I’m a big fan of the website Quora (specifically a place for asking and answering questions, and generally a fantastic resource for information). I’ve been answering questions there this year, and I’ve decided to start cross-promoting some of my popular answers here on my personal blog.
Obviously the show was enormously popular, but it seems to me that the actors themselves along with their agents must have had some serious business acumen to pull that off. What’s the back-story here? Who were the primary negotiators? What was the negotiation process like?
It’s the middle of the second season of FRIENDS, and the show is a huge huge hit. NBC aired a special hour-long episode of the show after the Superbowl, and it turned out to be the most-watched night in television history. David Schwimmer (Ross) was considered the break-out star of the show. He had the role with the A-storyline (Ross and Rachel) and the movie offers started flooding in. So FRIENDS is a huge hit, and Schwimmer’s reps are suggesting that now is the time to negotiate a new deal with the network. Even though the contracts for all the cast were still in place, there was leverage to get a new rich deal in exchange for locking the actors in for longer contracts.
Now there are two important elements to know in Schwimmer’s backstory.
- Schwimmer came from a theater background, having formed the Lookingglass Theater Company in Chicago after graduating from Northwestern. The theater company, as many are, was very egalitarian. Everyone paid the same dues and everyone received the same compensation.
- Schwimmer’s parents were both attorneys, and his mother was a very successful divorce attorney, often representing famous celebrities.
So Schwimmer’s agents want him to negotiate a new deal for himself, and Schwimmer makes an unexpected decision. He rounds up all the “friends” and proposes that they form a mini-union. They all go in for a raise together, and demand equal pay. They all benefit from the leverage that he has as the break-out star of the moment.
Now this can be viewed in one of two lights (and I suspect as a combination of both). This is a hugely egalitarian and giving recommendation on the part of Schwimmer, effectively giving huge raises to the lower paid members of the ensemble. And also probably lowering the amount he’d be able to negotiate for just himself in the short-term. But it’s also a shrewd way to protect the cast for future negotiations, because the network can’t simply write someone out of the show. They’d have to write everyone off the show! Many people attribute this strategy to the influence of Schwimmer’s mother.
NBC could have rejected the idea of negotiating with the cast as a unit. They could have just kicked someone off the show, and potentially broken the unit. Of course that also might have broken the delicate chemistry of the show, and drastically reduced its popularity.
Once NBC agreed to negotiate with the cast as a unit, they effectively lost leverage in all future negotiations as long as the show remained a huge hit. This is what resulted in the huge million-dollar-per-episode contracts towards the end of the show’s long run.
Most of this is paraphrased from this fantastic article on the history of Friends.