TV show “Happy Endings” may have been axed by ABC several years ago, but the series is living up to its name after finding a second life on streaming services offered by Hulu and Amazon.com Inc.
And it’s not alone. Lots of programs have been rising like Lazarus from their graves thanks to companies such as Netflix, which allow them to connect to a new audience, often made up of younger viewers.
The trend is not only changing the entire entertainment industry, but it also can provide a surprise financial boon to a number of former cast members, producers and writers.
Danielle Prunier, a senior vice president of wealth management for Merrill Lynch in Century City, said she first noticed the situation three years ago after hearing from entertainment industry clients as they watched their old shows become popular on streaming platforms.
“I was getting phone calls from clients saying, ‘I can’t believe this but a whole new generation of kids is watching the show I created that’s no longer on the air,’” she said.
In one blockbuster deal last year, Santa Monica’s Hulu acquired the exclusive subscription video-on-demand rights to all nine seasons of megahit sitcom “Seinfeld” for a reported $160 million – creating huge new streams of money.
While the growing value of online deals is great news for creatives overall – not all of them are able to reap the rewards.
“If a writer, producer, actor has a profit participation in a show, then yes, the second or third life of a TV series on Netflix or Hulu can mean a lot of money to them,” said entertainment attorney Chad Fitzgerald, a partner at Kinsella Weitzman Iser Kump & Aldisert in Santa Monica. “It depends on how the studio accounts for that money.”
There’s one thing that those who do get new money from their show’s resurrection should not do, advises Merrill Lynch’s Prunier: go on a shopping spree.
“You have to treat it as sacred money,” she said. “When you get additional money you’re not counting on from work you did a long, long time ago, the best thing to do with that money, if you’re not financially complete, is to take control of your future earnings by adding to it.”
Piece of pie
Unionized actors get residuals or rerun payments when their old TV episodes air in syndication or are distributed on DVD, according to Richard Marks, a partner at Beverly Hills entertainment law firm Point Media. While those can be lucrative, Marks added that the Screen Actors Guild and the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists has yet to hammer out terms to compensate them for streaming.
Terms related to digital distribution were one of the primary issues leading to the Writers Guild of America strike that began in 2007.
In general, it’s the writers and showrunners who created a program, as well as the big-name actors and lead performers who contributed to a show’s success, that tend to get a share of the profits.
“The actors on ‘Friends’ likely had no participation until they renegotiated in the third or fifth year,” Marks said as an example. “Right now you have to be one of the participants who have a back end, meaning a piece of the modified adjusted gross receipts, in order to get a bump from streaming.”
He further explained that a show’s deal size on a streaming service is determined by the program’s success when it first aired as well as how many episodes were made.
“I would say generally the Netflixes of the world are not paying a per-episode fee, but it’s certainly tied to the amount of time that they can give to their subscribers,” Marks said.
But opaque studio accounting practices often make it tough to calculate a ballpark figure for how much an artist with ownership might profit, he added. For instance, those payments are typically not doled out until a studio or network recoups expenses such as overhead or production costs.
But once it does, the stream of money back to the talent can be impressive.
“It’s a significant new source of revenue,” said Merrill Lynch’s Prunier, citing an unnamed client who created a TV show that’s been in syndication and is now generating income from Netflix.
Save vs. spend
When her clients do get that extra money, Prunier said she’s been telling them to save or invest it.
“This particular industry is volatile, it’s unpredictable, and when you have an opportunity to work and earn money, it’s so important to save more than you need because you don’t know when the next opportunity will be,” she said.
It’s not like other professions, such as a lawyer or doctor, where it’s feasible to work into their 70s or 80s, she added.
“An actor really depends upon the right role out there for them and sometimes has to take a role that doesn’t pay, but to improve status as an artist,” said Prunier, who’s been telling clients to pretend they never received the money and invest wisely.
Martha Henderson, who heads the entertainment division at downtown L.A.’s City National Bank, said she would also advise a client to treat this new revenue stream conservatively, as would many of the managers with whom she interacts. Her bank works with more than three-quarters of all business managers in California.
“They really want to invest this in bonds or something that’s going to be there for them in the future,” she said. “Use it as an opportunity to invest money for long-term financial health, not to go buy a car.”
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