directly involved in talks in order to restart negotiations. Regardless of which side you’re on, and despite Alfredo Barrios’s obvious bias in favor of striking writers like himself, Barrios eloquently describes the “psychology” of the deal for both sides; a mindset that ultimately required the principals to take the lead in strike negotiations.

The following is an edited version of Barrios’s post. You can read it in its entirety here.

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BASIC RULES
First, understand the relationship between Nick Counter and the studios. It’s essentially a lawyer-client relationship. The AMPTP is run by lawyers like Nick Counter and Carol Lombardini. Think of it as an in-house law firm. Their goal is to “negotiate” deals with unions on behalf of their clients – the studios.

As lawyers, Counter and Lombardi have to justify their paycheck. What does that mean? They have to add value. They’ve promised to deliver a more favorable labor deal than the studios would get without them. Otherwise, there would be no point in hiring them (or more aptly, keeping them around). So our loss is their gain. And the bigger our loss, the bigger their gain.

Now here’s the thing to remember, fairness and reasonableness have NOTHING TO DO with their approach. No corporate lawyer I’ve ever known has ever met with a client and promised to get them the most “fair and equitable deal” possible. That’s not their goal. Instead, they promise to save them a lot of money – remember, added value. If the studios were genuinely interested in reaching a fair and equitable deal, the CEOs and their CFOs would talk directly to our negotiating committee and financial people, and a deal could be reached today – by the way, this is what we’re driving towards. We will know we will have won when the CEOs and their CFOs talk to us directly. [Editor’s Note: as we all know now, this is what happened here].

CEOs hate uncertainty. They run their businesses based on long-range plans that are based on long-range assumptions. So as a lawyer, you do your very best to put their mind at ease when faced with an inherently unstable situation – be it a lawsuit, a takeover deal, or a strike. You say to them, “You don’t have to worry about a thing. We have this under control.” Then you spell out what you believe (more often hope) is the most likely outcome. “We feel confident that we can get this suit dismissed at the pre-trial stage;” “ get this deal closed by Christmas;” “resolve this strike by_______ on ________ terms.” The CEOs nod their heads happily, confident that their well-heeled, well-paid lawyers are looking out for their interests, and then go about their business.

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Going back to CEO peace of mind. This comes in a couple of forms. First, lawyers tell their clients that they won’t have to get their hands dirty. Lawyers will be the bad cops on their behalf. They’ll serve as a shield for their clients. Lawyers always want their clients to feel comfortable – that’s part of what’s promised. “Go about your life. Don’t worry about a thing.” Second, it comes in the form of laying out how things will play out. “You can expect that the plaintiffs will engage in several months of discovery;” “the company you’re hoping to acquire will seek a white knight;” “the strike will lose steam and the writers will fragment.” All things that have a very good chance of happening. And when they do, the lawyer looks like a genius, and his client thinks, “Man, I’m in really good hands. I have nothing to worry about.” It’s about managing expectations.

THE LAWYER’S STRATEGY

Lawyers try to do three things to their adversaries: (1) get them to doubt the validity of their position; (2) undervalue whatever cards they’re holding (in other words, underestimate whatever leverage they have); and (3) kill their resolve.

How does a lawyer get an adversary to doubt his position? Well, in litigation, it comes by spinning the facts. In transactional deals, by spinning the financial numbers. And in a strike situation, by spinning both. One common technique is making a nonsensical argument so many times that it begins to take on the air of a legitimate one and eventually some people (judges, jury, the public in general and sometimes even your adversaries) begin to accept it as truth. Lawyers are masters of this. Think of these doozies: “If the glove doesn’t fit, you must acquit;” “Smoking doesn’t cause cancer;” and my personal favorite, “We don’t have a business plan for or any real revenue from the Internet.” Or how about that $130 million offer that the studios supposedly made us several weeks back? The one that didn’t actually add up. Facts and numbers are spun every day in the courtroom, in the negotiating room and in the press by lawyers.

Now, here’s the thing to remember. It’s the lawyer who does the spinning. No CEO wants to do it. Why? Because so many of them want to be known as “straight shooters” – i.e., guys who don’t lie. Plus, they like to be liked. And going out and spinning facts and numbers… well, that’s like acting like a lawyer. Like Nick Counter. That’s why they hired him to do it. They want to be comfortable. Notably, neither Counter nor any of the CEOs has actually done any real press interviews to defend their position. Not hard to see why: it’s utter nonsense. So they spin in press releases or “leaked” stories that are regurgitated by mouthpiece trade papers and other seemingly “unbiased” but wholly bought off parties.

