Too cute. Too popular. And already too rich. Small wonder last week’s report that Friends‘ six cast members seemed to be staging a strike — demanding equal salaries of $100,000 per episode — was greeted with a great American wave of eye rolling.
”It’s pathetic, disgusting, and ridiculous how much people get paid to act,” said Danielle Lemmon, 22, a tourist on the NBC lot in Burbank. At Warner Bros., the studio that owns the NBC show, one insider groused sarcastically, ”We should hold a telethon for those kids.” And Saturday Night Live alum Rob Schneider, star of this fall’s Men Behaving Badly on NBC, wailed, ”Oh, God, please don’t let it be true! Think about society! Think about democracy!”
True, the Friends went from earning roughly $22,500 per episode (though it’s commonly assumed that Courteney Cox made more) to a reported $40,000 after the show became a hit. But in a town where Jim Carrey gets $20 million for The Cable Guy, money’s a relative matter. While the players involved won’t comment specifically, the cast’s revolt was spurred by a lucrative Friends syndication deal, which will fetch about $4 million per episode for Warner Bros., or at least $192 million on the syndication rights for the first two seasons alone.
The Friends‘ demands seem almost sane by comparison. Still, Warner has had the upper hand in the negotiations. The cast members could conceivably be held hostage by their contracts, which are good through 1999 and which guarantee them far less than $100,000. And with the disappointing returns on Matt LeBlanc’s Ed, and David Schwimmer’s The Pallbearer, the Friends may be wary of forsaking a hit series for movie careers (two words of advice: David Caruso). Worse still, an informal straw poll outside the studios revealed that fans would be least saddened by Joey’s departure. ”It’s unique that you’ve got six actors at least purported to be all for one and one for all,” says a source close to the situation. ”We’ll see if they are.”
But at press time the studio was willing to deal. And it could ask NBC — which rents the show for what sources say is half a million-plus per episode in order to earn ad revenue — to kick in more bucks to keep the Friends friendly. NBC Entertainment chief Warren Littlefield says, ”We didn’t face salary holdouts for a few years because we didn’t have shows where anyone dared do that. So, while I don’t want to condone these actions, it comes with [success].”
Still, their bosses probably wouldn’t describe the negotiating tactics as friendly. The united demand hit the media, catching the studio and network off guard, just as the annual press tour in L.A. was beginning — and just a month before the series was to resume production. ”It’s unfortunate because they are nice kids,” says NBC West Coast head Don Ohlmeyer. ”It’s just that agents get involved, and everyone thinks they know something.”
Some people actually do. With a Friends fracas in the air as early as last spring, one sitcom producer summoned his troops and begged them to avoid a similar situation. As for the future, will fans relate to filthy-rich Friends? ”People watch the NBA even though Michael Jordan is well paid,” says Littlefield. ”Yeah, I think they will.”
(Reporting by A.J. Jacobs, Tricia Laine, Jessica Shaw, and Dan Snierson)