UPDATED: I have learned that today’s table read for ABC‘s hit comedy Modern Family, scheduled for 11:30 AM, has been abruptly canceled at the last minute. The move comes as there was speculation that multiple cast members of the show wouldn’t show up for the read as the cast of the Emmy-winning comedy is in difficult salary negotiations with series producer 20th Century Fox TV. I hear of the six adult cast members only Ed O’Neill showed up. Shortly after the table read cancellation, word started leaking that the cast members of the show are filing a lawsuit against the studio seeking to void their current contracts. The complaint was filed by Ty Burrell, Jesse Tyler Ferguson, Eric Stonestreet, Julie Bowen and Sofia Vergara. (You can reed it here.) I hear O’Neill may end up being part of the lawsuit too. The contracts “violate the ‘seven-year rule’ under California Labor Code section 2855 (a),” the lawsuit says. “That provision dictates that contracts to render personal service ‘may not be enforced beyond seven years from the commencement of service under it.”
I hear the legal maneuver caught 20th TV by surprise as the studio expected the actors to show up for the table read and work while talks continue. The two sides have not being able to agree on a salary increase for the six adult stars of Modern Family who are largely negotiating together. The move resembles the strategy employed by the Friends cast who in the summer of 1996 threatened to boycott production of Season 3 of the hit NBC show unless they received salary increases to $100,000 each per episode. It worked, and the sextet got what they wanted. (Their paychecks eventually rose to $1 million an episode apiece.) In contrast, The Big Bang Theory cast kept working on the show as scheduled last summer while representatives secured big salary increases for the three stars.
The Modern Family actors had scaled back promotional appearances on behalf of the show after the upfronts, though that is considered standard practice during salary renegotiations. But very few such renegotiations lead to disrupting a series’ production schedule as actors are under long-term contracts that call for them to show up for work. It happened with the supporting cast of Everybody Loves Raymond and Jane Kaczmarek on Malcolm In The Middle, often under the disguise of medical issues. (In the case of Raymond, the profit participants in the the show ultimately gave a piece of their back end to the striking supporting actors, ending the standoff.) I hear that Modern Family‘s Burrell, Ferguson, Stonestreet, Bowen and Vergara, the five who filed the lawsuit against 20th TV, most recently made about $65,000 an episode, while O’Neill, who started much higher from the get-go and also has back-end participation, was just over $100,000. Word is the five have been looking for Big Bang-size paychecks (the three stars of the CBS/Warner Bros. TV show, Johnny Galecki, Jim Parsons and Kaley Cuoco, landed $200,000 an episode for Season 5 and built-in big increases for the following seasons.) At one point it looked like the two sides could settle in the $150,000-an-episode range, but that has not happened, and there is an impasse in trying to close the money gap — which sources say is not that big. Modern Family was sold in first-run broadcast syndication and has a rich off-network deal with USA Network, the latter netting some $1.5 million an episode. The cast of the show and 20th TV first approached the subject of salary increases last summer, immediately following the deal with USA, but ultimately tabled the issue til this summer. While not a part of the current negotiations, ABC is monitoring closely the situation because: 1. It needs Modern Family for fall, 2. It will take over the show’s deficit in a couple of years, so what salaries are negotiated now will affect what the network will have to pay the actors down the road.