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As a result of AMC’s very public legal battle with The Walking Dead creator Frank Darabont, a judge ordered in 2014 that the network would have to hand over contracts relating to two of its other hit shows: Mad Men and Breaking Bad. On Thursday, those documents became public, revealing a treasure trove of previously unreported details — financial and otherwise — about two of TV’s most celebrated dramas.
A close look at the contracts offers a rare look inside the triangular relationship between a studio, network and powerful showrunner. The documents disclose that the license fees for Mad Men, which was produced by Lionsgate Television and ran from 2007-2015, started at $1.85 million per episode (roughly 77 percent of the $2.4 million budget); Breaking Bad, produced by Sony Pictures Television and running from 2008-2013, began at $1.75 million (80 percent of the $2.05 million budget) and currently airing spinoff Better Call Saul started at a license fee of $2.5 million (more than 83 percent of the $3 million net pattern budget). Of course, each of the shows were allocated significant bumps for subsequent seasons. Mad Men’s license fee, for example, jumped from $2.85 million in season 5 to $3.69 million in season six to a whopping $4 million in its seventh and final season.
The most revealing of the documents is a 2011 license amendment between AMC and Mad Men producer Lionsgate that saw the companies lock down season five, six and seven of the drama after a long and heated negotiation with creator Matthew Weiner involving disagreements over cost-cutting measures, product placement and shortened episodes to accommodate more advertising. The document confirms the showrunner’s widely reported $30 million deal for the final three seasons of the drama, revealing he was paid $2.5 million at signing, with the rest of the sum ($27.5 million) resulting from episode fees, royalty fees and writing, directing and producing fees, paid bi-weekly.
To break it down further, Weiner received $187,000 for each episode of season five, plus a $5,000 royalty for each ($2.5 million total), $195,000 per episode of season six, with a $5,000 royalty for each ($2.6 million total) and $275,000 for each season seven episode, with a $5,000 royalty for each ($3.6 million total). There were to be 13 episodes each season, with the option for a fourteenth episode in the final season. The amendment states that Weiner was entitled to an additional $280,000 if he moved forward with that additional episode (he did). Still, the bulk of the showrunner’s paycheck came from the $16.25 million he earned in writing and directing fees over the course of the three seasons.
On top of the $30 million, Weiner also was entitled to an award bonus based, presumably, on Emmy and Golden Globes nods. The contract reveals that from season four on, he would get $25,000 for each award nomination and $125,000 for each award win, with the money doled out for a win inclusive of the amount received for a nom. Also, the language in the amendment provides that the bonus paid for each nomination “shall remain at $25,000″ and that the amount awarded for each win “shall be increased from $75,000 to $125,000,” implying that Weiner’s agreement for previous seasons (which is not public) likely promised $25,000 for a nomination and $75,000 for a win. Assuming that those bonuses existed from the first season and that they only apply to recognition in higher-profile categories (i.e. outstanding drama series, outstanding writing for a drama series, outstanding directing for a drama series — as was the case in Darabont’s recently unveiled contract), then Weiner could have pocketed up to $1.1 million in award bonuses. (Mad Men was nominated for 21 Emmys in the major non-acting categories over its run, winning a total of seven. It was also nominated for three Golden Globes for best drama series, two of which it won.)
But in the end, AMC appears to have gotten its way with the show’s episode lengths. Each episode of the final three seasons, according to the amendment, had to be exactly 47:05 minutes long so that there was enough room left in the hour for 12 minutes of national commercial time. It marked a two-minute decrease in programming time compared to the drama’s previous seasons, with the exception of the fourth. The length of the episodes was a frustration for Weiner, who noted in a 2012 interview with The New York Times that he had actually quit the show amid the lengthy contract negotiations between him, AMC and Lionsgate that followed the fourth season. “I definitely feel that the longer part of the show is part of its commercial uniqueness. And it’s a scarce product to begin with. There’s 13 a year. So you have to give them that in the form it is,” he said at the time. “It’s like changing a novel into a short story, to me.”
The document also includes a carefully worded clause about product integration, another sticking point for Weiner. The agreement states only that Lionsgate would “actively support” brand integration in the show but that Weiner’s failure to cooperate with such would not be a breach by the studio. The section goes on to specify that Weiner must “cooperate in the approval of potential integrations in good faith,” and that he would also have to acknowledge that AMC has the right to disclose promotional consideration and production integration as is standard and often mandated by law (with, say, a “promotional consideration” end credit).
Also spelled out in the document is how the final season would be split into two parts. According to the amendment, the series was to end with season seven and Weiner was required to write the episodes of that final season in such a way that the network would have the option of airing them in two distinct programming windows — which AMC, in fact, did. Each season was to have “its own distinct story arc” and “season finale,” along with its own in-season exclusivity period, so as to not impede Netflix or others from airing Part 1 and Part 2 of the seventh season in two distinct programming windows. The agreement is reflection not only of the high-stakes money involved, but also some of the unique stresses that run through an era of “Peak TV.”
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