They're funny and they want more money. Just a week after raking in six Emmy nominations, including Best Comedy Series, the cast of ABC's highest-rated scripted show, Modern Family, is embroiled in what's being called a "nasty" salary fight. The first table read for season four was canceled Tuesday, after five of the stars — Sofia Vergara, Julie Bowen, Eric Stonestreet, Jesse Tyler Ferguson, and Ty Burrell — boycotted. The quintet has filed a lawsuit against 20th Century Fox, which produces Modern Family, pointing out that their current deals (which extend through 2016) violate California's Seven-Year Rule, which prohibits personal contracts that last longer than seven years. Ed O'Neill (patriarch Jay Pritchett), who has a different deal, has joined the suit "out of solidarity" with his castmates. Is Modern Family at risk of going on hiatus? Here, a guide:
What is California's Seven-Year Rule?
The labor law, which dates back to the 1930s, bars exclusive personal services contracts that last longer than seven years. Invoking the rule is "a common tactic in trying to renegotiate" contracts, says Joe Flint at The Los Angeles Times. The cast members have been trying to "cut new deals with the studio that would include significant raises," which is a pretty typical tactic between the third and fourth seasons of a series — especially if a show is as popular, acclaimed, and valuable as Modern Family. 20th Century Fox has sold reruns of the sitcom to cable network USA for $1.5 million per episode.
How much are the cast members making now?
Apart from Ed O'Neill — who was the only headlining actor to sign onto the show in 2009, and is paid about $100,000 an episode — the five adult actors of the three-family sitcom "were paid in the $65,000-an-episode range for the show's 22-episode third season," says Matthew Belloni at The Hollywood Reporter. According to sources, though, Fox offered the five cast members $150,000 per episode plus a $50,000 per episode bonus for season 4; $200,000 per episode for season 5; $225,000 for season 6; and up to $325,000 for anticipated future seasons — an offer that the five actors reportedly rejected before they lodged the suit.
Will the tactic work?
It might. "Salary disputes are not new in Hollywood," say Gary Levin and Bill Keveney at USA Today, especially with hits like Modern Family, or, say, the '90s hit Friends, a show whose cast members famously united to gain higher pay, eventually earning $1 million an episode each for the show's final season. And perhaps O'Neill's decision to join the lawsuit "out of solidarity," even though he is not technically disputing his contract, will give it an extra boost. Let's not forget also that 20th Century Fox and ABC stand to lose a boatload of money if the dispute isn't resolved: Modern Family generated $164 million in advertising revenue for ABC, up 40 percent from a year earlier, according to Kantar Media.
Is the show really in danger of going into hiatus?
Probably not. "Comedies can film as late as three weeks before their air date," say Levin and Keveney. So the parties have time to resolve their differences. If there is a "prolonged stalemate," however, it could affect the number of season 4 episodes produced.