Charlie Sheen's Big Bet on Himself
The fired TV star slashes his salary for "Anger Management" in the hope of an innovative payday in the hundreds of millions.
Charlie Sheen repeatedly has said, "Defeat is not an option." But he's taking a big pay cut to return to TV in a sitcom appropriately titled Anger Management.
At least initially, Sheen won't be even close to the highest-paid actor on television, as he was on CBS' Two and a Half Men. But his unique deal with TV syndicator Debmar-Mercury includes some creative control and an unusually large share of ownership, which could lead to many millions of dollars in compensation if the show gets on the air and performs in the ratings.
A source close to the deal tells THR that Sheen's cut of the backend is more than 20 percent, significantly more than a traditional network arrangement. What's better for him, he won't need to renegotiate for a higher profit participation in success, as was required on Men. Of course, if the show flops, the hefty points mean nothing.
The plan is to follow a variation on the "10-90" path pioneered by Debmar-Mercury co-presidents Mort Marcus and Ira Bernstein, who originated the model for Tyler Perry's TV projects, including House of Payne and Meet the Browns. They will produce six to 12 episodes with Sheen for a test run on a cable network, station group or even a digital service like Netflix. If those airings meet a certain ratings threshold, as many as 90 more episodes would quickly be ordered and produced.
The Debmar model is predicated on very little upfront money for talent willing to bet on themselves. While the company does pay the traditional costs of renting a studio and producing a show, costs are amortized over 100 or so episodes.
With only a handful of hit sitcoms on the syndication market, a comedy with a proven star could be alluring to such cable networks as FX, Comedy Central, Spike TV or USA, all of which are likely to at least consider the project. (TBS and TNT, sister companies of Men producer Warner Bros. Television, are not interested.) Although Sheen's show is unlikely to equal the mega-success of Men, if it lures even half of the 15 million-or-so viewers he generated on CBS, his share could be in the hundreds of millions of dollars by the second or third sales cycle.
"Charlie only gets the big money if the show is a big success," Marcus tells THR. "Incentivizing Charlie makes him a great partner for both the network and us."
Not that anything is a slam-dunk. Any network buyer would need to pay a premium to insure Sheen, and there's no guarantee his off-set problems won't resurface. Plus, it's still an open question whether viewers want to see him outside of the Men confines. Consider the cautionary tale of Suzanne Somers, who tried a syndicated show as her vehicle to return to TV years after quitting Three's Company in a salary dispute. Her late-'80s sitcom She's the Sheriff bombed, and her career never recovered.
Still, the Debmar model convinced Jon Feltheimer, CEO of parent Lionsgate, to try to get into business with Sheen. When he bumped into Alice in Wonderland producer Joe Roth during lunch at a Los Angeles restaurant, Feltheimer pitched the idea of a Sheen sitcom to Roth, who produced five of the actor's movies, including the hits Major League and Young Guns.
Marcus and Bernstein already were working with Roth on the TBS comedy Are We There Yet? and had discussed a small-screen version of Roth's 2003 movie Anger Management. It seemed to them like a natural fit for Sheen to play the Jack Nicholson role of an unorthodox life coach with his own rage issues. "Add into the mix such a well-known, prebranded title as Anger Management with the creative auspices of Joe Roth, and this deal is uniquely compelling," says Bernstein.
Lionsgate, Debmar, Roth, Sheen and Sheen's manager Mark Burg now must find a writer-producer who can work with the actor -- who is suing his previous boss, Chuck Lorre, for $100 million -- as well as churn out as many as 100 episodes in less than three years on a budget likely to be below the broadcast level.
In spite of Sheen's recent behavior, a source suggests that the potential equity position for a writer-producer is attractive, especially when opportunities for comedy showrunners are few. Debmar intends to lock in its creative team before shopping the show as soon as September.
"There's risk to everything you do, but we think we're going to insulate ourselves as best we can," says Lionsgate's TV head Kevin Beggs. "If Charlie isn't a good fit with Anger Management, we don't know what we're doing."