And how does a corporate lawyer gets an adversary to lose confidence in whatever leverage he has? One way is to engage in positional bargaining. That means anchoring your negotiating position to an extreme and unprincipled number over such a long period of time that your adversary starts to doubt the cards he’s holding and eventually moves off of his number and gets closer to yours. That’s what the AMPTP has been attempting to do with its new media proposals – or actually, lack of proposals. They’ve anchored to basically zero payments for new media in the face of our fairly principled new media proposals. They’re hoping that doubt will creep into our psyche – “Wow, man, those companies are really holding to that number, maybe our bargaining position isn’t as strong as a I thought. Maybe we should take whatever the DGA gets.” And so on…

Once you start down that path, you’re losing your resolve. The corporate lawyer knows you’ll start to rationalize why you should take a really bad deal. And you start to buy into the arguments he’s making – “That lawyer of yours isn’t doing you any favors.” “I hate to tell you this, but you’re wasting a lot of time and energy with this case. It’s a loser.” “As a guy who knows, you should take what we’re offering you because it’s not going to get better.” Sound familiar? It’s the sort of stuff being put out by the AMPTP’s PR guru, Chris Lehane, who, by the way, is also a lawyer – and a classmate of mine from law school. Small world, huh? Couple this psychological warfare with the increasing expense of fighting… and people will crack.

Posture and overwhelm with superior power – or the semblance of power. That’s Corporate Lawyering 101.

So… how do we win?

OUR STRATEGY

In my experience, the guys that win against corporate lawyers and their clients – and believe me, I’ve seen it happen – are the guys that (a) never lose sight of their cards – in other words, aren’t fooled into believing that they’re holding garbage, and (b) play lots of offense.

I’ll begin with playing offense. That means taking the fight to the other guy’s client – the decision makers – the CEOs. Remember, THEY LIKE TO BE COMFORTABLE. That’s what their lawyer promised them they would be. So how do you take the fight to them? Well, in litigation, you bring them into the game by making them the target of discovery – you depose them, go through their papers, ask them all sorts of question. You take them out of their comfort zone. You make them the focal point of the case… they’re the bad guy. In transactional matters, say a takeover attempt where you represent the buyer, you go after the “entrenched management” that wants to deprive the shareholders of the real value of their holdings… they’re the bad guy. In a strike, you hold the CEOs accountable. Why? Because they are ultimately the bad guys… the buck stops with them, and they need to be reminded of that always. Counter is just their hired gun.

And by taking the fight to them. I mean, maintaining picket lines at the studios at peak levels, relentlessly picketing locations, continuing to put out creative videos that entertain and inform people about the strike, denying waivers to award shows and picketing those shows, seeking alternative ways to put out creative work on the Internet for pay, etc.

Playing this kind of offense serves a couple of purposes. First, when a CEO drives through the studio gates, or hears about how a location shoot was impacted by picketing (like for example, when an actor leaves the set or a day has been added to the schedule), or sees how his untenable bargaining positions are being ripped apart on websites, or is told about how his award show is falling apart, or reads how Google is about to form a competing entertainment powerhouse, it all collectively begins to call into question the promise that Counter made – i.e., that we would crumble. It’s a daily reminder that we are not losing our resolve. It makes him worry. His expectations aren’t being met. Things are uncertain again. And it begins to chip away at Counter’s credibility as the guy who could resolve the strike with minimal inconvenience to the studio CEOs.

This last point is important. Why? Because the way you win is by taking the lawyer out of the equation. Deny him the promise that he made to his client – i.e., that he would add value by battering all of us down. Once the CEOs begin to believe that we’ll stick to our guns until we get a fair and equitable deal, that’s when we’ve won. That’s when the CEOs and their CFOs will step in and begin to deal directly with us. Why not Counter? Because his job wasn’t to deal with real and fair numbers; it was to screw us. Once he fails at that, it’s time for others to step in. Trust me, it happens.

But it requires believing in the cards you’re holding – your leverage – and sticking it out. The bigger the show of resolve, the faster the CEOs will dispatch Counter. As profit losses mount and their share prices take bigger hits, the studios will realize that holding out for Counter’s promise looks increasingly like a fool’s game.

But the CEOs will only step in if they believe a fair a reasonable deal can be reached. That’s why it’s important to always maintain principled bargaining proposals on the table – as I believe we have throughout. Unlike Counter, I don’t believe we’re engaging in the positional bargaining. Having said that, I think we made one very serious mistake in continuing to keep our DVD proposals off the table. Bad faith bargaining – like the type that Counter has engaged throughout – can never be rewarded, and I have heard no compelling reason to keep our DVD proposals off the table.

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As for acting like “nicer” and “more accommodating” guys and gals… Well, let me just say that in all of my years as a corporate lawyer, “nice” and “accommodating” adversaries who never stuck to their guns and didn’t bring the fight to us never got better deals. They only get worse ones. So don’t buy into the our leadership’s too militant line of argument. They’re not. They’re being appropriately tough. Trust me, you wouldn’t want it any other way. Now it’s up to the rest of us to hang tough with them.