Will The Big Bang Theory‘s Simon Helberg and Kunal Nayyar walk away from $70 million? That was the question on the mind of everybody involved in the contract negotiations between the two actors and series producer Warner Bros TV this morning as the clock was ticking on the two sides to reach a deal in time for the first table read for Season 8, rescheduled for tomorrow, August 6. Because people associated with the CBS series needed time to make travel arrangements, I hear the studio wanted to make a decision whether to keep the table read by 3 PM today, making that a de facto deadline for reaching an agreement with Helberg and Nayyar. A deal was closed with just minutes to spare, clearing the way for production to begin tomorrow. “Production on season 8 of The Big Bang Theory will begin Wednesday, August 6, with contract negotiations now having been concluded,” WBTV just said in a statement.
Playing hardball in seeking parity with co-stars Jim Parsons, Johnny Galecki and Kaley Cuoco seems to have paid off for Helberg and Nayyar. I hear each of them netted more than $70 million over the life of the three-year deals for Seasons 8-10, or 72 episodes. (Each season of Big Bang consists of 24 episodes.) I hear that the quintet all have parity on the back-end participation (more than a point each), which is very valuable, and that Helberg and Nayyar will catch up with their counterparts on per-episode fees in Season 1o. Parsons, Galecki and Cuoco just secured big new three-year contracts that would pay each of them at least $90 million, including a $1 million salary per episode. In the final hours of negotiations, Helberg and Nayyar’s team was able to sweeten the studio’s final offer that had been for each actor to get 75% of the compensation secured by Parsons, Galecki and Cuoco. There had been some rumblings that, in light of the difficult negotiations, the studio was exploring continuing the series without Helberg and Nayyar, but insiders stress that that was more of a negotiating tactic than a realistic possibility. With Melissa Rauch and Mayim Bialik renegotiating their contracts last fall, now the entire cast of Big Bang is locked in for next season and will meet for a table read tomorrow. The script for the eighth-season premiere, which they will rehearse, features all cast members, I’ve learned.
While the focus had been on the contract negotiations of the duo’s higher-profile castmates — stars Parsons, Galecki and Cuoco — Helberg and Nayyar’s negotiations proved to be even more difficult, with emotions running high because of the parity issue. One observer recently described the talks as “battle royale.” The root of the problem is in the natural evolution of the characters on the show. TBBT was conceived as a series about two brainy roommates and a hot woman who enters their lives, so Helberg and Nayyar’s characters or versions of them were not even in the original pilot. They started off as supporting characters to Parsons, Galecki and Cuoco’s respective Leonard, Sheldon and Penny. Gradually, the presence of Helberg’s Howard and Kunal’s Rajesh expanded as the series became more of a true ensemble. That is especially true for Helberg, whose character had been at the center of major plot lines, including his wedding and trip to space. (“Rajesh didn’t even speak for the first five seasons,” an observer exclaimed, a reference to the quirk in the character that rendered him mute in the presence of women, leading to Nayyar having a limited number of lines in the show’s first seasons.) During the 2010 salary renegotiations, Helberg and Nayyar’s talks followed those for Parsons, Galecki and Cuoco, with the duo raising their per-episode fee to more than $100,000 an episode. That was about a third of what their three colleagues had just secured, making the raises in their new contracts even more impressive.
This time around, because all five original cast members needed new contracts in order to start work on Season 8, talks ran on parallel tracks in the two “favored nations” groupings established in the 2010 renegotiations — with Parsons, Galecki and Cuoco in one tier, despite negotiating contracts separately, with Emmy winner Parsons leading the way, and Helberg and Nayyar in another. Using favored nations, a system that gives actors financial parity, is crucial for studios to avoid discord on the set. Of course, Helberg and Nayyar had been seeking a different kind of parity, with their three co-stars, which became a major sticking point in the negotiations and an emotional issue and matter of principal for Helberg and Nayyar that was behind their willingness to walk away from combined $140 million. The two actors, who are close friends, had a valid argument: Big Bang today is an ensemble. But if history is any indication, if a series did not originate as a true ensemble of equals, which was the case of NBC’s Friends, it has been virtually impossible for those who start off as supporting characters to reach salary equality with their more established castmates.
When Big Bang started, it had three leads. Of them, Galecki was the biggest name, with Cuoco also fairly well known from her starring role on 8 Simple Rules. Parsons was an unknown but quickly became a breakout star and then a three-time Emmy winner. Even on Modern Family, which, like Friends, has been a true ensemble from the get-go, Ed O’Neill — who had gone onto the show as the only household name with a deal far more lucrative than the other cast members — had remained the highest paid with the biggest ownership piece. Many of his originally lesser-known co-stars went on to win Emmys, but when salary renegotiations came along in 2012, O’Neill stayed on a separate, higher-paid track. With Friends, there was hardly a big name among the young cast, who were pulling in equal checks by the first salary renegotiations after Season 2 and stayed that way until the end.
Now, looking to set a precedent, the cast of Big Bang — which had drawn comparisons to Friends – will end the way their NBC counterparts did: with equal pay for the entire original cast in Season 10 (although there is a possibility that the CBS sitcom could go on beyond that). Helberg’s deal was negotiated by UTA, Brillstein Entertainment and Myman Greenspan; Nayyar’s by Innovative, Lovett Management and James Hornstein.
Big Bang, whose eighth season is slated to kick off with an hourlong premiere on September 22, is a major piece of CBS’ fall plans. It is first being used on Monday as an 8 PM anchor and a launch pad for new drama Scorpion before the comedy returns to Thursday post-football to again lead the network’s comedy block. The series will start production after only a week of delay, which likely will be made up later in the production cycle.