Talks stall between ‘Mad Men’ creator Matt Weiner and AMC, Lionsgate

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There may be some cutbacks coming to the advertising agency of Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce.

The companies behind the critically acclaimed drama “Mad Men” — cable network AMC and producer Lionsgate — are battling with Matt Weiner, the show’s Emmy Award-winning creator over a new contract and budget cuts, which would include trimming the large ensemble cast.

If Weiner does not agree to a new deal, AMC and Lionsgate have signaled they are prepared to continue to produce “Mad Men” without him. Lionsgate has an agreement in place with AMC for a fifth season with or without Weiner, whose contract expired after the fourth season ended last fall.


Dropping Weiner would be tantamount to blasphemy to the show’s incredibly devoted, but relatively small, audience. Like his mentor David Chase of “The Sopranos,” Weiner closely supervises the writing of every episode and is known for obsessing over the details of “Mad Men,” which uses the Lucky Strike-smoking, secretary-leering, four-martini-lunch lifestyles of Manhattan ad men as a lens into the culture of the 1960s at large.

The stalled talks mean that the show, which usually starts its 13-episode run in the summer, now won’t air its fifth season until early 2012. People close to the show think March is the earliest it could be back on the air.

Although “Mad Men” has modest ratings — last season it averaged 3.2 million viewers — and is not even AMC’s most-watched show (“The Walking Dead” has that distinction), it put the network on the map and fired it into the cultural zeitgeist.

When critics talk about the new golden age of television, “Mad Men” is often the first show they cite as an example. Since it debuted in 2007, the show has won 13 Emmys and four Golden Globes and was the first basic cable series to win the Emmy for outstanding drama series, an honor it received in 2008, 2009 and 2010. Set in the early 1960s, chronicling the upheaval between McCarthy-era conformism and the countercultural revolution to come, “Mad Men” has been praised for bringing new depth to the secret lives of secretaries, boardroom flacks and housewives.

For the show to remain under Weiner, he will have to agree to a three-year pact worth about $30 million, according to people close to all the parties involved in the negotiations who declined to be identified due to the sensitive nature of the talks. At that figure, Weiner would become one of the highest-paid producers in television.

Weiner, through his spokesman, declined to comment.

One of the major sticking points concerns the number of commercials in each episode. Currently, AMC pays about $3 million to Lionsgate for each episode of the show. To cover the rising costs of airing “Mad Men,” the network has indicated it wants to add more commercials, which would obviously cut into the show’s length.


Another obstacle in the negotiations are the use of so-called product placement and product integration in the program. The network would like to see more of them as a means of generating additional revenue. And certain to prompt outrage among fans, up to six members of the cast may be axed from the show in a cost-cutting move over the next three seasons, a person close to the show said.

For his part, Weiner has been extremely protective of the show and in the past has fought efforts to bump up commercial time on his show. Two years ago, AMC compromised with Weiner and added more commercials without trimming the program length.

Relations between Weiner, AMC and Lionsgate have over the years frequently been less than harmonious. In the current tumult, it’s unclear though when Weiner was first approached to discuss a new deal for a fifth season. People close to him say he was only recently asked about renewing his deal, while those in the Lionsgate and AMC camps say they’ve been trying to complete this for almost a year.

As for the cast, Weiner has cut characters before. For instance, a very popular closeted gay character Sal Romano, who was portrayed by Bryan Batt, was dropped from the show after Season 3. But that decision was Weiner’s, and — according to people close to Weiner — the show runner would regard being forced to shed actors as interference with the creative process.

Over the last four years, “Mad Men” has been a launching pad for previously little-known or unknown actors. Series’ star Jon Hamm, who plays Don Draper, the hard-drinking, womanizing ad executive, was working on a Lifetime television series, and his costar Elisabeth Moss was appearing in Excedrin commercials. And most notably, “Mad Men” transformed the network from an obscure channel filled with old movies into a major destination for original series programming.

The unexpected success of “Mad Men” naturally has translated into dramatic growth in advertising revenue for the network. AMC’s ad revenue in 2006, the year before “Mad Men” premiered, was $139.3 million, according to SNL Kagan, an industry consulting firm. In 2010, the cable channel took in $245.6 million. Not all that growth can be attributed to Don Draper & Co., but it’s clear that the culturally influential show was a crucial component in the network’s rise.


Meanwhile, Lionsgate has done well by “Mad Men” too. The company takes in $3 million to $5 million per episode from the show in fees from AMC, sales abroad and DVDs, people familiar with the show’s finances said. Lionsgate has said it expects “Mad Men” to ultimately generate more than $100 million in DVD sales. Lionsgate stands to potentially make more money when it eventually sells reruns of “Mad Men” in the U.S.

It’s unclear whether the lengthy break between seasons could hurt ratings for “Mad Men.” There are plenty of other choices. But as with HBO’s “The Sopranos,” which once went almost two years between seasons, “Mad Men” has such an intense following that its audience may be willing to wait.