Marc Graboff on Updating 'Idol,' How He'd Help NBC and Paying 'Friends' Cast With Private Planes (Q&A)
What's the wildest thing you've had to write into a contract?
I remember trying to close the cast deal on the 10th season of Friends. We were apart by a not-insignificant amount of money on the per-episode fee, and I put a number on the table to the cast's representatives. They were taping a show that night, so literally we'd wait for a break in shooting, then they'd all congregate in Jennifer Aniston's dressing room.
Then they'd come out with a note that they would hand to their rep, who would call me and the head of business affairs at Warner Bros. By this point, it's already Dec. 23, and people are drunk in the halls, and their guy calls and says, "You've got to give them something other than just money to get this deal closed." I said, "Well, we can take that same chunk of money that we had offered that they rejected and turn it into an equivalent amount of airplane hours on chartered jets." They took the deal.
Actors aren't making "Friends money" anymore, on the front end or the back end …
One of the ways the business needs to change is to have more transparency in the backend world. We're trying to be a very talent-friendly place, and one way we do that is not to provide a layer between the vision of the talent and what ultimately gets in front of the audience. It always made me nuts at the network or the TV studio to homogenize something you just paid so much money for. The other way to do it is on the business level, so we're putting the finishing touches on our backend definition. I like to joke that I used to be a bomb builder, so I know how to dismantle a bomb. We've taken out a lot of the traps.
For example, in the old days when the studios didn't have their own home video companies, you'd have to hire Joe Blow Home Video Company to be your home video manufacturer and distributor, and they would license [the content] from you and they'd pay you a royalty of like 20 percent. The business matured and the studios created their own home video companies, but still they only take 20 percent of the revenue that comes in on home video and attribute it to the backend. In our definition, 100 percent of whatever money we make in home video, including electronic sell-through, goes into the pot. When we shoot in a territory where there's rebates and tax credits, where you're getting huge percentage of your budget rebated, studios don't give the benefit of the credit to the participants. We are. Those are two examples among many.
Looking back, what's the deal of which you're most proud?
I was involved in building the first deal for Survivor with Mark Burnett. We created a model that enabled the show to get funding to be on the air, and it helped start the turnaround of CBS. Another one was with Dick Wolf in 2004. Law & Order was owned by Universal when it was not related to NBC, and NBC was the network for Law & Order and all the spinoffs when it was not related to Universal.
We were merging as a studio and network, and we had this talent who was like: "Wait a minute. I'm not going to trust how your network and your studio are going to negotiate with each other on my show." And these were billion-dollar franchises. So we had to come to an understanding with Dick and create a template for how it would work going forward, which was both challenging and fun. We held up the NBC-Universal merger for that deal to close, and at the end of it Jeff Zucker sent me a bottle of wine and a box of cigars, which was really sweet. Dick Wolf sent his lawyer a Bentley.
What deal do you regret most?
The way the whole late-night thing went down in 2010. Unfortunately, I was more the guy behind the [scenes] cleaning up the mess, and it was quite a mess. Long-term friendships were blown apart as a result of it. It didn't need to be done so sloppily and with such hard feelings, but a lot of personalities were involved that just exacerbated it. The person who got tainted in all of it who was really innocent was Jay Leno.
You were the first mailroom employee at CAA. What's your best story?
In 1977, CAA consisted of seven agents in a little corner suite in an office building in Century City. They didn't have a kitchen, so I'd wash their coffee cups every morning in the men's room. After several months, I became an assistant on the desk of Ron Meyer, who to this day is one of my mentors. But I drove him to the edge so many times because I was such a horrible assistant.
One of the things I'd do is forget to give Ron some of his phone messages. Any agent would go crazy, but Ron is the kind of guy that if you called him right now, you'd get a call back in 10 minutes from wherever in the world he is -- he's amazing like that. So in 2004, when NBC acquired Universal and Ron and I became colleagues, I wrote him a note that said: "I'm so happy we're gonna be working together again. I've always looked up to you. Best, Marc. P.S. On June 6, 1978, I forgot to tell you [client] Bill Persky called."
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