If you were planning a Mad Men season-five-premiere party for this July, you might want to start exploring other theme options. That's because it's looking increasingly likely that those never-ending contract talks between Matt Weiner, AMC, and producer Lionsgate still aren't done; as a result, it may prove impossible to get production up and running in time for the usual late summer return of the show. Does this mean it's curtains for Don Draper on AMC? Not necessarily.
For weeks, Vulture (along with just about every other major entertainment-news outlet) has been actively harassing insiders at AMC and Mad Men producer Lionsgate about the status of negotiations on a new multiyear pact. Late March has long been considered a "drop dead" point for the talks, since Weiner usually needs at least four months lead time to write and produce his show. Last week, we heard conflicting reports: Some insiders insisted to us that talks had broken down and that the show was "over" (at least at AMC); others assured us negotiations were progressing rapidly and that a deal was looking likely. We trusted the latter sources more and opted to wait a little while longer to see how things played out.
Flash forward to a little after noon today: Both Variety and Deadline posted stories suggesting a third path — talks are close to being done, but not close enough to prevent a delay in the expected late-July premiere. This pretty much jibes with what we'd been hearing, though our sources today are suddenly silent about the situation (including Weiner's rep at CAA, who didn't return our calls). It also underlines just how tricky and tough these talks are.
Because of the pop-culture success of Mad Men, and its success in transforming AMC from a sleepy movie channel into an original-programming powerhouse, Team Weiner understandably thinks their man deserves to get filthy rich. Were Weiner put in the open market tomorrow, it's likely at least one major TV studio would pay big bucks to secure his services via an overall deal. On the other hand, while Mad Men reaches a big audience when you add in all of its DVR viewers and those who watch via DVD, its reported Nielsen numbers are still relatively small compared to bigger cable hits. AMC, therefore, no doubt believes it can only afford to pay so much for Mad Men (particularly since the network also produces the higher-rated The Walking Dead and the nearly as acclaimed Breaking Bad). We've also heard that talks have been slowed down by the fact that, unlike past contract talks, AMC is negotiating directly with Weiner, rather than letting Lionsgate take the lead. AMC has never had to broker such a hefty deal and some industry insiders suggest that inexperience may be one reason for the slow deal-making. (Of course, past talks between Weiner and Lionsgate were also protracted and went down to the wire.)
Meanwhile, today's Mad Men contract talk news dump also came with a bit of behind-the-scenes drama. As we indicated above, Vulture and others have been actively monitoring the contract negotiations for a while. When Variety and Deadline decided to post an update just after noon today, New York Times' TV reporter Brian Stelter took to Twitter to express his disappointment — not in those stories, but in AMC's media-relations team. "I have a story about to publish about Mad Men, so AMC tipped off a number of other outlets, possibly including Variety," Stelter tweeted. "It's unfortunate that AMC did not inform me that they were going to tip off other outlets until after they did so." He later suggested he found it odd that other outlets hadn't posted earlier, suggesting that events demanded it. That prompted a response from Variety's Cynthia Littleton: "But It's not as if Mad Men contract wrangle has not been addressed," she wrote, including a link to her story last month suggesting how uncertain things were. People: Can't we all just focus on what's really important here?