In the end, it came down to one simple phone call. The agents had had their say. The NBC suits had thrown their last hardball. The Warner Bros. brass had grown weary of scribbling zeros. Now it was time for Lisa Kudrow, David Schwimmer, Jennifer Aniston, Matthew Perry, Courteney Cox Arquette, and Matt LeBlanc to make the final decision: Would they still be Friends? Like a Ma Bell-sponsored version of a Central Perk bull session, the six-pack convened around 1:30 a.m. Eastern standard time on May 14 via conference call to ponder the offer —$750,000 each per episode plus more profit sharing (a sizable jump from their current salary of $125,000 but still less than their $1 million asking price) for two more years. A thumbs-up would mean 48 more episodes of TV’s top-rated comedy. Thumbs down would mark the end of Must See TV as we know it. Either way, one big question hovered over the negotiations: How in the heck did things get to this point?
Two months after the fifth season of Friends wraps (averaging 23.5 million viewers), a clandestine meeting among the legions of agents, managers, and lawyers who represent the series’ six actors is under way. Topic A: scoring raises for their ultra-successful but comparatively underpaid clients (don’t forget, in 1998 Helen Hunt and Paul Reiser each nabbed $1 million per episode for the fading Mad About You, for crying out loud). Topic B: Kudrow. Specifically, how the actress had managed to persuade her five comrades to postpone renegotiations on their contract until its expiration in May 2000 (when NBC would be desperate to announce another year of Friends). The problem was, the other actors’ reps weren’t exactly psyched about Kudrow’s strategy. ”Lisa’s thinking was that she’s gonna have more leverage one year at a time,” says one agent. ”But why torture the network and the studio and get into a protracted deal? It didn’t make any sense. We got nowhere. It was a hostile meeting.” Bottom line: Kudrow’s game plan prevails.
The sixth season begins and Warner Bros. TV, the show’s studio, is frustrated. It’s been eager to secure a Friends future, even if it means signing only four of the actors. ”We would’ve preferred to have done the deal early, but there wasn’t an opportunity for the cast to be motivated,” says Bruce Rosenblum, Warner exec VP of television. ”Our sense was, until the cast recognized this was the final hour, they were not going to be able to successfully conclude the negotiation.” Cut to…
Just as LeBlanc’s struggling-actor alter ego Joey scores a plum role in a TV series called Mac and C.H.E.E.S.E., LeBlanc and his real-life cohorts are finally ready to hash out their own TV futures. Sticking to the admirable all-for-one, one-for-all approach, the actors’ agents choose talent manager Sandy Wernick of Basic Entertaiment (which reps Cox Arquette and Aniston) to speak on their behalf. Their request: one more year and a per-episode salary of $1 million each. (The sextet don’t haggle over scheduling perks, since they already average a four-day workweek — two of which feature four-hour days. In fact, the production schedule is so abbreviated that sometimes ”the actors don’t know their lines,” says a source.) The studio counters with $600,000 an episode for two years. The parties quickly reach a stalemate — the stars won’t budge on their price. ”It was like we were negotiating with ourselves,” recalls one studio exec.